Highlights of Kandy, Sri Lanka

I don’t think anyone comes to Sri Lanka without a stop in Kandy, and for good reason. This busy hill country town is known as the country’s cultural capital, and has plenty to keep you occupied for several days- longer if you make it your base for exploring the area. And explore it you should; the hill country was one of my absolute favorite parts of my 3 months here in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

If you don’t think Sri Lanka is the vacation destination for you because you’re not a fan of beaches and tropical climates, this is why you should come. Misty mountains, cool air, fantastic hiking, and Buddhist history like you’ve never seen anywhere else.

Here are some of my Kandy highlights:

 

Attractions

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

You can’t skip this; this temple is the main reason people visit Kandy. It’s also one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I’ve ever visited, and that’s saying rather a lot. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this temple houses a tooth reportedly taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre. It’s kind of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Mecca; everyone is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetime. It’s so revered, you even see rowdy groups of teenage boys stopping on the sidewalk across the street to bow in prayer before walking on. Worshipers inside are frequently overcome with emotion, so if you’re visiting as a tourist, please be respectful and unobtrusive. As with all temples, you’ll have to cover up- no exposed knees or shoulders.

One of the most popular attractions on the temple grounds is Rajah the Tusker, a moldering old taxidermy elephant with crumbling ears. This small building is always packed with loud children and selfie-stick-wielding tourists, inexplicably needing a photo of themselves with the remains of this poor creature behind a wall of smudged glass. Suffice to say I think you can skip this spectacle.

Other tips for visiting:

  • Wear slip-on shoes as you’ll have to leave them at the shoe minder’s counter next to where you pay the admission fee. There’s no charge for leaving your shoes, but they’ll ask for a tip when you pick them up.
  • The entry fee for foreigners is 1500 rupees ($10 USD). Do try to have exact change as they’re loathe to break 5000 rupee notes and may tell you that they can’t give you all of your change back. Don’t fall for this; someone is just trying to get a 500 rupee tip.
  • Never pose with a Buddha statue for a photo or selfie. This is basically the most offensive thing you could possibly do.
  • Go as early as you can. The place is overrun with schoolkids by midday.

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World Buddhist Museum

This was my favorite museum in all of Sri Lanka, and it’s conveniently located on the same property as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They charge 500 rupees ($3.25 USD) for foreigners, which is a steal. The museum walks you through the spread of Buddhism throughout the world, and it’s fascinating to see how the story of the Buddha is interpreted country by country. I had a great time reminiscing over some of the other famous Buddhist sites I’ve visited, like Shwedagon Paya in Burma and Borobudur in Indonesia. The lighting and signage in this museum is good…by Sri Lankan standards. It’s not the Smithsonian, but nothing here is. I was really bummed that you can’t take photos inside, because there are some really lovely exhibits. There’s a small gift shop to the left of the staircase down which you exit.

 

Kandy Garrison Cemetery

When you’re done with the World Buddhist Museum, exit left and head up the little hill past the National Museum (toward the public restrooms, incidentally, if you need to stop.) There are signs at the bottom of the hill pointing the way to the cemetery. Once you get to the top of the hill behind the public facilities you might think you’re actually on someone’s driveway, but keep going. There will be a small maintenance shed on the left and then you’ll round the corner to the cemetery. It’s small, and many of the inscriptions are worn, but it’s a really neat piece of Kandy history. The young caretaker is an absolute fountain of knowledge; he knows every name, inscription, and cause of death by heart. Let him tell you all about the extremely large man who died of sunstroke while running from an elephant or the baby who died of a snakebite despite the best efforts of the village medicine man.

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St. Paul’s Church

This red brick church dates to the 1840s and is currently undergoing renovations, but is well worth poking around for a few minutes. There are some neat funerary markers for deceased parishioners lining the walls and a gorgeous stained glass window behind the altar. Watch for frolicking monkeys outside. 

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Royal Botanic Gardens

This 147 acre park on the outskirts of Kandy is a really great place to escape the noise and pollution of the city for a few hours. There’s a gorgeous orchid house and some really nice walking trails through the wooded areas. If you’re a botany nerd, welcome to paradise. There are more than 4000 plant species here, and they’ve done a really nice job with signage.

Other tips for visiting:

  • Go on a weekday! 2.2 million people visit the gardens annually and every single one of them showed up on the same Saturday morning I visited. Weekdays are much quieter.
  • Look up! Thousands of huge flying foxes roost in the trees and fly around during the day. If you take the path to the right of Royal Palm Avenue you’ll most likely have it to yourself to appreciate these beauties. (And, if you’re me, imagine that you’re in Jurassic Park and they’re actually huge screeching pterodactyls. Don’t judge.)

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Accommodation

Villa Rosa

I partnered with this gorgeous hilltop hotel for a review, and absolutely loved it. My only minor quibble was the somewhat unreliable Wi-Fi, but the views and the amazing chicken curry more than made up for my inability to upload all of my photos. Wi-Fi was a bit of an issue throughout the hill country for me, so plan your Internet needs accordingly. If you just want to check email and Facebook a few times a day you’ll be fine, but business travelers might have difficulties.

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Transportation

Far and away the best mode of transportation anywhere in the hill country is the train. These creaky, lumbering old locomotives trundle through some of the most beautiful scenery on the island, and nothing beats leaning out the open doors for a blast of cool mountain air in your face. And train travel in Sri Lanka is CHEAP. Check the timetables here and try to coordinate your schedule for a ride in one of the first class observation cars. It won’t cost more than $8 US even for the longest, all-day journeys. There are tour companies who will reserve your tickets for you (for two to three times the going rate) but as I traveled in the off season I never bothered. Turning up at the station an hour before the train was scheduled to depart was always plenty of time to get a first class ticket. Pack some snacks or wait for a man with a big plastic tub of fresh samosas to make his way through the train.

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Scenes from the train on my way from Bandarawela to Kandy, in a $6 first class seat.

So there you have it! Some of my favorite parts of my visit to Kandy. Have you been? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know if I missed any of your favorites.

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Sunset over Kandy’s hills like a ball of fire in the sky.

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Sick in Sri Lanka: Yet Another Time I Almost Died

Posts on this site may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing, but helps to maintain this site and occasionally buy me dodgy generic medicine in foreign countries. 

Know what’s better than being sick and alone in a third world country, ten thousand miles from everyone know you know? Basically anything.

I had big adventuring plans for today, but here I am, still in bed late in the afternoon because I woke up feverish and feeling like I had a ball of razor wire stuck in my throat. No doubt the culprit is all the toxic smoke I inhaled yesterday while taking photos in a gorgeous old cemetery. What kind of moron wanders around a cemetery while they’re burning huge piles of poisonous trash? In my defense, a thunderstorm was rolling in and the sky was ridiculously atmospheric. Well, I never claimed to be smart. But look at these gorgeous photos:

Sick in Sri Lanka

Sick in Sri Lanka

Sick in Sri Lanka

But back to my current predicament.

Did I mention the power has gone out so I’m lying here in the 90 degree heat without so much as a fan? I wonder how long it generally takes a human being to sweat to death. If I’m still alive when the power comes back on, I’ll Google it. 

I muster up the energy to check my trusty Lonely Planet for the location of the nearest reputable medical facility. It appears to be about a 45 minute tuktuk ride away. Through madhouse Colombo traffic in the sweltering heat. That sounds even less appealing than death, so I don’t bother to get up.

Learn From My Mistakes

Here’s how you can be a little smarter on your travels than I generally am:

  • If you’re traveling to a place with a known air quality problem, bring a scarf or bandanna to cover your mouth and nose when necessary. Even if, for some reason, you don’t like poking around old cemeteries.
  • Have a well-stocked first aid kit, especially if you’re traveling alone and you don’t have anyone to go and fetch you supplies. I’d kill for a few throat lozenges right now. From now on I’m just going to assume I’ll be getting the plague at every destination and pack accordingly.
  • Yes, that lovely Airbnb apartment in a leafy suburb looks very appealing, but how far will you be from the nearest medical services in a worst case scenario? This may not be a huge concern in the developed world, but if you’re traveling off the beaten path, you could find yourself a long way from adequate medical facilities.
  • Keep some flexibility in your schedule in case illness does strike and cause you to have to rearrange some plans. Out of 8 days in Colombo, I have two that I purposely left wide open. This would have been more than sufficient if I had only been sick for two days. As it turns out, I’m sick for the rest of my time in Colombo and I end up missing nearly everything on my list. Including the once-a-year Vesak Poya celebrations. I’m still a little bitter about that, to be honest. 
  • Know the generic names for any kinds of prescription medicine you think you might need on the road, but keep in mind that you might not be able to get what you’re used to at home. I desperately want some NyQuil to knock myself out and stop my persistent cough, but discover it was outlawed in Sri Lanka several years ago. I end up dragging myself to a pharmacy and explaining my miserable condition to the pharmacist, who gives me a packet of pills wrapped in white notebook paper with a few handwritten words of instruction. I don’t realize until later that it’s nothing but generic Claritin. Pharmacies are plentiful and very inexpensive here, but you need to know what you’re looking for.
  • Last, and most importantly: don’t be as stubborn as I am. Seek real medical treatment when you need it. Preferably before you find yourself coughing up blood in an Airbnb and deciding you should just pack up your belongings to make it easier for the homeowner when you die. (Spoiler alert: I survived, barely. But I was sick for nearly two weeks and it really put a damper on the first part of my trip. Don’t let that happen to you!)

 

 

Things I Love

A completely random collection of things I love, in no particular order.

 

Tiny details

Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali
Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali

Slow travel

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Luxuriating in an exquisite meal

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Smelling flowers

Exotic flora in Uganda
Exotic flora in Uganda

Listening to a stranger’s stories

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Watching a new city wake up

A chilly November morning in Edinburgh
A chilly November morning in Edinburgh

Bonding with animals

Edgar the affectionate manatee
Edgar the affectionate manatee

Old cemeteries

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Leaving my fingerprints on every corner of the world

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

 

What do you love? Tell me in the comments!