Friday, 14 October 2016

Bitter sweet Kandy

Kandy 14th Oct - 18th Oct 2016

We survived our first Sri Lankan bus ride and after being thrown from side to side for 4 hours whilst we drove up through the mountains past some magnificent views of jungles and forests we reached the city of Kandy. A city located at the heart of the island nestled away in the cool cloudy air of the mountains that make up most of central Sri Lanka.
We used Airbnb and stayed with a guy called Ifti, a wonderfully friendly man who bombarded us with more local information than we knew what to do with. His place was a 10p bus ride out of the city and for 10gbp per night we got way more than we bargained for. We figured we were getting a room in a house/flat as was usually the case but here we ended up with an entire apartment to ourselves. A big double bedroom with ensuite, a living room and dining room with flat screen tv and a kitchen, a whole actual kitchen. How we'd missed being able to cook rather having to rely on restaurants and cafes. Being able to cook for ourselves was another reason why we didn't each much Sri Lankan food during our first weeks in the country. We found the flat to be so nice that despite having seen everything we wanted to see in Kandy within the first day or two we requested an extra day just so we could stay in the apartment and hang out there.

A nice visual juxtaposition: Buddhism and Christianity
Along with Kandy came our first experience of tourist exploitation in Sri Lanka, something which sadly dampened our overall positive impression of the country. The Temple of the Tooth which sits at the heart of the city and is one of its main attractions for both locals and tourists is famous for containing within its walls one of Buddha's teeth, supposedly. It is also of course on Tripadvisor's "must see" list for Kandy and the region, however, entrance for locals is a few rupees whereas for foreigners, be they tourists or not, to enter it's 15gbp. I understand that in most cases there will be a wage/wealth disparity between most tourists and a lot of the locals but for the price difference to be that high I find a bit ridiculous. In India there had been several occasions where the tourist price had been higher than the locals' price but it had usually been double or triple and still cheap whereas this was closer to 10x the price and far from cheap. Needless to say we couldn't afford to spend 30gbp on entrance tickets out of our 35gbp per day budget. Instead we walked around the outside and admired the free bits, which I have to say were very beautiful. The temple was situated right next to an old very English looking church which made for a nice contrast. We weren't that desperate to enter so we were okay with not going in, we just found it a shame that the price was so high especially when looking at old reviews where you could track a steady increase in the entrance price over the past years and months. In retrospect we can say that we've now come across this in multiple countries but this instance annoyed us greatly as it was the first time we'd experienced it.

Ifti was an excellent host but his advice was perhaps a bit hit and miss. He insisted we went to two places, a cultural dance show and a gem factory, because like everywhere you go everything is famous for something and Kandy is apparently famous of gems and dances. The gem factory started out very interesting, it began with a video showing how they were found and collected from the earth, sorted and cut then as soon as the credits rolled we were whisked away to a room displaying more information about how the gems are cut and cleaned which could have been quite interesting except for the fact we had all of a minute to look around it before we were dragged to the shop floor. As soon as we were on the shop floor they were then more than happy for us to take our time and look for as long as we wanted. The various salesmen and Ifti himself were very insistent on us buying something, even something very small. How about this ring, very cheap, only 500gbp. HA!!!! Good one. Fed up, it was our turn to be insistent and so we left.

The cultural dance show, another very popular attraction in Kandy, was 10gbp a ticket each which as I have discussed was a lot of money of us but we still trusted Ifti's judgement on the subject and believing it to be a genuine local event we happily went along with it. It turned out to be absolute trash.  We were sat down in a small village hall style theatre while the rest of the room filled with other tourists and their tour guides (goddamn it we'd been duped, WE TRUSTED YOU IFTI!). The following hour was filled with various dances with zero explanation to the cultural or historical significance, zero narration and zero exposition. The performers didn't appear to like what they were doing and there were definitely a few performers who literally had no idea what they were doing and if that was obvious to a foreigner who knows nothing of dance than who knows what that looked like a local with some sort of appreciation for Kandyan cultural history. To make it worse before we were able to leave they all lined up with buckets nearly blockading the exit asking for tips. Since travelling we have been so careful not to waste our money - there was even been a time when we debated whether to buy more water or not because doing so would cost money (stupid I know) - so this waste of our funds understandably annoyed us.

Buddhas to the left of me, Buddhas to my right

HOWEVER. We did have a kitchen so Kandy wasn't all bad. We made sooo much french toast!

And on a more positive note we took a day trip to Dambulla a few hours north of Kandy on a deathtrap of a bus to visit an impressive cave temple. Upon arrival we were met with the tranquil stares of a giant golden buddha which loomed overhead and after a long hike up a rocky hill there was a series of cave all of which contained various sized, shaped and positioned buddhas, a few of which were even carved straight out of the mountain. You did have to be barefoot though which made walking incredibly difficult as the rock floor was reaching near scolding temperatures after being heated up the sun all day. It had the effect of the locals walking around casually looking at the statues and imagery whilst all the tourists hopped unceremoniously from one spot of shade to the next like a bunch of children playing 'the floor is lava' which I suppose if the rock had been any hotter would have been a reality. It was a fun day out especially because entrance was free.

Hey there big guy
Whilst we were in Dambulla we did however have to spend some time convincing our various tuktuk drivers that we didn't want to go to Sigiriya. Sigiriya wins top spot for places to visit when in central Sri Lanka, at least according to Tripadvisor again, all local tour agencies and virtually very poster to be found in Kandy all of which seem to have Sigiriya as well focus. It even beats out Temple of the Tooth. But like that temple it's a massive tourist trap. The attraction is a gigantic, 200metre high rock situated in the centre of a forest covered plain with the ruins of a half built fortress on top and while it sounds amazing (it totally does) it's also sodding expensive. Everybody warns that you should arrive early in the day so you don't either get baked into the earth by the sun or crushed on the stairs on the uncontrolled mass of people that come later in the day but they don't mention that you have to pay 30gbp to get in which is almost an entire day's budget for just one of our tickets. I think the local price was 30rupees which is about 15p..... I can almost sympathise with the temple prices because they're preserving something sacred however this looked to be done purely for the money. It was a real shame because I would genuinely liked to have gone up the rock but when push came to shove we had the choice of visiting Sigiriya or potentially traveling for an extra 2 days instead with the money saved. We chose to extend our trip. In fact we did manage to see Sigiriya off in the distant from the Dambulla cave temple so that was a plus. And as an added bonus we recently (I'm writing this from Colombia) went up a very similar attraction which cost less than 5gbp each and had far more interesting views (he says with smug satisfaction), so stay tuned for that episode.

As I write my thoughts down it sounds as if our experience in Kandy was entirely negative but it really wasn't. For all its faults Kandy was a nice enough city but it didn't have a huge amount to offer us. The city was fairly modern with malls and nice new restaurants but these things don't really interest us so much. If it hadn't have been for Ifti and his amazing apartment we wouldn't have stayed for as long as we did. Being blunt I believe this was probably the low point of our 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, not because it was bad but rather because the rest of the trip got increasingly better.

We packed up and headed on the next bus to Anuradhapura.

Until then,
The morning commute in beautiful Kandy

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