Kandy: Our First Taste of Sri Lanka

WE’RE IN KANDY, sitting in a trishaw as the driver fearlessly snakes through the traffic in the city downtown. The scenario is so familiar for someone like me who grew up in a Southeast Asian capital city, but the driver’s audacious zigzags between buses and cars are a different level of crazy. The trishaw takes a turn, and I see the lake. At this moment, there’s a distinct feeling of being in Sri Lanka.

C and I just got out of the train station where we ended a four-hour train ride from Colombo. The sight of the lake, as well as the relatively cool temperature, are the first things that grab my attention. I’m in a city I don’t know really well for the first time. The trishaw gets snarled up in traffic for a few seconds, allowing me to take in the heart of a bustling area where families and couples take a stroll, tourists meandering with their cameras, and people in general just living the vibrant life of this city. To us, however, it’s our first real taste of the country.

Kandy Lake, which dominates the city center, makes for a perfect stroll especially at early morning or sunset.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic houses a tooth of the Buddha and is located at the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy.
The Queen’s Hotel features British colonial style architecture.

Kandy may be second only to Colombo in terms of importance, but this is Sri Lanka’s cultural capital. Many even say it’s better with its cooler climate due to the hills surrounding it. The downtown area, though, doesn’t give a good first impression, as the road just outside the train station is crowded, and aggressive touts approach you as soon as you get out of the station exit. There’s also pollution that belies Kandy’s prestigious past, but around the lake and away from the city center, the city sheds its grimy veneer to reveal its celebrated aspects. UNESCO perhaps won’t debate that, considering it granted the city a World Heritage status in 1988.

Kandy was the last independent fortress of the Sinhalese kingdoms, having fended off invaders for centuries, long after the Portuguese and the Dutch colonized the coastal towns and much of Sri Lanka. This allowed Kandyans to preserve their culture, visible in old architecture dotted around the city, as well as in the dances and music performed in several venues across town, and especially during the Esala Perahera festival celebrated in July. But undoubtedly, Kandy’s cultural importance is in one treasure that can’t be seen – one of the Buddha’s teeth.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic at the northwestern end of the lake is Kandy’s most popular site. The elegant structure houses a tooth of the Buddha, which is Sri Lanka’s most important religious relic. The tooth itself is hidden away from view and is placed in a casket, but hundreds of pilgrims and tourists make their way inside. We’re not one of them; we decide to ditch the original plan of touring Kandy for a day, and instead go to one of the country’s ancient cities.

The Kandy Railway Station is a major station in the country and links the city to many destinations, including Colombo and several towns in the Hill Country,
Bus drivers gather around the Kandy bus station.
The Kandy Clock Tower, built by Haji Mohamed Ismail in 1950 for his son who died in an accident, features design elements inspired by the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

A few minutes later and we arrive in Hipsters Hideout Lounge, a nice little place off the main road northeast of the lake. There’s a tranquil vibe here, and an overall look of a backpacker jaunt with a billiards pool in the middle of the lobby, and some scribbles from previous travelers who burned their butts here. C and I check in, and then place our bags in our room. We then go out and walk along the lake, passing by the Temple of the Tooth. We take a few pictures of the temple’s outer surroundings then press our way to the clock tower.

Kandy would fall under British forces in the 19th century, and the city would eventually become a vital hub of Britain’s trade. The British would construct buildings, roads, and a railway that was meant to facilitate transport of tea between the hill towns and Colombo, which was now the capital of Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s former name). Long after the country gained its independence and a civil war that traumatized the country, much of those Victorian infrastructure still stands today, providing a glimpse of the city’s colonial past.

As we walk past the lake, we see one of these colonial buildings – the Queen Hotel. There’s also the Kandy Clock Tower, which was not really built by the British, but remains a landmark, as all buses make a stop here. Visitors still trying to get a grip of the city’s roads can make the tower a default place to start their journeys within and around the city here. But perhaps the one imported concept that catches our attention most is a KFC branch just across the Queen Hotel. Starving from not having had any proper meal since we left Malaysia, we enter the restaurant to have our brunch. (What? We want to try Sri Lankan-style fried chicken with biryani.)

After our brunch of Sri Lankan-style fried chicken with biryani, we take another walk to the bus station a few meters from the train station, as we head to Sigiriya.

A trishaw zooms past a leafy area in central Kandy.
Numerous payphones can be found in Kandy’s streets, although with the proliferation of wirelss communication technology, it’s unclear whether anyone still uses them.
Kandy’s central market is a bustling area anytime of the day, but has the best buys in the morning.
Rambutans are plenty at the central market.
Mangosteens are sold in abundance and are cheap.

WE ARRIVE BACK IN KANDY at sundown, and the aggressiveness of the city by day has all but disappeared. As the sky turns into a deep shade of blue and the streets bathe in orange lights from the lamps, the spiritual vibe of Kandy becomes more obvious. The area around the lake is more serene, the air is colder, and there are less people walking around.

C and I take this as an opportunity to wander the streets with little less worry before heading off to a cheap restaurant to have a more “authentic” Sri Lankan meal. Then we have some refreshments at the Empire Cafe, a refurbished restaurant of the Olde Empire Cafe just across the Temple of the Tooth. The place’s appearance is all about retro, with vintage posters from India decorating the walls. We stay here until the restaurant is about to close, and then hail a trishaw to take us back to Hipsters Hideout.

Numerous structures cling on to the side of Kandy’s hill overlooking the lake. At dusk, these buildings light up, providing some sort of a mystical vibe to the surroundings.
The Hipsters Hideout Lounge a few meters away from the lake is a tranquil and affordable place to stay while in Kandy.

We check out of our hostel just before 7:00 the next morning and take another trishaw to the train station, as we plan to catch the first trip to Ella at 9:00. In order to avoid the rush hour traffic, the driver takes us to a slightly longer but more scenic route on a road up one of the hills. This gives us a view of the city from above, and it makes me second-guess our decision of bypassing most of Kandy for other places in Sri Lanka.

We arrive at the train station, quickly purchase our tickets, then head out for an hour of walking around to take as much of Kandy as we can. Looking around the city, you see the dilapidated buses parked at the station, the people doing their business in the market, the construction going on in the middle of the road, and it’s easy to get stressed out with all what’s happening around. But it didn’t take long for me to like this city. I wonder how much more it would have grown into me if we stay a couple more days.

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