What a ride! I’m sure we tested the Karma gods to the limit.
We’ve just returned from a knuckle-clenching tuk-tuk ride to many of the popular places to visit in Kandy – and I’ve never before been so thankful to return from a day trip in one piece.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kandy is a bustling hill city (population 125,000+) in the middle of the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka.
A mix of beauty and pollution, old British colonialism and Buddhism, Kandy jolts the senses. The city’s heart is the serene Bogambara Lake where ducks swim – but beyond that, the streets are a riot of noise and color, confusion and congestion.
The whole place seems to be under construction. The streets are potholed, and there are no street lights.
And amid the maze of street diggers, gazillions of tuk-tuks weave in and around crowded buses and trucks spewing fumes, all passing each other while motor scooters whiz around corners on the wrong side of the road – every one honking at scurrying pedestrians who dare to cross the road.
Places to visit in Kandy
Our B&B host had arranged our day of Kandy sightseeing by tuk-tuk. Only some $18 USD for six hours for the two of us. A good deal if you don’t mind a hairy tuk-tuk ride! (George thought it was “mildly thrilling.”)
One perky little blue tuk-tuk we passed made us laugh with this comforting thought painted on its back: “No seatbelts. No airbags. But God with us.”
So, what Kandy attractions are worth seeing by tuk-tuk? Jump in with me, and let’s go take a look!
1) Temple of the Tooth
Visiting the splendid Temple of the Sacred Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) tops the list of things to do in Kandy – indeed, it’s one of the best places to see in Sri Lanka.
The fact Kandy is home to the temple is no doubt a major reason the sacred city is a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of eight such sites in Sri Lanka).
As with all Buddhist temples in the country, we took off our shoes and deposited them at the front entrance. George wrapped a sarong around his bare knees (it kept falling off and puddling around his ankles, attracting a few giggles from onlookers).
A moat encircles the temple complex, in which we spotted a giant water monitor larger than an alligator swimming around fish in the dark muddy water.
Buddha tooth relic temple:
Built in the late 16th century, the Temple of the Tooth was expanded upon in 1802. The original structure was kept as a shrine to hold the sacred relic of the Buddha’s left tooth.
The tooth is the holiest relic in Sri Lanka – legend has it that the person guarding the tooth has the authority to be the rightful king. And the temple today is dazzling.
As we admired the gigantic elephant tusks guarding the shrine room, throngs of local and Western pilgrims and visitors, along with gaggles of giggling school children dressed in white uniforms, streamed by.
Some pilgrims meditated quietly in corners, others laid lotus flower offerings on a table in front of the shrine. Still others found a seat on the marble floor wherever they could – perhaps just to breathe in the incense and fragrance of the flowers or to enjoy the cool reprieve from the heat outside.
Buddhist statues and paintings:
Moving beyond the shrine room, we entered a very interesting hall with some 22 Buddha statues. Made from ivory and other materials, they’ve been donated by Thailand, Japan and other countries.
Decorative paintings on the walls also detail the travels of the tooth from the time it was first rescued from Buddha’s funeral pyre some 500 years BC to the time 900 years later (when it was taken to Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a princess) to its future travels, when guarded by various kings, it was moved from city to city to keep it safe from attackers.
In addition, a shiny gold “new” Buddha (about 6 feet high) is displayed in a modern shrine at one end of the hall.
Raja Museum, Kandy
Before leaving the Temple of the Tooth, we popped into the museum dedicated to Raja the Tusker.
Raja is the celebrated elephant who served at the temple for more than 50 years. Each August, he carried the tooth out in a casket in a glorious procession during the annual Festival of the Tooth.
To honor Raja when he died, he was stuffed and installed in his own museum. He stands behind glass, surrounded by old photographs – some show Raja beside prime ministers proudly holding on to his tusk; others show him resplendent in his gold coverings when out in the annual procession.
Raja died in 1988 at the grand old age (for an elephant) of 75. And apparently he’s the only known elephant who has been taxidermatized.
2) Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue
You can’t miss the giant Buddha statue towering above the city.
Built in 1992, it’s located on top of a hill beside a Buddhist monastery and is over 88 feet high.
Our tuk-tuk driver automatically put the big white Buddha on his day-tripping list for us of “things to do in Kandy.”
Climbing up the stairs behind the Buddha, we were treated to a glorious Kandy view point with panoramic views of the city.
Note: There’s a small fee to visit, and you need to remove your shoes as you approach the Buddha.
3) Peradeniya botanical garden
When you need an escape from the hustle and bustle, tell your tuk-tuk driver to head to the Kandy botanical gardens. They’re located in the town of Peradeniya which abuts Kandy, hence the name of Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya.
The gardens are so large (60 hectares) and beautiful, you should allocate a few hours to exploring them – ideally, go first thing in the morning when it’s still relatively cool. (We visited the gardens on our second sightseeing Kandy day; we were too pooped to include the gardens on our first day!)
Dating back centuries, the Peradeniya gardens at one time could only be visited by Kandyan royalty.
Later in the 1800s during colonial rule, the British imported plants from London’s famous Kew Garden and formally established the botanical gardens in 1843.
What to see? An extensive collection of orchids, a fabulous cannonball fruit tree, avenues framed by towering palms and so much more – the gardens are home to 4,000 different plant species and more than 10,000 trees.
We saw many cute macaque monkeys too, doing somersaults on the lawns and swinging from tree branches.
It was fascinating to watch how they worked together to get food – a mother monkey, baby clinging to her chest, sat under a tree, while another high up in the branches picked fruit then threw it down to her so she could eat.
Also engrossing were the thousands of large fruit bats which flew in black clouds through the air and then settled in trees to hang upside down while flapping their wings.
4) Kandy War Cemetery
This exceptionally well-maintained cemetery (looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) honors soldiers who died during WWII defending Sri Lanka (plus one soldier who died during WWI). During the Second World War, Kandy was the home of the Allies’ South East Asia Command. There are 198 identified casualties buried here.
Wandering around the manicured grounds blooming with flowers, it was quite sad to read the tombstones of the many men and women who died young – just in their early 20s.
Most were British. But there were also East Africans, Sri Lankans, Italians, Indians and French. We spotted several Canadian gravestones too.
5) Geragama Tea Factory
Tea and Sri Lanka go hand-in-hand – the country is one of the world’s biggest tea producers.
Interestingly, it was coffee, not tea, that flourished first in Sri Lanka. In the early- to mid-1800s, Ceylon coffee was hailed as the best in the world. But the coffee industry came to a grinding halt when a leaf disease known as “coffee rust” wiped out the coffee plantations.
And so tea plants were introduced, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Located just outside Kandy, the Geragama Tea Factory (also known as the Giragama Tea Estate) is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka.
On a tour, we learned how the tea pickers pluck the leaves, saw the cleaning and processing of tea, and tasted various teas. “White tea” – which is minimally processed and made from the youngest buds – is considered the premium tea and believed to have even more health benefits than green tea.
Our tour of the Giragama Tea Plantation felt a bit rushed, however.
Perhaps that was because we packed it in at the end of the day. Also, we enjoyed a much longer, more indepth tour of a tea plantation in Ella after we left Kandy. Ella is higher in the hills and smack-dab in “real” tea country.
If you’re visiting Ella (or nearby Nuwara Eliya) in Sri Lanka, you could probably save your tea touring for then and skip the Giragama Tea Factory in Kandy. But if not, then this Kandy tea factory is definitely worth while.
More places to visit in Kandy, Sri Lanka
There are more things to see in Kandy, so don’t jump out of the tuk-tuk yet!
Kandy wood carving shop:
If you fancy a large hardwood elephant in your living room, check out Oak Ray Wood Carvings.
Artisans craft some beautiful wood carvings – from intricate chess pieces to masks to furniture – and you can watch them at work. I actually seriously coveted a dining room table and chairs, but at $4,000, the cost was a bit more than our souvenir budget.
Gem museum, Kandy:
Across the street is Isini Gems. The Kandy gem museum and shop is owned by the same businessman who owns Oak Ray Wood Carvings (and the locals quite respect his business flair).
Even if you’re not interested in rubies, sapphires and other bling, the film shown on gem mining and production is actually quite interesting – plus the viewing room is air-conditioned!
And like the wood carving shop, no hard sales tactics were used to get us to buy something. We were thanked for our time and free to go after watching the film.
2 Days in Kandy
As you’ve probably gathered, there really are too many attractions to cram everything into one day of sightseeing in Kandy. It’s possible – our tuk-tuk driver planned to take us to all of the above tourist attractions in Kandy on a one-day tour. But you’ll likely be pooped if you do.
We actually passed on the Botanical Gardens the first day, and I summoned up my courage to venture out in the tuk-tuk again the second day so we could enjoy a leisurely morning visit of the gardens.
Where to stay in Kandy?
We stayed at some very nice places in Sri Lanka.
But I was disappointed with our Kandy B&B so I can’t really recommend it. George was quite happy with it though. (In truth, it was good for the cost).
Here are a couple of top-rated places I would have preferred:
The Secret Kandy:
Tucked amid shady trees – a mere 5-minute walk away from the Temple of the Tooth – is this lovingly restored villa. The small quaint hotel has just 5 rooms with polished wood floors and garden views. (In Ella, we stayed at its sister hotel, The Secret Ella – and absolutely loved it.)
Bonus: The Secret Kandy boasts a beautiful courtyard pool.
Secluded and quiet, this luxury boutique hotel with modern rooms has an outdoor pool.
Where to eat in Kandy?
After full days of sightseeing, we weren’t the most adventurous in going out to eat at night. We ended up hitting the same restaurant – Slightly Chilled Lounge – on two of the three nights we stayed in Kandy.
Run by a British bloke and his Chinese wife, Slightly Chilled (formerly the Bamboo Garden) is a casual open-air rooftop hangout with terrific views of the city’s twinkling lights at night.
The deep-fried shrimp, cashew chicken and other Chinese-style dishes are tasty. And you can get beer, cider and gin-and-tonics too. (Places close to temples don’t sell alcohol, so if you want a frosty beer, check first before sitting down at a restaurant.)
Best of all? Slightly Chilled was close to our B&B and (thankfully) just a short tuk-tuk ride away.
See TripAdvisor reviews of the Slightly Chilled Lounge Bar.
Take a peek at these Kandy tours to pre-book before your trip…
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All photos (except 1 to 4, 25, 30 and hotel photos, which are courtesy of the respective hotels) are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase