Purchasing train tickets to Kandy from Colombo station is a straight forward affair. Especially in comparison to other countries in Southern Asia that I’ve been to. There was a bit of a queue, but it was all very orderly, no one shouted at us, and they spoke perfect English.
When travelling by train in Sri Lanka, where available I’d suggest you pre-book first class tickets. There are two types of trains currently operating: the Government trains and the super-duper privately owned more expensive Rajadhani Express. We took first class in the Government owned train because the times suited better, but to be perfectly honest it was very comfortable and half the price. For 500 Rupees (approximately £2.30) we got very comfortable seats, air con, and spotless loos. I don’t see any reason that you’d want to spend any more to get the other train.
Sri Lankan people are incredibly resourceful, and this was apparent as soon we left Colombo Fort. Leaning from the open door of the train, I spotted several antique, disused railway carriages that had been converted into homes, sitting by the side of the track. These ingenious dwellings looked beautiful to me, decadently decaying and being reclaimed by the vines and flowers of the jungle beyond.
Travelling by train from Colombo to Kandy (or the other way around) is not the occasion to read or fall asleep. You’re likely to put your neck out as you strain to take in every little bit of the view. You won’t want to miss a thing.
The first thing that struck me was how vivid the colours are. It suddenly felt as if the saturation had been turned up on the world. It’s all so green, and there’s a quality to the light that gives all you survey a wonderful clarity.
Winding tracks snake around verdant mountains, covered with dense foliage and palms so tall, they defy gravity. The corners with the sheer drops are the best, and even if you’re scared of heights (as I am – more on that later), you’ll struggle to look away.
I’m a sucker for dangling my legs from the door of a moving train. I swing them to and fro, like a child, and feel as if there’s nothing obstructing my experience of the passing landscape and the warm, sweet Sri Lankan air. Coming from the UK, a country being slowly stifled by health and safety, little things like this make me feel alive.
Accommodation is fairly limited in Kandy. There’s lots of demand and not so much supply. You’ll want to pre-book at least your first night’s room. The accommodation is also more expensive here than in other parts of the country, presumably for that very reason.
We booked two nights at the Nathashiya Holiday Inn, simply because it was cheap and central. The location was fantastic, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
As soon as we checked in, we dumped our bags and went straight out exploring. This was the first moment during the trip when I experienced culture shock.
Kandy definitely has it’s volume turned up. The lay out of this tiny city has a very European flavour to it, and the juxtaposition between this and all of the people, heat and noise is disconcerting at first.
Sweating and ravenous, we ducked into the first eatery we found: The Devon. On first glance, it appeared to be a bakery, but upon venturing inside, we found the other entrance which lead to a large restaurant.
We ordered curry and rice, and tried to order a Lion beer. That’s when it became apparent that getting a drink in Kandy wouldn’t be that easy. I consulted The Book. True enough, Kandy (being a hugely religious place) is fairly dry. We settled for an EGB, which is a Sri Lankan brand of ginger beer, far more fiery than the kind we westerners drink, and absolutely thirst quenching. The curry and rice arrived promptly, and we dug in like we hadn’t eaten in days.
Curry and Rice is a traditional Sri Lankan lunch. Don’t be fooled by the simple name, for what you will receive if you order this dish is extremely complex. You could get anywhere up to ten (never less than four) separate curries, dhal, pickles and chutneys surrounding your rice. And on the side, the scrummy Coconut Sambal to be used as a seasoning if (god forbid) your curry isn’t hot enough. Sri Lankans get a kick out of it if you order more sambal, and it buys you a bit of gourmet kudos.
We got the bill: 500 rupees for two massive plates of food and about six bottles of EGB, plus poppadums. This is about £2.30. You couldn’t even buy a sandwich for that in the UK.
You’ll need a bit more savvy about you in Kandy when it comes obtaining transport. The Kandyan locals are a bit more ‘proactive’ about procuring your business, but are always up for a bit of a haggle, so don’t be intimidated.
We took a day long tuktuk tour (it’s amazing the distances and terrain these little three wheelers can take) with a brilliant driver: Shathish Neson. You can reach him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call +94 777 446737. He is a skilful driver, but those of a nervous disposition or travelling with either the very young or the very old might consider alternative means of transport, as being Shathish’s passenger feels a bit like being in a Sri Lankan version of Dukes of Hazzard. Exciting stuff, but absolutely terrifying.
Our first port of call was The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (or Temple of the Tooth for the layman).
Approaching the temple, we walked past several stalls selling lotus flower offerings, as beautiful as they were fragrant. This is a scent that seems to constantly blow on the breeze in Sri Lanka.
Set on a massive site, this temple had the hushed, venerated feel you’d expect from such a holy place. There are numerous buildings, laid out in a pleasingly formal way, linked by wide paths and surrounded by well tended lawns.
It’s possible to see Kandyan drumming daily at The Temple of the Tooth. This begins at 5.00pm as part of the Vihara (worship).
There’s a very nice bar a few streets down from the Temple of the Tooth, where you can sip a cool drink after the frenetic activity in Kandy. It’s part of the Royal Hotel, and you can drink delicious local wines and beers in their airy courtyard or on the mezzanine level.
Stumbling from the Royal Bar, we procured the services of a tuktuk driver. I was immediately taken with his open manner and easy banter, so we asked him if he’d be available to show us the sights around Kandy.
Our driver introduced himself as Shathish, and said he’d be happy to take all three of us in his tuktuk to visit the elephant orphanage, spice gardens, tea plantations and up to Dambulla to see a fantastical Hindu temple. We agreed a price, and then he took us to meet his family on the way home. Shathish is very proud (and rightly so) of his family, especially his son.
In his own words, he didn’t like the Buddhists or the Hindus, “I just love my Jesus!” he proclaimed loudly, and frequently, with a big grin on his face. “I think we’re travelling with the Sri Lankan Alf Garnet” I whispered to M.
Despite his enthusiastic views and opinions on just about everything (or possibly because of them), Shathish was a brilliant guide and a positive fountain of knowledge, informing us on the background of his people (Tamil), the local politics and religions, Sri Lankan sports teams (cricket and rugby of course), and the people (he seemed to know everyone in every village we passed through). He was very kind as well, stopping en route to buy us all roadside snacks of salted corn on the cob.
His driving was out of this world – you couldn’t imagine how deftly he manoeuvred his three-wheeler, in and out of traffic, finding a space and advancing, overtaking, double overtaking, and dodging out of trouble within the last few remaining seconds before a head-on collision with an oncoming coach/bus/juggernaut. He even drove on the pavement, like some sort of car chase scene from an Indiana Jones movie.
On the way back to Kandy, Shathish proudly took us to his local rugby stadium, followed by a visit to the international cricket ground. Our tour ended high on a hill, a giant white Buddha behind us, and Kandy laid out below in a blanket of twinkling lights which rivalled the stars.
It was the best 6000 rupees (£28) we’ve ever spent, but I was supremely glad to be back on terra firma. We all needed a drink so Shathish dropped us off at the Royal Bar again for a few cheeky beers.
Tired and filthy, but happy and overwhelmed by all the things we’d seen, we drank a toast to our new friend: Shathish the Maverick!