In April 2015 I had the most magical 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, now I’m trying to diarise it both for my memories and your travel reference.
I wrote a post about my first day in Sri Lanka here.
On our second day we woke up super early to catch the train from Colombo to Kandy. We booked this online ahead of time, the tickets are really cheap on trains – but we were in Sri Lanka over their new years’ celebrations, so all the locals were travelling too – so we paid a little extra to a booking agent in order to secure seats. It was still only around R100 each (as opposed to about R50). It’s best to book ahead of time but you can only get the fancy carriages online. In Colombo, there is a special ticket window for tourists in the 1st & 2nd class advance booking office at the east end of Colombo Fort station, it’s all very user friendly. We travelled 2nd class ‘coz 1st class was sold out. But it was perfectly pleasant, clean and spacious.
At the station, wandering around the platforms, a few locals offered us assistance as to which train we needed, and after a while of us nervously staring bemused at the menagerie of people and trains, a young deaf guy took us by the hand (they took us by the hand many times over the next 2 weeks) and guided us all the way to our train and seat. Then he asked for a donation. Dammnit, HUSTLED! We gave him a tip and sat in our seats, bottled water and backpacks in hand.
Most of the rest of our compartment filled up with school-aged kids and a few sweet grey haired grannies, white hair in a neat bun offset by their colourful saris. Sri Lankans are as excited by the train as tourists are. I don’t remember seeing any other tourists on that train trip so you really feel part of the country. After having lived in South Korea, I’m used to being stared at by locals but Sri Lankans are far more polite/shy and do not make you feel alien at all. Mostly just avoiding eye contact and allowing you to just carry on.
Through every blackout tunnel all the Sri Lankan girls scream (echoing throughout the train) and all the boys make ghost noises. It’s really quite charming and joyful. One of the grannies and I exchanged a grin and head shake at the adorable youth antics, once the daylight had returned to the carriage after a particularly long black out.
We took the train from Colombo to Kandy because 1: it’s an efficient way to travel and 2: it’s so fun and gorgeous as the train ascends out of the tropical heat of the coastal Colombo, up into the cooler mountainous regions, along cliffs and over passes. (Tip: Make sure you get a seat on the right hand side of the train, that’s where all the views are.) We didn’t have right hand side seats, but everyone leaves their seats to lean out of the doorways and visit friends, so you all get to take a turn leaning out the windows.
Arriving in Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, we had already booked our hotel ahead of time so we hopped in a tuk tuk at the train station and he took us up some twisty, steep cement roads to the venue. We stayed at the Kandyan Crown Hotel (quite a stunning boutique backpackers that’s 4 storeys high because it’s built down the side of a cliff. It’s nice and isolated from the noisy main part of Kandy, and the views are spectacular.)
I had to have some Sri Lankan tea, aka Ceylon tea. As I hadn’t had it properly from a teapot yet. So the owner gave us access to a side balcony, a pot of tea and time to plan the rest of our day (he was very helpful with recommendations and his own tuk tuk driver that we could phone and call whenever we needed him – this worked out cheaper than using random tuk tuks. Transport around Kandy is more expensive than Colombo, you’ll feel like you’re being hustled – but it’s standard – so if you can make a plan with your hotel, like we did – take it!)
Kandy is called the cultural capital of Sri Lanka because it was the last city to fall to colonialism and therefore preserved a lot more of the traditional architecture, temples and traditions. As I said it’s cooler than Colombo due to it’s mountain location, but it’s still hot and humid. Think Durban summer.
Kandy has a huge man-made lake in the centre of the town. It has the small-town feel of a mountain village, but it’s still really noisy, full of traffic jams and people. The highlight of the town is definitely the Temple of the Tooth, which is where Buddha’s tooth is said to be kept. THE Buddha. Apparently, as legend would have it, when Buddha was cremated, there was a tooth left in the cremains and that traveled around India for a few hundred years, then a princess smuggled it into Sri Lanka, hidden in her hair. (Much like drugs into Thailand with silly South Africans.)
We headed into the centre of the town, and asked our TukTuk driver to take us to a restaurant where HE would eat. We didn’t want touristy things. He took us to a small cafe in the corner of a parking lot next to the lake where we ordered ‘food’ with sign language of hand to mouth. We got a plastic bag filled with a rainbow of flavoured and spiced rice with a boiled egg. It was yum. It cost us R7. Then we booked tickets to the Kandyan cultural dance show and wandered around the entire circumference of the lake. Which is basically walking on a pavement with a noisy road to your right and a gorgeous pristine lake on your left. The lake was built by an emperor a few hundred years ago. He filled in rice paddies to create it. A lot of people in the town thought it was a white elephant and objected his campaign. Once the lake was inevitably created, the king had all those who had doubted him empaled on spikes at the bottom of the lake. Ew.
From Kandyan Dancing to the Temple of the tooth, we had filled up with culture (and this was the most ‘touristy’ we ever felt in Sri Lanka. They hustle, beg and bargain with you much more in Kandy than anywhere else, you also have to join the pack of other tourists in the audience of the dancing and accessing the temples. Not ideal but worth experiencing)
Back to the hotel for an early night. Tomorrow is one more day exploring Kandy before catching a tuk tuk all the way up into higher altitudes, past waterfalls into TEA COUNTRY!
More on that, next time.