The first time I visited Sri Lanka was in October 2009. The 25-year civil war had ended just 5 months prior to my visit. Sri Lanka was in my travel bucket list for quite some time but it was way down the list because of the war. Until a friend of mine from India who had travelled to Sri Lanka several times for business reassured us that it was safe for tourists, war or no war…and he offered to travel along with us at that time.
When I arrived in Sri Lanka in 2009, I fell in love with the island immediately. Despite the war and tight security (army roadblocks every few kilometres), there is something uniquely wonderful about Sri Lanka – gentle and lovely people, laidback lifestyle, delicious but spicy foods, beautiful greenery landscape…and the beaches are just awesome! Don’t expect the Maldives kind of beach, but there’s something about coconut trees and strong breeze from the sea, you just go…aaahhhhh…relax. Chill. Have a beer.
We had visited the city Colombo, a pit stop at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, toured the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and went on a coastal drive to the beaches in Galle. Fast forward to August 2014 – 5 years later – I returned to Sri Lanka for a different kind of visit which was to explore the UNESCO sites in the central province.
Mini cinema on the platform
Since we were going to spend more time in the central province, we decided to be based in Kandy for 3 nights, and go on excursions to these sites from Kandy. Upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, you could opt to hire a taxi direct to Kandy which is about 3 hours’ drive but we opted for a train journey instead. The number of travel hours by train is the same as driving but we had read internet reviews that the views on the train route were spectacular.
We took the airport taxi to Colombo Fort Railway Station and the fare was LKR2,900 (US$22). We bought the tickets online – Rajadhani Express – the route Colombo-Kandy Intercity runs daily for a price of LKR1,100 (US$8.45). The InterCity seats are available for booking every 2 weeks only but travellers will not be given an e-ticket. Instead you are required to print out a reference, validate the print-out at the railway station office and then you will be issued an actual ticket for your journey.
The train was due to depart for Kandy at 3.35pm but we arrived at Colombo Fort about 3 hours early! Well, we factored in a couple of hours early in our schedule as the low-cost airlines which we flew into Sri Lanka sometimes have the reputation for delayed flights. We had a simple lunch of rice and curry at a café on the platform, and then after that, we just sat on a bench right in front of the TV screen to while away our time.
The one thing I do notice about Sri Lankans is that they don’t bother foreigners at all, unlike their neighbours across the Palk Strait i.e. India. But after 7 visits to India, I’m already immuned to the stares and gawks, simply because I’m a foreigner. Only on a few occasions, I might be mistaken for a local Indian of North-East origin. Sri Lankans, however, may look at you because you’re a foreigner but they also turn away quickly to avoid embarrassment, I think. Or they just smile their pearly whites at you 🙂
So for the next 3 hours, my friend and I chatted with each other, people-watched and watched a Hindi movie played on the TV screen. After a while, perhaps due to boredom, I found myself actually following the story of the movie! Not that I understood Hindi (I might know a few words here and there) and unfortunately subtitles were in Sinhalese but it was like watching a silent movie 🙂 Our waiting area eventually became a mini cinema as that was the only TV screen on the platform or perhaps it was the actress, Aishwarya Rai, a popular Bollywood movie star, acted in that movie that attracted the crowd to the TV screen while trains came and gone.
A word of advice to foreign travellers at Colombo Fort Railway Station: do obtain confirmation from the station master which platform to board the train. The platform number is not stated on the ticket and unfortunately, announcements are only spoken in Sinhalese. Even if the station master informs you of the platform number, it is also good to be observant when closer to the departure time as the train may actually depart from another platform! This is what happened to us: we were informed that the Colombo-Kandy Intercity train to depart from Platform 2 but we found out later it was actually Platform 3. We were observant to see “Rajadhani Express” displayed on the side of the train which rolled in at Platform 3, and luckily, we asked around to confirm, or else we would have missed our train!
The train was comfortable and air conditioned, and the window was big enough for us to have a clear view of the scenery. Free wi-fi is available and you can order from the menu if you wish to have a meal on board.
The scenery was breathtaking – views of rice fields, coconut trees, villages, greenery absolutely everywhere! As the train reached closer to Kandy, the view changed to hills and mountains. I didn’t manage to take good pictures of the view because of the train movements.
Our accommodation was Kandy Guesthouse in Peradeniya, a village town about 8km outside of Kandy (15 minutes’ drive). We alighted at Peradeniya train station which is the station before Kandy and our host’s driver met us at the station, and off we went to our guesthouse in a tuk-tuk, with luggage and all!