Day 2 – first Sri Lankan train ride: I walked to Colombo Fort Station in the dark, giving a wide berth to the various stray dogs milling around seemingly harmlessly in the street. Despite getting to the station at 4:50am for the fast intercity train to Anuradhapura, it was already booked up in advance (first error of the trip) and so they were only selling second class tickets for the 6:25am, much slower, train. After a bit of a wait in what was already becoming sweltering heat, the train finally pulled in. Before it had even stopped hordes of people were jumping into the carriages and I followed suit with my huge backpack. I settled into my seat for the long journey up the coast and we pulled out of the station to dawn starting to break over Colombo.
I was apprehensive about my plan to make it around so much of the country by bus and train when I saw how busy the train to Anuradhapura was. It turned out to be one of the busier trips of the journey give it was still the holidays and many people were moving back and forth between the cities and smaller towns and villages in the countryside. Although it was near impossible to move around the train for people packed into the seats and aisles, men and women selling short eats would board at various stops with baskets of freshly fried treats piled up and scattered with chilis. There was a pleasant breeze from the windows but being packed so tightly in the train made it extremely hot, especially at the longer stops on the route when the breeze from the windows stopped.
The train finally arrived a little after 11am and I grabbed a tuk tuk to my accommodation, a lovely little guest house called Levi’s Tourist (for the princely sum of £19 for the night!) I’d definitely recommend this place, it was a little bit out of the way from both the town and the archaeological sites, but the staff were super friendly and helpful and the food was great. Rooms were basic, but great for the price and there was air con and a mosquito net- what else do you need?!
After a quick change, it was back into the tuk tuk to see the sights of Anuradhapura. It was tough going in the afternoon heat wandering from site to site, even with the tuk tuk. My unacclimated feet roasted on the tiles around each stupa and I scurried past loitering monkeys, my travel foe (more on that when I write about my time in Cambodia!). I hit the main sites, the Sri Maha Bodhi, said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the word at over 2,000 years old, the elephant pond and the Abhayagiri Dagoba dating from the 1st century BC. For some reason the tuk tuk driver could not be persuaded to drop me at the archaeological museum, despite driving past it repeatedly! I headed back to the hotel early, exhausted from the heat and travelling. A wonderful dinner of beef curry at the guest house and an early night brought my first full day in Sri Lanka to a close.
My tips for this leg of the journey
Book your train tickets in advance where possible if you want to be sure of travelling in 1st class (or travelling at the time you want to travel where the whole train is 1st class!). But don’t shy away from 2nd class travel- it’s an experience in itself and perfectly acceptable.
If I did this trip again I’d go straight to Anuradhapura from Colombo airport to skip out the unnecessary back and forth heading into Colombo and back.
Anuradhapura was an important city in Sri Lanka’s history, becoming the first capital in 380 BC, but it was one of the more underwhelming sites on my trip. If you’re doing a big tour of Sri Lanka it should absolutely be on your list, but due to the time to get there and back, for shorter itineraries you could safely skip it out.
An alternative way to structure this part of the trip would be to base yourself in Habarana for a few days to cover off Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Sigiriya and Polonnoruwa as a succession of day trips with some relaxation and pool time thrown in rather than moving on each day. This is definitely the approach I would use if I recreated my trip.
For train information The Man in Seat Sixty-One site is absolute invaluable.