This holiday is moving too fast. I cannot believe that we have already finished traversing and exploring the golden triangle of cultural cities and will now be heading to the cultural capital of Sri Lanka – Kandy. As our good friend Murphy would have it, the morning we check out of Heritance Kandalama there is not a cloud in the sky, it is gorgeous and sunny and we finally get to see the Sigiriya Rock in the distance. A befitting goodbye from the heart of the rainforest…
The drive towards Kandy is beautiful – there is more traffic on the roads – signs that we are approaching a city perhaps? You can tell that we are driving through spiceland, because there are various spice gardens en route, and plantations of coconut trees and other shrubs and bushes bearing brightly coloured berries lining the roads. Our first stop of the day is in the spice town of Matale, at the Sri Lankan Spice Garden.
Here we meet a guide who certainly knows his spices, and is a little over zealous in getting us to try all the various concoctions of creams and lotions made from the spices at this garden, sat in little white pots and bottles on wooden footstools in the hot sun. The diva in me cannot help but wonder just how long some of these creams and oils had sat around in the sun, and I cannot help but wince as Mister Guide slathers a generous helping of “beauty cream” all over my arm…
Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how some of these spices that we so often chuck into our cooking pots without giving so much as a second thought to are grown. Did you know that Nutmeg comes from a fruit off a tree and is bright red before it matures and becomes the brown nut that we know, and that cardamoms grow in little clusters on tiny shrubs? I didn’t and ambling round this garden was a revelation of sorts, the result of which is I now enjoy tossing these spices into my cooking! This garden had cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, cocoa, nutmeg, aloe vera, rubber and even cocaine…which we were told was grown under licence for medicinal purposes. Once the tour was over, we were offered some vanilla spice tea and a complimentary massage, and given that I had no desire to take my shirt off for a bunch of strangers, decided to forego this and watch M have one instead!
While M had his massage, the guide showed me a file full of letters from tourists commending their products and particularly their red oil which apparently heals any sort of body ache. Whether it works or not, or whether this file is as well thought out sales gimmick, we felt compelled to purchase a bottle from the shop (pricey at LKR 2000 for 250ml) because this pit stop didn’t cost anything in terms of entry fee and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. We also gave the guide and his sidekick a tip.
40 minutes later, we drove into the town of Kandy amidst rolling green hills, and checked into our hotel for the next 2 nights of this leg of the trip – the Earls Regency, Kandy. I won’t bore you with the details of the room, but I will say that for the price we paid the rooms were dated and in desperate need of a facelift. This is supposedly the best hotel in Kandy, and for the quality we got, I shudder to think what the rest of the hotels have to offer. The saving grace was the gorgeous view of the green hills right outside our room, and of course, the breakfast service.
We had a few hours before our next tour, and given that the sun was out we decided to indulge in a spot of sun bathing and a pina colada by the pool. Now, just as I must eat chips by a pool, I must also drink pina colada’s by a pool…but it happened to be Christmas day, and as co-incidence would have it, a “Poya Day” – or full moon day which meant that no establishment in Sri Lanka would serve you alcohol. So alas, the pina colada became a Perrier with lime, and the witch sticking pins in her voodoo dolls went back to business because as soon as we settled to enjoy some down time, the clouds rolled up and the heavens opened up again relegating us to our not so great room for the rest of the afternoon.
Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and probably the only place you will get to see cultural dances. So at promptly 4.30 pm Ravi picked us up to drive to the Kandyan Cultural Centre next to Lake Kandy, and being the superstar that he was, got us second row seats. The entrance fee is LKR 500 per person, and the hall akin to a very run down school hall with a dusty maroon curtain and wooden school chairs lined in a row. Luckily its environs – Lake Kandy and the rolling hills with its myriad of lit up Buddha images is stunning and redeems the not so great ambience of the hall. A sheet of paper listing the various dances with brief descriptions is handed out as you walk into the hall, and you can tell that tour guides have been busy reserving seats because there are wooden planks across seats which are quickly removed once the groups walk in.
The dancers glide swiftly across the stage and the show lasts about 45 minutes. There are 8 dances aptly named after the movements by the dancers – the garuda dance, peacock dance, cobra dance, ves dance, guru dance and then the blowing of the conch before singing the Sri Lankan National Anthem before the grand finale – the fire dance where the dancers walk over hot coal. I must tell you about a woman who sat down beside me gushing and declaring vehemently that she loved culture, but then stormed out at the end terming the walking over coal “utterly stupid”…I hate to burst her bubble and remind her that this is cultural…
Truth be told though, the dances are lukewarm and given that we have seen stunning dances in South East Asia where the dancers do capture your attention and you are truly mesmerised, these dances do leave a lot to be desired and we could easily have given them a miss. In hindsight, I wouldn’t blame the lady for walking out less than impressed.
Once the show is over, the guides usher their flock towards the Temple of the Tooth Relic set about 200 metres from the Cultural Centre, where we are about to witness pandemonium. Walking through the security check, we make our way to the temple amidst the sound of traditional musical instruments played from within.
This temple was the former Royal Palace of Kandy and has a majestic setting to it, perched next to Lake Kandy (which was apparently built by the King of Kandy for his queen). It is home to a tooth of the Lord Buddha, said to have been rescued from his funeral pyre and brought to Kandy.
We had to buy a ticket to enter – LKR 1000 per person, and deposit our shoes at the foreigners shoe area but the ticket includes entrance to a museum that has a beautiful pictoral history of how the tooth came to Kandy, and several incredible Buddha images.
The temple has two levels, with the tooth relic placed in a chamber on the second level. You don’t see the actual tooth as it is enshrined in several caskets with the outermost being in the shape of a stupa encrusted with jewels and draped with jewellery. Access is, of course, restricted into this room and the casket may be viewed from a window of the chamber which is opened three times a day for worship with the time between 7 pm and 8 pm being the most popular with tourists and locals alike.
Drums beat loudly and the monks chant, as the chamber is opened and the line snakes its way past this tiny window, and it certainly is the experience of a lifetime watching the locals try and worship and deposit their offerings and the tourists try and get as many pictures as possible, before a guard shooes them away to make room for more worshippers. You literally have 2 seconds to get a peek and try and click as best a picture as you can before you are shepherded away. In hindsight, I would have given the cultural dances a miss and come to the temple at a quieter time and possibly had the time to revel in this sacred place where karmic debt is said to be released, and enjoyed some quiet time at Lake Kandy. Sigh. Maybe in another lifetime.
The Stupa Chamber containing the Tooth Relic
There are many other interesting nooks and crannies to be explored in the temple, which we ambled through before heading to the Slightly Chilled Bamboo Lounge for some really delicious Chinese food – a nice change from all the Rice and Curry dishes we had eaten in Dambulla. We indulged in “devilled” dishes here – the Sri Lankan version of bits of meat or fish stir fried in hot sauce with peppers and served with rice or on a bun. Quite nice, I must say!
Our final day in Kandy dawned clear and sunny, thank the good Lord (I am sure you are now as tired of hearing about me moan about the rain as I was of the rain) and after a very hearty breakfast we made our way to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a 20 minute drive out of Kandy to spend a glorious morning amongst the greenery. We deliberately did not go to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage after reading some lukewarm reviews of the place, and also on learning that the elephants there are not treated too well. M and I adore these gentle giants and we support many causes in the conservation of elephants, and I would have been rather verbose with my disapproval at the mistreatment had we gone there, so we opted to stay away.
Back to Peradeniya – this green paradise is a place where armed with a good book and a thermos of Sri Lankan tea, I could spend a whole day in, revelling in my bubble amidst the greenery and beautiful flowers. The entry fee is quite steep at $10 a head, but this is money well spent because these are probably the most fantastic botanical gardens you will ever go to, and their orchid house with over 500 varieties of orchids alone is worth that price.
I have never been so bowled over by greenery…trees the size of skyscrapers, flowers bursting with a rainbow of colours, shrub lined paths and rock gardens and Japanese gardens and huge bamboo gardens….walking through this garden was like a scene from Alice in Wonderland and I half expected a little white rabbit to come running out from a flower border looking at its pocket watch! The gardens are popular with millions of gigantic fruit bats that hang off the trees like coconuts, and also with courting Sri Lankan couples who amble hand in hand, whispering sweet nothings to each other and disappearing behind the trees and bushes to no doubt get, ahem, better acquainted with one another. Giggle.
I shall stop prattling on now in my feeble attempt to try and put into words the beauty of the gardens and let M’s pictures of this stunning place do the talking for me. Needless to say, if you do go to Kandy, make sure these gardens are on your itinerary…