Colombo to Kandy
The first thing that we noticed about Sri Lanka as we left the airport was that, compared to India, the volume is cranked up on the cleanliness dial! There was kerb and guttering lining the roads and an absence of rubbish and ‘dust.’ Our smiling driver and guide, Jeewa, nodded, pleased that already we were happy.
Our late flight meant a prudent choice of staying in Negombo near the airport for our first night in Sri Lanka before heading off on our clockwise navigation through the centre of the island. Binnacle Negombo, a cute little hotel owned and run by the lovely Chiran, made us so welcome and we liked it so much, we instantly regretted not being able to stay longer. I was enamoured with the ground floor open plan living area, all cool white and blues, with an inviting pool. The town of Negombo itself reminded me a little of Noosa in Queensland, and it is also growing in B&Bs and boutique hotels at a rapid pace.
Our drive to Kandy was littered with stops for tastes of Sri Lanka, both literal and metaphorical. Our first pause was for fresh cashews – clearly what we purchase in supermarkets have been off the tree for some time, but not these, they were fat and crunchy and full of flavour. Fresh fruit stop was next with Jeewa asking the vendor to crack open some coconuts for us to drink from. The whole vibe of Sri Lanka is a laid back one where nothing is a problem – I was already smitten!
The final diversion was at a spice farm, 99 Kandyan Herb and Spice Centre. We got the full tour of the grounds, as well as lessons and demonstrations on the uses of the many spices grown on site. Very informative, and we loved the talk and tour, but then came the sell…and we bought big! Found out later at dinner in our Kandy accommodation that you can get the same stuff at the markets for a fraction of the cost. Oh well, we’d just done our bit for the Sri Lankan economy! Although I do believe that the stuff available in the markets might just be crap in comparison.
About three or four kilometres out of Kandy, nestled in the hills above the city, lay our B&B, Hanthana House. It was quite a harrowing drive, but luckily we had Jeewa, our skilful driver, to take us there. Pathi and his wife, Sula, were delightful (and her cooking was superb!). He was a guide for 20 odd years before doing this gig, and so had plenty of suggestion for how we could spend our time. We bummed around in the afternoon and had tea and crackers for a snack on the top floor, chillaxing with views of the mountains.
Sula cooked an impressive New Year’s Eve dinner for the guests staying in, and we enjoyed the company of other travellers, comparing stories and swapping recommendations for future activities. The big kitchen on the bottom floor of the house was the perfect spot for breakfasts and dinners; it made guests feel like one of the family to be in the heart of the home.
Research on forums prior to our trip revealed comments about Kandy being a quiet place for celebrating New Year’s Eve. Not sure what was happening in the actual town of Kandy, but in the little hill town of Hanthana there were fireworks, music and parties going on all over the place.
Royal Botanical Gardens
The Royal Botanical Gardens (Peradeniya Botanical Gardens) were only about 6kms from the centre of Kandy, but with the holiday traffic it felt deceptively longer. The entrance fee for non-residents of $15 AUD seemed a bit steep (which we were finding was a common thing in Sri Lanka), but it was totally worth it. We spent a lovely few hours strolling through the 60 hectares of lush gardens, once reserved only for royalty, but now available to all.
The imposing avenue of Royal Palms provided some much appreciated shade in the middle of the day, but we did need to be aware of the possibility of being the victims of toileting bats! Another favourite was the collection of Giant Bamboo from Burma, capable of growing to 40m. The real highlight of the garden experience was the orchid collection; so many varieties with their individual flowers representing the faces of the plant’s personality.
We were diverted from our admiration of the flora by the antics of the fauna – gangs of macaques all over the place were highly entertaining, especially those engaging in some monkey loving as their babies sat and watched!
After leaving the gardens, we popped into the pristinely maintained Kandy War Cemetery. Even though it is a British cemetery, the graves of the fallen were from numerous nations and sections of the armed forces. The gardener was tending while we were there, and was very proud of his work. He asked us to sign the visitors’ book, clearly wanting a record of numbers and reactions to the tiny, but revered, place.
Our driver, Jeewa, suggested a nearby place for lunch called The Honeyspot, and we had for the first time the famous dish of Sri Lanka – ‘rice and curry’. This order traditionally appears on a large serving plate with five different curries, rice and pappadums. Goes perfectly with any of the Sri Lankan beers. We now have a new favourite cuisine!
Gem Museum and Kandy Lake Club
After lunch we visited a gem museum, and I say ‘a’ not ‘the’ because that is basically the name that they give all flash places who cut and polish their own gems. This one was E.W. Balasuriya Jewellers, and they had a 10 minute documentary on the history of the gem trade in Sri Lanka, then a walk through a mock up underground mine, which was quite entertaining. The whole presentation culminates in a visit to the showroom, where their finished products are on display for sale. Shame we weren’t buying, because they had some beautiful stuff. And we also had to leave to get to the cultural performance on time.
The venue for our cultural performance was Kandy Lake Club, which was literally around a bend in the road from the gem museum (getting there on time was not such an issue). Had a blast watching this hour performance whose dancers demonstrated skills in the full range. There was one rotund dude who was obviously having the best time, but his skills were clearly in his ability to backflip, put fire on his skin and walk on hot coals, not in crisp, on the beat choreography.
We needed a very early start to our day to beat the crowds at one of the most awesome feats of engineering and imagination in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is also of much historical, religious and cultural importance. On the top of this rock are the remains of a palace fortress built in the time of King Kasyapa, with his new capital city on the ground below.
We got to the honking big rock just after opening time, and were very glad – it was a full on climb, so we got it done in the morning before the heat got too intense. The sides of the rock were once decorated by colourful frescos, and on a small plateau half way up, there was a gateway built in the form of a gigantic lion.
Have no idea how they would’ve managed the build or how many lives would’ve been lost falling off the edge of the rock. But it would’ve been a magnificent and wonderful thing, this palace. Now, only the macaques and lizards inhabit here. It was a bloody big climb, and a massage would be in order to prevent much pain the next day.
Dambulla Temple Caves
By the time we finished at Sigiriya, it had started to warm up, so while the caves were no where near the effort of climbing the Lion Rock, we still felt the heat. Also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, this cave complex filled with paintings and statues of Buddha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, and while there are 80 of them throughout the surrounding area, the 5 open to the public are magnificent.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
At the time of our visit, there was a religious festival on which made the Temple of the Tooth very crowded, but also very beautiful in the colourful decorations and flowers, that were a striking contrast to the white clothing people wore to make their offerings. Devotees filed through the temple to see the golden casket where the holy relic is kept, but you are not allowed to see the actual tooth. Belief is a powerful thing!
Hoppers in Kandy
On our way back to Hanthana House, we stopped off for some hoppers at a local joint with Jeewa – he shouted, the sweetie, wanting us to have a truly Sri Lankan dining experience. So he gave us a lesson in how to eat both the egg and plain hoppers. The egg hoppers are made in a round, bowled pan with egg cooked into pancakes made with fermented rice flour and coconut batter, topped with curry and sambal. They are delicious! When a young German backpacker couple asked what we were eating, they thought they were gold – cheap as chips and filling. I cannot wait to see what Sri Lankan delights await us on our next stop in Ella.
Our Sri Lankan journey continues with Ella…
Tour Company: JF Tours & Travels