After a therapeutic train ride through the scenic hill country, arriving to Kandy is like walking into a sliding glass door. We were followed from the moment we stepped off the train by eager tuk tuk drivers selling their services into Kandy. They expect to charge tourists three times what they would make from a normal fare. It was an hour wait for the public train to take us into Kandy so we eventually haggled with a nice young driver to take us into town for 400 rupees. The traffic was bumper to bumper front to back and side to side. Tuk tuks, motor bikes, and cars all honking there way abrasively through town with throngs of people darting in and out of the crowded the streets. A combination of the rain, some road construction and it being Friday night added to the congestion. It was dark when we arrived so we had a difficult time grasping the town especially since the sky’s had opened up with a torrential downpour.
40 minutes later we pulled up to our homestay, just off a side street around Kandy Lake. We paid our tuk tuk driver and he tried his best to sell us on a day of sight seeing the next day, a pretty common tuk tuk driver request. We graciously declined. The family we stayed with had a beautiful two story home, with a rooftop terrace. We had the room upstairs but there was no a/c so it was more than warm. March and April are the hottest months in Sri Lanka. We immediately dropped our bags and went out for dinner. Our host recommended a local diner called Garden Cafe. We walked in the dark along the lake while the loud buzzing of tuk tuks and reckless bus drivers zoomed by. There was not much between the accommodation and the garden cafe, just a dark walk unfortunately. Thankfully the restaurant had great Kottu to feast on. The rain forced us to stay in for the night, so we fell asleep pretty early.
The result of going to bed early meant up for sunrise. We went to the rooftop to see the beautiful colors brighten with the rising sun waking up the birds to circle the lake.
We had plans to leave Kandy to head up to Dambulla, Kandalama and Sigirya. First, we needed to drop our laundry off so we could return to Kandy with clean clothes waiting for us. Our host offered to do it but charged by the garment so since we had a full load, we thought it best to find a laundry business instead. We packed our overnight bags, leaving our big backpacks with our host, and left to find a laundry facility. It was Saturday morning at 7:00 am by the time we left their house, which we didn’t realize until we got to there, and the laundry spot was not open yet. To kill the time, we shopped for some toothpaste and shampoo that we had run low on. We also had breakfast at the White House where the owner was very kind to us. He showed how to order a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast, which we had been wanting to try. We had string hoppers and roti that was served with both Dahl curry (chickpea) and potato curry. He didn’t give us any silverware which clued us in that we should eat as the locals eat, with their hands (but not before a quick hand sanitizer wash).
Breakfast was a real treat and we were so thankful for the nice owner who showed us the proper way instead of serving us an omelet and the “standard” eight pieces of toast. At this point, we realized that tourists in this city were few and far between, we had seen two couples at dinner and no one in the morning. As a white American, it gives you a real sense of what it’s like to be a minority and for me, the locals’ staring eyes make it a little uncomfortable. It made me miss the melting pot of New York, with all walks of life.
We dropped our laundry off and learned that everywhere in Sri Lanka charges by the garment, so not only did we pay more but we made it more inconvenient for us! Should have just left it with out hosts! Face. Palm.
Finally we were ready to catch a bus up to Dambulla. We walked to the local bus station called Good Shed and found an A/C bus for $200SLR each and asked them to drop us right at the Dambulla Golden Temple. They were very nice and spoke decent English. The bus must be a little off the beaten path, we were the only tourists.
As promised, our ticket taker alerted us that our stop was next and he dropped us off just as we had asked. Dambulla is a Unesco World Heritage site known for its beautiful paintings inside caves from over 2000 years ago. We started walking right up to the caves and had our first encounter with monkeys. Tons of monkeys hopped along the steps up to the temple. At first, we were hesitant and not sure how aggressive they were, but they were actually pretty cute and friendly. It’s as if they are all playing a game of chase and we were walking through their game.
The caves are very impressive, more so than these photos may show and most of the photos are up close because I was mostly interested in the patterns and colors.
When we were in New Zealand, we oddly enough met an interior designer from NYC. She and her partner had just come from Sri Lanka and recommended we stay at the Heritance Hotel in Kandalama designed by a famous architect…
Notable for the concept of incorporating the outdoors with the indoor. We could not afford it, being $259USD a night so instead we stopped by to indulge in their fancy buffet lunch. This lunch was more expensive than our other fancy buffet in Mt. Lavinia, not by much, and was also a little better. We walked around the property afterwards to check out the architects work.
The Heritance hotel is in the middle of nowhere. In hindsight, we should have negotiated a price with our tuk tuk driver to wait for us during lunch and drive us to Sigirya, our next stop. Because we didn’t do that, we ended up paying a ridiculous amount (Sri Lankan standards) because there was only one tuk tuk at the hotel. He was a savvy businessman and recognized the power of his negotiating position. $2000 rupees later, we were on our way. Along the ride, we noticed he had the nicest jeans and most expensive cell phone of anyone we had met in Sri Lanka. Obviously the rewards of a good hustle game.
Sigirya is a famous rock in Sri Lanka that many tourists and locals climb. It is also a religious site. The unfortunate deterrence is that locals pay pennies to visit it and tourists are asked to pay $30 USD a person to hike it. We elected to take a photo at the base and hike the mountain next to (Pidurangala Rock) for a view of Sigirya at the cost of $3 USD plus the 200 SLR for the tuk tuk to get there. It’s about 20 minutes via tuk tuk or a 50 minute walk. We found this hike on trip advisor (on a thread complaining about the steep entry to Sigirya) and it was the most spectacular surprise. The hike is a steep climb up stairs and only takes about 30 minutes. Just as it plateaus towards the end, you have to climb boulders the rest of the way which is exciting. The reward of the hike is this…
We stayed up there for 45 minutes and befriended other like minded tourists. Nate was also kind enough to help a woman who had an injured arm get up and down the boulders so she could enjoy the view as well. Such a prince. We arranged with our tuk tuk driver to meet us at the base at 5:30 so we unfortunately had to leave that special place. Many travelers were headed up on our way down with plans to catch the sunset. We even ran into another couple from NYC! I wanted to hug them to feel closer to NYC but that would have been awkward for everyone.
We decided to splurge on a place to stay for the evening. We did a last minute booking at booking.com at the Cinnamon Lodge Resort for $79USD that is typically $200 per night. This resort blew our expectations out of the water. We pulled up to what looked like a colonial style farm house with an exaggerated pitched red roof and large white columns. The staff greeted us in their open air lobby and gave us an ice cold wash cloth and choice of fresh juice or ice tea. We looked disheveled and disgusting after our day in the Sri Lankan heat and tried our hardest not to desperately snatch up both offerings.
They toured us through the resort showing off the beautiful restaurants, pool and the 200 acres the property is on while monkeys jumped through the trees around us. The room was beautiful, large and air conditioned. We quickly put our bathing suits on, showered and hopped in the pool while simultaneously ordering beer from the waiter. We felt like we had hit the jackpot!
Between the beer, the beating sun and the giant king size bed calling our name, we practically fell asleep eating our dinner.
The next morning we awoke to the most marvelous display of monkeys tumbling around right outside our door. There was even a bride in her wedding dress getting the monkeys to play around her for photos. The property is just unreal, never ending, well kept and full of beauty. We originally planned to hike through a nearby forest the next day but we just couldn’t leave such an amazing resort so instead we requested a late checkout to enjoy the brunch and more pool time.
Thank goodness we soaked up extra time living the good life because it was hell getting back to Kandy. We left the property and walked less than 5 minutes to the local bus stop. We took a 20 minute ride back to Dambulla to try to get the same A/C bus we had arrived on. The busses don’t actually stop to pick up and drop off passengers, you must jump on/off while it rolls through town. When we arrived, we asked around, but no one seemed to know anything about an a/c bus. Some young men told us we could find one and showed us where to wait. The heat is brutal especially in pants. People are dressed conservatively so I had enough of the looks in Kandy that I no longer wanted to wear shorts.
We saw a couple A/c buses drive by but never stop and we saw the local bus that was packed without A/c stop every 5 – 10 minutes. The heat was brutal to keep waiting for a bus that might never come so after 40 minutes we reluctantly got on a local bus. The ride is about 2.5 hours, and cost about 50 cents each. In this case, you get what you pay for. With no seats available, we stood for a long time as they continued to pack people onto this sweat express. While I thought we had escaped the hustle and bustle, this bus had all the cramming, pushing and shoving of an 8:30 am 4 train in New York, but without a/c . The driving is fast and reckless with the constant sound of a blowing horn.
About an hour and half in, two girls got up right in front of me and although two standing men were eyeing the seats, my NYC aggression came back and I pushed through snagging us the seats. Nate has rarely been so proud, since I am generally too polite for my own good sometimes. The little reprieve we got from our seats and an open window made the ride at least bearable. The upside is that the amount of time we have spent in the Sri Lankan sun has elevated my tan to Jennifer Anniston status despite wearing 50 SPF sunblock.
It was about 6:00 when we jumped off the devil ride in the Kandy city center. We both were so hot, dirty and hadn’t eaten in about eight hours. We walked straight to a touristy looking cafe because it had a/c and it was in front of us. It had clean bathrooms which we were so thankful for. We cleaned up and ordered a pastry for an appetizer so we could eat immediately. Then we followed up with two sandwiches, an ice tea and a cookie milkshake. It was actually cooling down outside so we opted to walk to our accommodation. We arrived and picked up our backpacks we had left with them, showered and laid in bed until we dosed off. Before we fell asleep we were both happy that it was our last night in Sri Lanka because it’s clearly been kicking our butts!
The next morning we ate the breakfast prepared by our host and packed our stuff. We made arrangements with our host to officially check out but site see in the morning and then stop back by to shower before our train to Colombo, which we booked again on Expo Rail so we could have A/C.
We went to the Temple of the Tooth where the Buddah’s tooth relic is stored. You have to be clothed appropriately so long skirts/ pants and covered shoulders. We walked around the temple which was crowded with tourists and locals praying.
We didn’t find it all that interesting, at this point the only thing we found interesting was air condition. We sat in an a/c coffee place where I had an iced cinnamon espresso and Nate had a banana shake both elegantly displayed. The quaint cafe was playing classical piano music in the background and felt like an oasis from the chaotic streets of Kandy.
We stopped to pick up our clean laundry, a take away lunch and pull out some extra cash to have on hand in Colombo. We quickly showered and changed out of our now sweaty clothes to head to the train station. Our train left right on time to take us to our last stop, the capital of Sri Lanka, Columbo.
We had planned to just spend a few hours in the city before catching our flight out of Sri Lanka. It was more important for us to see other parts of the country so Columbo got the least amount of attention from us. We’ve both been to busy Asian cities, you either love their hectic, polluted madness or you don’t enjoy it at all. By the time we arrived in Colombo, the 15 minute walk to the bus station had already beaten us into submission. It was hot, the streets were crowded and we were constantly harassed by every vendor we passed. We were ready to head to the airport five hours before our flight.
We preferred to continue the daunting task of traveling a total of 24 hours to the Philippines then we were to stay one more day in Sri Lanka. There were a lot of special moments in Sri Lanka but it was a difficult country for us to travel in.
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