It’s easy to see why taking a train through Sri Lankan Highlands is a highlight of the Lanka tourist train. A glorious romp through cliff side tea plantations, you are treated to rolling mountain peaks and vivaciously green foliage. However, the serenity and beauty of the voyage is perfectly mirrored by the excrucisting discomfort and the barbaric chaos that goes into obtaining a seat / 6 inches of floor space next to the toilet for the 8 hour train journey through the picturesque central highlands of Sri Lanka.
The journey is undoutedly one of the more stunning experiences in all of Asia, an engineering marvel of British engineering / colonial power. And for the honor to experience such remarkable beauty, the traveler only has to pay a few bucks, oh and if you’re the lax travel, maybe a pound of flesh – literally.
With limited reserved seat and first class options, and only a handful of unreliable trains departing Colombo and Kandy, reserved seat options sell out more than a month in advance, mostly being booked up by the gargantuan bus / sheep tours your grandparents go on with their BINGO group.
This leaves the nomadic or even mostly prepared but somewhat flexible scheduled traveler with one option – a game of thrones esque fight for a seat in the GA 3rd Class car.
I spent a year taking the 4/5 NYC subway during rush hour, so when we queued up on the train platform in Kandy, awaiting the train for the first leg of our journey, I thought I was prepared for the chaos bout to ensure. As the doors opened, a sea of bodies rushed out and trough clawed fingers we jostled onto the train, luckily securing a prime floor seat. By prime, I mean we were pretty much seated in the bathroom (hole in the ground). Luckily, we did have a view out the door and did get to see the sprawling wondrous scenery.
On our second go, now traveling from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale we were foaming at the mouth, ready to throw ‘bows for a coveted spot on the tailbone crushing hardwood seats. A two hour delay made the anxiety at the station even more palpable. When the train rolled in, we rushed the door like maniacs and snagged our spots. Only to learn 10 minutes later that the train broke and may never be fixed.
Another cancelled train later, the station was now swelling with 3x the amount of people who could possibly fit in these 1850s pre-internal combustion engine trains. With the crack of a whistle in the distance, the intensity in the station once again hit pre Gladiator battle levels. This time, the entrance to the car ended stopped 7 feet from us. Stranded in the middle of a train car door desert, I glimpsed a window open in the middle of the car, jumped through and yelled war cries at anyone who came near our seats while the rest of my crew shuffled on.
A few minutes later, the train limped out of the station, leaving behind a trail tattered hemp necklaces, safari hats and a stray rolley suitcase. We settled into our seats and began sipping on Lipton’s finest black tea, enjoying the views in shell shocked silence.
The moral of the story, well I guess there isn’t a moral. If you know the exact date you plan to take the train through Sri Lanka, book it far in advance. Your hotel in Colombo, Kandy or any other major city can arrange this for you. Or, make sure you take a few MMA or survival training classes.