The night train to Trincomalee — family
travels on Sri Lanka’s public transport system


By Aafje Rietveld

"Four tickets for the night train to Trincomalee, please – one adult, 3 children", I heard myself say to the ticket officer at Fort Station, "two first class cabins". Despite the warnings from the hotel transport desk to take their sedan service instead, first class sounded like a treat. And so started our adventure.

Twenty-seven years ago, a 3-months visit to Sri Lanka as a medical student had started a life-long passion for tropical public health that would eventually lead me to a career at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Now I returned to the country on a 3-week holiday with my daughters, hoping to relive and share the beautiful memories of times gone by.The plan, as I had summarised it for my Sri Lankan friends, was to "spend  a few days in Colombo acclimatising, sightseeing, watching the sun go down on Galle Face green; visit the zoo (8-year old Juliette’s special request) and perhaps a day at Mount Lavinia beach (the two teenage daughters are keen on the beach). Then make a grand tour of the Island going up or down first, not sure yet." In addition, I told them, we would travel light, take public transport and stay as much as possible in family-run guest houses. They thought I was crazy: even Sri Lankans would not do that.

As it turned out, our means of transport would include the train, tuk-tuks, regular buses, express buses, a private mini-bus service, a speed boat, surf-boards, a Jeep, an elephant, and –yes– a rented sedan with driver for a whirlwind tour of the cultural triangle. So what were our experiences? Well, the night train to Trincomalee could have been pleasant with some simple housekeeping and maintenance, but what a grime and smell! A toilet that we immediately declared a no-go area linked our adjoining cabins. I had to use my belt to keep the corridor door from sliding open. The girls were slowly soaked out of their beds by a leak in an overhead water storage container. Altogether, this was bad. So bad that it was the perfect way to start appreciating the simple things in life, and we quickly forgot our nightly train adventures once we arrived on Nilaveli beach. Snorkelling at Pigeon Island made it all worth it. We would later take the train again from Kandy to Nanu Oya, where to our surprise the 2nd class cabins were completely packed with European tourists –squeezed standing room only. From there on, we only travelled 3rd class: very friendly Sri Lankan co-travellers, and footboards to hang out of the trains and admire the tea plantations, just as I remembered.

The public buses generally worked out well, we took some 45 of them: Juliette made friends with the school girls on board, the big girls played cards to pass the time, and people pointed to elephants off in the distance and helped us get off and on at the right places. The latter was not always evident, and more than once we stood waiting under an overhead bus stop sign only to be shepherded quickly onto a passing vehicle that did not actually stop there. We learned to move with the crowds. Occasionally a driver seemed oblivious of the speed limits and was more interested in chatting with his friends, but who can blame him when the speedometer is broken? Fortunately, we did not have to do that particular racing stretch every day like some of the children on the bus. One bus boy was outright unpleasant: giving incorrect change, taunting us in Sinhala and laughing at our incomprehensive faces. Another in Tissa had a welcoming smile for all his passengers, and was delighted to see us by coincidence two days in a row (as were we). One evening on return from Nilaveli a strangest thing happened: at least five buses sped by our little back-packed group despite the increasingly urgent stop signs of the two local women next to us who also wanted to get on board … any board. Were we being discriminated against? The only moment where I truly started to doubt the wisdom of our adventure was after night fall on the road between Kosgoda and Galle: it rained, it was pitch dark, and I was sitting on a low folding chair next to the driver of the express mini van with Juliette on my lap. To my left, two office workers were clutching their briefcases. A heavy traffic dense with air-conditioned 4x4s rushed past harrowingly close.At that moment, European car safety standards like seat belts, airbags and children-in-the-back seat seemed distant indeed.

Our guest house accommodation ranged from modern to modest, from fresh new sheets to patched-up old ones. In Kandy, the same lovely family of 27 years ago still ran the Pink House, with wholesome cooking and prices that seemed as frozen in time as the ambiance. The resident hippie crowd gave ample entertainment for my teenagers, Juliette blended in with the grandchildren playing in the courtyard, and I caught up with our host on how our lives had evolved since we last said goodbye. The young couple of the brand new guest house in Nuwara Eliya made us a log fire on a cold evening and let us Skype home. In all instances it was the hospitality of our hosts that truly mattered and made the experience unforgettable in the best sense of the word. People welcomed us into their homes like we were old friends. With an inexpensive prepaid local SIM card the logistics of finding accommodation were very doable: just phone the numbers in the airport welcome package or your guidebook to check room availability.

On occasion we splashed on the superb luxuries that money can buy: a truly sumptuous ice cream, a dip in an infinity swimming pool and even an overnight stay in a grand heritage hotel in a magnificent location (as my girls noted: "with TV! And a hair dryer!").Other unforgettable experiences were offered freely: a refreshing bucket-shower from a sweet water well on the beach of Arugam Bay, celebrating Poya at the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura together with tens of thousands of pilgrims, a taste of curd and treacle from a road-side stall, a tour of the Gal Vihara rock temple by the gentleman whose picture was in my guidebook, a melancholy flute concert by the homeless man in the town square of Diyatalawa. So many people shared their life stories while we travelled up together. The tsunami, the war, the new developments: we heard and saw first-hand their lasting impact on daily life.

Sometimes the girls attracted more attention than they wished for, such as when some handsome schoolboys blocked their way on the narrow rope bridge in the botanical gardens. On other occasions it was my wallet that got the unwanted attention, most absurdly when an ice cream vendor suddenly tried to out-run me to the ticket office of the Kandy folklore show and pocket the commission — he won by taking a short-cut through the flower beds.In Kosgoda we could not shake off the two village madmen, until a shopkeeper offered us refuge and a glass of lemonade to recover while they left.

We visited the grand cultural attractions. Sigiriya remains my uncontested favourite, perhaps due to its vertiginous climb up. My teenagers decided they’ll come and live in Galle Fort one day. We visited the parks, and were enthralled with an early morning tour of Minneriya: "all these animals together, this is paradise", Juliette whispered in my ear. We held turtle-babies in our hands before their big swim to adulthood. We bottle-fed baby elephants.

One thing I hope Sri Lankans will improve upon is the littering. It is so easy to keep your trash with you, yet even the most beautiful stretches of beach, forest and park were polluted with discarded packaging, wrappers and bottles. In Switzerland we are nowadays so keen to keep our spaces clean and to recycle glass, plastics and paper that this really shocked us all. We dutifully kept our trash with us, looking for the next opportunity of a trashcan, which sometimes only appeared many bus stops later or even in the next town. We had to altogether abandon our well-trained habits of recycling. Are we as foreigners keener to protect the beauty of Sri Lanka?

Finally, guess what my favourite Sri Lankan transport experience was… piling into a tuk-tuk with 4 people, 4 backpacks and two umbrellas. Towards the end of our trip, we had this process down pat in less than 10 seconds, including the 2 teenagers for whom until recently even the family house had been too small. Just as I had secretly hoped: our stay in Sri Lanka had brought us back to basics, made us a team, and shown us the true values in life.Will we recommend Sri Lanka as a holiday destination to our friends? Wholeheartedly YES. And will we recommend the night train to Trincomalee? You may draw your own conclusions.


"Aafje Rietveld is a Dutch biologist and physician who as a medical student in 1984 worked briefly in the General Hospital in Colombo. She currently lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland. As part of her work she travels extensively and has visited some 60 countries world-wide. In the summer of 2011 she made good on a longstanding promise to herself and returned to Sri Lanka with her three daughters aged 18, 14 and 8. Aafje is very grateful to Kamini and Nalaka Mendis for encouraging her to write down her adventures."

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