Riding beside the tea plantations, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Trains and Tea

May 25, 2015 - Carlos

Sri Lanka not only has an extensive railway network, but it has one of the most beautiful rides in the world. The route from Colombo to Badulla is particularly breathtaking and among the top experiences one should have when coming to Sri Lanka. Even though we didn’t ride the whole route, we enjoyed what was arguably the best part of it – from the cultural capital of Kandy to the tea fields of Nuwara Eliya and onwards to the green town of Ella.

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

Our first train ride in Sri Lanka was from Kandy (at 500m elevation) to Nuwara Eliya (at 1,868m). Due to the Buddhist Vesak holiday (one of the most important in the country), reserved tickets for first and second class were fully booked, so we were only able to get tickets for third class. Not that much different from the other two classes (second class has individual seats while first class has AC), it was one of the most comfortable rides we’ve ever been on.

Riding beside the tea plantations, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Riding beside the tea plantations, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The milder temperatures up in the mountains created a nice breeze coming in from the windows, making AC unnecessary. With a layout of seats arranged around a table, fitting six or four people, we sat with friendly locals that weren’t shy at all and promptly initiated conversation.

We realized a funny fact after a while. Most times, people fight for seats on trains with unassigned seating. Here in Sri Lanka, nobody fought for a seat, but everybody fought for a space by the train door. It was common for train doors to be open during the rides in Sri Lanka and the view from the door was spectacular. Hanging out by the doors of a Sri Lankan train was as much of a local experience as you could get.

Carlos hanging out the train door, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Carlos hanging out the train door, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

I wanted to try it, so when a spot opened up, I rushed for the door. Holding onto handrails, I put my entire body outside the train, feeling the wind pass by and observing the lush green scenery of the tea plantations. There was such a great feeling of freedom to it that’s hard to put into words.

Rolling hills with tea fields, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Rolling hills with tea fields, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

I rode hanging out of the door for a while and the scenery couldn’t have been better. Right beside the railroad, green rolling hills were covered in a neat and patterned arrangement of tea plants with lines leading to the mountains in the background. The ominous dark clouds in the sky completed the view.

Ominous clouds over the tea fields, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Ominous clouds over the tea fields, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The ride continued for miles and miles of tea plantations. They were arranged in neat rows of little shrubs, it was very cute. I had never seen so many shades of green from foreground to background. This was definitely the one-of-a-kind scenery that was promised.

Train ride form Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka
Train ride form Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka

A little less than four hours later, just as the first drops of afternoon rain common for this time of year came down, the train approached our stop at the Nanu Oya train station. A short local bus ride completed our trip to Nuwara Eliya.

Green hills during the train ride to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Green hills during the train ride to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Mackwoods’ Tea Factory

I confess that at first, I wasn’t super excited about tea plantations. However, after seeing its beauty during the train ride, I had to check it out up close. Plus Sri Lanka is known for tea, a main export, especially famous for its high-quality, organic tea. With a few tea factories around Nuwara Eliya, we asked some locals who unanimously directed us to the Mackwoods tea factory.

Mackwoods hollywood-style sign, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Mackwoods hollywood-style sign, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Taking another local bus, we drove for about 45min through the Mackwoods tea fields that seemed to span all over the Nuwara Eliya area. It was a nice build up for what was to come. Arriving at the factory, a huge hollywood-style MACKWOODS sign greeted us, surrounded by the beautiful and organized tea fields.

Mackwoods Tea Factory museum, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Mackwoods Tea Factory museum, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

We entered the museum area and asked one of the ladies to give us a tour of the factory, which she did with a big smile on her face. She explained the whole process with great knowledge and showed us how to get to the final fine taste of their unique tea.

Worker plucking tea leaves at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Worker plucking tea leaves at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Firstly, one should choose and pluck the tea leaves – only young buds with maximum three light green leaves should be plucked. A curious fact was that mostly women work on this task, since they tend to have more agile hands.

Tea leaves going through the whitering process at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tea leaves going through the whitering process at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Next was the whitering process, where the tea leaves are put to dry and slightly oxidize, losing almost half of its weight in water. The dried tea leaves and then cut or bruised and left to oxidize. This process is critical for the final taste and aroma of the tea – for example, light oolong teas get from 5% – 40% oxidation, while black teas oxidize 100%. From this point on, each type of tea follows a different path adding flavouring or simply packing it. It was also at this point, when we were directed for some free tea tasting!

Tea tasting at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tea tasting at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

We tried the Mackwoods signature tea, the orange pekoe. With a refreshing aroma of high grown teas and a light liquor and mellow flavour, the orange pekoe is best appreciated without the addition of sugar or milk, just the way Julie and I enjoy our teas. It was delicious.

So many different teas to choose from, Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
So many different teas to choose from, Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

After we were done with the tea tasting, we made sure to stop by the shop to get our own. We ended up picking the apple flavored unblended black tea, which we have been enjoying throughout the rest of our trip in Sri Lanka.

Tea fields at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tea fields at the Mackwoods Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya to Ella

After leaving the tea factory, we went back to the train station in Nanu Oya to continue our train ride journey to Ella. For this part of the journey, however, the weather was really bad with heavy rain and strong winds.

Nanu Oya train station, Sri Lanka
Nanu Oya train station, Sri Lanka

Instead of hanging out of the door, this time we sat back and relaxed until we arrived at the small town of Ella. The next day, we retraced part of the train ride while trekking to Ella Rock, since half of the way is on the railroad.

Julie trekking to Ella Rock, Ella, Sri Lanka
Julie trekking to Ella Rock, Ella, Sri Lanka

We had a lot of fun riding trains in Sri Lanka, which were not only a great experience, but also super affordable. From Ella, we took a bus to Tissamaharama, where the safaris to the Yala National Park start.

For more pictures from our train rides in Sri Lanka, please visit the gallery!