Asia, Museum, Travel

Life in the Kandy Kingdom

Kandy sits on a hill in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, ensconced in dense jungle and a curve of the island’s great river the Mahaweli. The town of Kandy used to be so inaccessible that no one—not the Portuguese nor the Dutch nor the English could take it by military means. Getting there is still a hassle (though you’re less likely to be brained by a keteriya) and involves either driving along a winding and congested road or getting on a crowded and very slow train. Our taxi ride from Hikkaduwa took seven hours, the last two devoted exclusively to the final 16 kilometers. Our driver was so exhausted by the end of it that he caused two small fender-benders and kept misunderstanding Siri’s directions.

Kandy map final

New Year’s Eve

When we finally arrived, there were still two hours left in the tired old year of 2019. Having signed up for the Gala Dinner at our hotel, we hauled our jangled carcasses along to the dining room looking for some booze and burbling to steady our nerves. After all, if there is one day of the year when heedless revelry is generally permitted, it is New Year’s Eve.

Alas, the mood was not conducive to a bacchanalia. The vast dining room was sparsely peopled by tense and tidy monadic groups. A table of twelve women dressed in white emitted a distinctly religious odor; a wholesome German family of four looked about ready for bed; a young couple from some indeterminate European country were clearly just there for the food. The only likely looking ally was a large British family, the father of which was wearing one of the party hats provided and drinking a glass of red wine.


Then the music started. The Hummingbirds, a calypso band of four playing well-known Reggae hits and a few Sri Lankan numbers. Despite the profusion of Bob Marley, the music was doing nothing to loosen the room. We ate our chicken à l’orange and prawn cocktails in a state of exhaustion wondering when the waiter would bring the bubbles.

When all the guests were still in this painfully self-conscious state, the band started zero in on one table per song, inviting the table to name a song and then, when it was over, to fork over cash for their CD. When they came to our table, we requested a Sri Lankan tune. I tried to avoid eye contact by looking up at a corner of the room and softly tapped my fingers on the table as a feeble gesture of goodwill. When the band finished they shoved their CD in front of us and I realized that I didn’t bring cash downstairs but told them I would go and get it and give it to them later.

The dinner wore on. No booze was forthcoming. John went to the waiter and asked about it. The waiter replied rather stiffly that alcoholic beverages were not included in the menu and would need to be ordered separately. However, he duly brought a bottle over and that was a blessing.

The band went outside to the pool, following the shyest diners, who had thought to avoid them. John wanted to sing with them so we followed them all out there and found the band serenading a couple of blushing Swedes with ABBA’s “The Winner Takes All”.

As the band retreated without making a sale, John pounced.

“Do you know ‘Cough Syrup’ by The Butthole Surfers?” he asked.

“What kind of song is it sir?”

“American song.”

“Country?” The lead singer asked.

“Sure!” John said and launched into a full-throated rendition of late-twentieth-century lyricism.

Sportingly, the band followed along with lugubrious twanging and sweet harmonies that made it a fairly idiosyncratic arrangement, to say the least.


The Lake

The only thing I really knew about Kandy was that it had a Temple of the Tooth on the edge of an artificial lake. Sri Dalida Maligawa is the temple built to house the canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, which is said to have been retrieved from his ashes by a disciple and smuggled to the island later on. The temple is part of the royal palace complex, reflecting the tradition that whoever holds the tooth holds the divine right to rule.


On the first day of the New Year I woke up early and decided to go see the temple and lake before it got too hot. At seven o’clock, the streets were just whirring into action. A skinny old man in the faded sarong was laying out the components of his shoe-polishing kit on a rag on the sidewalk. The newspaper vendor next door had received bundles from the printer and was busy cutting the blue plastic strips tying them together. A woman was sweeping the street with a twig broom. The old hat-seller was laboriously unpacking his big black sack of hats and pinning them up on a plastic frame. Short-haired, long-eared stray dogs lay curled against walls in corners. Tuk-tuk drivers were picking out strategic parking spots.

When I got to the fence around the temple grounds, I saw that there was already a big line at the entrance gate. The line was moving slowly because each entrant was being checked thoroughly by security guards. The temple has been bombed twice, in 1988 and 1998, so no more chances are being taken.

There were a lot of women in white and vendors around the grounds were selling flowers and snacks. I’ve since learned that Wednesday is the day of the week when the tooth is bathed in floral water. New Year’s Day was a Wednesday this year, so perhaps that was why it was so busy. I was particularly enthralled with the lotus-blossom stands, which attracted dozens of large black bees.


Instead of going to the temple, I followed the lake shore. The lake itself is full of fish, which are sacred so it is forbidden to catch them. This explains the very large number of cormorants who frequent the overhanging trees, and the cats who laze on its bank. I even saw a monkey eating one, though I don’t know if it caught it itself or borrowed it from someone else.


It took about half an hour to walk right round the lake. The calm lake, greenery and birds create a scene of peacefulness that is unusual in the middle of towns in this island. Even so, though, the road ran right beside the lake, which meant that even early in the morning there was a steady stream of traffic.  


The Best Tuk-Tuk Driver in the World


Specifically, there were a lot of tuk-tuk drivers. Usually they just said “Taxi?,” checked for a reaction, then zoomed on. All drivers were men and they drove exactly the same model motorized tuk-tuk: red or blue with a black canopy fastened with white bolts designed to look (appropriately enough) like winged skulls. An oilskin curtain was invariably tied neatly up at the back window ready for the eventuality of rain; a gas-filled whiskey or vodka bottle sat next to the driver’s foot. The back of the canopy tended to be personalized with some kind of slogan or logo, for example a drawing of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean or a witty phrase like ‘Available All Times But Busy Times Sorry’ or a seemingly random corporate logo such as Gucci or Apple.

“Hello Madam! Tuk-tuk!”

I turned around to see a slim, mustachio’d tuk-tuk driver waving his long arms.

“Hello,” I said. “No tuk-tuk thank you, I’m walking,” I said, pointing along my path.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“I’m just walking. No tuk-tuk.”

“Madam! It’s OK, I just want you to read my book.”

I hesitated. Book? He was an author? Somehow, he must have known that I, too, nursed literary dreams. Perhaps he was the nation’s next big prize-winning novelist, detailing the touching and funny daily trials and tribulations of a tuk-tuk driver in Kandy, satirizing the brutality of the global forces that kept him putting in endless loop de loops around the sacred city. I certainly couldn’t snub him now. It was my duty as a fellow author to nurture this against-the-odds talent. I stepped resolutely towards him.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“New Zealand,” I said, wondering about the relevance of the question to his literary career.

“Ah!” His eyes lit up, the light of inspiration that probably beamed out of them onto the pages of his diary in the wee hours of the morning, the only time he had the peace and quiet to hone his craft.

“I know someone from Australia. Two days ago, here!” He grabbed a tattered exercise book from the seat next to him, riffled through its pages and showed me an entry, hand-written in blue pen:

Ravi is the best tuk-tuk driver in the world. He took me to all the places and was very good. He was very friendly and I would 100% recommend his service to anyone.

“Ah, great!” I nodded, handing the book back, nodding and smiling.

“I take you to see the monument.”

I didn’t know which monument he meant but decided not to ask because that meant getting side-tracked.

“No thank you, I’m walking. I don’t have any money,” I patted the place where my pockets would have been if I had any.

“No, no, not now!” He laughed. “Later, I give you my card.”

“But I don’t have a phone,” I said.

He fished around in his pockets and produced a business card.

“I don’t have a phone so I can’t call you,” I explained, concerned that he wasn’t understanding.

“Here, here,” he said and thrust the card into my hand.

“OK, bye,” I said, and walked off, deaf to further entreaties.

For the rest of the walk I considered how this sort of hard sell was probably an effective approach if every single other man in your city was employed in the same occupation and there was a limited pool of available customers.  


The Crows

They started gathering at about five-thirty, when the light changed, finding the highest spots—the ridges of roofs, the tops of poles and posts and the topmost branches of the tallest trees. These are slim jungle crows with big ravenesque beaks. At mid-day their feathers shine with an oily green iridescence but now, in the dimming day, they were turning into silouettes. 

To the west, a valley receded into misty, green haze. The piled-up clouds that signal humidity were turning an orangey-pink and occasional flashes indicated a lightning storm somewhere in the distance. On the hill a huge white statue of the Buddha presided over the town. From the main street below you could hear the usual honks and engine noise, along with shouts and laughter and snatches of music booming from a passing car.


A flock of white herons passed by at our eye-level. There were about a dozen of them, long legs stretched out behind. They flew gracefully and quickly in a straight line, from A to B, with B being somewhere beyond the lake. Then there was a synchronous flash of white—the quick flap of a flock of minas, whose butterfly-like wings were taking them somewhere safe, a tree on the street, maybe.


Meanwhile, the number of silent crows was gathering. At five to six, the view from the bar was like a scene from The Birds. Now and then a single crow ruffled its neck feathers, bowed its head and let out a belligerent squawk, but the majority stood silent and waiting.

Then, when the sun had almost disappeared, this majority lifts off. There must be hundreds of them whirling around and squawking. From the porch, we are astounded by the noise. We can’t hear each other speak, I can’t even hear myself. The air is filled with a multi-throated raucous gloating. The crows are not travelling; they were dancing or fighting or singing or threatening or something. It’s such an exciting spectacle, we make sure we don’t miss it again. The bar tender says it happens every night, “So many birds” he waves his hand at the window, smiling.


The Hot Museum

Misreading Google Maps, I thought the museum was inside the walled-off temple complex, whereas it is actually just outside it. This mistake was significant because it meant we spent a good forty minutes lining up outside the temple complex, going through a gender-segregated security check and trudging across an immaculate lawn only to find that we didn’t have to. It’s one of those little things that spouses tuck away in their memory to tax the offending partner with at a later date.


We might have cut our losses and gone to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth but in the end we didn’t want to because (1) we’re not believers and would feel as if we were intruding and (2) it would involve walking around with no shoes on and (3) we knew the limits of our museum-temple endurance, especially on a hot day in SE Asia.

By the time we made it to the museum, we were floppy with the heat and not in a mood to be impressed by anything. Considering this, the museum must have been interesting enough because there were several objects that made us linger grumpily around the glass cabinet for a second or two.


The nobles of Kandy wore fine clothes and jewelry and were carted around on palanquins. They used pretty objects including hand-carved-coconut ladles liked to watch dances. The men were good at sword fighting and they produced manuscripts written on ola leaf. Their metalsmiths were competent.


The coolest thing in the museum was probably the flag of the rebel Monarawila Keppetipola Disawa, who resisted British rule in the nineteenth century. It features a pop-eyed, red-lipped roaring cartoon lion that I, for one, wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley.


Escaping Kandy


Getting out of Kandy is not easy.

The train station is open to the elements, which means it is hot. We arrived early and the train was an hour late. This gave us plenty of time to watch the locals. Crows had made the place their home, even the indoor parts of it. A couple of healthy stray dogs trotted here and there, getting hand outs from staff and making parkour leaps onto platforms from the tracks. At the end of the platforms was an aquarium containing a bunch of confused looking fish.


An elderly woman with no teeth patiently led a blind woman—her daughter?—from person to person asking for a small offering.

I got bored waiting and finished the chocolate-covered peanuts we’d brought for the journey. I went to the loo, which had no lock or toilet paper. I photographed things around the station then went for a short walk. Every second person asked, “Where are you from madam and where do you want to go?” so I returned to the station after five minutes.

Just before our train arrived, an announcement in Sinhalese caused everyone on our platform to move to platform 2. We followed in a mad scramble and only just made it in time to shove all our luggage aboard and claim our seats.


The relief we felt when the train started moving was immense, but short-lived. That’s because the train stopped moving after about five kilometres and stayed still for 20 minutes. We don’t know why. At one point a British girl piped up, perhaps speaking for everyone else, “I’m hungry. I’m tired. And I’m sick of being on this stupid train.”

The journey continued for several hours at a maddeningly slow speed, stopping at every station on the way. When the ticket-collector came, John patted his pockets with consternation.

“I don’t have the tickets.”

“Are you sure? Did you check your bag?” I asked.

He checked his bag.

“Wait a minute, didn’t I give them to you?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ll check.” I riffled through my pockets and purse. Nothing.

“Oh well,” I shrugged. “Just tell him we lost them.”

“He’s—they’re going to kick us off the train!” John hissed. “This is a disaster! I’m having chest pains.”

“Tickets please sir?” The man said.

“They’re back there, in our luggage,” John said bravely.

The man nodded and moved on.

“There, see?” I patted John on the arm and drifted off to sleep.

When we arrived at Colombo Fort station several hours later I noticed something was folded up in the bottom of my jeans pocket and fished it out. When I realized what it was I hastened to shove it back in my purse, but not before John saw it.

“Are those the tickets by any chance?” he asked between clenched teeth.

“Ah well, ‘All is well’ as Trump would say, eh?” I smiled sheepishly. “No harm after all?”

“Chest pains,” he muttered, shaking his head, as we rolled our bags to a taxi.

End of the line

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