Kandy Sri Lanka, caught me by surprise. It’s got thousands of years of history, influenced by a complex blend of Buddhist and Hindu religion. It is surrounded by dense green forest and close to rolling tea plantations. The food is delicious and the people warm and friendly (with the least persistent touts I’ve ever seen!).
Take the Train from Colombo to Kandy
Our journey started at Colombo Railway Station. We’d purchased our Rs. 190 tickets a few hours earlier- not thinking much about it except that it was cheap. 190 Sri Lankan rupees is about $1.75 NZ… maybe, upon retrospect, suspiciously cheap. As the train rolled into the station there was a flurry of brutal activity while the normally mild-mannered and friendly Sri Lankans turned into bloodthirsty savages. Because, for NZ$1.75, there is no allocated seating. It’s first in first served, and no limits on how many tickets can be sold.
So you can imagine the scenes as we pushed and fought our way on, only to be foiled by young able-bodied men who threw their bags in the window onto their chosen seats. Apparently, that’s the law of the train jungle; a bag on a seat is as good as a reserved sign at the Oscars. Anyway, we boarded, popped our bags on the rack, and stood in the aisle, armpit to face with the locals (thank goodness I’m tall). And we stood. And stood. And sweated. There was no power to the carriages, so no fans, and the train was delayed leaving with no estimated time of departure. We must have stood there for 30 minutes, long enough to be the sweatiest I have ever been in my life. I was so sweaty, my fingers and toes had turned to prunes. Lightheaded from the heat, suddenly the pitiful ceiling fans came on and the train chugged into life.
I stood and swayed in the carriage and hoped for a seat. A man got off the train an hour later and gave me his seat, which I enjoyed for five minutes until I felt terribly guilty and gave it to an older lady. She and her husband shared the seat and when they got off half an hour later, they saved the seat for me. I sat at the window, enjoying the cool breeze, the refreshing rain, and watching the landscape roll past. From flat squares of brilliant green rice paddies, we progressed through narrow rocky gorges, the jungle encroaching closer to us with every kilometre. Lush green forests of banana palms, jackfruit trees dripping with their heavy fruit, coconut trees laden with their green pods slid past the window. White wading birds walked with high-kneed decorum, while squawks of brightly coloured parrots flitted irreverently overhead. The train lurched and jostled its way up the hills, passing by small white-washed huts with small semi-clothed children playing outside in a way that only country kids can.
Men would weave through the carriages with baskets of deep fried spicy smelling snacks perched on their heads, served for a few rupees in newsprint or book pages.
As an adult, you’re not supposed to randomly wave to strangers. However it is a great eccentricity of trains that if you are holding a child, you suddenly have a licence to wave joyfully at passengers, pointing to the child like you’re doing this for the child, not for the sheer pleasure of waving to strangers on a train… and that the other rule is that you, as a passenger on the train, must wave back with enthusiasm. Trains really are great fun, the best way to travel.
If you were planning to skip this journey or take the cushy blue trains with allocated seating, it’s probably a lot more comfortable… But this was truly a magical journey and I would not change it at all.
We arrived late afternoon and grabbed an auto/ tuk tuk at the train station which took us to our hotel. We had moved on from my normal hotel/ hovel cheap accommodation and were staying at a resort, nice for a change (I always decide I hardly spend time in the room, no need for luxuries, and then end up with dirty rooms swarming with cockroaches, or having no hot water or shower and monkeys that break the door down…. I never learn).
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
We headed into town to visit Temple of the Tooth. This is a temple that houses a portion of an upper-left canine tooth from Lord Buddha. Supposedly taken from his funeral pyre in 313AD, it’s had a long and torturous history, with the holder of the tooth usually also being the leader of the country. It has been located at this temple at this site from 1707. We turned up in the middle of a ceremony and it was a zoo. Worshippers everywhere, loud drums and trumpets, huge crowds. A beautiful space and interesting history but I ended up leaving as fast as I could as I could not handle the crush of people and the noise (I live in India, so it’s not like I’m a novice either!).
Sigiriya, Lion Rock
The next day, we hired a car and driver and drove the two-hours-ish to Sigiriya. This incredible rock fortress is an intersection of art, culture, and history. Basically, King Kasyapa decided this was going to be the capital and so built a city here, around 477-495 CE. There are remains of structures all around the centrepiece, which is a huge 200m high rock. He built the palace on top of this 200m tall rock, and then constructed a huge lion about half way up, which acts as the entrance. He also had the rock decorated with colourful frescoes along the side. The walk takes you through the ruins, up the side of the rock to see the remaining rock paintings, to the Lion paws, and then up to the top. It really is marvellous, espeically when you consider they did not have stairs bolted into the rock wall hundreds of years ago… but you can see ladders carved into the rock. Terrifyingly so.
Sigiriya is a must-do, but there is a caveat. Sri Lanka has the potential to be a hot place. This walk requires a bit of fitness, lots of stairs, in said heat. And finally…. Heights. While the walkways may appear to be solid and stable, I pretty much had a complete meltdown and could not continue. I tried all my usual strategies to overcome the shaky knees and panicked breathing, but I had to give up.
One other thing to note is that tourists are charged Rs. 4000, a LOT more than locals. It’s quite expensive. Is it worth it? Yes. If you can get all the way to the top. My advice is to go early in the morning to avoid the crushing heat.
Dambulla Golden Temple
Not far from Sigiriya, you’ll find the cave complex of Dambulla. Dating back to the first century BCE, there are five caves filled with 153 statues of Buddha, statues of Hindu deities, Sri Lankan Kings and 2100m2 of hand-painted murals. Human skeletons in this area have been dated to be 2700 years old, so it’s suspected these overhanging rocks have housed humans for a very long time indeed.
It’s an interesting place and worth the trip. Once you’ve explored the caves, you head back down the hill in the opposite direction to exit via the giant Golden Buddha statue.
So I only spent a few days here; I am back in August for treks through tea plantations, taking the train to Ella, and more amazing (mis)adventures. I can’t wait.
Currency: Sri Lankan rupee
ATMs: Freely available
Transport: Ubers and Tu Tuk/ Autos everywhere
Recommend: In Kandy, we used P R Tours & Travels to get around. +94 77 8800211 firstname.lastname@example.org. Helpful, friendly, great English, excellent tour advice.