Kandy Thurs. 11 –Thurs. 18 August 2011
Sri Lanka is amazing for such a small country in that it has such diversity. So within a few hours the temperature had dropped and we were surrounded by hills. We'd been to Kandy the capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom a year ago but that time we just missed the famous Esala Perahera (EP) or August Festival so we were back to catch it!
We'd got a good heads up for a camp spot from our sponsors the McLarens Group who amongst various other interests (including Mobil Oil) own some very nice hotels. Dinesh the MD had very kindly arranged for us to camp at one of them the Topaz Hotel. Up on a hill overlooking the town this was a gem of a camp spot.
Very kindly they also treated us to all our meals during our stay at their lovely restaurant - a real treat -thanks guys. The dining room had an incredible butter sculpture which the chef had created -very impressive - thankfully it was cooler here -down south it'd have swiftly been reduced to a puddle! Topaz and the other hotel McLarens own here the Tourmaline are great places to stay in Kandy, up in the cool of the hills but only a 10 minute walk to town. Have a look at their site www.mclarenshotels.com
We'd timed it to turn up for the last night of the EP. The festival builds up to a climax over 10 days ending with a flourish on the Nikini Poya or full moon. The festival is allegedly one of the oldest in the world - dating in one form or another from the 3rd century BC. It causes a huge influx of travellers and a huge increase in prices - some guest houses upping their prices fourfold over the main nights so we were really thankful we'd brought our own accommodation!
We'd not bought tickets , as we'd heard that you could get them far cheaper on the day -in fact we were in two minds as to whether to get tickets - I'd got an idea that we could just sort of wander around and see the procession -but when we arrived I could see that that wasn't a good plan -the place was HEAVING!
Many of the people on the pavements overlooking the route had been there since 10am that morning, so by 6.30pm when we got there it was a seething mass of people.
We got approached at once by touts looking to sell off places to sit and watch from the shop balconies overlooking the road. They started at 5,000LKR each but we managed to get them down to 3,000 or about $23 Aus. a head. What followed certainly wasn't the most comfortable few hours of my life!! Actually we were four rows back from the front which was not too bad a position as we could at least stand when the parade began to get a better view -those in rows 2 and 3 had quite restricted visibility. Most of the "good " seats had been sold off previously mainly to tour groups and for 50-100 euros each so we'd done quite well really.
Jammed onto the balcony we were a multi-cultural little group- Irish, Italian, Austrian , Slovakian , Czech German French and us as well as a family of Sri Lankans. It was as ever interesting to chat to other travellers, and we had plenty of time to do so! We were seated by 7.30pm and the parade didn't arrive in front of us until 9.40pm! Once it did though the long wait was forgiven as it was spectacular.
The procession is led by thousands of Kandyan dancers, acrobats, fire jugglers, whip crackers and drummers. Then comes a long procession of beautifully dressed up elephants - around 80 in total - all flanked by still more performers. The incredible thing is really the scale of the procession especially when you think that it was once twice the size in the good old days of the Kandy kings.
The central point of the procession and the real focus is the Maligawa Tusker ( head elephant from the sacred tooth temple) who walks on a carpet of freshly laid linen flanked by 2 other elaborately decorated elephants carrying a replica of the sacred tooth casket (just a replica mind you!) This only happens on the last night, as do the female dancers -for the other 9 nights the parade is wholly male. Despite the numb bum and the tiredness (it was 2am by the time we got home) it was definitely worth it. Hugely impressive and a real "must see."
We spent a nice couple of days at the Hotel Topaz -enjoying the views to the golden topped Sri Dalada Maligawa or Sacred tooth temple -updating the website (free Wi-Fi!!) and just relaxing.
We walked down to Kandy a couple of time - taking an evening stroll around the lake and seeing a lot of the elephants relaxing and coming down after the thrill of the procession!
Most of them spend the rest of the year as temple elephants. On the EP night we had thought that it was amazing how calm they seemed with all the noise and chaos -but they all seemed quite happy and we didn't see any being struck or bullied at all thankfully.
We also made it to the British garrison cemetery -something we'd tried a couple of times last year and found it shut. The caretaker knew his stuff and took us around the graves - what struck me was how young a lot of them were. One guy had actually distinguished himself at the battle of Waterloo - but then succumbed to a mozzie bite on SL's east coast. Numerous grisly deaths -from goring by elephants -to acute diarrhea!!
We did a bit of shopping too -Andrew replacing his stock of knock off Columbia shirts which are for sale everywhere here. Originals that go out of the factory back door with the labels cut out -for a fraction of what they'd cost back home!
We drove out to the hills and took in a tour of the Tea Museum. This 1925 building fell into disrepair for over a decade before being fully refurbished by the Tea Board for tourism purposes. It was really well done but largely deserted which seemed a shame -maybe more advertising needed and/or transport from town laid on.
There was a tribute to James Taylor the original pioneer who brought tea here and one to Thomas Lipton who kept up the good work. James Taylor sounded a bit of a dour Scotsman -only taking one holiday in his working career and that was to study tea in Darjeeling! I asked our guide if he'd ever married "no madam his only love was for tea." Takes all sorts!
We got a nice complimentary cuppa on the top floor - there was a telescope and though the view was a bit cloudy we found the hill top Buddha just down from our hotel which we planned to visit later that day.
On the way home we stopped at the temple and climbed up onto Buddha's back to look at the view the other way. Buddha looked like a rugby player from that angle - all neck and ears!
We'd booked into Toyota to take a compression test of the engine on Thursday 6 August -so sadly the next day we had to leave Hotel Topaz or we might still be there! Thanks very much to all the staff and the McLaren Group for their kindness and hospitality.
On the way back to Colombo we stopped off at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens just out of town. Initially a pleasure garden for the Kandyan Kings these were later taken over by the British and are still beautifully maintained and pretty big at over 60 hectares.
All very impressive - a great display of orchids avenues of palm trees, a display of grasses from around the world and lots of room for the millions of white clad school kids to run around in! Our guide book quotes the entrance fee as 600 LKR so it'd shot up a bit in price at 1100 LKR each. Ouch!
It was a nice drive back through the hills. That's the thing about SL -none of the distances are too great so it was only a few hours back to Colombo, which felt very hot sticky and noisy after the hills! On the way we stopped to buy some fruit and have a healthy snack of roadside cooked sweet corn. Lovely to see Rambutans again -we'd not seen them since Bangladesh -a real treat.
We spent the night back at the Pegasus Reef Hotel (thanks again for letting us park) so we were up bright and early for our 8am Toyota appointment. Good news- the engine compression test showed the engine to be as good as new- no work needed with 370,000 km and counting under her belt! Not bad for a 27 year old vehicle.
So , we were off again pretty quickly -heading east to first see a bit more of the hill country and then onto Arugam Bay -famed surfing spot on the east coast and the main reason that Andrew was so keen to return to Sri Lanka!