There are few better ways of understanding a country than jumping on a train. Sri Lanka is no exception and this beautifully compact island nation with its contrasting countryside and coastline is perfect for exploration by rail. Ceylon Government Railways launched its first carriages in 1864 during the colonial period, and today, a century and a half later, Sri Lanka is a patchwork of train routes, operated by government and private companies. We were taking the grandly named Rajadhani Express which we had booked for less than a fiver for a ticket on the Colombo Fort to Matara branch which we were reliably informed would not only be the ‘most comfortable train journey you will ever take in Sri Lanka’ but crucially would drop us just a stone’s throw from where we were staying in the fishing town of Koggala.
Fresh from our morning flight, we arrived at Colombo Fort to be transported back in time. The station was alive with activity – fruit sellers, station hands and commuters rushed amongst the platforms. After a brief confusion, we raced to leap aboard our express. The wooden floors and leather seats were a little tired and faded, but this added to her charm.
Within seconds, the dizzying chaos was transformed to calm. I looked across at the platforms which just minutes ago were a swarm of people and all was still. A single stationhand swept away the dust, whilst exchanging words with a lonely passenger. We settled into our seats and watched Sri Lanka unfold ahead of us as we pulled out of the station. This really was life in the slow lane. We passed children playing on the water, fishermen casting their nets into vast expanses of glittering Indian Ocean and entire communities who lived their lives directly against the train tracks. Beautiful beaches gave way to gorgeous stretches of countryside and we looked upon generous blankets of sand dotted with surfshacks, set against tiny villages of perhaps ten families or less. We were spellbound at this beautiful land of contrast.
The pace languid rocked us to sleep. After a particularly extended stop, we awoke from our lull and looked out of the window to discover that we had broken down. The engine, which appeared to be at least a century old was hissing gently as the train driver shook his head. We made friends with our fellow passengers who sat on the platform patiently sunning themselves. And so we waited. It was only mid morning and the sun was not yet high in the sky. A passing train on the adjacent track offered to take on our passengers via a slight detour. Some clambered aboard across the tracks and slipped into their seats gratefully. We waved them farewell and before long, a part for the engine arrived and with little ceremony we continued on our way, hugging the coastline. After a a short spell we arrived at Koggala station and jumped off with our luggage, turning to wave as the train puffed on her way happily onwards to Galle.
We consulted our map and proceeded to try to book a nearby tuktuk to our hotel. The driver smiled and refused to take our money, he pointed along the dusty coastal road in the general direction of the beach – we were just minutes away. After stopping for fresh pineapple at a roadside stand, we strolled into The Fortress Hotel & Spa. A lovely boutique hotel of just 53 rooms, the property is styled to resemble Galle’s ancient Dutch Fort and is set in immaculate gardens against a honey coloured beach. A gorgeous infinity pool stretched the length of our view and we were served cooled ginger and cinnamon tea as we checked in. Lunch was a simple affair of vegetarian thali washed down with fresh coconut water, plucked that morning. After lunch we gazed down into the Indian Ocean and wondered if our fellow passengers had made it to Mattara or to Galle. The dust of the train station and the beautiful chaos of daily Sri Lankan life seemed a distant memory. Whether the Rajadhani was to be the comfortable journey by rail in Sri Lanka was debatable, but it was certainly one of the most charming and memorable.