Some days Kandy’s skies seem perpetually bruised, with stubborn mist clinging to the hills surrounding the city’s beautiful centrepiece lake. Delicate hill-country breezes impel the mist to gently part, revealing colourful houses and hotels amid Kandy’s improbable forested halo.
In the centre of town, three-wheelers careen around slippery corners, raising a soft spray that threatens the softer silk of the colourful saris worn by local women. Here’s a city that looks good even when it’s raining.
And when the rain subsides – and it does with frequency and alacrity – Kandy’s cobalt-blue skies reveal it as this island’s other real ‘city’ after the brighter coastal lights of Colombo. Urban buzz is provided by busy spontaneous street markets and even busier bus stations and restaurants. History and culture are on tap, and 115km from the capital and at an altitude of 500m, Kandy offers a cooler and more relaxed climate.
Kandy served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom, which fell to the British in 1815 after defying the Portuguese and Dutch for three centuries.
It took the British another 16 tough years to finally build a road linking Kandy with Colombo. The locals still proudly see themselves as a little different – and perhaps a tad superior – to Sri Lankans from the island’s lower reaches.
Kandy is renowned for the great Kandy Esala Perahera, held over 10 days leading up to the Nikini poya (full moon) at the end of the month of Esala (July/August), but it has enough attractions to justify a visit at any time of year. Some of the Hill Country’s nicest boutique hotels nestle in the hills surrounding Kandy, and the city is a good base for exploring the underrated terrain of the nearby Knuckles Range.
Not a national park, but a national treasure, the orphanage was begun in 1975 to provide shelter and care for young elephants that had been abandoned or orphaned by their mothers. The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is the only one of its kind in the world. There are now over 60 elephants and some of them are founder members (there were originally seven). Older elephants are used as substitute family members for the orphans.
The best time to visit is when the elephants are being fed (bottle feeding is sometimes necessary) or when they troop off in an eager herd down a lane opposite the park entrance to the Maha Oya (river) to bathe. There are terrace cafés on the bank overlooking the river where visitors can relax while the elephants are scrubbed.
The orphanage not only has the largest captive herd of elephants in the world, it has also become the most successful breeding centre, so not all the baby elephants are orphans. It is not a zoo, but a zoo is being built nearby at Wagolla, on a 16ha site that was formerly an agriculture training centre.
Animals in that zoo will be housed in landscaped sanctuaries (no cages), separated from visitors by a moat. A wildlife sanctuary and breeding centre for endangered indigenous species is planned as part of the project.