Good Friday, and it was indeed splendid. I woke at 6:30am for a 7:00am breakfast (starting to enjoy early starts!), which I ate quietly and alone on the only table at the Inn. Tea and toast. Perfect. It was coming up to 8:00am, and I prepared to go. The owner of the Inn flagged down a Kandy-bound bus, and I squeezed in at the front – for it was heaving already. I found space on the floor to stand my backpack up, then spent the next 3 hours hanging out of the door as more and more people boarded the bus. Everytime the bus stopped I thought it impossible to squeeze any more people in, but they managed it – some men even hung onto the outside of the bus for a more air-conditioned ride. It was a squashed and uncomfortable 3 hours, but I was enjoying the experience. Sri Lanka is rather empty of tourists – indeed, I hadn’t seen many at all, and experiences like these – crammed onto a bus of smiling Sri Lankans, was all part of the fun and adventure.
I arrived in Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Not at the bus station though. I noticed the bus driver nod to a tuk-tuk driving friend on the outskirts, then stop the bus and say this was my stop. I didn’t protest, and hopped off. Predictably, the man in the tuk-tuk pulled up in front of me. I hopped in, for we were at a busy corner, and we buzzed away to Queens hotel. The journey through Kandy’s bustling streets with the market-town vibe was interesting. It was packed with people, being holiday season. One bus going around a roundabout just before us squashed a new family jeep on the inside, and I heard a crunch as the wheel buckled and metal ground and crushed against the concrete roundabout. Happy holidays.
Queens Hotel wasn’t far, and in a great location opposite Kandy Lake. A few touts tried to discourage me from even entering, saying it was too expensive. In my mind, however, I needed a bit of luxury. I had a look. Walking through the 168 year-old Raj relic was like stepping back in time. Polished floorboards, paintings of British Raj-era hunts, Victorian style oval mirrors with dull gold trim, ancient and massive rocking chairs….I liked it. And, for $40US a night, I liked the price too. I checked into room 205, which overlooked the quiet gardens and swimming pool. It oozed ancient colonial charm and sophisticaton. Feeling happy and content, I changed my T-shirt and went out for a wander.
Conveniently located just across the road from the hotel is Sri Lanka’s most impressive Buddhist temple -the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, constructed my Kandyan kings gradually from 1687 to 1782, and was part of the Kandyan Royal Palace. The tooth relic is housed in a salmon coloured structure surrounded by a moat. I walked in, past some very tight security checks. the main tooth shrine, known as the Vahahitira Maligawa, is in the centre of a paved courtyard, with the tooth relic on the second floor. Nobody can see the tooth. It’s in a gold casket, behind an alter, 3m from anyone. Devoted Buddhists were lining the floor in front, deep in prayer. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the temple in their lifetime, so it’s obviously important. I didn’t share the same devotion, so quickly left to stroll around the Palace gardens.
After leaving, I strolled the busy streets that criss-crossed through the old town. Narrow alleys were home to markets, and their was a festive spirit in the air, that the rain failed to dampen. I bought an umbrella, and tried to get lost in the quaint yet rough town. I bought a lovely batik piece for $40US, and some other pictures for my apartment. I went for a lovely walk around the lake, and decided to head into the hills for a view of the area. The climb up was steep, and dotted with little budget guesthouses, and the view at the top was lovely. On my way down, an old chap with bad teeth wearing a worn blue sarong greeted me and asked me if I’d like to see the monks living quarters and monastery. Usually, I’d decline such an offer, not trusting anyone, but I had some time to kill before the Kandyan dance I had bought a 500Rs ticket for, starting at 6:30pm, so I went with him.
We walked up a hill and turned left, and entered the monastery. Some monks were milling around, and I was permitted to take photos. The chap guiding me was nice and friendly, softly spoken and genuine, with a broad knowledge of Kandy. ‘Come’, he kept saying softy, leading me to another area of the compound. He was an interesting fellow, and knew a bit about the history of the monastery. I told him about the Sacred Tooth Temple in Singapore, and he was genuinely interested. Then, to my surprise, he invited me to a face-to-face with the 92-year-old Chief Monk. He sat alone in his burnt-orange coloured robes, clutching a straw fan. My guide bowed and knelt on the floor, and began praying. The Chief Monk seemed not to notice. I remarked he looked much younger than 92, and he smiled, a toothless, tired smile. Through the interpretation of my guide, I learned of how the monk has travelled to many places, and how he survived the Tamil Tigers bomb attack in 1998, and he lifted up the monks robes to show his scars from the shrapnel.
The Chief Monk then blessed me as I knelt and put my hands together in prayer, something I haven’t done since I was 15. Over my head he placed silk white threads, 3 of them – one for health, one for family, and one for love. He then chanted prayers, and I bowed my head more and tried my best to concentrate. After this momentous occasion, I took a photo of the Chief Monk, and was asked to place a donation, on the fan, and give it to him. I felt awkward, and wasn’t sure what kind of donation would be acceptable. I placed a whopping 1,000Rs on the fan and handed it to him. The monk blessed it, and no doubt added it to his personal stash. I left, feeling truly honoured to have been in the presence of such a great man. I gave the guide S$7 as a tip, and headed off to the Kandyan Cultural Centre to watch the Kandyan dancing.
Everybody at the Cultural Centre was a tourist. The dance was OK, though the dancers looked a little jaded, and were looking around clearly bored as they beat their drums. At the end, they walked on hot coals, which was impressive until a drunk Italian guy from the audience did the same thing….maybe the coals weren’t really that hot after all.
I walked back along the lake to Queens Hotel. By now I’d switched to Room 206, as a Sri Lankan family, complete with screaming child, had moved into 204, and it was at this point that I had realised the walls were paper thin.
I popped to Pizza Hut for dinner, in need of something substantial and western, then went to Queen Royal pub, an ancient high-ceilinged colonial pub next to the hotel, and had a quiet bottle of Three Coins before heading to bed.