Sri Lanka – Colombo and Kandy

Because we flew with Emirates airlines, we were able to make a very quick stop in Dubai in the middle of our flight to Sri Lanka. We got a taxi from the airport to the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world!), explored the Dubai mall, grabbed some food and made it back to Dubai airport with plenty of time to check in again, have a nap in Starbucks and, miraculously, get upgraded to business class for the last leg of our trip, despite the fact that our general appearance probably screamed ‘backpacker’ and ‘I just napped in a Starbucks armchair for forty five minutes’. Business class on Emirates is an absolute dream (and will make economy travel even more of a dreaded nightmare now I know what I’m missing out on!) 

We stepped off the plane in Sri Lanka feeling totally refreshed and relaxed and were able to breeze across the car park, briefly enquire about buses and climb onto a little blue minibus packed with passengers and luggage. We were shown to two available seats at the front, and one of the guys sitting behind us even solicitously redirected the air conditioning vents above us. I don’t think the air con was actually working but it was a kind gesture. I slept most of the way into the city centre as the bus became more and more packed, and then, one tuk tuk ride later, we arrived at our hostel, where we immediately collapsed into our beds and didn’t wake up until 11am the following morning. 

When we did venture out into the city, we found it to be hot and grey and polluted, but much calmer than I was expecting. We made our way around a pretty lake and then wandered into the city centre and over to the coastal side, where a long sandy park was filled with food stalls and locals flying kites. I guess what struck me about Colombo was how similar it was to so many other cities that I’ve been to. Each one has its own particular charm, but in the end the billboards and the traffic and the shabby shop fronts and even the building sites and the garages, or the temples and the parks end up looking the same. Which is not to say that I didn’t love exploring Colombo, but we’ve planned to spend the majority of our time in the hills, beaches and national parks of Sri Lanka so I was keen to get out of the city and breathe some cleaner air. 

That being said, we got ourselves quite filthy and footsore exploring all over the city, found some delicious food in the food court of a small shopping mall, and ate surrounded by locals, doing our best to conceal how much the spicy food was burning our mouths and tongues. I asked for my meal with no meat, and was given a plate full of yellow rice, potatoes, green beans, dahl and thick crisp poppadoms, as well as a vegetable rotti and some kind of chilli flakes which I carefully quarantined to the edge of my plate. I actually love this kind of cuisine and enjoy the taste of spicy food but I’m just too much of a wimp to handle it. My vision was actually blurry after eating the heaping plate full, and we had to make a discreet trip to a supermarket and pick up some chocolate milk to ease the burning. After dinner we headed back to the coastal park as the sun went down over the Indian sea, and watched as hundreds of locals flew their kites, ate on the seafront and even ventured into the choppy waves below the sea wall. 

That night we sat on the terrace at our hostel and used the wifi to plan out a vague route for the next few weeks. We’re sticking to the south of the island and planning to see as many elephants, waterfalls, tea plantations and palm trees as we can get our sweaty little hands on, with some time taking in Sri Lanka’s famously gorgeous beaches. 

The next day’s breakfast was rotti and potato dahl at our hostel before getting on a train to Kandy. We were in 2nd class- although our guide book recommends air conditioned 1st class, 2nd class is much more fun because you can stick your head – or your entire upper body if you feel like it – out of the large windows. I strongly suspect that 3rd class, where you can hang out the doors if you feel so inclined, would be even more fun, but you can’t reserve seats and it can get really crowded, so on a tight schedule we opted for guaranteed places. The train wound its way through lush forests of palm trees, through fields and small towns and into the foothills of the mountains before stopping at Kandy, where a banner declared that all visitors would be made ‘Wormly welcome’. 

We made our way into town to grab some food and take a look around and as soon as we reached the lake on the North side of town, we noticed that there seemed to be large crowds of locals, many sitting on brightly coloured tarpaulins on the pavements, as well as barriers and lots of policemen managing the crowds. The crowd was the busiest outside the Temple of the Tooth (apparently one of Buddha’s own teeth, although it is almost permanently sealed inside a casket), and we were soon told that the first parade of the ten-day ‘Perahera festival’ was to start that night. The atmosphere in the town was crazy- the streets were crowded, the food carts were out in force, and everywhere there were bunches of brightly coloured balloons or vuvuzela style horns and whistles for sale to the excited kids. It was like being at the circus. We spent a few hours stepping around the families who were already camped out on the pavement in order to reserve their spot, walking through the small town, grabbing food and generally soaking in the atmosphere. The parade (which happens once a year and is said to be one of the most impressive in the country) definitely livened up what might otherwise have been a pretty uneventful day in a charming but rather ordinary little town. 

As 6.30 approached, shops and restaurants began to shut, excitement rose to a fever pitch and we walked the parade route, trying to scope out a place to sit. Eventually, because trying to squeeze our way in amongst the locals (many of whom had been waiting since midday) seemed a little rude and pretty impossible anyway, we spent a long time haggling for balcony seats, and ended up on the roof of a church which overlooked one of the streets which was part of the parade route. There was one family there already, and once they found out that we had paid less than a third of what they had, they had sharp words with the ticket vendor and managed to get themselves a slight reduction. The vendor looked like he wanted to throw is off the balcony and told us not to tell any other ‘white people’ what we had paid (I saved him the lecture on how not all British people are white and we kept our mouths shut as a few more families arrived). 6.30 came and went and although there was a frenzy of activity in the street below – food vendors, road sweepers, police officers, men selling light up wands and flashing headbands and even the odd elephant dashing past in his full regalia – we waited two hours, while the sky grew fully dark, before the front of the parade made its way to us. The parade is actually comprised of five mini-parades, and each of these sections begins with flag bearers and trumpeters, followed by an elephant slowly processing along in ornate ‘robes’ which cover his trunk and tail and reach to his toes. After the elephant, ranks and ranks of dancers, each group outfitted in a different costume with their own accompanying musician, file past along with torch bearers holding long poles topped with braziers of coconut shells which burn with a bright yellow flame. It seemed that the entire population of Kandy must have been taking part in the parade, and yet the streets were still packed with people. It was like an Olympic opening ceremony without the washed up celebrities, and the whole circus was absolutely mesmerising to watch. The elephants, not something I’m used to seeing walking along city streets, looked almost like fantasy creatures in their ornate outfits, and there were moments where the huge creatures seemed to bounce and sway quite violently to the rhythm of the music. I suppose the whole spectacle must be very overwhelming for them. 

My favourite part was seeing the dancers occasionally drop out of formation to have a rest or a chat or to readjust a piece of costume, before running back to rejoin the ranks. It was a very grand and ornate affair with a fun and informal atmosphere. Turns out, five parades of this scale actually take an incredibly long time, and the whole thing went on for nearly three hours, which was almost too much of a good thing to be honest. It was all done by about 11pm and we struggled to find a tuk tuk amongst the huge crowd. 

After our brief but busy stay in Kandy we set off for the hill country early the following morning. I’m itching to dive into some waterfalls and explore the mountains!