Kandy to Ella and back Mon 30 Aug – Sat 4 Sept 2010
Kandy is the central capital city of this remote hill area. The people here are very proud of the fact that they resisted the colonial invaders the Dutch and the Portuguese - for 3 centuries -before finally falling to the British in 1815 when their last Sinhalese King finally was forced to hand over power. The drive here through the hills passed through quite a few Muslim communities -they were apparently "driven into the hill" by the Portuguese and remained here. Muslims are a sizeable majority here (around 9%) and they seemed to successfully escape involvement in the Tamil (18%) and Sinhala (74%) troubles. Kandy seemed a pleasant bustling sort of city set attractively around a large central manmade lake and with an attractive backdrop of hills and a white Buddha statue overlooking the town. It was much cooler up here in the hill country and rainy on and off but that was quite a refreshing change.
We went first to the Old Empire Hotel which was on our list from the LP, a great location right next to Kandy's biggest "must see" attraction the Temple of the Sacred Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa. At first we thought the hotel had shut up as the gate was locked but just as we were leaving the security guy came and let us in. They were just on the point of re-opening after a terrible fire a few weeks back when some guests had left their portable heater on and managed to nearly burn down the whole building! Thankfully no one was hurt but it has been a real blow to the owner -a charming old guy Mr. Vincent Fernando - and he had teams of workmen working flat out to try and open up again. We took one of the refurbished rooms -a lovely large airy room for just 990 LKR- and stayed a few days. We got to know Mr. Fernando and had quite a few chats and he told us the hotel had originally been the HQ of a nearby coffee plantation, who also owned a very ornate kitsch Victorian fountain/statue thing just nearby. Since his family bought it 110 odd years ago it's been run as a hotel.
From the balcony outside the hotel we could look out both at the Lake and at the entrance to the sacred tooth temple and at the rows of flower stalls selling gorgeous arrangements of fresh flowers - predominantly lilies SL's national flower- to take as offerings to Buddha. It always smelt wonderful.
We went to a nearby local restaurant Paiva's which did a really nice vegetarian SL lunch. The food here is really good lots of small dishes of various spicy vegetable curries (sometimes meat also but this is a quite strict Buddhist town so a few of the restaurants are vegetable only) with rice and popadoms as side dishes- really tasty. We've also got addicted to EGB or Elephant Ginger Beer which goes well with the spiciness.
We had a bit of a look around -first visiting the market. This was pretty touristic -lots of people trying to get you into their spices/clothes/leather bag shops -we're definitely on the "circuit "now! The fresh fruit was beautiful and abundant. One thing we've also noted is that avocados are available here -we're scarcely seen them on our travels and they're a real favourite back in Oz. Here they were very cheap -$2 Aus for a huge bag- very nice with marmite which we'd just stocked up on so we had to buy some!
That afternoon we took a stroll -dodging the showers - around the Lake. Created in 1807 the creator was the last ruler of Kandy who sounds what might be euphemistically called a "character." When some local chieftains objected to being forced to provide their men as labour to build the Lake the workers were put to death by stake on the lake bed! The attractive island in the middle apparently housed his personal harem. Despite this history it was a lovely tranquil spot with lots of fish and some gorgeous bird life. It was also a big army hangout with a couple of check posts around but they kept a fairly low profile.
That evening we went to see a performance of local dance. It cost us 500 LKR but locals touts obviously got a commission for getting "bums on seats" as we were constantly asked if we were going! In the end we went alone but one tout hurled himself in front of us and obviously got the credit for bringing us - still the same price so no skin off our noses! There were 5 or so local dances depicted. One dance had dancers in elaborate scary snake masks apparently driving out evil spirits and the footnote said this is still used to treat psychiatric disorders!! The fire walkers were good too. As ever with these tour things swarms of tour groups arrive -with the "shepherds" desperately fighting to get their "sheep" the best seats and as ever the performers whilst good, often looked a bit bored - guess it's hard not to look jaded when it's same old thing, same old thing every night! It was interesting and we were glad we'd gone to support it though.
The next morning we were up very early to see the temple of the sacred tooth. Luckily we were right next door to this so we were in there by 5.30am. There are 3 pujas (ceremony of offerings of prayers) at 5.30am around midday and at 6pm. We were actually there in time for the first one, but missed it as we were meandering around unsure what to do. By the time we engaged our guide (Mr. U Pananwala really knowledgeable guy can be contacted on 0812234226 -highly recommended) the morning session was all over. Never mind we doubled back and caught it later -but sometimes in these situations a guide is a good idea.
The sacred tooth is the same one we last heard about in Kushinagar India where we visited which (along with Buddha's collar bone which we were later to encounter) emerged miraculously unscathed from the Buddha's cremation pyre. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of a Princess giving her a golden halo, a picture which is depicted n mosaic near the entrance to the temple.
Since its arrival in SL in the 4th century AD the tooth has had a busy life. It has moved numerous times, and has grown in importance as both a religious relic and a symbol of sovereignty it being believed that whoever held the tooth should rule SL. The present temple constructed in the 17th century was once part of the Royal Palace and is a huge structure surrounded by a wide moat.
The Tamil Tigers actually blew it up -using a bomb concealed in a lorry - in 1998 destroying lots of priceless art work and killing 16 people so for this reason the security is very full on lots of searching and screening which is no doubt a good thing.
It is an incredibly impressive building with beautiful art works and gold and gems everywhere you look and an intense pungent smell of fresh flower throughout. This is a very special place to SL Buddhists (and no doubt others) and it did have an incredible feel to it.
We stayed to see the 2nd puja when the drummers -the same get up as the dancers we'd seen last night- circle the temple 3 times playing drums. Even the policemen on duty were overcome with it all!
We then ventured up -through the throngs - to the senior level where the tooth is held. As the queue seemed at the time to be moving pretty swiftly we decided to go and have a look but -isn't it always the way - once we got in it crawled along. We felt we might never do this again so we were determined to stick with it this time - though if we'd known at the beginning that we'd queue for 1.5 hours we might have bailed! In our picture just near the start of the shrine I think I'm starting to look very jaded!
As we got further up the line we saw part of the reason for the delay - a huge penned off area full of babies (and their minders!) and we found out it was a special auspicious day for blessing new babies which was holding everything up.
Never mind we felt like real pilgrims by the time we reached the front of the queue - but the guards allowed no loitering except allegedly if you're Thai or Japanese you are allowed a longer look as these Buddhist countries are a huge source of funding. We Aussies just got a 15 second flash of the golden jewel encrusted casket in which the sacred molar lies, apparently within 6 caskets of diminishing size Russian doll-like. We took a close up of a post card of the casket to give a clearer idea of what we'd seen. It is a really impressive temple and definitely worth a look if you're anywhere near the vicinity.
The enclosed Museum was also interesting - clearly a big school trip venue -rows of cute kids in Persil white uniforms and a lot of very valuable looking artifacts on display.
There was a special memorial tribute to one of the tuskers (male elephants) Rajah. Rajah had been doing service as an elephant here for over 50 years up to his death in 1988. On the final day of the 10 day Esala Perahera festival he had several times been the lucky elephant to carry the replica of the tooth casket. Thus when he died his stuffed body and various pictures of his life his "dressing up gear" and even the papers from when he was initially bought in the 1930s as a "young buck elephant" are displayed in Rajah Tusker hall. It's a shame his nearest and dearest can't come to visit -I'm sure they'd be very proud!
After this we had a look at the open air 19th century Audience hall where the declaration of SL's independence was signed in 1948, and then we stopped by Kandy Museum. As mentioned we missed the main festival so we enclose a picture from the museum display of how it would look. There are 50 elephants now but were over 100 in its heyday. Our guard told us the elephants really enjoy it so (other than one scary sounding episode in the 1950s) they never stampede and they get really excited to see all the crowds arrive and when they hear the music it makes them really happy.
The procession is actually a joining together of 5 -the main temple one and 4 from 4 separate Devales or houses of the gods. These 4 are interesting in that they are Hindu gods who are followers of Buddha who protect Sri Lanka -really highlighting the very close cross over between the 2 religions. We only got to visit one - the Kataragama Devale. This little temple was very brightly painted and in honour of the mean-looking Kotugodelle Vidiya Murugan -the god of war. It was interesting though annoyingly a monk latched onto us and tried to demand a huge "donation" very non- Buddhist! We also took in a visit to St Paul's a 19th century English church which seemed amazingly plain and drab after all we'd seen!
We enjoyed spending time in Kandy though we always seemed to just miss something -we went to go to the Tea Museum -deliberately leaving it until 3pm when it was cooler -to find it now (wrong LP!) shuts at 3pm. Never mind we got a bit of a look at the tea areas and the hills around Kandy. We also tried to see the British Garrison Cemetery -full of brave pioneers who'd succumbed to heat stroke, elephant attack and less glamorously acute diarrhea!! - but again we got there too late and it was shut for the night. Still, Kandy is a nice place to wonder around even if everything seems to be shut!
Next plan on our agenda was to take the railway out to Ella in the hills. We had heard that riding the scenic railway through the tea plantations and hills was truly spectacular. As we are a bit encumbered with the surf board (and a bit of an object of curiosity -I think most surfers head to the coast and don't move so people wonder what the hell we're carting around!) we asked to leave it at the hotel and pick it up on the return trip. This made sense as Kandy is a really good centre for transport connections -but once we hit the train we were REALLY glad we had!
When we went to get on the train the next morning we just had 2 small bags, though we'd been to the supermarket and stocked up on some goodies -cheese and some rolls to go with the avocados and my precious marmite so that, as we rolled through the scenic countryside, I could make lunch. As often with travel it really wasn't like that! The only transport you can book in SL trains is the first class and that was long gone. In second class as the man told us "you have to find your seat." We had to take the train to the next junction and change - so far so good - but upon boarding the next train it quickly became clear we were not going to find seats. This was the last few days of school holidays and the train was PACKED!!
So - all 8 hours of the scenic journey were spent standing up literally like sardines with those around us. One kind lady offered to take my optimistic picnic basket when it looked like it was going to spill all over the carriage, but just standing was hard. All along the train people were hanging off the edges it was so full. The train had begun at Colombo at 6am that morning -about 4 hours ago - and some people from that section hadn't got seats!
Every station we kept hoping people would get off but of course dozens more pushed on! Still………in retrospect the trip did have its good points. There were a mixture of foreigners doing the trip - French German and Aussie -and it was nice to chat to them and swop traveller stories as with the car we tend to miss hooking into this traveller grapevine a bit. Also we really got to meet the locals. Very shy at first they were really happy to make us welcome and point out the odd waterfall /scenic area -hard to see in the cramped conditions. Thank God we had left the surf board behind!! They also shared out their delicious picnic and we -as there was no way we could reach my picnic basket - supplemented this with snacks bought from the passing salesmen - though unfortunately it was so crowded that we had to step into the smelly toilet in order to let him pass! As ever the train was full of drummers singers and guitarists - so we had music to stand to! All in all a sort of fun if uncomfortable experience.
We were relieved to finally pull into Ella. This is a cute little town with an equally sweet station. A big centre for walking it is very pretty and has a nice relaxing vibe and felt the sort of place you could stay weeks. Sadly we only had a day so we walked into town to find our guest house the Beauty Mount Tourist Inn. Due to the massive overcrowding on the train we'd panicked a bit and booked ahead by ringing from the train but there were so many there we'd probably have been ok and not everyone got off at Ella. We'd chosen well it was a great spot, whilst slightly pricier than our last couple of places - $12.50 Aus - it was a really nice a clean little bungalow up a hill looking out on the gorgeous countryside. We'd seen the American lady Rosemary staying in the bungalow next door earlier that day when we'd been at the railway station Kandy. Seeing the crowds she'd wisely taken the bus instead and so had had a seat all the way and beat us by hours. Not such attractive scenery though!
The owner was originally from Mirissa on the south coast but had moved to Ella 40 odd years ago when his father took a job at the nearby tea plantations. His was one of the first guest houses to open and since then he'd built a bit of an empire -owning the local curd shop which did delicious breakfast -local buffalo curd and honey on pancakes -sublime! - and the family had a few guest houses. He was a very rotund smiley old gentleman and he sat in the middle of his huge extended family giving orders like a benign Godfather! His daughter cooked us a superb home cooked Sri Lankan meal that evening -about 9 courses of spicy vegetarian curries- absolutely delicious.
There was a bit of an army presence around and a few "bunkers' including one at the front of our guest house but it seemed an incredibly peaceful spot and it was hard to imagine any trouble here. The next day we got up early and walked up a nearby hill for a fantastic view of Ella's Gap a famous local landmark. In the famous Ramayana epic which we've seen depicted in pictures in Thailand and India Sita Ram's wife is kidnapped by the King of (Sri) Lanka and held captive in a cave. Allegedly this cave was in the mountain here at Ella's Gap. We went to the very upmarket "Ambience" guest house on the hill to have a look from their terrace and it was full of equally up market guests enjoying breakfast with a stunning view of the gap - quite a few Indians amongst them.
We were really sad to leave Ella -whatever your budget a great spot to hang out for a few days but time was running down on our visa and we still had a way to go so had to get back on the dreaded train. All started well - when (thank god!!) we got a seat. I had been ready to get off and take the bus rather than stand another 8 hours! So the journey was very beautiful - and we really enjoyed the views of the rolling hills waterfalls and tea workers we'd missed before.
Then……we went into one of many tunnels -and just stopped dead! It has to be said that many of the trains -which date from the British time - do look a bit clapped out and we doubt maintenance is too good. They had to get another train to push us…the whole thing took 3 hours -making the journey back to Kandy grow to 10 hours!!!!
Again we were saved by having very nice travel companions -a smiley Sri Lankan family - but lovely though the scenery and company were I felt I'd had my fill of train travel by the time we got back to Kandy!
We had a very good night's sleep at the Olde Empire before picking up our stuff and heading this time to the bus station. We were a bit encumbered by the surf board and the smaller buses didn't want us - they are less geared up to boards here as it's not a surfing area so they don't have the roof board racks you see everywhere in say Indonesia. Annoyingly the board is just slightly too long and won't fit in the back luggage area but eventually we found a bus which'd take us. The guy charged us more for the board than for our tickets ($1 for us $2.20 for it) which seemed unfair but the whole cost was only $4.20 so we couldn't complain! After the train we were glad just to get a seat though we were a bit hemmed in behind the board. We were soon even more hemmed in when a young man got on with a photo copier-everything travels by bus here! The buskers and guys selling food, Buddha statues and plants continued to climb over it all without any issues though!
So, on Saturday 4 September we had a problem free -if a bit bumpy- journey to our next destination Dambulla the setting for the famous Royal Rock Temple.