Travelling south to Kandy from our cultural triangle base in Habarana offered the opportunity to see a couple more of Sri Lanka’s top sights – Sigiriya rock and the Dambulla Cave Temples – as well as finding out more about the local food flavours at a spice garden.
Sigiriya is an impressive sight that can be seen for miles around. Looking at its near vertical sides and almost 200m height, it’s hard to believe an ancient kingdom was built at the top. It was Sri Lanka’s capital for a while, though didn’t last long compared to the other ancient cities we’d visited.
You can climb up to the top but it’s a 2.5 hour round trip on steep and often very busy steps, so we decided to just admire it from ground level. Just as well as we needed quite a lot of energy for the Dambulla caves.
Logically you might think caves would mean going underground, but these were carved into a rock face 160m above ground level. Our driver dropped us at the entrance where there’s an extremely kitsch Golden Temple, but the nearby ticket office for the caves was closed.
I asked a policewoman and she said “go up to the top and then it’s down some steps”. What she didn’t say was that it was almost back to the bottom! The path and steps down didn’t look as good as the ones we’d come up on, so luckily for me my friend offered to go down while I waited with the bags. She was gone a while. It was such a ridiculous arrangement that on the way out we tried to see if there was another entrance that went to the ticket office first. We didn’t spot it but I’d definitely recommend trying to find it if you go.
Anyway that aside, the series of five caves are well worth a visit. It’s best to walk to the furthest one first, Cave 5, and work your way back as they get bigger and better, with Cave 2 being the most impressive. It’s 52m by 23m and filled with fabulous murals and statues including large reclining and standing Buddhas.
Also on the road to Kandy is Matale, a city that is set in a very fertile valley, so about 10 miles before you reach it you start to see the spice gardens. This is where a huge range of herbs, spices and plants are grown before being added to Sri Lankan food and also a bewildering assortment of health products.
We stopped off at Euphoria Spice where we were given a really informative tour of the garden and told about all sorts of conditions that could be helped by the plants being grown, including migraines, digestive issues, high cholesterol and sleeplessness.
Surprisingly there was very little pressure to buy anything, we actually had to ask to see the shop. There was a restaurant where a couple were doing a cooking class, but you needed to book ahead to eat there, so our driver took us to another more commercial spice garden further down the road.
Then we got to Kandy itself, which despite being one of Sri Lanka’s bigger cities, is a really nice relaxed place to spend a couple of nights. At its centre is Kandy Lake which being surrounded by hills makes for a very attractive view. Little wonder that we spent quite a bit of time in rooftop restaurants here.
We stayed at Ana Shanthi Villa, a small but beautifully put together guest house on the south side of the lake where many of the accommodation options are. A young Sri Lankan guy called Kalum seemed to run the place and be able to sort out anything we needed including our own personal tuk tuk driver.
The driver took us to the Ceylon Tea Museum which is a few miles out of town in an old tea factory. It’s a great little place with old pieces of original equipment and a model that shows how it all worked together.
One of the staff takes you on a short tour and explains the tea making process after which you’re taken to the top floor to try some tea and explore the place at your leisure. We were fascinated to learn that Sri Lanka’s tea industry was started by a 17 year old Scottish guy called James Taylor.
The other big sight to see in Kandy is Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It’s a large and impressive complex surrounded by a moat and with multiple buildings, as well as the main shrine where the Buddha’s tooth relic is kept in a dagoba shaped casket. The main shrine is on two floors with the casket room on the upper level. Below it lots of white clothed worshipers sat cross legged in front of the ornately decorated building that was strewn with Buddha flags.
Behind the temple is a larger shrine hall on three floors with lots of donated Buddhas and a museum that’s filled with gifts. There are some interesting old letters and diary entries from when the country was a British colony.
Also in the complex is the World Buddhism Museum and a 19th century Audience Hall, which is an open-air pavilion where the Kandyan kings would have held their court. According to my guide book the pillars are stone and made to look like wood, but my friend’s book said they were wood and we decided we believed that one! Next to that is the Rajah Tusker Hall with the stuffed remains of the elephant Rajah, who died in 1988.
Outside the temple complex but very nearby are three devales which are essentially small shrines for Buddhist worship. Natha Devale dates back to the 14th century while Vishnu Devale is names after the Hindu god and shows how the two religions combined. Rather incongruously they are right alongside a large church, built by the English for the garrison soldiers who were based in Kandy.
Just around the corner from here we had lunch in the Olde Empire Cafe which has been recently renovated and was really nice. As it was lunchtime we didn’t mind when we realised it was one of the many restaurants in Kandy that doesn’t serve alcohol – had it been the evening we might have! A couple of doors down is Selyn, a shop selling really nice fair trade clothes,textiles and jewellery.
Continuing along by the lake you come to the main shopping area and we were surprised to find a very modern shopping mall. There were lots of electronic shops on the first level as well as an Odel which seems a popular Sri Lankan brand for both clothes and souvenirs, we found two branches close together in Kandy.
Next we hopped in a tuk tuk to head to another place we didn’t want to miss in Kandy – Helga’s Folly. It’s a completely over the top hotel/gallery that is run by the eccentric Helga da Silva. Not sure I’d want to stay there, but it’s definitely a good place to explore and have a drink while listing to a few tunes from the 1950s.
Talking of good places to drink, as mentioned earlier many places in Kandy don’t serve alcohol, but we went to eat at two that do. Slightly Chilled is a rooftop bar/ restaurant that has both Chinese and Western food, while the Sharon Inn is a small hotel with a rooftop restaurant that serves up a Sri Lankan curry and rice buffet. We had plenty of similar meals on our trip which often involved 6 or 8 dishes, but this one offered about 15 and they were delicious. Its popular so best to book.
Before going there we also managed to fit in seeing a performance of Kanydan dancing, famed for elaborate costumes, rhythmic dancing and drumming. There are a few places to watch a show in Kandy and we went for the smallest and least touristy at the YMBA – the Young Men’s Buddhist Association – but it was still pretty busy. Need to get there early for a seat at the front.
There were about 10 difference dances in an hour, each one telling a story that involved all sorts of demons, goddesses, birds and village damsels. Its clearly done for the tourists but nonetheless impressive to watch. The fire walking was the finale but unfortunately when we went outside it was tipping down – the first and possibly only rain we saw in Sri Lanka.
Back at the Sharon Inn and something else that may have been for the tourists or possibly just for himself, was when the owner’s husband whipped out his guitar while we waited for a tuk tuk in the reception area and serenaded us with Hey Jude. Slightly surreal but a brilliant way to end a really fun couple of days in Kandy.
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos the gallery and visit my YouTube channel if you’d like to see more dancing. Also visit the Sri Lanka section of my blog now and in the near future for more posts about my trip there.