I found the world's best travel bargain in Sri Lanka.
In the heart of Sri Lanka, you'll find one of the world's most scenic train trips. The train from Kandy to Ella is a beautiful 7-hour ride through lush tea plantations, rolling rice fields, and endless mountain views. Incredibly, it's also one of the world's best travel bargains—the entire journey costs just 73 cents.
Originally built in 1864 by the colonial British to transport tea from the hills to the capital city, the railway has since become a super affordable way to see the picturesque countryside. Today, the 94-mile train ride is the highlight of any visit to Sri Lanka.
One of many unforgettable things about the scenery is the intensity and variety of the color green. Everything here is green and lush, and much of the region is carpeted with the glowing green of the tea plantations. Tea needs a warm climate, altitude and sloping terrain to grow—a perfect description of the Hill Country—and today the region is virtually one big tea plantation.
In July 2018, I traveled through Sri Lanka to see it.
This is my trip in pictures.
Keep up with my latest adventures
The journey will take you through Sri Lanka's Hill Country, a region that produces one of the best teas in the world: the Ceylon tea.
The train travels along cliff sides, through terraced plantations, and pass cascading waterfalls on its way to the mountainous town of Ella.
While the entire train ride takes only 7 hours, I highly recommend getting off at stops along the way to explore the region.
The journey boasts beautiful landscapes and tells tales of Sri Lanka’s storied colonial British history.
It wasn't all that long ago that Sri Lanka's Hill Country was largely wild and jungle-clad mountains. But then along came the British who felt in need of a nice cup of tea. So they chopped down all the jungle and turned the Hill Country into one giant tea estate. And you know what? The result is stunning.
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
I started my journey in Kandy, which served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom.
The kingdom of Kandy resisted European takeover for more than 300 years, before falling to the British in 1815. At its center is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which famously houses the tooth of the Buddha.
I arrived at the train station to embark on what's quite easily the world's cheapest and most beautiful train trip.
A ticket from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya costs just 80 LKR or $0.47.
The train schedule was provided with timings to the exact minute.
I waited for the 10:26 train which arrived promptly at uh, 11:30-ish.
So I boarded the train with approximately one million other backpackers with elephant pants.
All the seats onboard were quickly occupied. With no other choice, I found an empty standing room just by the edge of the train door.
I shared my standing room with a friendly Pakistani man. Over the course of the next several hours, we quickly became friends.
The train is famously known for allowing tourists to hang out from the sides... while moving at full speed.
I wanted to replicate that Instagram photo, but my Pakistani friend was an unwilling participant.
Of course, there are hazards by the tracks which can potentially kill you.
Oh, and the train also goes through 43 tunnels.
The first major stop is the town of Hatton. Some people got off here to visit Adam's Peak, a mountain known for a sacred footprint at the summit believed to be that of Buddha's or Adam's.
For over a thousand years, pilgrims have hiked up Adam's Peak to be rewarded by a perfect sunrise.
After Hatton, the train continues to Nanu-Oya. I stopped off here to visit the nearby town of Nuwara Eliya, a colonial hill station known as "Little England".
Nuwara Eliya still keeps the atmosphere of a misplaced British village. The colonial bungalows, racecourse, and rose gardens all somehow seem more British than Britain itself.
Even the cool and wet climate is decidedly British.
It's worth rising early to hike through Horton Plains National Park, an undulating plateau covered by wild grasslands and misty lakes.
The plateau comes to a sudden end at World’s End, a stunning escarpment that drops almost straight down for 880m.
Labookellie Tea Centre
Grand Tea Lounge
Nuwara Eliya to Haputale
Back onboard the train, I was all smiles and excited.
The ride from Nanu-Oya to Haputale is widely considered the most scenic part of the journey.
I seemed to have boarded the most unspectacular train ride in the world.
I was starting to suspect that the local tourism board may have oversold the scenery of the train trip.
But after some time, there was a glimmer of hope...
The fog was quickly dissipating.
And within minutes, the scenery finally came into view.
I was treated to a view so sublime, I wondered if I was dreaming it.
All these photos were shot straight out of the moving train.
As we continued to climb past 4,000 feet, the vistas opened up to reveal terrace after terrace of tea plantations.
The train rattles alongside endless green carpets of tea bushes.
You get views that look like the Windows XP wallpaper.
The train pulls into Haputale, a largely Tamil town that clings to a long, narrow mountain ridge.
Haputale turned out to be my favorite place in all of Sri Lanka, with breathtaking views and a relaxing vibe unspoiled by tourists.
While you're there, you can spot tea pickers in the hillside.
Tea largely still being harvested by hand by Tamils whose forefathers were brought from India by the British to work in the tea estates.
You can visit a tea plantation to see how the world's favorite cuppa is produced. I visited the Dambatenne Tea Factory, built in 1890 by Sir Thomas Lipton (yes, that Lipton).
You can learn the processes involved in the production of tea. Some of the equipment in use is almost a century old.
While you're there, you can also visit Lipton's Seat, one of the most impressive viewpoints. Sir Thomas Lipton used to survey his burgeoning empire from here.
Dambatenne Tea Factory
Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn
Haputale to Ella
The final leg of the journey was a short 1-hour ride to Ella.
The train continues its way winding around the hill country.
The train arrives at Ella, a decades-old backpackers' paradise that's been getting more popular lately.
It's the final stop! You can treat yourself to 98 Acres Resort & Spa, a luxury boutique hotel set amidst the lush green hills.
If you follow the tracks for half an hour, you will reach the Nine Arch Bridge, a spectacular 30-meter high bridge constructed with stone.
You can walk across it to a hilltop cafe and wait for the train to pass while you sip a nice cup of tea.
At sunrise, hike up Little Adam's Peak for some of the best views in the country.
Nine Arch Bridge
Little Adam's Peak
Ella Spice Garden
98 Acres Resort and Spa
I’ve dreamed of this train journey for so long and hands down it was one of the most scenic train journeys I've ever been on. It's incredible how much adventure and sights are packed along the route of a short 7-hour train ride.
To put it in perspective: I had a private car and a driver for this trip. I asked him to take a few days off and meet me in Ella, so I could experience the train journey. And guess what? It was absolutely worth it.
The train isn't a showcase of speed or high technology. It isn't a tourist trap. You will see the real Sri Lanka as the train rattles pass indigenous villages, buffalo-peppered farms, and waving kids running alongside the train. It's a classic journey that deserves a place on any traveler's bucket list.
How much did it cost me?
Perhaps the single most amazing part of the journey was the price—I paid just $0.73.
While it's tempting to buy a 1st class ticket when it's so cheap, it's far better to travel in 2nd or 3rd class. It's a much more authentic experience and better for taking photos as the windows and doors fully open.
And don't worry if you can't find a seat. You can also sit with your feet dangling out of the door and you'll have the most incredible view.