Sri-Lanka: Kandy to Ella, by train, why I will never do it again

As an explorer I like to do research before a trip and the idea of taking the train from Kandy to Ella was the first definite on my 10 day itinerary in Sri-lanka. Boasting the highest railway road in the world and one of the most scenic, let my imagination run back to the amazing train between Oslo and Bergan in Norway. I wondered if it was even possible for it to be better.

I read all the blogs and watched vloggs of the train before my adventure. I knew that I needed to get the train from a nearby station called Peradeniya Railway Station. The logic being simple, take a 15 min Tuk Tuk out of Kandy to catch the 8:30 train, which would be full, but once you get to Kandy, everyone would disembark and you can easily find comfortable seats. It was advised not to buy first class seats as the $2 second class was even better. Yes it did not have air-conditioning but it did also not have doors and the windows opened for fresh air. The instapictures were astonishing and I was ready for a beautiful hilly adventure on an old, slow but other worldly train. What could go wrong?

7am the morning after the Kandy Perahera (The yearly festival of moving the Buddha’s tooth), we were off to use our hot tip of Peradeniya Railway Station. As we waited for a much delayed train, some other travellers had joined, obviously reading the same blogs and ready for a great trip ahead.

The train arrived 45mins late. We rushed the train, as did the locals, who were far more prepared for the dash of a lifetime. We as well as many other travellers were left on the platform, as a full train, maybe full is incorrect, packed train with individuals hanging out the doors, drew away from the platform towards Kandy. This was not the biggest crisis as in 30 mins the same train returned and we would once again get a chance to storm it, so we waited. As the train drew forward, we were prepared and ran for the doors, as we had recently seen the locals do.

I was the last person to be pulled into the train and once entering the door had nowhere to move. Not an inch. Dropping the backpack I pondered the situation. 6 hours lay ahead. The door was the best spot for those insta photos I had been following. Surely between Kandy and Ella there would be major stops and many people will disembark, leaving room for us to sit.

Looking around at the door it was clear the Sri-Lankan locals had beaten us with experience, all of them were in the train carriage, seated 6 people to a 2 seater couch. All the travellers were standing around us, well at least those we could see. A group of 5 Spanish men, an older Dutch couple, a French couple and some German traveling friends and me the Norwegian with a South African friend.  At this point we were unaware of the friendship we would find in each other over what would prove to be an epic train journey.

Every 5 to 10 minutes the train stops and my theory was quickly disproving itself. People were only getting onto the train. One-by-one, families and food venders. I was in shock. How could we possibly fit a mouse into the doorway never mind a family of nine? This trend continued. Every stop a man, of great talent, took his basked filled with local snacks and walked through the crowds of people calling loudly Samosa, Peanuts…you get the idea.

Bearing in mind that this 6 hour trip only included a very local toilet and I had saved money by not getting all my shots before departing Johannesburg, I decided not to venture any food or drink. Here we were stuck, physically because the train was too full to breathe deeply, with no food, water or a toilet. No matter how much we insisted that the train was full, there was always space for one more. At a point I contemplated if indeed my feet were still touching the ground or if I was being held up by other peoples bodies pushed against me.

About 3 hours later the train stopped. We were in the middle of nowhere. It revealed itself that the brakes had failed. Yes, failed, on the highest train tracks in the world. What resulted was what I like to think of as the theatre performance of the train. First one man ran out to the problem spot and stood touching and contemplating the problem for 5 mins, this was followed with a second and third man, each 5 mins apart, running towards the spot to view the damage. Don’t expect a public service announcement, informing you of the problems or the severity. Maybe first class got that with their air-conditioning but here is 2nd class it was each man for themselves with mumbles and rumours of the problem flowing between us.

We could not get off the train as there was no scientific way that this many people could ever get back into the train again. So we waited. About 45mins in, still standing in the door, we saw the main engineer, running down the tracks. We knew he must be the most serious of engineers as he had a single, humble hammer in one hand and we hoped some train experience. He looked and banged the train, we joked that it must be getting serious now, as a man with a hammer had arrived. The sellers of wears and food did not cease to take the opportunity that lay before them and walked the tracks shouting the names of their wares at top volume.

We were on our way again, this start stop and fix pattern continued through our journey. Now 5 hours in, with rain blocking any potential view, my feet were protesting, my back ached and there was no end in sight. Then a small light of happiness filled our little group of travellers at the door. The older Dutch man, found this the opportunity to propose. I could only imagine that the past five hours had lead him to be sure that if they could do this together, they truly could do anything together in the future. We clapped as they cried and was jubilant for a while, until the reality of the situation came flooding back.

With each stop there was an increase in the occupants on the train. Platform managers were getting aggressive when we insisted that there was indeed no space. 9 hours into the trip, we were left with 2 options, to laugh or cry. The German friends had given into the crying option, this had all become too much for all of us. We decided that all of this had reduced into absurdity and started laughing about everything. I can’t even remember what exactly was so funny, but we needed to do something, so laugh is what we did. Each new person pushing into the train was a comedy show, each new call of a vender, as he moved through the train, was amusing. We had lost our minds and I am happy to think that in that situation, we were able to find some humour.

After over 10 hours we arrived in Ella. Now 6pm, with no food, water or toilet breaks since the night before. We were relieved. The amazing feeling of touching the earth and walking on our feet that were so painful from standing. Ella was worth the train journey, but not our train journey. The train that left after ours was not full at all, with plenty of space for new families and seating space for all. We had been very unlucky. Not even a view to remember the pain by. I ensured that we did not return the same way but that is a story for another post.



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