As you descend from the mountains, Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city appears below you like a glittering oasis in the middle of a geological cradle of rocky guardians.
Kandy, Sri Lanka is a hub for industry, commerce and finance as well as being at the epicentre of the bhuddist faith. Many of the major ‘motorways’ converge here so the first impression you get is of a bustling, busy and vibrant city. Due to the close vicinity of the mountains a lot of the residencies and hotels are perched on the slopes of hills and the mountains. Houses here appear much larger and affluent than I have seen elsewhere, though delving around the back streets there are smaller shacks living cheek by jowl with them. Many of the larger houses still bear the style of colonialism from earlier British rule. Because of the the topography the roads snake upwards from the centre in sometimes mind-boggling gradients – think Cornwall on steroids!
Kandy Sri Lanka, the Villa Rosa
Once we join the throng of traffic we move along at a snail’s pace, if you get above 10mph then you’ll be doing well. However, this gave me plenty of time to gaze at and into the various shops and stalls along the way to the hotel. In the majority of cases (apart from the newer more western looking places) the shop fronts are about the size of a garage door which belies the actual size of the store as it stretches back into a long interior packed from floor to ceiling with whatever goods are being sold. Once you pick one that sells whatever you might be looking for the chances are that they will have a hundred different brands whether it be toothpaste or power tools.
My driver Bodhi drove through the centre and up to a tourist view point on the opposite mountainside. From here you could see Kandy in all its glory permeating away from Kandy Central Lake with the King & Queens pleasure garden and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth (A pilgrimage and tourist hotspot).
Arriving at the Villa Rosa http://www.villarosa-kandy.com/Contact.html, aptly named as they’ve painted it a dark rose colour, 8 rooms spread over 2 buildings, I was again embraced by calm and tranquility. Because of its hillside location it wasn’t possible to take a picture of it properly as I would have needed wings to then look back at it but the rooms and general shared areas are quite frankly beautiful and it oozes charm and character, everything a boutique hotel should. Another thing I came to adore about this place is that you can open all the doors and windows in your spacious room at night to sleep. I found it a great sleep tonic to lie listening to the crickets, frogs and other nocturnal animals chirruping, gribbiting and whippling away. Its perfectly safe to do so with the enclosed nature of Villa Rosa, the large all-encompassing mosquito net around your bed and the 2 German shepherd dogs (Brandy & Tonic) on guard. Like the Notary House I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone who wants the feeling of being part of the family while staying in Sri Lanka.
It is owned by a jovial German called Volker Bethke, ably assisted by a welcoming and friendly team headed up by Nilanka, Mahesh, Dillon and Anten. Volker, an economist by trade, had come out to Sri Lanka in 1995. When his wife returned to Germany in 2005 he decided that he didn’t want to re-join the rat race so stayed in Sri Lanka and built Villa Rosa.
A tale he imparts, which I feel is worthy of thought for all of us, was; “When the electrics were being put in it was a struggle to get the workmen to put the plug sockets in at exactly the same level in each room. While I tried to get them to make them uniform they asked me ‘what does it matter from one room to the next when you can’t see through doors to compare – surely it’s more important that they work?’. They had a point. Living and working in Sri Lanka is very much learning to compromise”.
Kandy Sri Lanka, Ayurvedic Medicine
On my first full day I had an easy morning so decided to look further into a treatment that Sri Lankan’s use a lot – Ayurvedic medicine. They still have the normal western medicine and hospitals too, but this works hand in hand with the Ayurvedic treatments which are herbal and holistic. Ayurvedic practitioners must be practised and registered by the state and are looked up to as professionals just as doctors are.
Since being given a prescription by my GP in 2009, to which I had a bad allergic reaction, I have suffered from a skin complaint that flares up about every 6 months particularly when it is hot. Although we’ve tried to treat it, typically it never occurs at a time I can get an appointment with a dermatologist and the topical creams/Piriton that have been tried have proved useless. Of course, being in the heat of Sri Lanka it broke out again, much to my annoyance, which is why I thought I’d try the Ayurvedic route.
I mentioned it to Nilanka and the next thing he was whizzing me off in the hotels tuk-tuk to a local Ayurvedic surgery. Walking in was much like walking into a doctor’s surgery in the UK and they weren’t a bit phased at treating a foreigner. Within 10 minutes I was in with the practitioner who looked at my rash, listened to my chest and did some other general poking and prodding and then declared I had a blood infection and prescribed 4 different types of herbal treatments; 1 tablet, a liquid I had to rub in and 2 herbal infusions I had to drink twice a day (which both tasted foul). The consultation was free and Nilanka took me to a state sanctioned Ayurvedic pharmacy which then dispensed the necessary concoctions. As they were all herbal I didn’t see any harm in trying them, and I have to say within 48 hours the complaint had died down noticeably and has been improving every day ever since. All very impressive and again food for thought. My thinking takes me to the fact that our pharmaceuticals started off coming from natural sources so why wouldn’t something such as herbal treatments prove effective?
Kandy Sri Lanka, Cultural Show and Temple of the Tooth
Driving down to the centre in the afternoon and then walking thereafter, it’s easier once you get used to brazening your way across the traffic clogged roads, I went to the tourist Cultural Show near the Temple of the Tooth.
(Tip: if you suffer from breathing difficulties or asthma I strongly advise you use a face mask such as the Chinese are fond of. With all the traffic, Kandy Si Lanka being in a bowl and the heat, the air gets pretty polluted in the centre).
It was a one hour show that highlighted some of the traditional dance and music of Sri Lanka.
(Another tip here: don’t do what I did – see the cultural show and then the evening ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth – the drums, chanting and horns are loud and went on so long I had a headache by the end, and I like bass rhythms in music).
It was interesting, and a must do on a visit, but I was left wondering afterwards why a bloke would want to spin plates on his face in various ways. Bearing in mind my background with fire I just about managed the finale which involved fire eating/blowing but when they prepared to walk across hot coals I decided that was enough.
Straight afterwards I wandered up to the Temple of the Tooth to watch their evening ceremony which involves them exposing the tooth relic of the Buddha to the queuing public as well as to the Buddhist pilgrims to whom this place is very, very holy. You can’t enter any temple or holy site, including the ancient sites, without being covered up appropriately, removing your hat and shoes (probably why all the locals seem to wear flip flops). Luckily, I had read this beforehand and have easily slip on/slip off shoes rather than my lace up trainers. They are a bit sniffy about you taking photographs inside the temple; discreet distance shots of the architecture are tolerated. You are never supposed to turn your back to Buddha, so selfies are out, and you certainly can’t take pictures anywhere near the tooth without being jumped on by irate guards. I watched with sadness as quite a few of the hundreds of tourists streaming in to the temple chose to ignore the politely worded signs and did all the things the bhuddist monks and the religion would find offensive.
The outside of the temple is pretty basic, but the inner temple is beautiful and vey richly decorated, again, something you must see. Having dutifully queued and shuffled my way with the hundreds of others up to the second floor I was suddenly confronted by a small arch window which opened into an inner sanctum where the tooth was on display in its casket. I passed my offering of the lotus flower I had bought outside together with a 1000-rupee donation (about £5) to the monk inside the chamber and was shuffled on my way. I wandered around for a bit admiring the architecture but as my head was thumping by then, decided to call it a night.
Kandy has so much to see that my 3-night stay was not going to cover everything it has to offer so selection had to be made. Again, getting into the centre and walking around seemed to be the best policy and I enjoy observing as well as talking to local people where I can. Whilst chatting with some locals I was struck that they are completely bemused as to why anyone would want to come and find out about them and their culture. Based on the low cost of living and the low wages I get that not many Sri Lankan’s can afford to travel purely for a vacation. (Most who make it abroad do so because of work) and they understand that we have spent a lot of money to get over to their country. However, they simply struggle to see why we would bother which I found strangely touching as well as unassuming. They were also shocked, then surprised and then admiring that a woman would also be happy travelling alone – I think I made quite a few fans on this basis. Either that or they simply thought I was mentally deranged and needed looking after.
Kandy Sri Lanka, History and Culture
Bodhi acting as my guide decided, because I was from the UK I would want to see St Paul’s church built by the British after they occupied Kandy in 1815. It looked much the same as any other British church. Next on his itinerary for me was the Garrison Cemetery where many of the first British settlers lie. I didn’t like to point out to my enthusiastic guide that, with my Indian ancestors being subjugated by the British, I may not be as reverent towards all things British as others might. Having said that, it was interesting to read the headstones which seem to denote that of the 165 families that settled in Kandy in the early days, most of them got wiped out by malaria or cholera including the children. Those that survived started coffee plantations that were then hit by blight and they lost their fortunes. Those that made it through this catastrophe then went on to plant tea plantations and made their second fortune. You have to admire the bravery and tenacity of these early settlers as they battled against the odds.
Incidentally, it was at this time that the local Sinhalese people refused to work as slave labour in the plantations for the British which then forced the settlers to import their Tamil Indian workers. This explains the reason why Tamils were originally here. In more recent times the Tamils, as a minority, have felt unfairly represented in Sri Lanka and want an independent area hence the reason for the warring and even today there is still undersurface race tension between the two though most Sinhalese and Tamils I met just want to get along and live a good life.
Trotting down to the local Empire Café we devoured more curry and rice for lunch before setting off for the Royal Botanical Gardens. Not being horticulturally minded most of it was lost on me however I appreciated the peace and quiet of the gardens, the beauty of the orchid display, the royal palm avenue where I got to see the double coconut trees (each either male or female), the Bo tree which is the tree the Bhudda sat under at the time of his teaching and enlightenment and watched the macaques rushing around squabbling amongst themselves. Passing under some large trees towards the end I noticed what I had at first thought was the fruit moving in the wind. It turned out to be hundreds upon hundreds of bats sleeping before waking for their nocturnal flights which some were starting as it was twilight when we passed. They were the largest bats I have ever seen, about the size of a domestic cat with wings.
In amidst this day I had spotted an interesting wood craftwork place which appeared to have the craftsmen at work. We stopped to look and I was shown one of the woods they use called Pathangi. It is more versatile than you first imagine. Not only can you use the wood but mix some shavings in water and add iron to it it turns a purple colour you can use as dye or paint. Then add chalk and it turns blue. Add crushed leaves it turns green, you can add all sorts of things and it will turn every primary colour and then some. Add lime juice and it returns to its original colour. Fascinating.
I got chatting with the owner, Manjula (ok, I was so taken by their wares I was enquiring into an elephant carving) and he explained that every piece I could see (and there were lots, all beautifully done) had all been made by hand by the skilled crafters. As with so many manufacturing industries he also explained that apprentices were hard to find as the younger generation were looking for easier ways to make money. Even in Sri Lanka the stealthy allure of the IT industry or fame and fortune are affecting the traditional values of the up and coming generations. Www.oakraywoodcarvings.com
Having exploded my record for the number of steps in one day and absolutely worn out but happy, this brought to an end my days in Kandy Sri Lanka. Retiring back to the Villa Rosa I contemplated what might be in store for me the next day when I moved on to Sigiriya.
If you missed my previous travel blogs on Sri Lanka, you can find them here: