Colombo to Jaffna Sri Lanka

How to Go from Colombo to Jaffna

After landing at the International Airport just north of Colombo on our first trip to Sri Lanka, our first stop, after a quick bus ride to the city center, was Jaffna, in the north of the country.  At that time you needed written permission from the military to visit Jaffna. That’s all changed now, and Jaffna is easy to visit, although the transport options are much the same.  There are several options for transport between Colombo and Jaffna, but what’s the best way to go from Colombo to Jaffna?  And what are the options for traveling to Jaffna from Colombo?  Here’s our guide on how to get to Jaffna from Colombo.



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The Best Way to Get to Jaffna

By far the best and most fun way to go from Colombo to Jaffna is to take the Train.

Book early for the best availability and prices.

We decided to go to Jaffna on the spur of the moment, and primarily because it was there.  The small city of Jaffna is at the northern tip of Sri Lanka and it’s the cultural capital for Tamils in Sri Lanka.  It is WAY off the beaten tourist track in Sri Lanka, even now.

Where is Jaffna?

Jaffna is on the far northern tip of Sri Lanka.  You won’t get here by accident.  It’s about 400 kilometers by road (248 miles) north of Colombo, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.  Jaffna is known for its Dutch colonial fort, the Tamil population, and for being mostly cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka for around 20 years during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

How to Go from Colombo to Jaffna – Transport Options

In this guide on how to go from Colombo to Jaffna, we’ll cover the fastest way to travel from Colombo to Jaffna, the easiest way to get to Jaffna from Colombo, and the cheapest way to get to Jaffna from Colombo.  You have the choice of taking a bus from Colombo to Jaffna, a taxi, or you can take the train.  The preferred way to go from Colombo to Jaffna is by train.

How to get to Jaffna from Colombo

There’s not much time difference when it comes to the different transport options from Colombo to Jaffna.  The fastest train takes just under 7 hours, a bus will take 8 hours and a taxi will take around 7.5 hours to go to Jaffna from Colombo.

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Taking the Train from Colombo to Jaffna

The train is the best (and most comfortable) option for transport from Colombo to Jaffna and all trains leave from Colombo Fort in the center of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo.  The train is also the cheapest way to go from Colombo to Jaffna.  However, train tickets book up VERY quickly for all seats so you’re advised to book trains about 30 days in advance if you know your plans.

There are three trains a day from Colombo to Jaffna, two during the day, which takes about 6 and three-quarter hours.  The night mail train is slightly quicker, leaving Colombo at 20:00, but it arrives in Jaffna at 03:56, which isn’t the best time for doing anything!

The train from Colombo to Jaffna leaves from Colombo Fort Railway Station in the center of Colombo and arrives at the Jaffna Railway Station in the center of Jaffna.  The first train of the day actually comes from Mount Lavinia and makes 3 stops before arriving at Colombo Fort bound for Jaffna.

First Class Carriage Colombo to Jaffna

All three trains from Colombo to Jaffna are actually bound for Kankesanthurai, which is 75 minutes further north on the train from Jaffna.  So be sure, if you catch the night mail train to Jaffna to set your alarm and get off at the right stop!

The trains from Colombo to Jaffna depart Colombo Fort at 05:45, 11:50 and 20:00

There are first-class and second-class tickets and seats available on these trains to Jaffna.  And this is one country where the first-class ticket is not going to break the bank at all.  Be sure of your seat and book a train from Colombo to Jaffna here.

Sri Lankan trains also have an unreserved ticket class, which means that you don’t get a designated seat, you just get on with everyone else and try and find a seat.  If you do this, then you’re most likely going to be standing until the train gets to Anuradhapura, which is where most people get off.  That’s 4.5 hours down the line.  That’s pretty much what happened to us on our Colombo to Galle train (read about it here), except we stood the entire way.  And the 90 or so minutes that the train was waiting to depart at Colombo Fort station.  I do NOT recommend it.

Colombo Fort Station Platform

The 11:50 train has first and second-class reserved seats available, including the FABULOUS observation car (read on for details on that and our fabulous trip in it).

Check availability and times on Colombo to Jaffna trains here.

Bus from Colombo to Jaffna

Two different types of buses go from Colombo to Jaffna.  There’s a tourist bus or a local bus.  The local bus can be cheaper than the train, but it’s going to stop at lots of places and is more likely to take around 11 hours, rather than the 8 hours that the tourist bus takes.

Several different companies run the tourist buses and all have a good reputation.  However, they don’t always run all year round and there is only one bus a day for each company.  Currently, the different companies are running night buses, which leave Colombo from 18:45 until 22:30, and arrive at the Jaffna bus stand from 04:00 until about 09:30 the following day. 

Book “Earlier” buses from Colombo to Jaffna here

You can find and book the buses that leave Colombo earlier (i.e. about 18:45 – 19:55) and book them here.

Book buses that leave from 21:00 to 22:30 here.

The buses that leave later – from 21:00 until 22:30 can be booked here.

Some of these buses are designated as “luxury”, but it is not the luxury that you’re probably used to.

Buses from Colombo to Jaffna depart from the south of the city of Colombo, at the Colombo Express Bus stop, down near Wellawatte Beach.  It’s not particularly convenient.  They arrive in Jaffna at the Jaffna Bus stand, which is pretty central.  I’ve marked them on our map for your convenience.

Taxi from Colombo to Jaffna

A private taxi is the most expensive way to go to Jaffna from Colombo, but it also offers the most flexibility.  It will take around 7.5 hours to drive from Colombo to Jaffna, although you’ll be able to choose your route and make stops.  Although if you stop for too long you might end up breaking the journey and you’ll have to factor in paying for accommodation for your driver too.

You can check the price of a private taxi from Colombo to Jaffna here.

Our Experience of Taking the Train from Colombo to Jaffna

We booked first-class observation car tickets on the train from Colombo to Jaffna – and it’s a fabulous way to travel. 

Train Ticket office at Colombo Fort Station

The observation cars are at the end of the train so you basically get to see everything through a big windscreen.  It’s brilliant for seeing the country.  They are attached to the back of the train and they’re a great way to travel.

First Class Observation Car Window

The best seats to have are right at the back. Well, the ones in front of the big-picture window. If you get what I mean. We had the second row, which was actually pretty darn good.

Observation Car Front Window

We ate our first Sri Lankan food on this train – short eats and then rice and curry out of newspaper – and it was SO GOOD and started my love affair with Sri Lankan food.

We also bounced our way north. Most folks got off this train at Anuradhapura and we were left in the observation car with Sri Lankan train enthusiasts and we were the only Westerners on the train. 

Taking the Train from Jaffna Southbound

On our return from Jaffna, we took second-class reserved seats south to Anuradhapura. You can read about our trip from Jaffna to Anuradhapura here. It was good. Fan-cooled, with the switch controlled by the seat behind you, it meant that you didn’t want to annoy your neighbors.  It wasn’t anywhere near as comfortable as the observation car, but it was still good.  Remember to buy reserved seat tickets!

Map of Bus Stops and Train Stations for going from Colombo to Jaffna

You can also see the full map of train station and bus stops from Colombo to Jaffna here

Map of Colombo to Jaffna

The quickest way to get from Colombo to Jaffna

The quickest way to get from Colombo to Jaffna is to take the train.  The night mail train is slightly faster than the daytime trains, but you won’t see anything.  And the tracks are still a little bouncy, so chances are you won’t get much sleep either.  And you’ll arrive in Jaffna at 03:56.  You can book train tickets from Colombo to Jaffna here.

The easiest way to go to Jaffna from Colombo

The train is the easiest way to go from Colombo to JaffnaBuy a first class ticket in the observation car and have a great trip to Jaffna, it’s seriously good value.

The cheapest way to go from Colombo to Jaffna

The cheapest way to get to Jaffna from Colombo is to take the train – reserve your seats here.

The best way to go from Colombo to Jaffna

I love trains.  And going to Jaffna on the train from Colombo was a perfect introduction to Sri Lanka for us.  It was comfortable, and great fun and we got to see so much of the countryside on our daytime train in the first class observation car.

Travel Tips for Exploring Sri Lanka

Final Words on How to Go from Colombo to Jaffna

Getting to Jaffna is easy from Colombo.  There are buses and trains available.  The train is the fastest way to do this trip, and if you get a reserved seat on the train, then it’s the most comfortable too and it won’t break the bank.  I seriously recommend the first class observation car.

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