The old colonial city was awake and rushing headlong into another humid spring day when we staggered out of our hotel in the early morning hours. We had flown into Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, the night before on a flight from Hong Kong via Bangkok, and it was well past midnight by the time we crawled into bed. Our hotel was located just around the corner from the historic Fort Railway Station, where we were planning on taking the 7:00 am train inland to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last capital before becoming a British colony. As we made our way along Olcott Mawatha Street and across the bridge that links the Colombo Fort part of town to the rest of the city, our emotions were a mixture of excitement and nervousness – excited for the journey ahead, but nervous because, actually, we weren’t sure if our booked train tickets were real.
We had booked our flights to Sri Lanka back in February on a whim, a few days before flying off to Niseko. Both of us had been wanting to travel to Sri Lanka for a while, and one night, as we were talking about it and looking up flights for the sake of fantasy, it just sort of happened. Not a few minutes later, a booking confirmation email popped up in our inboxes, confirming our impulses. We spent the next two months doing research and planning, and most of the logistics of the trip came together quite easily, with the exception of the train tickets. As it turned out, Sri Lankan Railways did not have an option to book online, so we used an intermediary recommended by this very helpful website and hoped for the best. To our immense relief, the ticket counter accepted our printouts and handed us our 2nd class tickets on the train from Colombo to Kandy (#1009). As a side note: while the 1st class car had air conditioning, we had read that the windows were smaller and sealed shut, so we opted for the bigger, unsealed, windows in 2nd class. In the end, we found that the temperature inside the train was downright pleasant once we reached the cooler highlands, and I’d recommend going for 2nd class if you can go without air conditioning for an hour or two.
The train lurched to a start shortly after 7:00 am, heading northeast past the city limits and into the distant hills of Central Sri Lanka. Scenes of neighbourhoods thick with ferns and swaying palm trees flashed by our open windows, as Colombo’s morning commuters walked along adjacent tracks to work and school. Home and city soon gave way to forest and mountain, and, as we began our ascent towards Kandy, we lingered by the open train doors, suspended above the lowlands. From our moving perch, the whole land seemed to unfold beneath us, and the greens and yellows of the valleys faded effortlessly into the muted blues and purples of the distant hills and skies. It was our first glimpse of the Sri Lankan countryside, and it was breathtaking. It was a brief glimpse, however, and signs of human settlement began to emerge and pile up along the tracks as the train entered the old capital region. After 2.5 hours, we had arrived in Kandy.
We didn’t have much planned in Kandy, as we would be taking the next train (#1015) out of the city at 11:18 am. Sri Lanka has no shortage of cultural and historic sites, Kandy having a number of them, but the focus of our trip was more on the countryside and the outdoors, the train rides through tea plantations and sun-dappled valleys, hiking through mist-covered hills, and falling asleep on beautiful, secluded beaches in the south. We took a short walk around the neighbourhood of the Kandy Railway Station, and then did some browsing and shopping at the Kandy Market Hall. Our departure time came soon enough, however, and we made our way back to the train platform to begin the second leg of our journey.
Once past Kandy, we found ourselves entering the heart of tea country, home of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations. Acres of brilliant green covered the hills, the rows of plants following the contours of the terrain below. The plants glistened in the afternoon rain and mist, and time itself took on a frozen quality as our old train ran on old tracks through old gaps in the valleys. Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 by the British, and the plantations thrived in the cool temperatures and moisture of the highlands. It is currently the 4th largest producer of tea in the world, employing over 1 million people on the island – the majority of whom are women. Unfortunately, low wages, low social standing, sexual harassment, and job instability are more the norm than the exception. It wasn’t until recently that wages were improved incrementally, but poverty and inequality continue to define the economic realities of those hidden behind pretty images. As I re-live the travelers’ fantasy of taking what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, one that is partly rooted in the old world, colonial appeal of taking a train through tea country, I have to grapple with the inherent privilege of travel versus the age-old desire to see the world. There’s an implied innocence or neutrality behind the deceptively simple statement, and all who travel have a responsibility to be aware.
At a certain point, the tea plantations gave way to a more wild land, and our train burst through the trees to reveal a vision of paradise. We clung onto the windows and leaned out the doors as the train skirted the verdant valley below, where lonely trees stood like sentinels over dirt footpaths, and untamed meadow gave way to manicured rows of garden and orchard. A part of me wanted to leap off the train and run through the fields and hedges, to follow the paths to parts unknown and take shelter underneath towering tree giants. There was something almost magical about the valley, and every time I’ve gone back and looked at the photos, I’ve had a hard time believing that we were actually there. Though we essentially spent the better part of a day getting from one part of the country to another, what we saw of the countryside was beyond words, and it really is one of the absolute must-do’s when traveling in Sri Lanka.
In the late afternoon, we finally pulled into Ella, a sleepy town in the highlands where we would be staying for the next few days. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but its proximity to tea plantations and easily accessible hiking paths sealed the deal for us. From the train station, we took a tuk tuk to Ravana Heights, a small hotel across the valley from Ella Rock, the most prominent peak overlooking the village. Nightfall comes swiftly and darkens completely in the rural highlands, and after grabbing a quick dinner in the hotel dining area, we turned in early to rest up for the days ahead.