After leaving Colombo behind we spent a few days in Kandy, the capital of the hills. Kandyans pride themselves on being a little different than people from the plains. The women even dress slightly differently as they wear a ruff around the waist of their saris. Like many visitors we stayed in a guest house set back on the slopes of the artificial lake. The Amanda Hills was a multi storey complex which had entrances & exists on two levels due to the topography. With no lift it could be a bugger to carry your suitcases but (as usual) the staff were happy to oblige – even if their eyes did bulge a little when they tried lifting Dawn’s “it’s all my makeup” she’d joke! The floor we stayed on had an attractive shared sitting area for the three rooms located there – plus our own private balcony overlooking the lake – not that you’ll be able to see the lake for much longer. This area has seen a lot of new buildings spring up over the past 12 years, now the views are rapidly disappearing as hotels shoot up like weeds, jostling for the skyline. Unless unbridled development is contained the area will soon have more in common with Honk Kong than Kandy.
It was a good 20-minute walk back into the town centre from the hotel which meant we got plenty of exercise. This was offset by the amount of traffic fumes you’d inhale as you walked along the Southern edge of the lake as this road has become increasingly congested. One thing I did notice was how many more modern cars are on Sri Lankan roads compared to my earlier visits. I only spotted on vintage vehicle this time (an old split windscreen Morris Minor). In the past they’d seemed common.
Our first port of call was the temple of the tooth one of the most important Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, not just spiritually, but temporally. Presidents have a habit of turning up here to receive blessings from the monks as their endorsement is seen as an important political tool. During the civil war the Tamil Tigers attacked and severely damaged it with a truck bomb for the same reason. None of this was evident on the day we visited. Instead it was busy with a stream of ordinary Sri Lankans who’d come to pay their respects to the dental fragment of the enlightened one. When you come from a secular society you don’t always appreciate the part religion pays in many people’s everyday lives. Coming to a temple in India, Sri Lanka or other SE Asian countries readjusts that.
That said, for many years Buddhism was in decline in Sri Lanka due to colonial influences, the introduction of Christianity and corruption & infighting within the Buddhist hierarchy. It took the arrival of an American theosophist, Henry Steel Olcott in 1880 (accompanied by Madam Helena Blavatsky) to herald a revival.
The grounds of the temple contain a fascinating museum dedicated to telling the story of Buddhism around the world. Although it costs extra to get in, it’s well worth a visit. It contains the history of the spread of Buddhism as well as artifacts, histories and photographs from all the different nations. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed and the museum doesn’t seem to have a website, so here’s a link to a Sri Lankan news article which explains more.
After our cultural experience we retreated to the pub – literally! I’d remembered ‘The Pub’ from my previous visits. It’s an upstairs bar on Sri Dalada Veediya which has a lively little balcony overlooking the street. The balcony décor hasn’t changed a bit although the inside has expanded considerably. It’s a great place to sit and sip a cold Lion lager whilst watching the world go by outside. But be aware that it’s a bit like the UK of old – local licensing laws mean they can’t serve alcohol between 2-5pm. Each evening the local birdlife puts on a cacophonous show as they come to roost in the trees outside, whirling & swooping they jostle for position on the braches until finally, they fall quiet, leaving pedestrians below to run the gauntlet as the birds relax their sphincters! It’s times like this that brollies are good for more than just keeping the sun and rain off you…
After slaking our thirsts, we headed for another Kandy institution further down the same road. The Muslim Hotel and restaurant is a fine old two-story colonial era corner building which services delicious and inexpensive local food. If you’re a sensitive soul just off the plane and not used to Asian standards of hygiene or way of doing things, it’s probably not for you. If you are you’ll find good food and friendly staff (if you’re willing to engage with them). We visited twice. On our first visit we shared a vegetable kottu and vegetable rotti, the second time we had a selection of egg and plain roti with curry sauce. Oh, the takeaway samosas are pretty good too…
We’d planned to leave Kandy on the train through the hills as far as Ella but found it impossible to get reservations because the day we were leaving was in the middle of the Tamil harvest festival of Thai Pongal. As I’ve done the trip several times before and Dawn was suffering from a stomach upset we decided not to risk being jammed like sardines on a packed train, so went for plan B by chartering a taxi. Not only would this give us guaranteed space, it also allowed us to stop off and visit places I’d never seen before.
You can read about our trip to Ella by road in part 4.
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