When you arrive in Sri Lanka, there is almost a 100% chance that you’ve come in through Colombo. Colombo is the capitol of Sri Lanka, and considered the shopping hub of the country – however, you likely didn’t come for the shopping. You came for the sights.
Where in Sri Lanka are You Going?
Most likely you have one (if not all) of these places on your itinerary: Kandy, Ella, Anurahadapura, Galle, Mirissa, or Yala. The list goes on, with numerous visit-worthy sites. One thing you will discover though, is that everything is located away from the others – it’s a scattershot of the island.
With money, you can certainly hire a private driver or rent a car. If you have the time, you can choose a spot as a home base and motorbike the majority of the island. If you’d like to risk death, you can take a bus. But most likely, you’re going to have to use the train.
The train in Sri Lanka is not anywhere near as modern, easy, or comfortable as we’ve covered before in Seoul or Bangkok. In fact, you’ll pretty much be taken back to the turn of the (20th) century in terms of operations. If you want to use the bathroom, I’d suggest you just hold it.
We made two trips on the train during our stay. Our first trip we started at the tiny Ja-Ela station, which just happened to be near our AirBNB, which we took to Colombo Fort Station, and from Fort we went to Weligama.
Sleepy Ja-Ela Station
Ja-Ela was a very tiny station, really just a platform with a ticket master. Our tickets cost 20 LKR (~$0.15) each. We had looked up online when to be at the station, which in this case was 10:30am, and the train arrived relatively on schedule. The trains do not run frequently, so it is important to know what time to make, otherwise you may be waiting several hours or even to the next day for the next train.
Once the train arrived, we jumped onto the train and took a leisurely ride to Colombo Fort, which lasted roughly an hour. The train itself looked to be around a hundred years old. Wooden bench seats (they did have cushions though) were the only option and the train doors were simply open, air conditioning meant windows and small electric fans on the ceiling.
Chaos at Colombo Fort
Arriving at Colombo Fort was chaos in stark contrast to sleepy Ja-Ela. Big, loud, and bustling, the numerous platforms had trains coming in and out seemingly at random. There were no announcements, you simply found out which train you were supposed to get on and go to the right platform at the right time.
One rule to remember, is that while trains may run late – they NEVER run early. So do not get on a train if it’s not yet time, otherwise you’ll find yourself on the path to the wrong place.
Store Your Valuables
Colombo Fort has a “Coat Closet”, or “Left Luggage” area near the main station master. It is watched by a guard on the first floor, and you put your stuff in a large locker on the second floor for 50 LKR (~$0.33) a day.
It should hold whatever you’re carrying. If you can’t fit it all in – you are carrying way too much stuff with you. They provide you with a small lock, but if you’re planning on leaving your stuff there for more than a few hours, I’d recommend bringing your own, sturdier padlock.
We had two hours to kill before our train to Weligama arrived. So we put our stuff up and explored the area around the station. There isn’t a ton, but there are a few streets of shops and food to explore. There is also a small food vendor within the station that is alright – nothing special, but it will get the job done.
Buying the longer express trains to places such as Weligama, or Kandy will run a bit more expensive. Buying our 2nd class tickets cost us 240 LKR (~$1.60) each, not much, but it is more. You must purchase them outside the station though and re-enter.
Boarding The Train
Once your train arrives, get on the train and search for a seat. You probably won’t find one. Despite paying for 2nd class, which is supposed to get you a seat in air conditioning, you’ll still probably stand. We eventually got to sit about 2 hours into our ride. Luckily you can stow your gear above the seats. If you do this though, be sure to keep your eyes on your luggage – people will steal your stuff. Upon arrival to Weligama, another couple discovered that literally all their belongings had been stolen: bags, phones, money, Passports and Visas.
Take in the Views
If you can though, grab a window seat and enjoy the scenery. The trip to Weligama follows the shore the whole way. Much of the time you have a nice ocean view. If going to Kandy, the trip is considered beautiful enough to have a special car just for viewing the landscape.
Our Return to Colombo
Our second trip, was from Weligama back to Colombo Fort, and then supposed to continue on to Kurana station, which was near our AirBNB that would take us to the airport the next day.
Purchasing and boarding at Weligama went smoothy, and we got 2nd class seats – and since it was a smaller station at the beginning of the line, we actually managed to sit. The train was delayed en route for reasons unknown to us, but we sat at Galle Station for at least a half hour before continuing on.
Disembarkation at Colombo Fort was awful though. People rushed onto the train as we tried to get off. They were incredibly rude, shoving and pushing and very inconsiderate. I got pressed against a wall at one point, and once I managed to stumble off the train, I discovered my wallet was missing. I’d been pick-pocketed.
Again, I can’t reiterate enough that you need to be careful of your stuff on the trains in Sri Lanka. People will steal your stuff. That fiasco led to us not catching the train to Kurana, but I’ll not go into that here.
In any case, the trains in Sri Lanka are an adventure to themselves. Don’t be scared, but you should certainly be wary, and keep your guard up.