A terrible pun, I know, but one that was too good to resist. Obviously.
Our penultimate stop in Sri Lanka was the former capital, the city of Kandy. One of the final holdouts against colonialists and conquerors, Kandy was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese empire when it finally fell to the British in 1815. Consequently, the locals are fiercely proud of their lineage and traditions and the city has strong ties to the past and is known as one of the country’s cultural epicenters. What made our visit especially cool is that it happened to coincide with the annual holiday, Vesak Day, which marks the anniversary of the ultimate Buddhist trifecta: the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Given that one of Kandy’s primary attractions is the Temple of the Tooth, one of the country’s holiest shrines, which is purported to house a tooth from the Buddha, it’s hard to imagine a better place to witness this celebration.
I have to think that Kandy would be a beautiful city to visit, no matter the time of year or the occasion. A gorgeous lake at the center of town forms the cornerstone of the city, and its position in Sri Lanka’s hill country means that when the rest of the country is sweltering, the climate here is crisp and cool—perfect for leisurely strolls around the lake and around the center of town.
But around Vesak Day, what is already a lovely city transforms into something even more magical. Colorful prayer flags flutter in the breeze and pristine white lanterns (which look just a tiny bit like paper phantoms) are strung around town to complement the devout Buddhists who will dress themselves in white to symbolize Buddha’s death and the purity of the day and make pilgrimages to the Temple of the Tooth.
Elephants are brought to the temple grounds, and the most spectacular flower market is set up outside the gates so that fragrant floral offerings are never far from hand. Supremely fitting, I think, since I have already noted that Sri Lanka is the country of beautiful, bountiful blossoms, and now certainly whenever I think of it, one of the first images that comes to mind is flowers. The colors, the delicate curves of the petals, the bouquet of perfume that hung thick in the air… perhaps more than anything else, these are my lingering images of Kandy.
I suppose that we should have ponied up the money to actually visit the temple—if ever there were a time, this was probably it—but to be perfectly honest, we were feeling a bit templed out at this point and were perfectly content to simply stroll and be swept up in the tides of people ambling the streets.
Like most holidays and festivals in Asia, the atmosphere during Vesak Day was lively and bright, and infectious joy thrummed throughout Kandy during our visit. Devotees from far and wide came to town to witness and take part in the festivities: during one of Tony’s treks from our hotel high on one of the hills that overlooks the town, he encountered a dump truck brimming with local men who had puttered 50 kilometers in the dark through the neighboring foothills never breaking more than 15 km/h just to enjoy the atmosphere for a couple of hours before heading home. Just like all the Sri Lankans we met throughout the country, they were effusive and welcoming, enthusiastically offering Tony a ride, eager to have an “outsider” take part in the merriment.
And because this is Sri Lanka, a country where we never once were at risk of going hungry, there was, of course, so much food. When we asked the owner of our hotel about where to eat while we were in town, he warned us that as part of the Vesak Day celebrations, we would have no issue finding things to eat as, more likely than not, people would simply give it away to any and all who passed. While it wasn’t quite like that, we did enjoy plenty of fresh curd with treacle and free tea during our wanderings around the city and it seemed as though the restaurants where we dined were extra generous in their portions. From banana leaf bundles bursting with aromatic chicken biryani, succulent broasted chickens, and spicy chicken murtabaks (oh how we missed you!), I daresay our time in Kandy was a true FEASTival.
Much as was the case in the Philippines, with all the natural beauty that Sri Lanka offers, it takes a pretty special city to charm and entice visitors into staying when they could be hiking through tea country or lolling about on some of the world’s best beaches. But Kandy was an easy, laid-back place to spend a couple of days and enjoy the gentle ebb and flow of city life, surrounded by culture and history. It’s yet another facet to this fascinating country and although it’s squarely on the tourist trail, the city still feels remarkably chill and generally unconcerned with tourists, which is rare and refreshing in this part of the world.
Since I started this post with a pun, it only seems right (in the “so wrong, it’s right” school of thinking) to end with one, too: Kandy, you’re dandy, and we’re sweet on you!