How Not to Catch a Train in Sri Lanka

Travel isn’t always easy. But to travel by train, like a local Sri Lankan, is an experience that is challenging to say the least. Here is how not to travel by train in Sri Lanka.


Shortly after graduation, I packed my bags and spent a month in Sri Lanka. For my geographically challenged friends, this is an island off the coast of India. I had freedom from school like I had never known and could not wait to volunteer with the medically deprived population.

After a few days of country and culture orientation, Dhammike, the volunteer coordinator, discussed our placements. He scribbled out simple directions. Take the train to Colombo, then get off at Kaluthara and switch trains to get to the Agulana station. There would be five of us leaving in the morning. I alone would be going to Colombo while the other girls continued on to Ambalangoda.

Mistake #1

The taxi had been arranged for us by the coordinator. At 03:30am, the four other girls and I groggily boarded. The driver had been instructed to buy our tickets at the train station so that there would be no confusion. Except there was confusion. He presented us with five identical tickets. With the help of another girl, we tried to explain to him that I was not going to the same city but his English was limited and we gave up quicker than we should have.

Sri Lankan Train
Sri Lankan Train

Mistake #2

“Hey, this is going to be your stop up here” said one of the girls that had been in Sri Lanka a lot longer than I had. I thanked her profusely and grabbed my over sized suitcase and got off the train (before my days of carry on sized backpacks).

There were two other trains on the platform. Neither had any indications of where they would be going.

“Excuse me, how do I get on the train to this stop?” I asked some official looking person, pointing at the hastily scribbled directions that Dhammike had left for me.  He merely glanced at them.

“Let me see your ticket.”

I hand him the ticket, grateful he spoke English. I tried to explain to him the communication problems we had boarding the train. He either did not understand my American English, or had decided not to listen.

“You get back on the train”

I took my ticket back and pointed again to my directions.

“This train will take me to Agulana station?”

Being the only fair skinned, English speaking person on the platform, my dilemma was attracting a bit of attention. Two other guys came over to assist and both said to get back on the train.

“But that will take me to Agulana?”

One of the boys began writing on my directions, crossing out Agulana and replacing it with Ambalangoda, since that was what was printed on my ticket. Or so I’d imagine since I don’t read Sinhala.

I was to go through Colombo, get off on the Kaluthara station and take the train to the Agulana station
I was to go through Colombo, get off on the Kaluthara station and take the train to the Agulana station

“My ticket is wrong, I am supposed to go to the Agulana station.”

The three men began arguing in Sinhala about where I should go until I was nearly in tears.  Eventually, they made a decision. I would get back on the train, go one stop then get off and switch trains. By some miracle the train made the world’s longest stop at this particular station and hadn’t left yet.

“I am going there, I will show you” one of the boys said, later introducing himself as Keshara.

Finally I use some sense:

I followed him back onto the train where he asked who I was and what I was doing in Sri Lanka. He told me he was on his way home from class.

We were on a different car on the train Everyone began staring at me in a way that made me certain that they saw very few foreigners. Two small children next to me giggled. They tugged on the sleeve of their father’s shirt to point out my funny colored skin. I responded with a smile that sent them in to a bigger fit of laughter.
switched trains and as we exited at our stop Keshara called the number at the bottom of the paper to let the Doctor know that I had arrived. He did not leave my side until he was certain that I was with the people that had been sent for me. We bid goodbye. I could not thank him enough for his help.

There is always a danger in traveling. But all over the world people can be found that are willing to help, willing to keep you safe.

Train in Sri Lanka

So the lesson to my story is that if you are catching a train in Sri Lanka keep the following in mind:

1.Make sure you ask for a ticket to your destination

This way when you get lost you don’t have to try and explain where you are trying to go!

2. Double check your sources

Don’t always trust someone’s word. If you are able to double check your route, please do so!  The worst thing that can happen is that you remember it a little better.

3. Ask for help if you need it

If they don’t speak English that’s ok! Just smile and move on to the next person. Eventually someone will take pity on you. My experience was that someone that spoke English was always willing to help (But don’t forget that learning basic phrases in Sinhala can go a long way.)

4. Laugh it off 

Mistakes will be made just remember to laugh it off and picture how you will tell the story later to your family and friends.

train in sri lanka

Have you had any experiences catching a train in Sri Lanka or any other third world country? Let me know in the comments below!

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