I have been hearing about Kandy for 35 years and have wanted to pay a visit here for almost as long. My brother David made an overland trip from London to the tip of Sri Lanka and back again in 1975, and though Sri Lanka was his favourite country, Kandy was the city he talked of the most. I remember him describing how green it was and we really looked forward to giving him an update.
In fact, we called him from Unawatuna and encouraged him to come over and see it for himself. We are planning to stay in Sri Lanka for another month and would welcome him joining us. When we talked to him after Christmas we learned that he looked into flights here and found that he would be travelling for over 38 hours just to get to Colombo. Then there’s the internal travel, and that’s all rather slow. He said he just wasn’t up to such a long journey anymore and would stay home and wait to see our photos and hear our stories. Too bad, but understandable.
I had read in the Lonely Planet that we would be dropping down from the high mountains into Kandy, and so assumed that it would be much less green and much warmer there, so when we arrived on the outskirts of the city, I was surprised to see it nestled in sizeable hills, with forests surrounding the lake in the middle. There are a fair number of lovely homes perched on the sides of the hills, but you don’t see the deforestation of the hillsides like you see elsewhere in cities in Asia. The author of the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka describes the trees as forming a halo around the city, and I would have to agree.
Our driver, Manjala followed our instructions as I studied the map in my guidebook and located the Sharon Inn. We hadn’t made a reservation but were able to get a triple room for two nights, though we wanted to stay for four. The guesthouse came so highly recommended, and was so neat and clean that we decided to stay there and look for another place nearby for the additional two nights. I took it as a great sign that guests were requested to remove their shoes at the front entrance.
Sri Lankans do not wear their outdoor shoes in their homes and shops, and I was only too happy to oblige. We are very used to doing this in Canada, especially in the West, so it was not an inconvenience for us at all. We were shown to our room and the manager made such a point of showing us how to lock the balcony door, that it became a real joke between the three of us. I thought that he was worried about our security, as the balcony is shared between three rooms, but instead, he was worried about monkeys getting at our belongings. There are large colonies of monkeys that live in the trees surrounding Kandy and then can be real pests if one is not careful.
After settling into our room, we set off down the steep hill to explore the city. We arrived at the edge of the lake, just opposite the ‘Temple Of The Sacred Tooth’; it houses the most important relic in all of Sri Lanka, a tooth believed to be that of the Buddha himself. It is thought that the tooth was saved from the funeral pyre of the Buddha in 483 BC and then smuggled into Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD. It was first taken to the ancient city of Anuradhapura but with historical upheavals, it moved around the island and even spent some time back in India when it was captured by an invading army.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was built by the Kandy kings between 1687 and 1782; the entire temple complex was part of the Royal Palace. I took many photographs of the temple complex, but we never actually visited it. It was damaged by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 1998 and ever since then, security has been very tight. It is not possible to see the actual tooth, it is kept in a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa) and then only in a room which visitors pass by and peek through a doorway. The room is only open during prayer times and there are throngs of devotees hoping to get a glimpse of the holy relic. I was interested in visiting the complex, but couldn’t convince Anil or Adia to come along. They didn’t like the idea of the crowds and wanted to give it a miss.
We walked around the lake, enjoying the light breezes and the shade of the huge trees that border the lake. Traffic is restricted from circling the lake because of the previous bombing attempt on the temple, so most of the traffic thunders past ‘our’ side of the lake and dampens the enjoyment of the walk to a certain extent. We carried on into the heart of the city and visited a travel agency to get information about visiting the Maldives.
We needed to find a Commerical Bank in order to get some cash from its ATM, so we wandered the streets of downtown Kandy and enjoyed looking into some of the shops along the way. It wasn’t too very different from those we had seen in India and Colombo, but Adia seemed to be enjoying the change of pace. We did manage to find some new polo shirts for Anil so he was happy. He has been threatening to discard some of his old ones, but not until we found suitable replacements.
We ended up near a Cargill’s Food City supermarket and the nearby Devon restaurant where we stopped in for a light lunch. There aren’t too many decent places to eat in Sri Lanka cities, they don’t seem to have a culture of dining out, and most foreigners tend to eat at their hotels or guesthouses. Devon’s was the best place to eat in the city center, but the toilets were an abomination. Perhaps that’s why women prefer to eat at home, and feed their families there, rather than face long periods away from their own facilities.
We decided to walk back to our guesthouse, completing our circumnavigation of the Kandy Lake and climbed the steep lane to the very top where the Sharon Inn is located. It was wonderful to remove our shoes and step onto its pristine floors once again. After our adventure in the city, we decided to take our guidebook’s recommendation and eat dinner at the guesthouse. We were treated to a huge buffet of vegetarian Sri Lanka dishes and sampling them all meant we each ate more than we needed to.
After dinner we took a tuk tuk to the Kandyan Cultural Centre to see some traditional dances of Sri Lanka. The performances were entertaining, but the real treat at the end was a demonstration of fire walking. A huge metal tray more than twelve feet long was ceremoniously carried into the venue and placed on the floor in front of the stage. Members of the audience were invited to gather on the stage and on the steps leading from the stage to the floor of the auditorium. We stayed in our seats in the front row of the balcony, not knowing what was in store for us.
At first, there was a demonstration of fire-breathing to show the extraordinary resistance to the flames the devotees have. Lit torches were passed over the arms and bare chests of the men, whose faces showed no signs of discomfort or pain. The finale was dramatic; the men walked slowing over the glowing coals several times without any apparent ill effects. Once they were done, water was thrown on the tray of coals and the loud hissing told us once again how hot the coals had been.
We were worn out from the long walk and the entertainment so we turned in early. We lowered our mosquito nets, and once again, I had the privilege of tucking my daughter into bed like I used to do when she was a little girl. Anil and I shared a large net over our bed, but she had a smaller one over her single bed and she looked cozy and safe from the mosquitoes. We turned the ceiling fans on and slept well, despite the fact that our room was not air-conditioned.
The next day we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of string hoppers, dal curry, fresh fruit and pots of Ceylon tea. A small bird had made a nest in the light fixture above our heads, and he watched us as we enjoyed our breakfast below. I later learned that he is a pet and that seeds are placed on the windowsills for him to eat once all the guests are fed. I had read that Kandy is a city filled with dozens of bird species, but I never expected to find any of them living inside the homes instead of the forest of trees in which the city nestles.
As if we hadn’t seen enough trees already, we set off to visit the massive Peradeniya Botanical Garden a short tuk tuk ride from Kandy. We ended up spending the entire day there, enjoying the wide variety of trees and plants. I’ve written a separate entry to describe what we saw. The following morning we packed up and moved to the Freedom Lodge, another guesthouse nearby as the Sharon Inn was fully booked and we still had two more nights in Kandy.
We didn’t do much on our third day in Kandy, we returned to the travel agency and after getting all the quotes for a quick trip to the Maldives, we decided that it wasn’t good value for money seeing that we were already in a tropical climate, had spent a week earlier at the beach and were enjoying great food. I could see a package tour from Europe being extremely attractive when faced with cold miserable winter weather, but we weren’t in need of an escape from the mundane and the best deal we could find was over $2500 for four days on one of the more basic islands.
Breakfast at the Freedom Lodge was a real adventure. We asked for Sri Lankan food but were told that it was not available, so we ate a boring meal of fruit, cold white toast with marmalade and tea. All we could think about was the great string hoppers we were missing at the Sharon Inn. There was a little drama during breakfast though, the monkeys that live in the trees above have become very daring and we were given a slingshot with which to scare them off.
Our hostess told us wild tales of the monkeys invading the rooms of careless guests and making off with all their clothes and valuables. At one point, she even grabbed an old cricket bat and shook it at the boldest of the bunch. Anil was really anxious and didn’t relax for a minute during breakfast, he’s had some run-ins with aggressive monkeys while growing up in India, so he was more conscious than we were when they leaped and scampered through the trees above our heads.
After breakfast, Anil and Adia walked up the hill to pick up the laundry that we had left at the Sharon Inn. Now we understood why the manager there had made such a point of showing us how to bolt our balcony door, it wasn’t to keep human invaders out; it was too lock out the monkeys there as well. Anil and Adia came back with the news that the guests who were supposed to take our room had never arrived. Had the manager known, we would not have had to move. Rats! For once, our Kapoor luck had failed us. We sure hoped that this wasn’t the beginning of a trend.
It was time for us to head to Negombo, the town closest to the international airport. Adia was booked to fly back to India where she would stay with Ajay and Neeta for one night and then take her Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo to meet up with Geoff. They have plans to visit Tokyo and Kyoto for two weeks before returning together to Victoria. We hadn’t made reservations to stay in a hotel in Negombo, choosing instead to see the two or three that sounded interesting before deciding where to stay.
We needed our Kapoor luck to hold once again so that our final few nights together would be pleasant ones, filled with memories of good Sri Lankan food, creature comforts, but no unwanted creatures.