36 Hours in Kandy – Sri Lanka

The train ride…

After Ella my next stop was Kandy, which was to be my first stage in the cultural triangle. I boarded the train for the long seven hour train journey dubbed “The most beautiful train journey in the world”. Having only booked my ticket thirty minutes before my train was to depart I felt rather pleased with myself that for less than a pound I had managed to secure myself a reserved seat in the second class carriage. Feeling even more pleased with myself I discovered that my carriage was half empty, surprisingly clean and in pretty good nick. With the windows open I was able to pop my head out and enjoy the stunning landscape of tea plantations and lush hills as we weaved through the valleys. At the various stops, street food sellers would hop on board making their way up and down the carriages. After a while the waft of tasty treats got the better of me and I treated myself to a very inexpensive rather spicy but yummy samosa, which in turn led to my drinking rather a lot of water meaning that before too long it was time to find the rest room.

After my first early ‘comfort’ break I vowed not to drink any more water and instead risk dehydration rather than tackle the hole in the floor experience again which required a hand on either wall, a finger over the dubious looking lock and the head tilted back at a slight angle so ones sunglasses didn’t slip straight off falling between ones legs whilst squatting as low as possible to make sure you aimed straight and hit the target! Once was definitely enough, especially as hour after hour passed and the toilet was more frequently used by those ones whose aim couldn’t possibly have been straight, I could only imagine the floor would by now as slippery as an ice rink. As dehydration did kick in and my lips became drier and drier I whacked on the lip balm and closed my eyes and thought of a happier place and one that didn’t involve running water!

The vertical climb…

I arrived in Kandy absolutely crossing my legs. Heaving my heavy backpack on to my back I quickly decided that my backpacker legs would be saved and I was going to grab the first tuk-tuk I could. As luck would have it tuk-tuks in Kandy were ten a penny and the second I was out of the train station gates I was literally swarmed by drivers like a can of coke by wasps. A quick bit of bartering and I negotiated a fair rate to be taken to my accommodation “J Hostel Kandy”.

All of five minutes later my driver pulled up at the bottom of a steep narrow hill and smiling broadly announced that we had arrived. I looked up at the hill, down at my phone which was displaying Google Maps and then back at the driver and told him that no we quite clearly had not arrived as my hostel was somewhere up that hill. He then went on to explain in broken English and hand signals that the hill was far too steep for his precious motor and it would cost far too much in fuel to get up the hill. On seeing another tuk-tuk courageously go past us and tackle the climb I gave my driver a look, and he simply returned it with a shrug of the shoulders. Having tried this argument before in Ella, I knew I was fighting a battle I couldn’t win. Feeling a little bit robbed I begrudgingly shoved a note into his hand and once again heaved my backpack back on to begin the long trudge ahead.

As I started the climb up the narrow street I discovered after all of five steps that it wasn’t just steep it was damn near vertical. Despite sitting on my derrière all day long this was absolutely the last thing I had the energy for, it literally was a case of three steps forward and one step back. It wasn’t even remotely funny. It was so vertical that you couldn’t even stop for a breather or you actually would have tumbled over backwards… and please remember that I am still desperately crossing my legs.

The Hostel…

What felt like hours later, although in reality was probably all of ten minutes, I arrived at an open gateway with an old sign for “J Hostel”. Looking through the gate I could have cried out loud as I saw countless narrow perpendicular steps rise up before me. As I tackled the next hurdle it struck me how health and safety had clearly gone out of the window as the concrete steps were crumbling away and as the stairs bent round the corner there was nothing to stop you from quite literally falling to your death!

Despite lacking practically any English my host appeared to be very pleasant, but as I looked around me I felt that my bargain at £4.00 a night may not have been quite such a bargain. What I craved more than anything right now was my own space and a clean, light spacious room. What in fact I was presented with was something quite the opposite; an eight bedroom female dorm with four narrow creaky metal bunk beds, only three power outlets for us all to share, one of which sparked the second I attempted to put my phone charger in; so make that two. The bathroom was so dark and dingy that even with the light on you needed a torch and I highly doubted the cleanliness of it making me doubt for the first time in two weeks whether I might just get away without a shower even after my sweaty vertical climb. Now maybe I was just being precious and proving that I really wasn’t a backpacker at heart but for the first time since I set off on my travels my new digs actually made me feel a little homesick.

As I sat down on what was to be my bed for the next two nights two Welsh girls bowled into the room swearing and moaning about the torturous hill. As it turned out they too had been on the same train as me from Ella, but hats off to them for they were made of sturdier stuff and they’d walked the whole way from the train station. As they only had one night in Kandy they were heading straight out to see The Temple of the Tooth Relic and they invited me to join them.

The Temple and the storm…

Kandy is a major city located in the Central Province and is the capital of this region. In 1988 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is home to The Temple of Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa), one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist World. Found on the north side of the central Kandy Lake it took us approximately fifteen minutes to walk there from our hostel. To enter this sacred site you will be charged 1600-RS (£7.50), it’ll cost you even more if you aren’t dressed appropriately and you need to buy a pretty sarong from one of the conveniently placed nearby street vendors. Dress code here is really strict, so don’t risk chancing it and think you’ll get away with it. I donned a long blue sarong over the top of my knee-length shorts and even then the female guards inspected me to make sure that my makeshift skirt wouldn’t suddenly flash an unholy knee as I walked on by.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Once inside the temple grounds we had to leave our flip-flops with the “carer of the shoes” and continue our explorations barefoot. As we entered the temple itself I spared the sky a second look as it turned an ominous shade of steel grey. Although a popular tourist destination we appeared to be one of only a handful of tourists about and we stood out like a sore thumb in our colourful clothes against the locals who all wore clean religious white clothes. It seemed that the locals were waiting patiently to see one of the last religious rituals of the day and the monks dressed in the recognisable orange robes wandered around making sure all was in place. Ambling through the temple rooms silently appreciating the architecture, art and aesthetics of this sacred temple I soon felt that I was intruding on the locals’ special place as they sat around huddled in groups or knelt openly praying. Making my escape through a side door I entered into the temple’s manicured gardens.

Within minutes of venturing outside large raindrops started to descend. Having spent time in the tropics before I unfortunately knew that a few drops of rain would soon turn into a rather inconvenient monsoon. The next half hour of my life was spent dashing from one temple building to another, doing my best to keep my knees from making an inappropriate appearance from behind my sarong whilst trying not to slip barefoot, arse over tit on the precariously slippery tiles.

Eventually the three of us girls found ourselves back in the main temple mid ‘Tevava’ ceremony. Silently we stood there drip drying, whilst trying to fathom out exactly what was going on. Now not to undermine the importance of this obviously extremely sacred ritual but I had absolutely no clue as to what was going on. What I did gather was that relatively solemn looking monks would pass through an elaborate gold chamber door every once in a while, whilst a rather deafening amount of “musical” noise was being made. But what I read later was…

“The casket containing the Tooth Relic placed within the chamber is made visible to the worshiper. At a determined time two monks and two or three servicemen enter the shrine bringing with them the triple robe, flame, cowries, bell, sandalwood casket, camphor flower spray, tooth picks, water vessel, towel, beetle tray, spittoon and flower basket. They are offered to the casket symbolically as if attending to the needs of the Buddha.”

Deciding that it was time to leave and that it was unquestionably time to feed ourselves we ventured back out into the storm. There was quite simply no way round it; we were in for a serious soaking. Scampering across the court-yard to the “carer of the shoes” we received our flip-flops in return for some rupees and spinning on our heels set of at pace across the temple memorial grounds as fast as we dared across the now heavily puddled path. Stepping out the temple gates barefoot we went straight into ankle-deep flood water. The streets had turned to rivers with the extreme deluge that had fallen upon Kandy. The whole experience was nothing short of comical. Not wanting to stand still for a second we caught sight of “The Empire Cafe” and hurried through the waters to seek shelter and food. Apart from the intermittent power cuts due to the storm and the lingering question of “will they be able to cook our food?!” we did eventually receive a very tasty meal.

Walking Kandy…

The next morning after a surprisingly good night sleep in the narrow creaky bunk bed I set off for a walk around Kandy. After last night’s storm the sun once again shone brightly and Kandy was in for a stifling hot day. I walked around the quite beautiful manmade Kandy lake wanting to escape the rush hour traffic that was clogging up the roads and polluting the air. It’s a good 3.2km walk around the lake where you are mostly sheltered by the trees. The lake is home to an interesting assortment of ducks and many fish can be seen close to the edge. An elderly man I met on my walk said to look out for the poisonous water snakes in the lake and it was only a hundred meters or so on from this that I saw one swimming close to the banks of the lake. As you walk the lake you can see the tall white Buddha statue Bahiravokanda Vihara keeping watch over the city from up in the Kandy hilltops. 

From the lake I wanted to reach the white Buddha but first I needed to navigate my way. It’s approximately a 2km walk from the west end of the lake. I wiggled in and out of the streets to get a feel for the vibe of the place. It was intriguing to see the locals going about their daily lives, making deliveries and collecting their groceries.

Near the police station and a girls’ college I headed up a side street away from the main town and started heading up hill indicating I was on the correct route. At various stages of this rather windy up hill road there are splendid views across the Kandy hilltops. Once you reach the Bahiravokanda Vihara statue it doesn’t appear as big as you might imagine it to be from a distance and in hindsight I think I should have just appreciated it’s grandeur from a distance. On the plus, I had more than had my daily exercise quota!

Kandy hilltop Views

Kandy hilltop Views

The Botanical Garden…

More than ready to escape the hustle, bustle and grime of the city I hopped in a green tuk-tuk and we fled the city in search of the tropical botanical gardens. I craved some space, peace and timeout before the evening drew in. Arriving at the gardens at a side entrance I entered the park over a narrow pedestrian suspension bridge that crossed the swollen brown Mahaweli River, immediately taking you into tranquility. The Botanical Gardens cover an impressive 147 acres and attract 2 million visitors annually. The gardens are very beautiful, well manicured but with just the right amount of ruggedness to them dependant on what area you are exploring. Within a few minutes I heard a commotion up ahead of me and then I caught sight of a troop of monkeys causing chaos with an upturned bin. I stood within a few meters of them for ages watching them in fascination as they hopped about over the bin, pulling out the rubbish in search for scraps of food whilst others swayed from branch to branch up above with their tiny babies hanging on tightly, whilst another tribe scuttled across the top of nearby gazebo clearly chasing each other.

Monkeys in the Botanical Garden

Monkeys in the Botanical Garden

Satisfied with my monkey fix I wandered on throughout the gardens taking in the flora around me. There were few tourists about but the place was full of Sri Lankan’s; loved up young couples parked up on the garden benches enjoying each others company away from their families prying eyes. I observed an Indian Blackbird hopping around the bright green grass successfully plucking at small grubs from the soft soil as I wandered down the main avenue of impressive palm trees. I thoroughly appreciated my few hours in the garden but I recognised the warning sign of the loud rumbles of thunder circulating above me and the shade of grey the sky had turned to know that it was time to leave. By the time I reached the line of waiting tuk-tuks at the main entrance the first large raindrops had started to fall making it difficult to negotiate a fair price for my ride. Seconds later the monsoon commenced with full force, but thankfully I had the relative safety and semi dryness of the tuk-tuk as I journeyed back to my Hostel.

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