Riding the Ella Odyssey: The Path Less Chosen (Part 1 of 5)

One of the happier and more helpful delusions of travel is that one is on a quest.

—Paul Theroux
“The Slow Train to Kandy”
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

We arrived in Sri Lanka the last day of February 2022 and had been there roughly three days when I first read about the Ella Odyssey as “A Magical Journey.” My wife’s contract was for ten months, and we were still unpacking our suitcases, so we were in no hurry to do anything but get settled. Still, the minute I read about the epic journey from Kandy to Ella, I immediately wanted to go. According to the article, the first voyage of the train would be that weekend. I noted it as one of our “must-do’s” for the weeks ahead.

It would end up being our most delayed trip. Roughly a week after reading the article, dangerously low on dollar reserves, Sri Lanka floated its rupee and entered a financial crisis that would severely cripple imports, particularly fuel supplies, for the next six months. Peaceful protests dominated the headlines and tourism dried up overnight. My dream of riding the Ella Odyssey went officially on hold because it simply stopped running.

The article about the “magical journey.”

Not only that, but it became virtually impossible to get a ticket on any train because fuel shortages shot the price of bus tickets skyward, so people flocked to the government-controlled trains instead. Getting tickets was a somewhat cumbersome process as well. I could never get the online service to work because it wanted a national ID number, and when I told it I was using my US passport number instead, it told me it was invalid. That left me either going through a travel agent, who would add a fee, or going to the station myself where the lines were long and the rooms small and crowded. With many COVID restrictions still in place, the idea of standing for a long time in close proximity to so many didn’t seem the best course of action, no matter how badly I wanted to see the high country.

So we put visiting the mountains by train on the back burner and traveled either closer to Colombo or as part of my wife’s work instead. With all there is to see in Sri Lanka, we weren’t lacking for adventure.

In July, protests peaked and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa broke up with the country by email as he sailed for the Maldives on a naval vessel. It was a momentary appeasement, but the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, found a way to squelch further protest gatherings and slowly started getting things back online. Fuel was rationed and reinvigorating tourism as a quick way of regaining foreign income became a priority. While we were busy doing other things, the Ella Odyssey started running again in mid-September. To make it easier on travelers fresh off an airliner, they extended the route to run from Colombo all the way to the end of the line in Badulla.

A map of Sri Lankan Railway lines. The main line is in green. (from Google Maps overlay.) 

The Ella Odyssey travels along Sri Lanka’s main railway line. (Someone created an overlay of the Sri Lankan railway lines for Google Maps that you can find here in case you would like to explore it in more detail.) It was originally proposed in 1842 by British plantation owners who wanted a faster route for getting their produce from the interior to the western port in Colombo. Today that leg begins at Colombo Fort Railway Station and then plunges straight into the heart of the country to Kandy. This first spur to Kandy was finished and began operation in 1867, twenty-five years after the line’s inception.

In the virtual center of the country, Kandy is the gateway to Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle to its north and Sri Lanka’s high country and tea estates to its south. From Kandy, the main line was eventually extended south into the mountains and then west through the rolling hills of Nuwara Eliya where trains first arrived in 1885. Years later, the line was extended further south to breathtaking Ella, before heading northeast to its terminal in Badulla. This section was finished in 1924. With the line completed, you could now experience the diversity of Sri Lanka’s ecosystems in a single day, leaving the humid beaches and jungles of its west coast in the morning and then plunging into the cooler climes of its highland rain forests and plantations in the afternoon. The train is in no hurry to do this, however. The meandering route takes roughly eleven hours to complete.

Getting Tickets

Finally, with our exit date about a month away, we decided to use our second to last week in the country to take advantage of a local holiday and finally take the train to Badulla. By then I had also learned that there was an easier way to get tickets. Though I still couldn’t figure out the online system or get the “Sri Lanka Trains” app to work right for me, I found some numbers in the app I could call and have the tickets charged to our local cell phone account. In late November, two weeks before we planned to make the trip, I called to get tickets. We planned to take the train all the way to Badulla on Thursday, and then make our way back in a couple of stops to see more of the high country.

The main line. Colombo to Kandy to Badulla, and back again. (From Google Maps overlay.)

The Thursday Ella Odyssey from Colombo to Badulla was fully booked. So was the Saturday train. (At that time it went up twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays and returned to Colombo on Fridays and Sundays.)

My heart sank.

There’s a saying in Sri Lanka, though. We learned it when we went to a bookstore, and they didn’t have a book we wanted to buy. “Give me five minutes,” the woman behind the counter told us. We went and browsed some more, and about ten minutes later she found us with a copy of the book. My wife was amazed. “Where did you find it?” she asked. The woman shrugged, and said, “It’s Sri Lanka.” In the coming months, we learned again and again that Sri Lankans have a way of finding a way even when it looks like there is no way.

The Ella Odyssey and other trains lined up to depart Badulla.

It was time for me to do the same.

From experience, we knew that if you only had a week or so to travel in Sri Lanka and wanted to visit to the high country, the best two places to visit were Nuwara Eliya and Ella. It was possible to take the train to both, or a cheap luxury bus (booked at BusSeat.lk, which is little known to tourists), or hire a private driver through any of a number of services (which was far more expensive). From Ella, most tourists find a way to head south toward some of the most popular national parks and pristine beaches in the country. Once on the southern coast, you can loop west to Galle and take the country’s best highway back to Colombo or Bandaranaike International Airport or the train line from Matara to Colombo Fort Station.

Because people tend not to double back, I wondered if the Odyssey might have seats going in the opposite direction on Sunday. What if I flipped our trip?

I checked the online timetables and discovered there were a handful of tickets left coming back on Sunday.

I immediately called again and booked two seats for Sunday from Badulla to Colombo. I was giddy. Then I booked tickets for Saturday on a regular train from Nuwara Eliya to Badulla (we had visited Ella on a different trip through the area so Nuwara Eliya was next on our list). I figured I just needed to find a bus or something to Nuwara Eliya on Thursday.

I did a quick check on BusSeat.lk and saw all the bus seats were still open, and then wondered about maybe taking a late train from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya on Wednesday instead. According to the website, there were first-class tickets available, so I called and booked them.

We were good to go.

(To continue, go to Part 2: Leaving from Badulla)