For backpackers wanting to explore the hill country (‘Up Country’), Kandy will likely be your first stop after Colombo on your way inland. Culturally and historically, the city is very important for Sri Lanka, as the capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom, which was finally ceded to the British in 1815. Against various colonial invaders, Kandy has remained an an age-old protector of the Buddhist religion, and its people are proud and patriotic. One of Buddha’s teeth, which is believed to be housed in the famous ‘Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic’, has been for hundreds of years, a symbol of sovereignty and worship for Buddhists all over the country.
The city itself (like many of Sri Lanka’s cities) is noisy and traffic-ridden, but what Kandy has in its favour is a lovely lake in the centre, where you can sometimes spot large monitor lizards! A walk around the lake at any time of day is pleasurable respite, but at dusk it’s particularly impressive as hundreds of enormous fruit bats awaken from the trees. The hills surrounding Kandy offer pleasant walks, or more serious walks for those wanting to take a day trip to the Knuckles Mountain Range. And, if you’re looking to treat yourself, Kandy’s outskirts are home to more and more boutique and spa hotels which offer Ayurvedic massages and luxury treatments.
Things to do in Kandy:
- Walk around the lake: A walk around Kandy Lake to spot giant monitor lizards and fruit bats, as well as other bird species, is a must do in the city. It’s a great way to start your visit. Just beware the many touts that hang out, particularly on the north side of the lake who will try to prise money out of you in various elaborate ways. (See scams to be aware of in the section below.)
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic: This is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temple, which receives many visitors daily into its spacious and well-kept surrounds. Many devotees come to worship the famous tooth, which is believed to have been rescued from the Buddha’s burning pyre in 483 BC and brought to Sri Lanka. Today, the tooth is stored safely in a gold casket, so you won’t get to look at it during your visit. There is an interesting museum onsite, dedicated to ‘World Buddhism’, celebrating the religion around the globe. Visitors must dress modestly (women covering shoulders and legs). Entry 1000 rupees, extra 500 rupees for Museum.
- Peradeniya Botanic Gardens: A steep entry fee of 1500 rupees for tourists puts many backpackers visiting, but for those with time on their hands in Kandy, the gardens offer a pleasant day out, and the upkeep of the huge variety of plants and trees here is understandable.
- Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary: Just above the Temple of the Tooth, you’ll find this forest sanctuary which is a good place to spot monkeys, get some fresh air away from the traffic of the city. It costs 650 rupees to enter and the 5km walk will take you about 2 hours.
- Ceylon Tea Museum: If you’re a big tea lover, this museum makes for a mildly interesting afternoon visit.
- Buddha on the hill (Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue): You’ll notice the enormous white statue of Buddha perched high upon the hill as soon as you arrive in Kandy from the train station. A walk up through the houses to the statue is a great thing to do just before sunset, with great views of Kandy from the top. Entry is by donation.
- Knuckles Mountain Range: If you’re interested in hiking in this nearby forested mountain range, you can arrange trek at travel agencies in Kandy. Access is free for anyone to walk in the foothills amongst the small villages, but entry to the high massif protected zone costs 600 rupees and you must have a guide and be properly prepared.
Scams to be aware of in Kandy: We came across a few opportunists whilst in Kandy, especially around the lake area. Here are a few to be aware of:
- Do you remember me? A man will approach you pretending to be the cleaning staff at your hotel. When you don’t recognise him, he will act hurt and ask you for money as compensation for his hurt feelings. (How this one ever works we have no idea!)
- I am a teacher: A man will approach and tell you that he is a teacher at a local orphanage and can you donate some money.
- Government authorised tuk tuk: They don’t exist! Anyone trying to get you in one of these tuk tuks is just a normal driver trying to charge you 10 times the price.
Where to eat in Kandy?
A great place to have lunch in the city is Balaji Dhosa offering delicious and extremely cheap dhosas in a clean and friendly environment. To the west of the lake, you’ll find a few street food options in the very British named ‘Torington Park’ and if you fancy a beer afterwards (a very expensive one), you can get one in the nearby watering hole ‘The Pub’.
Places to stay in Kandy:
Hanthana Jungle View Holiday Home – We can’t recommend this place enough. The lovely family who run this superb guesthouse will treat you like part of the family from the moment you arrive and their gorgeous house surrounded by fruit trees and tropical jungle will become your home for as long as you are in Kandy. The enormous breakfast, which is including in the rate of the room, is delicious and impossible to finish and there are tea and coffee making facilities available all day. Highly recommended and amazing value for money at around 16GBP / $20 USD / night!
- From Colombo: From the capital, it’s an enjoyable three-hour train journey to Kandy passing jungle clad hillsides and local villages. The Man in Seat 61 is a great website to check timetables and prices.
Where to go next?
- Ella: Seven hours by train you’ll find yourself in this popular mountain resort. The train journey is celebrated as one of the best train rides in the world, and it really is something special. Along the way you’ll pass through a variety of landscapes and climates, ranging from hot tropical jungle, to misty cloud forests and cool tea plantations. See our Ella guide for more information about the town.
- Nuwara Eliya: Halfway to Ella, the temperatures will drop to the lowest they possibly can in Sri Lanka, and the train will stop in Nuwara Eliya. With great hiking, waterfalls and a distinctly British climate, many Sri Lankans love this place.
- Sigiriya: Head north for the cultural triangle and gateway to the ‘Ancient Cities’. Sigiriya, famous for the iconic Sigiriya Rock, is a good place to start your adventures in this region.