During our travels in Sri Lanka, we had heard so much about Kandy; everybody said we HAD to go to the beautiful old king city, Kandy. So we eventually decided to check out this famous city on our way from Ella. To get there we took the most beautiful train ride from Ella to Kandy, a highlight of our Sri Lankan trip.
Kandy is the next biggest city in Sri Lanka, after the capital Colombo. I must admit we were a little bit disappointed by Kandy. Everybody kept telling us (including the Lonely Planet book) that Kandy was sooooo beautiful and used terms as “Here`s a city that looks good even when it`s raining” (quote Lonely Planet). Well, some parts of the city were nice, but as a whole, it was a fairly typical busy, and noisy city.
It was also the only place in Sri Lanka where someone tried to scam us! The tuk-tuk drivers were also a bit more aggressive than elsewhere in Sri Lanka, some going as far as following us around when we were walking.
At the train station, when arriving in Kandy from Ella, we took a tuk-tuk with a young driver. He drove us from the train station to our guesthouse Sharon Inn and seemed like an OK driver, so we arranged for him to drive us around the next day.
Here are our top 5 things to do in Kandy:
1. Kandy Lake
Kandy Lake is a dominating part of Kandy city, and you can`t miss it! The lake is charming and peaceful and is our absolute favorite part of Kandy.
The lake was created in 1807 by the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy. The people initially objected to laboring on the lake project, but those who objected were ruthlessly put to death on stakes in the lake bed. So the lake has a bloody history.
In the middle of the lake is a small island used by the emperor`s personal harem. Later the British used it to store ammunition, and they were the ones who built the fortress style parapet around the area.
We had a pleasant stroll around the lake, although a busy road runs very close to the lake on its southern edge, which ruins the idyll somewhat. The nicest area is the part around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
It was by Kandy Lake that a man approached us and claimed to be a teacher at a nearby school. He said that we were incredibly lucky to be in Kandy on this particular day because the president of Sri Lanka was coming to Kandy to participate in a very rare showing of the tooth relic at the Temple.
This was a special occasion, not open for everybody, but he could sell us special tickets to attend the event. We also had to hurry to buy the tickets, because they closed the ticket booth at 5 p.m.
We have met our fair share of “school teachers” before, both in Thailand and Vietnam, so we knew the drill and said politely “No thank you!”. We later checked with the owners of the guesthouse we stayed at, and of course, the president was not coming to Kandy, and the tooth relic was not going to be displayed. Hehe, so yep, so much for that scam! 🙂
2. Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
North of the Kandy Lake is the famous temple that houses Sri Lanka`s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha himself! The legend says that the sacred tooth of the Buddha was snatched from the Buddha`s funeral pyre in India in 483 BC. In the 4th century AD, it was hidden in the hair of a princess and smuggled into Sri Lanka.
The tooth has over the years been moved around Sri Lanka and was returned to India in 1283 by an invading army. It was then retrieved by the king of Sri Lanka and brought back to the country. It was believed that whoever had the custody of the tooth, had the right to rule the country.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was built by the Kandyan kings between 1687-1707 and 1747-1782 and was part of the royal palace.
At the north side of the temple, only accessible via the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the Audience Hall. This is from the 19th century and is a beautiful open-air pavilion with stone columns, Buddhas, and ivory.
You don`t, however, get to see the real tooth in the temple, as it is hidden in a golden casket shaped like a dagoba. We saw the dagoba casket from the doorway, which is 3 m from the actual altar. We moved around the room in a queue, and guards made sure that no-one gets more than 15 seconds inside the shrine room.
We visited the temple in the evening, and it was a nice and a bit mysterious atmosphere in and around the temple.
The shrine receives many worshipers and tourists. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in their lifetime. To worship here improves one`s karmic lot immeasurably.
The security at the entrance to the temple is high because a bomb detonated near the main entrance in 1998.
Tip: Wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders. Otherwise, you will not be allowed to enter the temple. We met many tourists that did not know this and had to go into one of the markets in Kandy to buy sarongs.
3. Peradeniya Botanic Garden
Just outside of Kandy is the lovely Peradeniya Botanic Garden, who once were reserved exclusively for Kandyan royalty. Today is it open to the public, making it the largest botanic garden in Sri Lanka, covering 60 hectares.
Here you will find a beautiful collection of orchids, cannonball trees, coconut palm trees, a spice garden, giant bamboo, rubber trees, as well as a stately avenue of royal palms that were planted in 1950:
After walking around the gardens for three hours, we took a little nap on one of the lawns, in the shadow of the huge trees:
While the gardens are lovely, our guide, on dropping us off, had insisted we needed four hours inside the botanical garden. We finally agreed on three, and even that turned out to be more than enough.
4. Kandyan dance and drum show
After the trip to the Botanical Gardens, we decided to get some culture and went to one of the many dancing and drum shows in Kandy.
This is apparently a must-do-experience in Kandy. It was an intense, spectacular and energetic show, with both male and female dancers and drummers. They were all wearing colorful costumes and did ten different dances, including the famous “Devil” dances of the west coast.
After the dance and drum show, we all went outside where some of the dancers did firewalking!
There are three venues for dance/drum shows in Kandy, all located around Kandy lake, each cost around 500 Rs = 3-4 us$ per person and last one hour:
- Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre (the show starts 17:00)
On the northern side of the lake. This is the busiest venue with lots of tourist buses. Arrive early as it can be full. This show is very touristy and everything is a bit overpriced in my opinion.
- Kandy Lake Club (the show starts 17:00)
Located 300 m up Sanghamitta Mawatha. There is a cool fire show outside in the back after the inside dance show (at least when we saw it). We liked this show the best! It has the best costumes and a more acrobatic and energy filled show. You get a leaflet explaining each dance and performance.
- Mahanuwara YMBA (the show starts 17:30)
Located southwest of the lake. This is a low-key dance show, at the YMBA guesthouse, but the show is just as good and the proceeds go to the Red Cross. We also liked this show.
5. Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
We started our sightseeing day in Kandy with a visit to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage outside of Kandy. You can read, see pictures and video from that trip here.
We did not particularly like Kandy that much. It may be because we traveled in the opposite direction through Sri Lanka than most people, who usually come straight from Colombo. Having been to so many beautiful, peaceful places, and having such high expectations from the guide books, it was a bit of a letdown.
If you have plenty of time, then it is worth visiting mainly for the temple, but unless you REALLY want to see it, I recommend that you skip this city altogether. There are so many much nicer places to see in Sri Lanka
Where To Stay In Kandy
Kandy offers a wide selection of accommodation for all budgets, and here you will have plenty of choices when it comes to finding the right place to stay. Kandy is a big city and the competition seems to be tough so you can find some excellent deals here.
Below are some of the best accommodation options in Kandy, including the address and price.
We stayed at Sharon Inn
Sharon Inn is located up on the hillside above the Kandy Lake. The road up to the hotel is a bit steep but we walked to Kandy Lake several times. Owned and run by a family where the wife is German. It is a decent hotel, and we were happy with the accommodation and the service, although it is a bit run down. It is recommended in the Lonely Planet.
Our favorite part of our stay here was the dinner buffet in the garden. Each evening they serve traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry with lots of different dishes, for only 7 us$. A very good value. The food was excellent, among the best we had in Sri Lanka.
We had one of the top floor rooms and had spectacular views from our balcony. The rooms are however quite basic, albeit with private bathrooms. It is a bit over-priced for this kind of room standard, but the location is great.
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Viyana Boutique Hotel
This new boutique hotel is located within easy walking distance to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The rooms are large and modern with comfortable beds and free WiFi. The staff is enthusiastic and helpful. Some of the rooms have views overlooking the lake.
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Staying Outside the City Center
Kandy can be a busy and noisy city so it is worth considering staying a little outside the city center. Especially with transportation being so cheap and readily available.
Elephant Stables is a beautiful little hotel in a colonial style bungalow about 10 minutes drive away from Kandy center. There is a lovely pool and a nice view overlooking the green valley. It's a small intimate hotel where every guest is taken care of and made to feel exceptionally welcome. It is somewhat expensive but if it's within your budget then this comes highly recommended.
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If you want to get away from busy downtown Kandy then this small hotel is a great option! Located about 20 minutes drive from Kandy center it overlooks the valley and offers spectacular views of the area. It has a huge swimming pool and the friendly staff makes you feel right at home. If we ever visit Kandy again, we will for sure have a look at this! 🙂
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