We jetted out of Frankfurt on a Friday evening, and, after a quick layover in the brand new, shiny, luxurious airport in Muscat, Oman, we arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka early Saturday morning. Since we purchased our visas online ahead of time, we breezed through customs and hopped in an Uber to drive to Kandy. After a quick hiccup, in which our first Uber driver decided his car couldn't make the trip up the mountainous roads, we were off to start our Sri Lankan adventure.
For just about $40USD, we had a picturesque three hour drive into the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world, and would serve as our base for the next two days of exploration in central Sri Lanka.
After arriving at our guest house, situated in the hills overlooking the center of town, we grabbed a tuk tuk to the local market and met our guide Ruwan for a food tour of local Sri Lankan delicacies. We used the WithLocals website to book tours with local Sri Lankans during our time in Kandy, and were able to choose our guide and itinerary based upon our interests.
It turned out we were visitng during the Poya full moon holiday, so the big produce market and some of the restaurants weren't open, and the streets were filled with locals and visitors streaming in to spend the holiday at the famous tooth temple, alleged to house Buddha's actual tooth. Despite the limited options, our guide started us off right with some onion roti, a crispy savory pancake, which we dipped in veggie curries and lentils. The first meal in Sri Lanka was simple, spicy, flavorful and super cheap, coming in at only $2 USD. We topped off our roti with a dessert made from local wood apples, gelatin and coconut cream, which tasted like a strangely textured apple pie, before walking off our feast with a jaunt around the lake where we fed popcorn to the fish and passed by stalls selling tropical fruits and veggies.
After our food tour, we took a quick nap back at our guesthouse with plans to explore the famed eccentric restaurant and hotel Helga's Folly for dinner, only to awake to the strongest downpour either of us had ever experienced. Hungry and tired, we ventured out to the closest restaurant and, sadly, ate pizza for our first dinner in the country, promising this would be the only non-local meal we'd eat for the remaining 16 days of our trip.
For the second day of our trip, we booked a full day with a different guide named Ruwan via the WithLocals site. This time, we'd drive north from Kandy toward Sigirya, an ancient fortress perched atop a 660-foot high column rock, home to King Kasyapa around 500 AD. Instead of climbing to the top of Sigirya Rock with the thousands of local holiday tourists and international tourists visit Sri Lanka for Christmas, we decided to head to Pidurangala, a nearby column rock and Bhuddist temple site, which features epic views to Sigirya, and allegedly, fewer tourists.
On our way, we picked up breakfast at one of the many street-side fruit stands. We pointed to a couple of coconuts, which the tiny female proprietor chopped open for us with a machete. We drank the pure coconut water and then the owner sliced it open so that we could eat the coconut meat. We grabbed a couple of perfectly sweet and fruity red bananas for the road, and were so happy that we could enjoy these $2 fruit pit-stops for the rest of the trip.
Despite our best efforts to outsmart the crowds, the local holidaygoers proved too much for us, and we were plunged into a mass of humanity as we attempted to scale Pidurangala rock. To reach the top of the rock, there is a narrow channel that requires a bit of climbing. The combination of tourists of every age and ability trying to climb both up and down simultaneously created a cluster of people in very confined quarters, even with local military men attempting to help the slow and inexperienced visitors up and down the rocks.
Erin cleverly tucked in behind some boy scouts and was escorted along an alternative route to the top, so after about 30 minutes of hiking, climbing and sweaty gridlock, we made it to the top, just in time for some light rain which made the views to Sigirya even more atmospheric. We explored the top of the rock on all sides, and reconnected with the boy scouts to plan our line-cutting escape back down the rock, which involved sliding underneath a giant boulder into a crowd of Sri Lankans eager to reach the top of the rock.
After the intense but epic experience at Pidurangala, we were ready for lunch. Despite our requests for local food, our guide brought us to a Sri Lankan buffet filled with smoking Euro tourists. We were nervous to offend our guide, who probably got a cut of our meal or a free lunch for bringing us to the spot, but we asked him again to please take us to a more authentic lunch spot. This time, he seemed to listen and brought us to a new spot, which was also a buffet of tourists, though this time they were from China. At this point Dave was more direct, and it finally sank in. Our guide took us to a local outdoor food market where we shared local egg hoppers, string hoppers, spicy veggie curries, crispy fried breads and a thick, soup-like herbal green smoothie, all for less than $5 USD and surrounded by local families enjoying the holiday weekend.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Satisfied with our delicious lunch success, we next headed to Dambulla to check out the famous cave temples and paintings. Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. Dambulla sits more than 500 feet over the surrounding plains and includes caves filled with ornate, brightly colored statues and paintings of Buddha. We marveled as we walked from cave to cave, and Dave fed some local monkeys as we explored. After checking out a more modern but massive gold Buddha, and downing a perfectly ripe mango dusted with chili powder, we hopped in the car and headed back toward Kandy.
We ended the night at a local roti shop, where we shared a giant plate of veggie kottu roti (chopped up roti bread, almost like a Sri Lankan fried rice), spicy lentil curry and hoppers and watched the WWE fights on the TV in the restaurant. We hopped in a Bob Marley-themed tuk tuk and headed back to the guesthouse to rest before our last morning in town.
We finished our time in Kandy with a sunrise walk around the lake. Forgetting her manners and focusing only on the heat, Erin wore a spaghetti-strap tank top, which she immediately regretted when being stared at like a prostitute by the locals. Luckily, the morning street market was just opening, so Dave bargained with a store proprietor to buy a fake Adidias t-shirt to cover Erin up. Relieved to not be the object of unwanted attention, we grabbed a $1 breakfast in the market which would become Erin's favorite meal of the trip - egg roti, pumpkin curry, lentils and coconut sambal.
After doing a lap around the lake to get a closer look at the Temple of the Tooth, we headed back up into the hills, stopping at a viewpoint to take in Kandy, the lake and the surrounding hills. We grabbed our bags, hopped in a tuk tuk and headed to the train station, where we'd begin the next phase of our trip: the local train to Ella, known as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
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