Sri Lanka by Train with Kids
by Gillian Gibbson
There is something about standing in an open train doorway, watching the world unfold in front of you as the air rushes by. In Sri Lanka, train journeys take you through some incredibly beautiful and iconic scenery in often charmingly ramshackle carriages.
Easy, cheap, safe and exciting, kids will love the old-fashioned trains, sitting with their legs dangling out of doorways, waving to locals and tea pickers in the fields as they pass. Even the chance to meet locals on the trains, and to try some of the street food on offer at each stop, will make for a unique experience to add to their excitement on this journey.
A favourite rail journey, and reputed as one of the most scenic on our planet, is from Kandy to Ella. The train takes you from bustling metropolis to cool highlands, through tropical rainforest, verdant rolling hills and lush green tea plantations. Firmly on the tourist trail with a myriad of sightseeing activities, the route includes plenty of accommodation options and places to eat for the hungry traveller.
You can travel first class in air-conditioned carriages with reserved seating, second class reserved or unreserved seating, or third class. Second class in a reserved seating carriage is your best bet as third class tends to be quite crowded and in first class, you are unable to open the windows and doors to fully enjoy the experience. Second class tickets from Kandy to Ella cost around QR 50.
Spend a few days in Kandy before your journey starts, breaking the seven-hour journey to Ella up with a few days in Nuwara Eliya (alighting at Nanu Oya Station), and ending your rail odyssey in beautiful Ella.
We caught up with one Doha dad, Stuart Ainsworth, to talk about his family’s two-week holiday to Sri Lanka, including a Kandy to Ella train experience with his two- and four-year-old daughters.
Why did you choose train travel around Sri Lanka?
My wife and I love to travel and see as much of a country as we can when we visit. However, since we had our girls, we are a little more limited by what we can feasibly do in the vacation time we have. Travelling on the trains in Sri Lanka offered an ideal way of seeing a good deal of the country without making it too onerous on the girls. Our road journeys were fairly limited, and because we were able to stop off at different places along the train journey, it kept it fresh and exciting for all of us. Besides, the kids loved the train rides.
Where did your journey take you?
We flew into Columbo and took a taxi to Kandy, which takes around three and a half hours. We stopped in Kandy for three nights, Nuwara Eliya for two nights and Ella for three nights. From Ella, we took a taxi to Galle (which took four hours) and stayed for two nights before heading back to Colombo by train (just over two hours).
How did you find train travel in Sri Lanka?
Very relaxing. It’s beautiful countryside up in the hills and so taking the trains was worth it just for the view. But, for us, the train was great for the kids. Unlike buses and taxis, they could get up and wander about, hang their heads out of the window, play games. And, Sri Lankans love kids, so there was no end of people to talk to and other kids to play with.
The only thing we found that could hamper a trip was that trains can be early or late, but rarely on time. So, we made sure that we were at the station at least 30 minutes before our departure time.
What were the highlights of your trip?
While in Kandy, we took the kids to the Royal Botanical Gardens, which is a nice escape from the noise of the city, and the kids had a ball exploring the gardens and hiding amongst the giant-sized plant life. We also visited the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth at Lake Kandy. Climbing the Buddha statue was a great adventure. The kids weren’t so impressed with the temple, but they loved the kids’ park beside Lake Kandy!
Nuwara Eliya is a really picturesque town. It has a lovely big park, Victoria Park, in the centre of the town and a lake, Gregory Lake, a short walk from the centre. We only spent one full day in Nuwara Eliya, so we stayed in the town and let the kids play in the park and took them for pony rides by the lake.
In Ella, we loved walking through the tea plantations in the early mornings and stopping to talk to the workers. We walked up Little Adam’s Peak with the kids, the littlest one in the baby carrier, which was surprisingly easy and the views were stunning at the top. We also visited Ravana Falls, which is a picturesque waterfall but probably not worth the visit if you are short on time. Visiting the Nine Arches Bridge was much more rewarding.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth/Kandy Lake
A visit to Kandy must include this beautiful 16th-century temple in the Royal Palace complex with a pretty and peaceful lake alongside the palace grounds. Though you will only get to see the Sacred Tooth box, the temples, shrines and museums within the grounds are awe-inspiring.
Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue
This impressive 27-metre tall statue of Buddha is one of the biggest in Sri Lanka. It is worth climbing the stairs to Buddha’s shoulder for expansive views of the cityscape below.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Kids will revel in this garden’s giant-sized plant life, bamboo forests, and acres of trails and pathways, not to mention the monkeys and bats.
Victoria Park/Lake Gregory
The park has a kids’ play area and a miniature train to ride, while the lake has pedal boats for hire and ponies to ride along the shore.
Lovers Leap Waterfall
This spectacular 30-metre waterfall is a short walk from the town through a tea plantation—very doable with kids.
A great place to see sambar deer, wild boar, monkeys and, if you are lucky, leopards. It is also home to World’s End, a jaw-dropping, sheer precipice with a 1,200-metre drop and outstanding views, and the lovely Baker’s Falls waterfall.
Little Adam’s Peak
At only 3-km round trip, this is a great walk to do with kids. There are spectacular views at the top and a chance to stroll amongst tea plantations and see tea pickers in action. Take a tuk-tuk to the start of the walk and get there early to avoid the midday heat.
Nine Arches Bridge
A 20-minute walk along the tracks from Ella, this bridge, built during WWI, is a breathtaking feat of engineering and an amazing photo opportunity for those with a head for heights.
A number of airlines, including Qatar Airways and SriLankan Airlines, fly non-stop from Doha to Sri Lanka’s main airport in Colombo, Bandaranaike International Airport. The journey time is approximately five hours.
There are plenty of accommodation options for families throughout Sri Lanka, from homestays to campsites, apartments to hotels, and covering all budgets. Here are a few family-friendly options:
Homestay Garden Rest, Kandy
At less than a kilometre south from Kandy Station this clean, quiet and simple homestay is ideal for train travellers. The owners provide breakfast, packed lunches, and a kid-friendly dinner buffet. There is even a small garden to play in.
Villa Tea Fields, Nuwara Eliya
These lodgings are delightfully nestled in the middle of a tea plantation on the edge of Lake Gregory. Offering a garden and terrace, bikes to borrow, tours of the tea fields, kids’ books, games and DVDs, this is a great place to stay with kids.
Zion View, Ella
A short tuk-tuk ride from Ella Station, this family-friendly bed and breakfast offers a kids’ play area, a swimming pool, books and games to keep children occupied, and a wellness spa for mums and dads. The views from the hotel are spectacular.
Sri Lanka is renowned for its curry dishes, most commonly served with rice, and with coconut, fish, spices and vegetables as the main ingredients. Other local favourites include hoppers (pancakes), roti (flatbread), kottu (chopped roti fried with spices, meat and vegetables), and lamprais (meat, rice and sauce wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed). There are also plenty of places serving international cuisine if the kids don’t favour some of the stronger flavours on offer.
- Sri Lanka is known as the ‘Teardrop of India’ because of its unique shape and position to the south of India
- The country was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1505, then the Dutch in 1658 and then the British in 1796. The country gained full independence in 1948
- Kandy is said to be the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The last king was displaced by the British in 1815 ending 2,500 years of rule by Sri Lankan monarchs
- Sri Lanka is famous for producing tea and is the world’s fourth largest tea producer. A staggering 300,000 tonnes of tea are produced yearly, with Nuwara Eliya considered the most important region for tea production
- The railway network was built under British rule, mainly for transporting tea and coffee to Colombo for export around the world