It was 10:00 and with a sweet bread roll, called a tea banis in a bag and all of my other bags, I was standing on the platform at Colombo Fort station, waiting for my train to pull in and then to lead me up in to the hill country to Kandy, the former capital and still the religious capital of the buddhist contingent of Sri Lanka. I bumped into a couple of Australian girls who asked me where I was from, where I was going and how I had found Colombo. They were also kind enough to grab a photo of me before I set off.
Within a matter of seconds of this photo being taken, a station manager came striding down the platform, telling us we should move to where our train was now waiting. We half jogged, in spite of all our belongings and I lost the Aussie girls in the crowd but, all importantly found my carriage and my seat. The train looked like it had been built in the 1990s – a huge leap ahead of what I had anticipated would be the norm on Sri Lankan trains. It had electric doors and, in my first class carriage, even air conditioning! I had paid for the first class ticket the previous day, simply so that I would have huge panoramic windows, as I’d been advised that this route was quite spectacular. The alarm for the doors beeped and it was time for me to find out. We chugged first through the suburbs of Colombo, of which there are many and the views were really quite unspectacular but, once we had started to ascend into the mountains, I was suddenly bombarded with visions of lush plains dotted with palm trees, mountains shrouded in forest canopies, and all this broken up with terracotta painted rural stations, with huge, full flowerbeds. I really started to feel I had got my value for money.
After these stunning views and the interruption of a fair few tunnels carved almost two centuries ago through the mountains, we pulled in to Kandy’s train station and I collected my things to disembark. The station itself is a quiet, tranquil place and stepping outside in to the cacophonous chaos of the main road up to the city’s Goods Shed bus station is something of an assault on the senses. Hundreds of buses fly here and there in front of your face, mixed in with the usual floods of tuk tuks and the occasional ordinary car, while people stand on corners, peddling lottery tickets and fruit and passers by and tourists try to beat a safe path through it all. You definitely know you have arrived in Kandy. After soaking it all up for a moment, I managed to find a reasonably priced tuk tuk to zip me around the lake – the centrepiece of the city – to my hostel.
The Kandy City Hostel is located at the south east corner of Kandy’s lake on Ampitya road. It’s a really great place to stay and meet people. Beds are comfortable and clean, and showers are solar powered and so there is hot water – not something that is particularly common in budget accommodation in Sri Lanka! There’s also a really good breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast and jam, tea and coffee, etc. The lady that runs it is very friendly and knowledgeable and her housekeeper, Anthony, is one of the nicest people you can meet. He constantly tries to help you, be that by advising you on must sees in the area, or calling his friends with tuk tuks to make sure you get the best price for travelling around the city. There’s also a chocolate Labrador there, who is absolutely gorgeous. At this moment though, I simply ditched my stuff and went out to explore the city. First things first though – a man needs his lunch! Walking down the winding road to the lake, I saw what looked like the perfect place – a miniscule curry shack, very much not geared up for tourists. It was getting on bit – something like 2pm, so I wondered if they had any rice and curry left. Sure enough, they did, so I ordered one and the obligatory ginger beer. The price came in at a whopping 210 rupees – around 1.30 Euros. This was what I got for my money:
This was a huge pile of rice, some kind of salad at the bottom left, which I never identified on this trip, but is delicious and surprisingly hot, delicious dhal with lemongrass, mustard seed infused potato curry, seeni onion sambal and a singular piece of fish curry crowning the whole thing. It was terrific and genuinely fiery. I ate the lot (without cutlery, this resulted in me having seriously messy hands!) and drained my ginger beer, before thanking the smiling proprieter and heading out to explore.
Stepping down from the bustling road to the lakeside in Kandy is a genuinely transformative experience. In a matter of moments, the roar of the traffic and the smoke from those dirty diesel bus engines is left behind and you find yourself wrapped up in the tranquility of the still water.
From this corner of the lake, there was a path stretching up on to one of the hills above the city. I decided this would be a good chance to find a better vantage point. The path led steeply away from the lakeside and very quickly there was a hush, and the only sound was the wind in the tree branches all around – and the occasional tuk tuk whining its way up the hill past me. Reaching the top, I decided to stop off at a restaurant for a cold drink. With this view:
With my ginger beer – yes another one – finished, it was time to walk back down to the lakeside and see more of the city. On my way down though, I was stopped in my tracks by a gang of furry mischief makers. A whole family of monkeys were crossing the path, some carrying babies. I stopped to take a couple of snaps, but then quickly darted out of their way, not really wanting to give them the impression I was confronting them.I was later to see the same family of monkeys robbing the fruit traders in the market, which is a hilarious sight!
Back at lake level, I continued around the perimeter, exchanging occasional conversation with locals who were out for a walk, or just reading at the lakeside. Eventually, I came to the red cross hall, where I was accosted about a Kandyan dancing show. I was in two minds about this. The guidebook had told me that these shows are very much tourist traps and prices are quite steep, but at the same time that this may indeed be the only way in which the dances, from all over the island, and carrying with them centuries of tradition, might be preserved in the long term. I decided to buy a ticket to return the following day. After the red cross hall, you come to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a temple which is supposed to contain an original tooth of the buddha himself and, as such, a highly revered place. I was about to walk in and have a tour, when I was stopped by someone who told me to come back a little later, as, for the same price, I could go in to watch the evening “puja” offering ceremony. It seemed like good advice, so I kept on walking and noted the time.
On my way, I spied the iconic roundabout with the British colonial clocktower at the corner and my first sight of a Hindu temple in the country, with its highly detailed gate and the red and white candy cane colour scheme which would become such a mainstay of my time in the north of the country.
With time ticking by, it was time to retrace my steps to the temple of the tooth. Arriving at the gate, I saw a man with a huge rooster sitting on the bench next to him. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. I paid my entrance fee and began to walk in to the gardens of the temple. the first monumental column outside the temple details the case of a Buddhist saint who was put to death at age nine and who didn’t even scream as she was struck with the sword, in order to show to her brother how to accept this awful fate with honour. A sad reminder of the violence that people have done, wrongly, in the name of their faith(s).
I went to the internal gatehouse, showed my ticket and handed over my shoes at the “foreign shoes” counter. After that I was led inside by temple ushers. At first, you are bombarded by the sound of the drums, played by the ceremonial drumming monks, as they begin the puja. The atmosphere is extremely intense, with incense burning throughout the temple, and the noise of the drums echoing through the temple, the only light from hundreds of candles. After a few moments of watching the drummers, temple ushers motioned for me to join a queue on the stairs to go and witness the offering of flowers at a great long temple and then to have a brief look inside the chamber where the tooth relic is kept. Upstairs, the atmosphere was even more electric, with people chanting, placing flowers, oil and other things on to the offering table and everyone patiently waiting to have a look inside at the relic. This, sadly, is where the process became a bit disappointing. People in immaculate white clothing kept being ushered in before the patiently queuing people – a seeming express lane to view the relic. After this happened for the fifth time, I asked a Sri Lankan pilgrim next to me what was happening and why we had been waiting for so long without moving. He explained that wealthy Sri Lankan people were allowed to be fast tracked in to see the relic, rather than having to queue with the little people. The irony was not lost on me, of this happening in a temple to a religion which so specifically chastises the cults of wealth and possessions. So, while the temple was indeed beautiful and the ceremony, for the majority, a deeply, palpably spiritual experience, this information really did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Fortunately, my guide book had given me an excellent idea to remove that bad taste, and that was to try out the Kandyan Muslim Hotel. To say this place looks a bit crappy is a huge understatement. But the food here – and particularly the kottu – is exceptional. This was the first time I’d been here, and indeed the first time I’d ordered kottu, so while I knew what it was, I wasn’t really sure how it would actually work. Kottu is pieces of chopped roti bread, fried on a hot plate with whatever filling you ask for and a variety of fresh vegetables and spices. I asked for the beef and cheese and it was a great choice. Steaming chunks of spiced beef, with melted cheese oozing all over the place, amongst spring onions, chillis and other vegetables. On the side, I had a cup of milky tea. It was excellent, cheap and largely made me forget the odd set up in the temple. With the clock ticking towards 10 I returned to the hostel, where I bumped in to some other guests: Tom, an Australian on his big Asian trip and Grace, a British Sri Lankan girl exploring the country of her father. They were great people and some that I’d spend considerable time with over the coming days. But for now, it was time for bed.
Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get yours, here: