Located at the southern tip of the Indian Peninsula, Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia, with a signature of Ceylon tea, scenic train, beautiful forest and beaches, and the Lion Rock: Sigiriya.
During our visit to Sigiriya, we climbed the rock and appreciated it from three different perspectives. We visited a couple of places like the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, we began our journey to the Central Highlands. The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka is a recognized world Heritage Site in the country, and as we ascend, the temperature drops and the dramatic landscape draws us in.
One way to go to the highlands is by taking one of the world-famous Sri Lanka’s scenic train rides.
Sri Lanka’s Scenic Ride – the most scenic train journey in the world
The old British train system, especially from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka is one of the most scenic and beautiful journeys in the world. It’s loved by so many tourists in the world simply because the train system today is still working as functional public transportation to the locals, honestly bringing them from one place to another with trains that served the routes in decades. Everything about the train ride is authentic, and nothing touristy and fancy. Yet, tourists can enjoy absolutely breathtaking views of the highlands, the Indian ocean, and the tea farms in these bumpy rides. For the same reason, don’t expect the train always comes punctually and it could be really tricky to get a ticket.
How to get a train ticket?
We had a great travel guide travel with us for our trip to Sri Lanka, and he has been a great help to get the train tickets for us to Nuwara Eliya. So, I didn’t have first-hand experience in the turmoil of getting a ticket. But I will try to share a little bit of what I know based on my research.
The day we were heading to Peradeniya Junction, I was told by our guide Sam that we may not get a ticket, and then we started to panic. It was one of the most important things on my list in Sri Lanka!
The trains are usually divided into different classes:
- First-class tickets can be purchased online, but they may have a problem with overbooking. The trains are so popular that you have to buy them online. Only the first class has air conditioning and most of the tourists will need to fight for the window seats. However, there’s also a risk of having the train canceled at the last minute – so maybe there’s no point in buying a train ticket in advance. At the same time, it is almost impossible to get a first-class ticket at the station for the next train. So conclusion? Buy it anyway and be alert and check the schedule at the station.
- Second-class ticket costs about 150 Rupees and that’s what we ended up with. Honestly, I love the second class because somehow we had the whole cabin to ourselves, while the first and third classes are almost full. It felt much better having a quiet cabin, enjoying the cooling breeze, and taking photos with an open window.
- Third-class tickets are the cheapest and the passengers might even sit at the entrance of the train. Usually, they won’t sit next to tourists and foreigners get to see the real side of how Sri Lankans live.
All in all, seating is the most important for the scenic train ride, and be prepared and purchase tickets online before your trips to the country (if you will only be there for a few weeks).
Instead of Kandy, we jumped on our train at the Peradeniya Junction station about 6km away from Kandy. It is an important railway junction in Sri Lanka Railways’ network, which runs from Peradeniya to Matale via Kandy.
Our train departed the station (luckily there was not much delayed), and our train ride began. The first 15 minutes were quite shaky, and then it was pretty much steady. We enjoyed our time on the train because it’s not crowded, and we took a lot of pictures of the tea plantation out the window. We could see the farmers at work at a very close distance! While the mobile phones couldn’t get reception in the mountains, it was just so relaxed to have some sun and cooling breeze. Some locals and tourists might even sit at the entrance of the train, while it felt a bit dangerous, the train ran quite slow and it did offer an even more open view. That’s why some tourists like the second-class seats because it’s more open. If you are on the train to Ella, the Nine Arch Bridge is known for its out-of-this-world beauty. The bridge was constructed in the early 1900s, completed out of rocks and cement without a single piece of steel.
While the train journey from Kandy is named the most scenic portion of the Sri Lanka train journey, the entire route covers a lot more of the island: Like the train ride from Colombo to Anuradhapura that runs from the coast to the mountains with pilgrims to the Anuradhapura Temple and Tamil people; or from Colombo to Galle that travels through the city and along the coast. The route has more new private trains with comfortable seating, but some travelers might think the private train takes away from the charm of an authentic Sri Lanka railway experience.
Nuwara Eliya – the “Small Switzerland”
We could already feel the temperature dropped when we got out of the train. While Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands is only about hundreds of meters above sea level, the area is surrounded by a diverse plain and enjoys a temperate climate that makes living in this area so much more comfortable. In fact, Nuwara Eliya is nicknamed the “Small Switzerland”, with colonial houses and mansions overlooking Lake Gregory.
Many of these houses are converted into homestays or holiday homes. We arrived at our homestay nearby the lake and we were immediately greeted by a lady with a big smile.
I liked the house because it’s homey and colorful. Actually, you could pick your favorite online. Some of our neighbors are purely white in colonial style, open with an outdoor deck, or installing large windows with a breathtaking view of the lake and mountain.
Since we had to wake up early the next day and explore the Horton Plains, we only took a short walk by the lake, photographed the houses, and the blooming hydrangeas in the park at the waterfront. To be honest, the environment could not quite compare with the real Switzerland but I felt a comfortable and relaxed vibe as we walked by the lake, there were some cafes and restaurants for a cup of coffee.
We ended up in a local market, looking for a place for dinner, and got to see how the local’s life like as they are shopping for food and products. We took a tuk-tuk back to our house afterward and I looked forward to our visit to the Horton Plains really early in the morning.
The Nuwara Eliya post office is a functioning facility with a lot of historic value. The Tudor-style two-story red-brick building has a clock spire, and it was constructed by the British in 1894. don’t forget to send a postcard using a traditional English post box that stands right outside the office.
Horton Plains – get up early and see the sunrise!
We woke up at 5 am and took off with a packed breakfast prepared by our host before sunrise. The tranquility had us excited to start our hike in the Horton Plains. The Horton Plains is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Highlands, and most of them come here for the spectacular World’s End. We ascend to the higher ground and caught a glimpse of the sunrise above the sea of clouds and mist. The morning dew was still settling on the branches of trees and bushes; we could hear the noise of bugs everywhere like water running through pipes. We even spotted a group of deer grazing in the grassland in the mist! It didn’t get better than that.
When we arrive at the entrance of the park (around 6 am), there were some groups already gathered, waiting for the park to open. There was only one ticket booth but luckily we arrived early enough to avoid the queue. The Central Highland World Heritage Site includes a number of places like Peak wilderness Nature Reserve, Horton Plains National Park, and Knuckles conservation first. It is a “mixed cultural and natural world heritage site”.
The most common hiking trail, World’s End/baker’s Loop Trail is a loop (obviously) and takes about 3 hours to complete. Some parts of the trail require good physical strength but it’s generally easy; except for the disturbance of some loud Chinese chatters, we completed the hike leisurely with a little bit of rest. I didn’t expect to see such diverse and “temperate” forest and grassland landscapes in a tropical region. To be honest, I felt like I was hiking somewhere in the north. The montane forest and the grassland grow well in the cool, damp environment. It is also a place of many effective ecosystems with many different layers and species. When we entered the forest from the grassland I felt the change almost immediately. The air in the forest is cooler and more humid. The trees provide shade from the heat of the sun and also trap moisture. The daily temperature changes drastically in the grassland and may be as high as 28-degree celsius in December when night temperature may fall to zero. In the forest, the change is much less (12-degree Celsius) as the trees trap heat at night and provide shade during the day. The forest is also filled with Sri Lanka endemic bird species. The country has 27 endemic bird species of which 20 could be found in Horton Plains!
Baker’s Falls: the moisture from the falls plays a deciding role in the local plant and animal s communities. On the banks, a profusion of mosses and algae grow in the misty spray. The alert visitor may spot the endemic pygmy lizard, which dwells in the moist, luxuriant trees ferns near the falls. The falls also divided the water system of the Belihul Oya stream, with different aquatic fauna adapted for life upstream and below.
World’s End: from “World’s End”, visitors can look down a cliff some 870m in height, and on a clear day, they can see all the way to the sea! Immediately below are tea estates and the Kiriketi Oya, a small stream that runs into the Walawe Ganga. The river runs across the plains of the dry zone and in a viewable distance, there were two reservoirs, the closer one being the Walawe reservoir in the Uda Walawe National Park. Uda Walawe and Horton Plains National Parks are linked by this lifeline of water. Without the life-giving water from the cloud forest, Uda Walawe would not be able to nurture its many species, particularly the elephants. It is such connectivity that national help to protect.
Little World’s End: At the Little World’s End (very closed by the World’s End, visitors could see, for the first time, the distant view to the southeast of Sri Lanka. The cliff is about 270m in height.
It was a good choice to start our day early as we finished our hike by 11 am, the entrance is filled with locals and the trail did get crowded and busy.
Pedro Tea Field – have a sip, and then shop for some gifts
After our hike, it’s almost mandatory to drop by a tea field and have a cup of tea! Tea production in Sri Lanka and world-famous (unless you have never heard of Ceylon Tea); and there are numerous tea fields and production factories in the area of Central Highlands. Its cool and damp weather has been a perfect setting for the tea to grow, and since the British colonial times, tea production has been important to both British and the locals.
The Pedro Group is one of the biggest among all, and they have been in the business for decades. The tea manufactured and packaged are from Uda Radella Estate belonging to the Plantation Sector of Hayleys PLC. The plantation is situated 2000 meters above sea level and the finely plucked green leaf is manufactured according to the Chinese Wu Yi Shan processing method.
So, why Tea is Good for you? Tea contains antioxidants and health-promoting ingredients which can lower the risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer, and tooth decay. Tea stimulates the central nervous system, increasing alertness and decreasing drowsiness and fatigue. Tea is a calorie-free natural beverage without added preservatives or coloring agents. Therefore, tea will not only refresh and review you but also help to lead a healthy life.
While we were inside a tea manufacturer, of course, we took an in-house guided tour to learn about the development of the company and tea plantation in Sri Lanka, how tea leaves were produced, and have a sip of the true Ceylon tea blend. The tasting area has a balcony with a view of its tea fields, and visitors could enter and have a feel of the tea plantation.
Ella – journey through the mountains and explore Rawana Falls
Before we descended and headed to our next stop, the elephant trail in Udawalawa, we stopped by a few pit religious and natural pitstops.
The Sri Ramajayam Temple is a small site on the side of the road in the mountains. It is located about 1 kilometer from Hakgala Botanical Garden with a story to tell. It is believed the site where Sita, a Hindu goddess of good character, good fortune, prosperity, success, and happiness, was held captive by King Ravana, and where she prayed daily for Rama to come and rescue her in the Hindu epic, Ramayana.
The temple is painted in vibrant orange color with frescoes depicting Hindu legends and stories, not to mention a great view surrounded by rugged mountains. There’s a big belly man status sitting in front of the temple for donations. Worshippers offer money by putting them in its mouth.
The Rawana Falls is located right on the side of the road, thus it’s a popular tourist spot in Ella. Cascading from an oval-shaped concave rock outcrop, Rawana Falls is about 25-meters in height and one of the widest falls in Sri Lanka. Tourists could take a short walk down the rocks, get really close to the falls and feel the power of the tumbling water, especially in the wet season.
As part of the Rawana Ella Wildlife Sanctuary, the area also has a number of sights close by to explore if time allows. Like the Demodara Railway Station, Nine Arch Bridge, Diyaluma Falls, Dunhinda Falls, Dowa Temple, Ella Gap, Rawana Cave & Temple, and more. As for us, we sat down on the balcony in the Mount Heaven Restaurant nearby the falls, had a cup of tea, and soak in the amazing view of the Little Adam’s Peak (The highest mountain in Central Highlands, and one of the most popular and scenic hikes in Ella) on the other side.
We ended our visit to a cave temple, reach the top of the rock, and had a good look at the surroundings. Indeed, Sri Lanka has a lot of cave temples in Sri Lanka, and we visited quite a few during our week-long stay in the country. Check out the wall paintings and statues hidden in the caves, some of them have pagodas at the top of the rock, too.
Ella is, in fact, a developing tourist city in the country, while it doesn’t have much modern architecture, hotel chains, and facilities, I got a chance to get in touch with the locals and had a great experience with a simpler lifestyle.