After our strenuous climb up Adam’s Peak in the midst of paradise, EZ and took a break from physical exertion, heading to Kandy for a leisurely respite. Kandy, historically the capital of the last ancient Sri Lankan kingdom before falling to the British, is now a beautiful lakeside city bursting with trees and colorful murals, shaped by green hillsides and rich history.
Although Colombo is technically Sri Lanka’s capital, Kandy boasts the reputation of the cultural capital. The city’s storied past, significant cultural and religious institutions, and remote location nestled in the country’s heartland allowed Kandy to preserve many ancient cultural and religious traditions.
Our hotel, Thilanka, felt luxurious after our rustic stay in the Adam’s Peak area, with more modern rooms and amenities as well as a nice buffet. But the décor also paid tribute to the city’s history and culture. It was immediately clear that Kandy is a city with deep pride in its story.
Soon after our arrival, the concierge at our hotel recommended EZ and I attend a culture show. There are three different culture shows available almost daily, all within walking distance from our hotel. Though familiar with some cultural arts, such as Kandyan dancing and drumming, as well as Sri Lankan mask crafts, I was curious to see what else the show had in store. A five-minute stroll down a tree-lined pedestrian-only street brought us to the Kandyan Cultural Centre. As we took our seats, I looked over the program, soaking in the significance of each act.
On the stage before us appeared a series of drummers and dancers in bold, colorful garb.
Plate spinners astonished us by dancing while balancing and spinning multiple plates on posts.
Ceremonial masked dancers donned the traditional painted masks carved in Ambalongoda. These dance rites evolved with purposes ranging from celebrating victory to healing illness to purifying bodies and spaces from demons.
The fire dancing held the audience captive with its mesmeric flames.
Here in Kandy, so many traditional arts were not only preserved, but shared with pride. The show, both entertaining and enriching, invited me to imagine my ancestors performing these rites in the villages. Perhaps under the light of a full moon or the flickering flames of torches, spinning tales, making spiritual offerings, displaying their arts, expressing themselves.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Kandy is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or Sri Dalada Maligaawa, a Buddhist temple once a part of the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy. It is one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, and yet another one of Sri Lanka’s many UNESCO world heritage sites. This temple holds a deeply meaningful place in Buddhist history and Sri Lankan lore, housing the relic of the Buddha’s tooth. It features beautiful octagonal architecture, with a white stupa and lovely grounds.
EZ and I removed our shoes and paid our respects with pansal mal, (offerings of temple flowers that street vendors sold down the street), before exploring the temple and learning its significance.
A stunning hallway with scalloped arches, golden elephant heads, and other filigrees displayed a series of paintings depicting the history of the sacred tooth relic.
This tooth relic was originally smuggled from India to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali and her husband Prince Danath on the instructions of her father sometime during the 4th century. It was believed that whoever holds the tooth has the right to rule the land. Not surprisingly, political intrigue ensued. Buddha’s tooth was stolen, moved, and protected by various kings at various temples throughout history as different players attempted to seize the throne. The British held possession of the sacred tooth relic during colonial times, but even they understood its significance, returning the tooth relic to Sri Lanka upon the country’s independence. The relic finally came to rest at this temple in Kandy.
If you’re interested in more detail on the history and legends associated with the sacred tooth, check out this site.
EZ and I continued to wander through the temple compound, taking in the decorated spaces of worship.
We visited the compound’s museum, which further detailed the history of the tooth along with the related archeological finds. No photographs were allowed in the museum, which held ancient jewelry, coins, and other offerings from visiting dignitaries who were granted the honor of viewing the sacred tooth. Another part of the temple complex enshrined a stuffed tusker elephant, which had historically protected the temple when alive.
Wandering the grounds was a delight in itself, given the pleasant and peaceful atmosphere. I could definitely see how this had once been part of a palace complex.
Kandy is an alluring mix of old and new, with ancient traditions meeting modern trends. EZ and I appreciated the city’s walkability—the old town and newer neighborhoods were in walking distance of our hotel, just around Kandy Lake along the paved stone sidewalks. Talk about the scenic route! A scalloped white gate, similar to the walls of the temple complex, separated the sidewalks from the lake.
We admired the shining water, remembering what we had learned at the temple museum: the tiny isle in the center of the lake had once been connected to the temple with a moat, and the Kandyan king used to escape to the little isle when he needed some time alone.
The town held an assortment of rundown shops and newer boutiques, with dining experiences ranging from holes-in-the-wall to trendy cafes to luxury hotel kitchens. EZ and I spotted some eye-catching architecture, including the checkered red and white pattern similar to the one we’d seen on a mosque in Colombo.
Walking through town, the medley of traditional and modern flowed throughout the streets like a pulse. Women in jeans and tank tops, women in saris. Men in religious garb, men in shorts and t-shirts.
Our shopping experience also reflected both the old and new elements of the city. We meandered through a bazaar-style market maze, where pushy vendors hawked their wares, and glanced at the products in each stall: silky elephant-print pants puffed like Aladdin’s, Sri Lankan cricket team shirts, beautiful wool scarves, sundry fabrics and souvenirs. But we couldn’t linger unless we wanted to be lured into a bargaining match, where vendors assume you are feigning disinterest if you try to politely decline.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the main bazaar, we found a quieter building made up of market stalls, with a courtyard in the center.
As we walked down the halls, we stumbled upon a fabric shop tucked in the corner where the vendor didn’t eye us expectantly, letting us browse without pressure. And what beautiful fabrics there were! Gorgeous, soft wool blankets, scarves, and materials hand-woven with elephants, flowers, and paisley designs. No two patterns were exactly the same. The material felt soft and high in quality. At this shop, we procured a treasure trove of exquisite shawls.
However, EZ had another shopping experience that could not have been more different. In the newer part of the city stood Kandy City Center, a sleek, modern mall with a geometric glass design reminiscent of the Louvre Pyramid.
At the mall, contemporary is key. The polished floors draw consumers to designer stores, recognized global brands, Kandyan jewelers, and high-end treat shops, including a gelateria with unique local flavors in addition to traditional favorites. A sprawling international “cafeteria” uses a card-swiping system to allow consumers to select tasty meals from different cuisine stations before seating themselves. This contrasted with Kandy’s Hela Bojun Hala, the cheap yet utterly delicious open-air made-to-order shorteat line (almost street food), a local working-man favorite that we’d first discovered in Nuwara Eliya.
The coolest thing EZ and I noticed at the mall was the high-tech virtual reality arcade. We don’t even have that at our mall back home! At the arcade, teens and young adults, including some Muslim girls with face coverings, raced cars and fought villains through VR games.
But even the modern elements of the city can honor the traditional. The colorful murals that brighten the streets and add a fresh vibrancy to the city actually depict historical events and cultural elements.
Kandy, like much of Sri Lanka, coexists with nature. EZ and I visited some of my family members who lived on the hillside overlooking the town, enjoying a home-cooked Sri Lankan spread.
My cousin told us that when they had first moved into their home, it had been surrounded by pure jungle. Now, just a decade later, development had transformed the hillside into a beautiful neighborhood overlooking the town, but at a peaceful remove. Even in the middle of town, the thrum of city life incorporates nature, whether in the form of the gleaming lake, lush trees, or urban monkeys.
Hidden in Kandy’s hillsides is a strange, surrealist hotel called Helga’s Folly. It is not a product of Kandy, per se, but a flight of fancy inspired by a sprawling personal family story involving Europeans, Sri Lankans, art, law, classic movie stars, glamour, and tragedy.
Although EZ and I had no desire to stay at Helga’s Folly, we wanted to check it out, given the intriguing recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide book. So we decided to pop in for a drink at the bar one night. We tried walking from our hotel, but it was not quite as easy to walk up the hill as it was to walk around the lake to the flat part of town. Halfway to Helga’s Folly, we decided to call a tuk tuk. It was getting dark, and we feared losing our way.
But the tuk tuk couldn’t find us at first; there was something off about our location on the app. After calling the driver, he managed to track us down through landmarks. Then came the difficulty of finding Helga’s Folly itself. In the darkness, with the hilly roads elusive on GPS, it took some trial and error. Finally our tuk tuk discovered the eerie sign and turned up the corner, scaling a sharp incline.
It felt like the beginning of a horror movie. After the driver dropped us off at the hard-to-find hotel in the middle of what was once all jungle, EZ and I stepped down the rabbit hole into Helga’s world. Things got weirder from there.
The interior of the hotel was unlike anything I had ever seen. Psychedelic, whimsical, artsy, kitschy, historical, mysterious, creepy, spiritual, romantic, colonial, Sri Lankan…
What interested me most was the story lurking in bits and pieces throughout the hotel, which had been converted from Helga’s childhood home. Amidst the murals and artwork and antiques and dripping candelabras, the walls told a tale. Framed photographs and newspaper clippings beckoned, dating from the modern day back to colonial times.
While EZ found us a seat in the “lounge” area and waited for our drinks, I let my feet guide me from frame to frame. Who was Helga? And what was her folly?
As I drifted down the hallway and up the stairs, I gathered that Helga was some sort of eccentric fashion maven—a model, perhaps? A designer? Yet, although she looked white and spent time in England, Helga seemed connected by both blood and marriage to various Sri Lankan families, including the De Silvas and Pereras. The De Silva family featured some notable members, ambassadors and politicians and lawyers, including one married to a princess of Yugoslavia. Some of the people were pictured alongside classic celebrities, others alongside global politicians and figures. What a compelling family…
When I reached the second-story hallways where the guest rooms lay, the mood grew darker. I was alone, with no one else in sight. Now it really felt like a horror movie. Portraits watched me as I walked down the hall. Paintings of Sri Lankan demons nearly leapt to life in the candlelight. On the next floor, I swear a chandelier moved by itself, the crystal tinkling and swaying in the dead air. I hurried back to the lounge to share drinks with EZ. Then I made him accompany me through the haunted halls, and we poked our heads into unlikely rooms and secret crevices, wondering and speculating.
The mysterious atmosphere sparked my imagination. After EZ and I left Helga’s Folly, we took a tuk tuk to Vito Wood Fired Pizza, where we shared a satisfying thin-crust pie while spinning a ghost story—our imagined origin story—about the spooky hotel.
If you visit Helga’s Folly, I’d encourage you to do so without knowing anything about the family—drawing your own conclusions can be a trip in itself. But afterwards, if, like me, you are curious how such as a unique hotel sprang into existence and what the true story was behind it, you can find some details here.
Royal Botanic Gardens
The botanical gardens are about a 15 minute drive outside of Kandy. Though I don’t consider them a must-see, especially given the ticket price and middling level of maintenance, a roam through the gardens can be a pleasant past time if you have time to kill in Kandy.
My favorite parts of the gardens are the unique plants that are hard to find back in the U.S., like exotic fruit trees, “cannonball” trees, and trees with giant root systems akin to partitions.
The botanical gardens are also home to some of Sri Lanka’s prettiest monkeys, at least in my humble opinion. The females boast striking amber eyes, rouged facial coloring, and sleek bone structures. Unfortunately, they also still have the same bad toupee-like haircuts as their male counterparts.
Three days in Kandy had been a relaxing yet enriching experience. We’d gotten in touch with the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, and now we were ready to delve into the history by traveling through the Ancient Cities, starting with Dambulla.