Kandy, Sri Lanka: Highland jewel in an enchanted isle

by Jeff Kingston

The war is over, peace-building is under way, and Sri Lanka is one of the most enchanting islands you could ever imagine.

There are very few destinations in the world that offer so much in such close proximity. The ancient temples, Buddhist statues and ruins are magnificent; the beaches are superb; the people are probably the most hospitable on earth; and the food is to die for.

On top of that, you get a lot of bang for your buck, or yen as that may be.

A private car with driver — don’t even think about driving yourself — is very reasonable, while excellent hotels offer great bargains. And don’t forget the delightful massages you deserve after a day traipsing about.

In truth, a languorous fortnight appeals, but for those looking for a bit of spiritual rejuvenation on a tad tighter schedule, a short visit to Kandy is in order.

Less than a 3-hour drive up into the verdant hills from the airport outside the capital, Colombo, Kandy is a good base for forays into the so-called Cultural Triangle, where the clifftop fortress and gardens of Sigiriya (5th century), the 12-meter standing Buddha at Aukana (10th century) and the reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa (10th century) are some of the exquisite highlights of any tour. But if you enjoy visiting sacred sites, there is even more to explore. For example, only 16 km from Kandy there are three 14th-century temples — Gadaladeniya, Lanakatilaka Viharaya and Embekke — all worth a detour for their incredible murals and carvings.

Notwithstanding all these arcane delights, one of the highlights of any visit to Kandy is the elephant orphanage at nearby Pinnawela. There is nothing quite like watching around 80 of these massive beasts march through the town’s streets with mahouts steering them to the river where they bathe and frolic.

These are big animals — and sometimes, it seems, an individual will take it into its giant head to break ranks and trash a few roadside shacks — but put them in the river and they are like kids, splashing about, using their trunks to gleefully trumpet and spray each other while having a sociable soak.

While I was there, I saw two young bulls engage in some good-natured wrestling, with one wrapping his trunk around the other’s tail and managing to toss him down in a throw that brought sumo to mind. If you are used to seeing forlorn zoo elephants, you owe it to yourself to see them in a herd where their captivating antics and characters are on full display.

Kandy has considerable charms. The Temple of the Tooth is a World Heritage sight that has been around for a few centuries, and also razed several times. The present complex, largely built in the early 19th century, is opulent and aesthetically pleasing despite an extensive renovation to repair damage caused by a suicide bomber in 1998. This helps explain the two body searches that are included in the price of admission.

The temple supposedly contains one of the Buddha’s teeth, but don’t get your hopes up of taking a peek. Every morning and afternoon large numbers of pilgrims crowd around the various sacred shrines, an impressive display of prayer and veneration by the devout. Exiting, it’s a short walk to the lake at the center of town for a pleasant stroll. Better yet, visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens, a carefully manicured cornucopia of the island’s flora and fauna. Be careful not to walk beneath the trees where the bats roost — unless you don’t mind a sprinkling of guano.

For lodging, Helga’s Folly oozes character and is a memorable choice, with nice views over the city in close proximity to the sights.

Then, only 40 minutes from Kandy, is a rustic paradise called Samadhi Nature Resort. It is not a good base for exploring Kandy or the Cultural Triangle, and is definitely not everyone’s cup of finest Ceylon tea. Guests looking for the usual hotel amenities, service and facilities will not be happy here, but it is a wonderfully tranquil site surrounded by stunning natural beauty. The buildings are made of local materials in traditional style. A few minutes’ walk away there is a lovely waterfall and natural pool of clear spring water for swimming and lounging where one can enjoy Robinson Crusoe fantasies.

The owner, Waruna, is an antique connoisseur and as charming a host as you could ever meet, while his Japanese wife is a former yoga instructor and now busy mom. Communal eating, friendly dogs and a sprawling verandah lit by vintage oil lamps make for convivial evenings.

It is possible to arrange meditation and yoga classes for all levels, including rank beginners like me. Following our third session, with no signs of improvement in my postures, the yogi charitably commented that my long and resonant “om” was very good — sort of like telling a flailing tennis player that he laces up his sneakers quite nicely.