The Colombo to Badulla railway is so enchantingly beautiful that it’s become a bucket list adventure for many visitors. The long, forlorn sound of the siren, the hissing brakes and the screeching wheels are all part of the experience as the train chugs up the hill, and pulls into Radella, a station along the way.
“The journey is so enthralling that you don’t want to take your head out of the window,” said Dayawathie Ekanayake, who has travelled extensively by train across the island during her career as a finance consultant. “It makes you feel constantly in awe. You wonder about what comes next – is it a waterfall? A stupa-like tea garden? Or is it mist-clouded peaks? You never know. You just have to keep looking.”
The 291km track takes in a mix of deep gorges, craggy cliffs, cascading falls, lakes and rivers from Sri Lanka’s west coast into its mountainous interior. It twists and turns through 46 tunnels, snaking past high mountain canopy with bright red rhododendrons and wild ferns, a fragment of the native hill country forest cover. On a bright day, sun-drenched hills stretch down to the glistening blue southern coastline from the train window as far as the eye can see.
This slow, 10-hour long journey might be inconvenient for the modern-day traveler, but it’s so enchantingly scenic that it’s become a bucket list adventure for many visitors.
It’s not just the views that has travelers in awe. The train journey itself has become an Instagram sensation in recent years, with travel bloggers risking their lives to take photos of themselves hanging off the door as the train rumbles past rickety bridges (some of them have been criticized for their dramatic poses). Yet, the journey is also tied to Sri Lanka’s colonial history and gives passengers a deeper understanding of the island-nation.
During British colonisation in the 19th Century, Sri Lanka was the third-largest coffee exporter in the world. As demand rose, it became expensive to ferry coffee on bullock carts from the central mountains to Colombo for shipment, especially with road conditions deteriorating during the monsoon months. Estates had to therefore store their coffee for long periods of time, causing the quality and value to deteriorate. So British estate owners pushed for a rail system to transport coffee. In 1867, the British completed a railway from the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka to the coastal city of Colombo.
Tea flourishes in these damp, wet highlands. When tea became prominent, after the coffee rust epidemic – a fungi disease that hindered the coffee trade in 1869 – the British wanted to extend the railways to transport tea from the mountains to Colombo.
In the 1870s, the British began to expand the railway from Peradeniya, a railway junction near Kandy, extending the route to the terminal station Badulla in 1924. This 178km-long stretch involved navigating through rainy, forested mountains, steep ridges and a series of sharp twists and turns by building an impressive mix of bridges, viaducts, tunnels and embankments. It took 52 years to complete.
Emerging from the mountains, and over the next three hours, you pass small and well-kept British-era railway stations like Galboda and Watawala, which were built solely for the purpose of transporting tea from each estate. The train then sluggishly ascends past Hindu temples tucked in tea gardens, small housing settlements where the tea estate labourers live, and turpentine forests shrouded in swirling mist. Sometime after leaving Hatton – the gateway town to Adam’s Peak, a holy mountain for pilgrims of all faiths – you entered the Poolbank Tunnel, the longest of the 46 tunnels at more than half a kilometre in length. You cannot really see the light at the end of the tunnel here!
From here, you can see the gushing cascades of the spectacular St Clair’s Falls through tea bushes. Cold air drifts in from the open windows and rising mist cloaks the towering Great Western mountain range. The train climbs up to Pattipola, the highest broad gauge railway station in the world. From here, you finally leave the cold central hills, travelling past dairy farms towards the sun-drenched south-eastern mountains.
After a couple of hours, you pull in at Ella. Over the last decade, this once-sleepy village has turned into a lively tourist hub with cafes and bars lining the streets and people posing for photos in front of the picturesque Nine Arch Bridge, a viaduct with nine arches that soars over tropical jungles of plantain trees and areca nut palms and has become one of the most photographed spots on the island. Flanked by thick jungle and tea plantations, the bridge was designed by British engineer Harold Marwood, but according to folklore, it never would have been built were it not for local knowledge.
The 90m-long viaduct rises through the trees, connecting Ella to the highland town of Demodara. The British needed a way to manage the steep incline of the terrain from here. Again, folklore gives credit to locals who found a way to solve the problem by creating a spiralling track. According to legend, local engineer DW Wimalasurendra worked at the site and thought of this spiral design after seeing a kankami (a tea estate worker who manages South Indian labourers) tying and re-tying his turban.
As you pull into the final station at Badulla you realize that, in many ways, as the train snakes past the century-old tea bushes, British stations and settlements of tea-estate communities, it quietly reveals the history of Sri Lanka.