Traveling by Train to Ella and Back
“Epic”. “Stunning”. “Awesome”. “Scenic”. “Asia’s Best”
These are just some of the adjectives used to describe the train ride from Colombo to Ella and a reason to find out for myself.
It is 5.55 a.m on this Friday morning when 35 like-minded friends and adventurers meet (and greet) at Colombo’s Fort Railway Station to catch the “Podimenike” train heading towards Badulla. The railway station is abuzz with activity as travelers’ scramble to get on board this ten-carriage train.
Three hours later we reach Kandy, and hereon, for the next six hours, is where the scenery changes into some of the most stunning sights one can experience on a train ride. At Rambukkana, the train begins its steep climb into the hills.
If you have the courage to sit on the footboard (quite a popular experience) it is tummy-churning to hang on while the train chugs along the sides of the sheer cliffs.
Look up and you will see the awesome Batalegala rock (Bible Rock) placed like an unopened book.
As the train slowly climbs upwards, I can almost smell the tea from the vast, rolling, lush green tea fields as far as the eye can see. Early morning tea pluckers stop their work to glance shyly as we wave to them and school children wave back gleefully while their parents hold onto them tightly.
At Nanu Oya, a popular stop for sightseers, many passengers disembark, and plenty more get in to continue their journey onwards.
The train stations are quaint and quirky, many still retaining the simple beauty of the British era.
From here onwards, the climate changes drastically as we reach the summit at Pattipola, 6226ft above sea level. A mist blankets the tea fields and the air is chilly and cold.
But once we descend onwards to Bandarawela, it gets slightly warmer and we come across more mountains and valleys, cascading waterfalls, and the tunnels get more frequent.
By the way, there are a total of 46 tunnels on this line, the longest being 562m (1,842ft). Referred to as the Pool Bank tunnel, this tunnel has a curve in the middle, so that from one end, the other end is not visible. It is about 18ft. broad, with more space on one side for people to go up and down. It is a masterpiece of tunnel construction, seen nowhere else in the island.
The 330m tunnel at Kadugannawa was occupied by Saradiel (the Robin Hood of Sri Lanka), which the engineers made use of as a smithy for their foundry.
It is 3:30 p.m. by the time we reach Ella. Once a sleepy, one-horse town, it has been transformed into a busy and happening place, with tourists and locals making this a pit stop in their journey across the highlands. In another hour, this train would reach the end of the journey at Badulla, having covered about 300 kms in total.
I check into the Alta Vista, about a 7-minute walk from the railway station. Apart from the steep climb to the hotel, it is a comfortable place.
By evening Ella town turns into a boom box of sounds emanating from the few diners down the main street. The Spice has some good food and an awesome DJ who belts out great hits from yesteryear.
The Café Chill is a beautiful hangout with amazing pizzas but has a tendency to discriminate against the locals. We had to tell them off for some uncouth language mouthed by one of their bartenders and hope the management has changed their attitude.
For a late night coffee, check out 360 Ella , a great hangout. The in-house one-man-band was ever-so-willing to oblige with our favourite requests.
One of the highlights of Ella is the Nine-Arch Bridge. So we trek along a beautiful, undisturbed nature trail for about 45 minutes.
It is a moderate to easy trek and so much nicer than walking along the main road. For anyone wanting to do this, just ask where the turnoff to the ‘kovil’ is and just follow the trail.
The Nine-Arch Bridge, or ‘Ahas Namaye Palama’ meaning nine skies bridge in Sinhala, is an engineering marvel. Built in 1921, it is constructed entirely out of brick, rock and cement without a single piece of steel. It stands at a height of 3100m above sea level, and the sight of the train as it takes the corner and chugs over the rail track that runs over nine arches is a must-see. The best time is the 11:50 a.m. train. You can get more information on other train times here.
There is a wonderful story about the history of the bridge which you can read here. On our way back to Ella town, we walked along the rail track.
Another place to visit from here is the Demodara Loop, about six kms away. According to village lore, when the engineers were wondering how to proceed with a track beyond Demodara, a farmer had suggested building the track similar to the way he ties his turban. Taking this suggestion into account, the final design enabled them to take the track to a higher elevation as required keeping to the specific gradient before looping back under itself. The 441ft loop emerges from tunnel No 42. The Demodara station is situated exactly over the tunnel. This loop, known as the ’spiral loop’ or ’circular loop’ is considered to be the only loop in the world with a railway station situated exactly over a tunnel and quite a fascinating feat and an engineering marvel.
The return journey leaves the Ella station at 9:22 a.m. and gets into Colombo Fort Station by 6:30 p.m.
For more stuff on what to do in Ella, visit this amazing blog by SaltinOurHair.
Other useful info:
- Second class train ticket to Ella: LKR 1,250
- Carriage condition: very clean and comfortable. Take your food or buy snacks from vendors who get on at various stations.
- Distance: 208kms to Ella. 300 kms to Badulla
- Time: 9 hours (to Ella) 10 hours to Badulla
Point to remember: Do not throw trash out of the train. Enjoy the journey and leave with memories.