I’ve been in Sri Lanka for 6 days now and traveling abroad solo for the first time ever.* It’s been both rewarding and challenging at moments. And while I haven’t had any big life changing revelations, I have had some good for the soul moments. But more on that later.
Many people who travel Sri Lanka (especially for a short period like a week) tend to hire a private driver so they can cover a lot of the country since public transport isn’t the most efficient. Since I was solo, that option wasn’t affordable so I opted to only visit a few places and use the train. Sri Lanka is known for beautiful train rides (news to me!), especially for one route through tea country from Kandy to Ella that’s often called one of the most beautiful train rides the world.
I had heard it was hard to get a train ticket but I had it all “figured out.” Since I was arriving early into Colombo, I was going to go straight to the train station and buy all of my tickets for a first class ride in advance. My route was: Colombo => Ella (~10 hours and passes through Kandy), Ella => Kandy (~6 hours) and then Kandy => Colombo (~3 hours). I got to the train station and it’s a madhouse of tourists and locals. After figuring out which ticket counter I’m suppose to go to and waiting in line, I’m told that all tickets for reserved seats are sold out…for all legs of my journey.
Crap. What do I do now? I had read from The Man on Seat 61 that you could still buy tickets for an unreserved on the day of departure 30 minutes before the departure time. Although I was pretty bummed, I was still determined to get on that train. I thought, “okay, so I won’t be able to get a window seat but at least I’ll be on the train.”
So the next morning, I woke up at 4:30 AM to go to the train station at 5AM to catch to the 5:55AM train from Colombo to Ella. I decided to go for the early train since I thought there’d be less people. When I got to the ticket counter, I was SO RELIEVED that I was able to buy a second-class unreserved seat. All was well in my mind.
Then it was time to board the train. All the locals started rushing and pushing to get on. I had assumed it was because they were just vying for a window seat. I made an effort to hustle too but didn’t think it was necessary to climb over seats and start throwing jackets and bags into seats to claim them (like I saw others do). Well, I was wrong.
I thought having an unreserved seat meant that you would get a seat, there just isn’t one reserved for you that you pick out ahead of time. Nope. They sell more tickets than they have seats. By the time I realized this, all of the seats were taken and the aisles were filled with standers. I was carrying my large backpack on my back and my daypack on my front and it was getting harder to maneuver down the full aisles to look for a seat.
I finally gave up and instead searched for an overhead compartment to put my bags up so I could stand without having a weight on my shoulders. I found a spot to stand where I was literally standing over a man that was sitting in his seat and the train started to move.
When we got to the next train stop, even more people piled on and that’s what I started to really worry. The train was PACKED with people and it was getting hard to breathe as people were literally leaning on you from every direction. There was no sign of it getting any better.
At this point, I have to admit I was pretty devastated. In my mind, I had images of riding the train along the window and enjoying the views (see my first photo above)…leisurely pulling out my book to read or writing in my journal. I had seen these epic photos in blogs and I thought that’s what I was signed up for. This is not what I had in mind:
I stood like this for a few hours with growing worry. I knew I could stand for a few hours in this state…but for 10?!
Luckily, the man that I was standing on top of motioned to me to get into his seat. He was getting off the next station and clearly saw the first-world problem sadness boiling inside of me. I almost cried out of joy and appreciation. After a few more hours, the man sitting next to me (who had the window seat) was getting off and let me have his seat so I can enjoy the view and also not to have people standing directly over me.
The train ride was incredibly beautiful- just as I imagined with rolling hillsides, greenery and tea as far as the eye can see. It was still a bit cramped, as there were still a ton of people standing but definitely an improvement from earlier.
On that ride, I ended up chatting with a bunch of other travelers and sharing the seat area. At one point, I had two people “sitting” on a little table ledge in front of me so we could share the window view.
Eventually, the train arrived at Ella where I splurged and stayed at this place called the Tea Forest Lodge. They served me amazing breakfasts, had tons of outdoor places to sit and read or to enjoy the view and it was located right by a hike I wanted to do.
Ella was definitely a highlight of the trip and was where I had a few of my solo travel proud moments.
I ended up doing my first solo “hike.” I call this a “hike” because it was really not that challenging and then later on that day I did my first solo run in a foreign country on that same trail. (See, I told you it wasn’t that challenging). I then also did a little saunter to the Nine Arches Bridge, where you can spot trains zipping across if you got lucky or knew the train schedule.
Here’s a few more photos from Ella.
The rest of my trip was good but what really stood out to me were the people I met. Because I was on my own, people ended up striking up conversations with me (and vice versa). Here are some quick stories about the people I met:
- I met a ton of kind and wonderful people on my train from Ella to Kandy. On that ride, I sat next to a couple from Sweden (Catrine and Marten) and ended up having just great conversation with them. They shared not only their stories but also their food when they saw that all I had to eat were crackers. My heart felt so full from their generosity (you know how I feel about food). We exchanged information and hugged each other when I had to get off the train. Upon leaving, she even gave me all of her samosas which ended up being my dinner for the night! They were like my train angels!
- On that same train, I also met a Parisian couple that had their luggage lost at the start of their trip. However, that didn’t dampen their spirits and they were excited for the adventure! Our train journey ended at night and because I was traveling alone, they checked in on me before they left the station and gave me their local number in case something came up! That day my soul was overflowing with kindness.
- The craziest, “it’s a small world” story I have is also from the same train ride. The person sitting across the aisle from me ended up sharing a mutual friend! He lives in Peru and works with one of my college friends, Elio. He ended up having a similar itinerary and we ended up meeting up a few times throughout the trip. We both met other travelers along the way (I had also met a fellow cool American traveler at my AirBnB) and ended up having a mini-solo travelers dinner in Kandy!
- On my very first solo night in Sri Lanka, I wasn’t feeling very well so wasn’t able to do much recon on the neighborhood in terms of places to eat and safe places to walk before dark. Luckily, there was a kind Canadian couple staying in the AirBnb who had explored much of Colombo already and invited me to join them for dinner. Together, we shared a most delicious Indian meal.
While going #SoloinSriLanka, I felt a ton of growth. I learned a lot about traveling alone in a foreign country (though I still have so much more to learn!). My appreciation for not only Matt’s company but his daily trip contributions grew. The train ticket troubles, while at times trying, were great moments to stretch myself. My first solo hikes and solo foreign country runs left me feeling stronger and proud. And mostly, my heart grew from the kindness from strangers and fellow travelers.
Have you traveled solo? What were some joys and challenges you experienced?
*This was written while in Sri Lanka and published in Africa, where I could get better wi-fi connection!