It lies amid hills, surrounded by tea gardens, in the centre of the island. It’s the cultural capital of the country and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1988. It is home the famed tooth relic of the Buddha and Sri Lanka’s most successful cricket bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan. If you have a day or two to spare, then Kandy is for you.
Kandy is a small city. Walking on the streets, it reminds me of other smaller cities that I have visited, especially in Europe. Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Bratislava come to mind, and so does Luang Prabang closer home. Once you have a rough idea on the lay of the land, then everything seems nearby and very walkable. Except, in my case, I was living up on the hill, and being fit hasn’t exactly been part of my vocabulary.
It really depends on how much time you have in Kandy and whereabouts in the city it is that you are staying. While it is theoretically possible to finish seeing all the sites in a day, I suggest you spread it across two days or so. Unlike Colombo, there is a vibe about Kandy that encourages you to take it easy. I was able to visit most of the sites across two days, with ample time to spare.
I had checked into a guesthouse up on the hill, beyond Arthur Point. I could therefore choose to see most of the places around the lake by simply walking down a shortcut that the owner of the guesthouse pointed me to.
Once down, I was able to walk around the lake, pay my respects at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and St Paul’s Church, walk through the streets of the city, enjoy a wholesome meal at the Kandy Muslim Hotel, learn a bit of history and culture at the National Museum and the British Garrison Cemetery and then proceed to watch a traditional Kandyan dance show. And once the sun had set over the city, I ambled across to a popular watering hole simply known as The Pub.
However, there are some sites that require you to move around, either in a car or a tuk-tuk. So, sites like Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue and especially Pilimathalawa Tea Factory, which is outside Kandy, will require wheels.
For me, it was tuk-tuks all the way. I had previously agreed with the tuk-tuk driver who had picked me up from the railway station. He was there on the morning I was ready to hit town, at the appointed time. After discussing and agreeing on rates – all of LKR 2,500 for about six hours, we were off to see some of the sites in and around Kandy. I used him through my stay in Kandy, paying an average of about LKR 200 to 250 for short trips.
In search of the sacred tooth relic at the temple
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic, also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, sits north of the lake, within the palace complex of the former Kandyan kingdom. What gives the temple its unique name is the belief that it holds the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. Originally preserved in the ancient city of Kalinga, it was eventually smuggled by two of his disciples – Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali. Today, while no one really knows where the original tooth relic is housed, the temple has built its reputation and continues to be the focus of Buddhists who strive to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
Marvel at the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue
Seated on top of Bahirawa Kanda hill, barely two kilometers from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, is the tallest statue in Sri Lanka – Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue, keeping a watchful eye on the people of Kandy. Explore the temple complex and you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the Kandy city down below.
Enjoy a traditional Kandyan dance show
Kandyan dance is more of a modern interpretation of a traditional form of dancing known as Kohomba Kankariya. It is performed during festivals, weddings and special occasions that call for a celebration. While it has elements of the original Kohomba Kankariya, what is performed today is a simpler affair. There are three venues where nightly performances are held in Kandy – Kandy Lake Club, Mahanuwara YMBA and Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre.
Meet the neighbourhood at Kandy lake
Kandy lake is in the centre of it all, literally. Whether you are hopping around in a tuk-tuk, heading from one spot to another, checking the views of the city from the view point up on a hill, or simply taking a leisurely evening walk, the lake dominates the town. And why shouldn’t it. It is in the heart of Kandy town. Surprisingly, with a ring road that goes along one side of the lake, it is surprisingly peaceful, offering you respite from the busy street.
Sip a cup of tea at Pilimathalawa Tea Factory
Pilimathalawa Tea Factory is a family run business and has been around since 1974. What followed was a step by step guide on the process of making tea – from the moment the right tea buds are plucked, all the way to the seven stages of tea production, including withering, rolling and sorting. A nod here and a question there made it sound like I knew what she was talking about, which I didn’t. It was only later, when I checked to confirm the authenticity of the tea factory, did I realise the amount of information she had provided.
Go back in time at the Highway Museum
On your way to the tea factory, keep an eye out for the Highway museum. While I couldn’t stop by to see these classic unfortunately, I still managed to grab a few snaps. It is worth your time if you are a lover of anything to do with transportation. It has a collection of construction equipment, some dating back to more than 175 years, including road rollers, steam road rollers, tar boilers, road signs and even a model of the Bogoda wooden bridge.
Pay homage at the British Garrison Cemetery
Entering the British Garrison Cemetery is like entering another world. I don’t mean leaving the world of the living, but a world of calm and quiet. These are mostly graves of British nationals who died between 1917 when the cemetery was established and 1873 when it was closed. After 1873 only relatives of those already buried here could be buried at the British Garrison Cemetery and the last burial was in 1951.
Discover treasures at the National Museum of Kandy
The museum lies within the royal complex, a short walk from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and overlooking the lake In its earlier avatar, when King Wickrama Rajasinhe ruled, it was known as Palle Vahala and housed the king’s concubines. Today, it is a museum that showcases the culture, tradition and history of the Kandyan empire, from its glory days right until they relinquished power to the British. Outside the museum, within its gated walls, is a statue of Sir Henry Ward, former Governor of Ceylon.
Sit at Arthur’s seat
It was named after Arthur C Clarke, perhaps Sri Lanka’s best-known adopted guest. From here, you get panoramic views of the lake and royal complex, the city and further afield the hills. Unless you are fit, it is best to hop into a tuk-tuk.
St Paul’s Church
Within the grounds of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is St Paul’s Church. This red-brick British era church, constructed in the neo-Gothic style, was completed in 1848. It was originally meant to be a garrison church for the British troops based nearby. Today, more than 150 years later, it still occupies pride of place in the heart of Kandy and is a reminder of the city’s colonial, multicultural and multireligious heritage.
The Clock Tower’s tragic origins
In the centre of Kandy city is a clock tower, which, while not as famous as its sibling in Colombo, still has a story to tell. It was built in 1974 by the Ismail family in memory of their son, who unfortunately lost his life years ago in a landslide during in 1947. As a way of remembering his son, and the three other people who lost their lives, the father decided to build the clock tower.
Explore the local market
If you would like to delve into the lives of Sri Lankans going about their everyday lives, a visit to the local market is sure to interest you. There is one, close to the clock tower that mostly sells fruits and vegetables. If you are feeling hungry, there are lots of food stalls too, selling everything, from a plate of rice and dal to freshly cut fruits.
Check in at Bogambara prison
As you weave through the traffic in Kandy, you will keep passing a fortress like structure close to the railway station that asks to be photographed. This is Bogambara prison. It used to be a former maximum-security prison and was the second largest in the country, after Welikada Prison in Colombo. It was finally closed, and its inmates transferred to a \ modern prison complex in 2014, a good 138 years later.
No Name sounds delicious
Among the many things I was looking forward to when travelling is sampling a variety of the local cuisine. Thankfully, this small family run business on a hill in Kandy didn’t disappoint, barring its odd name – No Name Restaurant. The insides are as basic as they can get. Just four small tables inside a room. I knew exactly what I was going to order. A set menu that included rice, two vegetables, papad, sambal and dal, with chicken curry as an extra side dish. Just the meal I had been craving for all these days.