Feb 22-23, 2017
We had heard such great things about Sri Lanka’s hill country and especially about Kandy, the supposed cultural capital of the country.
We had no problems catching the two local government buses required to get there, and before we knew it, we began to ascend into the hills and the swerving and windy roads with high speeds became more nauseating the higher we went.
The bus dropped us off just in front of Kandy’s signature site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka’s most revered Buddhist relic, said to contain one of Gautama Buddha’s teeth in a beautiful ornate casket.
We caught an overpriced, yet pimped out tuk tuk (with bucket seats) to our guesthouse just outside the city centre, called the Renuka Inn.
Our room was simple and we had a shared bathroom but it was clean and our cheapest room to date.
We settled in and since it was relatively early in the day, we decided to check out the city.
It was around 10 minutes into our walk that we approached Kandy’s signature artificial lake, Kandy Lake.
It was quite beautiful with lovely flowers around it, ducks swimming in it and a central island with palm trees.
As we got closer to the centre, we passed the Tooth Temple again and were surprised by the sheer number of people, both tourist and locals, walking around its grounds.
We walked around Kandy’s chaotic streets. Since we were killing time we wandered through a pretty modern shopping mall but had no desire to buy anything.
We stopped for a quick bite then thought that we could visit the temple during its evening puja time, or when offerings were being made and the tooth relic was being shown to the public. This happened three times per day, with the evening being the most popular.
As we approached the gate, yet again, like an asshole, I forgot to bring my sarong, and would have to buy one to be let into the complex.
We decided to go the following night instead and attend a Kandyan dance show that night instead, another one of Kandy’s signature features.
We got there just in time and sat down in some of the few seats available at the Kandy Art Association & Cultural Centre.
It was almost, if not completely, filled to the rafters with tourists, both whities and Asian tour buses.
The show only lasted an hour, but it seemed as though everyone talked through the whole show, and loudly too.
The dances were entertaining, the costumes elaborate and bizarrely effeminate (the men all wore halter-tops and skirts); and it even had some fire and acrobatics.
It would have been far more enjoyable had it not been for everyone talking and entire tour groups going in and out of the show in front of us every few minutes or so.
Just as it was about to end, everyone in the crowd got out of their seats and swarmed the front of the stage and then some of the dancers fire-walked, but of course because everyone except us somehow knew about this, we weren’t able to actually see it.
Then, because it’s 2017, after the show people ran onstage with the drummers and took selfies with them.
So I’d like to recommend the show for the aforementioned talent, costumes and folklore; but I cannot recommend this just due to the terrible crowds and disrespectful tourists (half the people left even before the show was over). Maybe find a different venue.
In utter disbelief to what we had just witnessed, we exited the theatre and got a delicious dinner at the local Kandyan Muslim Hotel (hotel is the word used for restaurant in Sri Lanka).
As we approached the lake, there were literally thousands of crows swarming the skies (apparently returning to their nests at dusk), to the point it looked apocalyptic. Tracy, having already been attacked by a crow in Colombo, wanted nothing more than to get away from these flying black nightmares.
The only thing that could wash away this vile degradation of Sri Lankan culture and crow-terror, was a nice cold Lion Beer.
Sri Lanka has very strict laws on alcohol, and you generally cannot purchase it before 5pm, nor after 11pm, and it can only be bought in licensed establishments.
To buy our sweet elixir, we had to go through an alley, to the basement of a grocery store and purchase it from a man behind a booth. It felt very illicit, but it’s completely legit.
So after our first day in Kandy, we were somewhat underwhelmed and over-crowed. It looked like it would be Lankaland all over again but without the wonder and beauty of Sigiriya. Let’s call this Kandyland.
We were hoping our next day would prove more impressive but we were off to a poor start. We went to the train station to purchase our onward tickets to Nuwara Eliya, deeper in the hill country, but no reservations could be made so we would have to hope for the best the following morning.
The highlight came next when we toured Kandy’s central market.
Generally I could care less about markets, but this one offered a wealth of different wares and provided tons of beautiful photo opportunities.
Many shop owners were proud when I asked them to take a picture of their stalls.
With having already walked around the majority of Kandy, we lounged for an hour or so at a coffee shop and then had a contraband beer (before 5pm, thanks to Tracy soliciting the worker with the words “beer please? don’t worry, secret”) from a tea pot at the wonderful Slightly-Chilled balcony bar and restaurant, before deciding to head into the Temple of the Tooth Relic for the evening Puja display.
Before entering we sauntered through the British cemetery behind the temple.
I remembered to bring my sarong this time, and put it on before approaching the entry gates.
We approached from the side and saw a beautiful view of the temple’s central building, with its tranquil moat surrounding it.
There were both Buddhist and Hindu temples within the complex and there was also a church just beyond its walls, demonstrating that Sri Lankans of different religious are all welcome.
We went around the corner and saw the temple’s giant elephant having a snack.
It was now time to enter the temple and see the tooth, or at least the container holding the tooth.
We went upstairs and there were already scores of worshippers, orange-clad monks, tourists and school children all vying for a glimpse at the sacred shrine.
On the ground floor, some Drummers started playing and it sent everyone into a frenzy.
First the monks were let into the shrine one by one, with a small guilded door closed behind the last one.
They soon exited and Sri Lankan devotees with special passes were then allowed in.
Then everyone else, local and otherwise, was to walk in single file and get a one-second glimpse of the relic on their left hand side. Everyone was pushing because the relic was only exposed for a brief period of time and no one wanted to miss it.
Tracy and I managed to catch a glimpse and I tried to take an incognito photo but I just got the main monks arm. Apparently it could be a crime so Tracy wasn’t too pleased with my attempt, and now my karma is shit.
After the holy pushing and shoving, we would continue to walk around the complex in the dark and it was actually quite beautiful, but once again I struggle to recommend it just because of the crowds.
Apparently, the puja in the morning is much more enjoyable because there are far less people and the complex is far more peaceful and tranquil as you would hope a Buddhist temple to be.
So Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka was actually somewhat of a let down, mostly due to too much hype, an over abundance of tourists, and an under abundance of spectacular things to see and do.