The majority of Sri Lanka’s best travel cities are located in the Southwest of the island. I have already written about Sigiriya (The Lion Rock) and the scenic train ride through Sri Lankan’s Central Highlands – these two are probably the most popular locations among visitors.
Apart from these classics, Kandy and Galle are the two other main cities on the Southwest loop that visitors should not miss. The highlight of Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth (where you MAY get to see Sri Lanka’s most significant Buddhist relic – a Buddha’s tooth), and Galle is its World Heritage Dutch Fortification and old town. So here we go, grab your bags, and follow me to explore these religious and heritage sites!
Nestled in the midst of hills in the central plateau of Sri Lanka, Kandy is surrounded by tropical tea plantations, historic buildings, and religious sites. It was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of the country. Today, it still serves as the administrative capital of the Central Province.
Kandy was in fact beautifully planned and developed. Its old capital was established around an artificial lake, the Kandy Lake, where traditional colonial-style architecture could still be seen anywhere in the busy streets. The Queens Hotel, for example, is an upscale and refined lakeside hotel overlooking Kandy Lake with a pool.
The city is also very green. The Royal Palace Park (Wales Park) is on the top of a small hill on the side of Kandy Lake; on the other side of the lake, the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary is a historic forest reserve on a hill range with a size of over 104 hectares. The park is now a great site for outdoor activities, hiking, and wildlife viewing. Moving a bit farther to the city’s outskirts, the Royal Botanic Gardens is a popular attraction that welcomes over 2 million visitors annually to see its prestigious collection of orchids.
Kandy, all in all, captured that essence that I always like the most: compact, beautiful, has its own character, and preserves its past. Too bad that I didn’t spend too much time in the city on my last trip as I wish to explore the shops, cafes, and so many more in the city center and I will so many more to write about.
Where to Stay
In general, accommodations in Kandy are fairly reasonable (and at the same time, there is no international brand set up franchises in Kandy, too) Well, I would still recommend the Queens Hotel or the Radh simply because of their locations.
Not only are these hotels in close proximity to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth but also right in the heart of Kandy’s city center. You can easily find a number of cafes and restaurants along Colombo Street and Temple Street.
The hotels are no luxurious resort – but still, they are tidy, convenient, and charge less than US$100 a night (sometimes less than US$50); later you will find out why you have a competitive edge staying so close to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth (if you want to see the relic). However, if you are not “that” tight on your budget, you could still find a few luxury resorts in the area. Check out:
- Queens Hotel
- The Radh
- Coffee Bungalow
- Nature Walk Resort
- Ayant Boutique Hotel
How to get to Kandy
Once we arrived at Colombo, our hired driver/tour guide took us straight to Sigiriya for the Lion Rock; and then we returned to Kandy and continued on the remainder of our trip to the Central Highland and the southwest coast.
For backpackers, it is also a great idea to take a train from Colombo to Kandy (we took a train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya); after all, scenic train rides are a must in Sri Lanka. For more detail about taking a train in Sri Lanka, check out Journey Through Sri Lankan’s Central Highlands. it is, however, important to book tickets in advance if you are on a schedule, train tickets always sell out fast. While many fellow bloggers recommend the first-class tickets (because of the nicer seats and air conditioning), I ended up in second class and it was not that bad. I had the train car all to myself, and I could move around on the train freely and take pictures from the open windows. Lastly, it’s easier to have a local (someone at the hotel or a travel agency) help you with the booking and train schedule. Don’t panic if the train is not arriving at the exact time on the schedule because it’s likely to be late.
The Colombo to Kandy line was the first major route established by the newly formed Ceylon Government Railway in the 1860s; it is one of the classic scenic train routes, sit back and travel back in time as the train rattle past terraced tea fields, lush stands of tropical forest, and miniature village train stations with tin roofs, and so much more.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth
The temple of Sacred Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) was built in the year 1595 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The temple is part of the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy, but what makes it famous is the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. The relic was first kept by Buddha’s disciple, Khema, after Buddha’s cremation in 543BC; and after hundreds of years of conflicts and changes of power, it finally found its resting place in Kandy in the 16th century, and since then, it has a symbolic representation in Buddhism – about Buddha’s series of offerings, rituals, and ceremonies. While there are several other tooth-relics of the Buddha in countries like Taiwan, Japan, China, and Singapore, it seems the one in Sri Lanka gained the most importance and reputation.
The temple opens from 5:30 am to 8 pm daily, the Temple of the Tooth Museum in New Palace, from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm, and the International Buddhist Museum opens from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. The tooth sanctuary, nevertheless, is the whole point of visiting the temple, and you won’t want to miss that. The doors of the sanctuary open three times a day for worshippers:
- 5:30 – 6:45 am
- 9:30 – 11:00 am
- 6:30 – 8:00 pm
That’s why I mentioned that living close to the temple has an edge because it’s possible to wake up really early to see the relic at 5:30 am in the morning. However, the timetable could be slightly changed here and there; I advise entering the temple a little bit earlier (you could spend some time viewing the incredible art and displays in the temple anyway) before the doors open.
The temple is usually packed with visitors during those hours and there is a queue outside the door (seniors and young locals are allowed to sit on one side of the sanctuary hall and wait).
The temple is free of charge to the locals, and 1000 Sri Lankan rupees for foreigners (additional 300 rupees for photography, and another 50 rupees for shoe storage, shoes are not allowed in the temple). There are many licensed guides wandering outside the moat of the temple – they are working for tips, but I found it was nice having a guide to show you the directions and skip the lines in some places. The amount of tips is up to you, and I would suggest about US$5-10.
Viewing the Sacred Tooth Relic
Once visitors check in their shoes and walk around the moat, there’s a security check before entering the temple.
This is when the temple gets really crowded and though I hope it’s not likely that you will be, watch your bags in case there’s a pickpocket.
Moreover, like any Buddhist temple in Asia, remember to cover up – a.k.a. No tank tops, vests, and short pants/skirts – any pants and dresses that don’t cover your knees may get you rejected at the door. A pair of linen pants or dresses with cotton short sleeves work well with the heat in the afternoon. In case you really forgot to wear appropriate clothing, don’t worry, there are vendors selling sarong outside the temple and you could cover up.
To be honest, I have heard some stories about the “door opening” before visiting the temple, but I had no idea what I got myself into until I arrived. It was mainly because I had a guide (which I kind of took a back seat in the planning), and also I knew that I was on a schedule to catch a train, so I won’t be able to wait around at a specific time for the door to open. Luckily, our guide had us visit the temple during the door opening time, and we got to see the sanctuary once we were there. There was quite a crowd in the temple and so we followed a licensed guide in the temple and he led us into the line right away.
Actually, common worshippers do not get to see the tooth. The tooth was locked away in a solid gold lotus flower, encased in jeweled caskets that sit on a throne. The three keys used to open the flower were kept by three high-ranking monks. In the sanctuary, there was a group of worshippers kneeling at the front of the throne, and the long queue could see the inner chamber through a window. There was a ceremony with drums followed by the opening of the doors of the inner chamber. Photo-taking was not allowed, and since the line was very long, we didn’t get much time to truly appreciate the beauty of the inner chamber (there were many things in the chamber). All in all, I felt the excitement of the entire atmosphere and it was an enlightening experience. I guess it was not about the object, but the symbolic representation of the teachings that Buddha has left behind to the world.
The relic was the focus of the entire visit, but the temple was actually beautifully decorated and there are a lot of details and elements worth paying attention to. For example, the Moonstone, at the foot of Maha Wahalkada steps, is carved in Kadyan architectural style; The main hall of the temple displays Buddha statues from all over the world, and more, 21 paintings that depict stories about the history of the Buddha’s tooth. If you are interested to see the valuable Buddhist ritual implements, the museum is on the second floor. Don’t miss out on walking around the temple as well.