ROAD TO KANDY - Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)

Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)


Journey through a cashew-nut market and a cane-weaving village, drop in at the world’s only elephant orphanage and then drive up to the former royal capital of Kandy to visit the revered Temple of the Tooth.

DISTANCE: 116km (72 miles)

TIME: Two days

START: Colombo

END: Kandy

POINTS TO NOTE: Although the distance may seem short, this route is better spread over two days, as there is so much to see and do. This tour can precede route 7 to Nuwara Eliya and the hill country, or routes 9 and 10, taking in the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, from where you could continue to Trincomalee and the east-coast beaches.

The road to Kandy is a fascinating one, thanks to the insight it provides into the culture, religion and history of Sri Lanka. On this two-day tour you can explore a pair of botanical gardens, feed baby elephants, enjoy an energetic performance of traditional Kandyan dancing and drumming, and visit the island’s most venerated Buddhist temple, home to the revered Tooth Relic.

Until the British conquest, Kandy was the citadel of power for Sri Lankan kings. The original road there was built in 1820. Now, as the A1, it is one of Sri Lanka’s busiest modern highways - although heavy traffic and the sights along the way mean the drive from Colombo to Kandy can take over four hours.


Inside the Temple of the Tooth

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Check out of your Colombo hotel after breakfast and settle down for a drive of amazing contrasts by taking the Kandy Road at the Kelani Bridge. Some 25km (15.5 miles) from Colombo, near Yakkala , stalls selling the sweetest pineapples in the country line the roadside. Buy them whole, or in pieces sprinkled with chilli powder as a spicy snack.

Turn off the Kandy Road at the 27km (17-mile) marker at Miriswatta to make a detour for 4km (2.5 miles) down the B288 road signposted to Gampaha . This leads through paddy fields to the HenerathgodaBotanical Gardens (daily 8am-6pm; charge) at Asgiriya. Established in 1876, this pretty park contains 400 species of plants in 14.4 hectares (36 acres). You’ll probably have the gardens to yourself as they are little visited by tourists.




Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Return to the Kandy Road. After the village of Pasyala is the hamlet of Cadjugama 1 [map] , where women offer cashew nuts (cadju) to passing motorists from roadside stalls. Stop to taste the nuts, either plain, salted or with chilli, at Dimuthukaju, 51 Kandy Road, Bataleeya, Pasyala (daily 6.30am-10.30pm).

Next, the road runs a gauntlet of village houses and stalls at Warakapola 2 [map] , where craftsmen skilfully weave cane into chairs, baskets and souvenirs. At Ambepussa , 60km (37 miles) from Colombo, is the country’s oldest existing hostelry, Ambepussa , see 1 [map] , opened in 1828 when the road was being built. There the A6 branches off the A1, heading northwards via Kurunegala to Dambulla and Trincomalee.


Continue on the A1, where heavier traffic 79km (49 miles) from Colombo indicates bustling Kegalle . Leave the main road, heading northwards to reach the state-run Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage 3 [map](daily 8.30am-6pm; charge). There are around a hundred elephants in the orphanage, from calves of only a few weeks to magnificent, fully mature animals. Sadly, the reputation of the orphanage has nosedived in recent years thanks to repeated and serious allegations of animal cruelty, while some visitors also find the money-grubbing antics of the orphanage’s staff and the circus-like atmosphere depressing.

If you do decide to visit, try to time your trip to coincided with the daily feeding times at 9.15am, 1.15pm and 5pm, or during bathing times, 10am-noon and 2-4pm. Bathing takes place in the shallow waters of the Ma Oya river at the end of the road opposite the entrance to the orphanage. Buy your tickets at the main entrance and walk down the road to the river, taking a seat at one of several restaurants overlooking the water while watching the elephants lumbering about in the shallows below.


Returning to the Kandy Road, you’ll see hundreds of clay pots and jars on display on both sides of the road at Molagoda , which is known for its production of them. Ahead, on the left-hand side of the road, the solitary, steep-sided mountain of Utuwankanda is where Saradiel, a legendary local bandit often described as Sri Lanka’s answer to Robin Hood, lived in the 19th century, hiding with his accomplices in the mountain’s forested nooks and crannys between periodic raids on passing traffic travelling along the highway below.

At Mawanella 4 [map] , look up to see fruit bats hanging from trees along the banks of the Maha Oya (river). As the road climbs, the scenery becomes breathtaking, with terraced paddy fields, lush green vegetation and sheer drops down the cliff side. Bible Rock (Batgala), so named because it resembles an open Bible, comes into view on the right. Beside the road, stalls sell avocado pears and pungent-smelling durians.


Climbing up to the top of the pass at Kadugannawa 5 [map] you’ll notice a slender obelisk (1832) on the south side of the road whose plaque records the achievements of a certain Captain W.F. Dawson (died 1829), ‘whose science and skill planned and executed this road and other works of public utility’. A further tribute to road-making skills is the unusual Highway Museum 6 [map] (Sat-Thur 8am-5pm, free), an open-air display of steamrollers and antique road-making equipment laid out along the side of the highway.

Tea Fortress

The formidable granite building on the southern side of the Kandy Road at Peradeniya 7 [map] , 107km (67 miles) from Colombo) is the imposing Tea Fortress , see 2 [map] , where you can try and buy various top-grade Ceylon teas.


Deep in prayer

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Laid out around a picture-perfect lake amidst a ring of towering green hills, the historic city of Kandy 8 [map] was the main seat of royal power in the island for several centuries, and home to the last independent king of Ceylon until his overthrow by the British in 1815.




Elephants at Pinnawela

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Temple of the Tooth

For a magnificent overview of the city, drive or walk up Rajapihilla Mawatha , a road running above the south side of the lake, to the viewpoint at the top, from where you can look down over the whole of Kandy, laid out with map-like precision below. It is worth carrying on to have a drink in the kitsch and eccentric Helga’s Folly (for more information, click here ) even if you aren’t staying there. From the hill, you will see the Temple of the Tooth A [map] (Sri Dalada Maligawa; daily 5.30am-8pm; charge) rising beyond the lake. It is instantly recognisable thanks to the distinctive golden roof which can be seem gleaming above the central shrine.


The Temple’s moat

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

The temple is home to what is said to be a tooth of the Buddha himself, brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century from India. The tooth itself is kept carefully locked up in a casket within the temple and shown only to the most important of visitors, although you at least can catch a glimpse of the casket during the thrice-daily temple ceremonies (pujas) held at 5.30am, 9.30am and 6.30pm. The extensive temple complex is a superb showcase of traditional Kandyan arts and architecture - it is lavishly decorated throughout. Also within the temple grounds you’ll find a small museum housing the stuffed remains of the magnificent tusker, Raja, who for many years served as the lead elephant in the magnificent Esala Perahera procession, held in honour of the Tooth Relic over 10 days in July or August.

There are security checks at each of the three entrances to the fenced park in front of the temple. A notice requests visitors to refrain from wearing ‘headdresses, miniskirts, short trousers, sleeveless jackets and to help maintain the sanctity of the area’. Footwear must be left at a stall in front of the temple.

Peradeniya Gardens

About 6.5km (4 miles) southwest of Kandy, the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (daily 7.30am-5.45pm; charge) are the island’s largest and finest. Enclosed in a loop of the Mahaweli Ganga (river), the lush 60-hectare (147-acre) park, originally part of the royal residence of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-80), became a botanical garden in 1821. The first tea seedlings were planted here in 1824, nearly 50 years before tea proved its worth as a commercially profitable crop.

The gardens offer a bewildering array of tropical trees and plants plus a charming orchid house, and merit at least a couple of hours’ exploring. At 550m (1,804ft) above sea level, the gardens have an average daytime temperature of 26°C (79°F) - it is best to visit before 10am or after 4pm, when they are at their most pleasant.

Kandyan Arts & Crafts Association

If you’re staying the night in Kandy, it’s well worth taking in one of the trio of dancing shows performed every evening around town. Arguably the best of the three is held at the Kandyan Arts & Crafts Association B [map] on Sangaraja Mawatha (near the Temple of the Tooth), where an hour-long performance of traditional dancing and drumming begins nightly at 6pm, featuring lots of spectacularly costumed, superbly acrobatic Kandyan dancers accompanied by traditional drummers.


Scenic Kandy Lake

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Kandy Lake

The next day, take a lakeside stroll. From the colonial Queen’s Hotel you can walk along the balustraded waterfront promenade between the temple park fence and the lake. The building on the lake’s embankment, now a police barracks, was once the Royal Bathhouse.


Kandyan dancing

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

British Garrison Cemetery

When you reach the end of the security fence surrounding the temple, cross the road and walk up the steps opposite. About 100m/yds up the sloping road, a small granite-block lodge marks the entrance to the Garrison Cemetery C [map] (7/11 Angarika Dharmapala Mawatha; daily 8am-1pm, 2-5pm; donation). Here in a neatly kept setting are the graves of many of the earliest British residents in Kandy, including British diplomat Sir John D’Oyly (1774-1824), who played a crucial role in brokering the surrender of Kandy to British forces in 1815. A perusal of the gravestones reveals the challenging reality of life in the then-malarial colony, with many dying young of tropical diseases.

Shopping district

Retrace your steps back along the lake towards the centre, then walk in front of the temple entrance and around the other side along Temple Street. Turn northwards past an open-sided Kandyan pavilion to enter Deva Veediya street, opposite an Edwardian-era block of lawyers’ offices where you’ll find an incongruous (and rarely spouting) fountain erected by coffee planters to commemorate a visit to Kandy by the Prince of Wales in 1875.


Tuk-tuks awaiting fares


A minute’s walk north along Deva Veediya brings you to the time-warped St Paul’s Church , a relic of colonial Anglicanism found suprisingly close to Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist temple. Alternatively, head westwards along either Srimath Bennet Soysa Veediya or Dalada Veediya to enter Kandy’s main shopping district. Pride of place goes to the swanky modern Kandy City Centre D [map] , on Dalada Veediya, although elsewhere commercial life continues along more old-fashioned lines, with hundreds of shoebox-sized shops squeezed in along the main roads and surrounding alleyways and selling everything from Ayurvedic medicines to mobile phones. For a bite to eat, stop at Devon Restaurant , see 3 [map] , which is always bustling.

Tea Museum

Some 5km south of Kandy, in the village of Hantana (drive in the direction of the railway station and turn southwards at the clock tower, following the signposted road to the east), you will find the Tea Museum E[map] (daily 8.15am-4.30pm; charge). Exhibits tracing the story of tea and the pioneers who produced it - including James Taylor (1835-92), who began the first tea plantation at Loolecondra, south of Kandy, in 1868 - are housed in an old tea factory.

Food and drink


Ambepussa [map] ; tel: 035-226 7299; daily 12.30-4pm, 7.30-10pm; $$

Marking the halfway point between Colombo and Kandy, this rest house is very popular with local travellers for rice and curry lunches or sandwiches in a tranquil atmosphere.


445 Kandy Road, Peradeniya [map] ; tel: 081-238 7440; daily 8am-6pm; $$

Purpose-built emporium, constructed in the form of a rather forbidding looking granite fortress, selling various grades of tea as well as teatime cakes and snacks plus excellent local cuisine like grilled seer fish.


11 Dalada Vidiya [map] ; tel: 081 222 4537; daily 7.30am-8.30pm; $

Functional modern restaurant always busy with locals and tourists alike thanks to its cheap, tasty and unpretentious food, including birianis, lamprais, noodles, devilled dishes, and lots more, plus tasty hoppers at breakfast.