Kandy is not a place that one really needs to see in Sri Lanka, but everyone winds up going there because it is en-route to other places they wish to go. You can entertain yourself in Kandy if you are willing to travel around the outskirts of the city to visit a random assortment of highlights. It was for this reason that we went against our normal habit of ignoring the tuk tuk drivers upon arrival at the bus station. We were instantly approached upon our arrival by a young man offering to give us a fair rate to our accommodations if we agreed to hire him the following day to see the sights. His tuk tuk was set up with speakers so we figured that if we hired him we could at least get some tunes playing for the trip. I can’t remember our driver’s name, but for the sake of this post, I will call him Simba.
Simba greeted us the next morning with a friendly smile. He was surprisingly built for a Sri Lankan, but had a playful character that made us feel like we would have a fun day with him in tow. He asked which attractions we wished to visit and looked surprised when all three of us held up bags and said we wanted to do laundry and required the services of a tailor. (Steph and Cheryl had managed to rip holes in 3 pairs of pants, including Steph’s favourite blue pants purchased in the Andaman Islands, only 3 weeks into our trip.) Clearly, this was not a typical request he received for a city tour, but we had hired him for the day, so we were going to do what we wanted. He agreed to the request and sought out a location where we could complete both tasks on the same street. Once their pants were in the proper hands, Simba figured we should set out a plan for the rest of the day. I guess he did not want any more surprises. There was not much we wanted to do really. We agreed that we would like to visit a spice garden, Helga’s Folly (a hotel our friend Rita had told us about) and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in the evening when a ceremony would be held allowing people to view Buddha’s tooth.
Simba suggested we go to a cultural dance show at 5:30pm before heading to the temple for the viewing of the tooth, but the three of us unanimously declined. He insisted that we would enjoy it and said he could arrange our tickets which cost 1000 rupees each ($10). We said we would consider it just so he would leave us alone about it.
Our stop at the spice garden played out like a 30-minute infomercial. Every spice in the garden was presented as the cure for a myriad of ailments ranging from hair loss to Parkinson’s. Our assigned guide smeared a cream on Cheryl’s arm, leaving it on her for the entirety of the tour, boasting that her hair would not grow back for weeks. This was true and Cheryl had a bald patch on her arm for the rest of her trip. After the tour of the plants and trees, he sat us down with a menu of sorts and read through it together with us to make sure that we had not misunderstood anything about the power of the plants during the tour, making it awkwardly obvious that he was skipping over product 23, which was the cure for a “men’s issue”. Despite their desire to make everything as clear as possible for our convenience, they had left their prices off the menu, never a good sign. We were then escorted to the gift shop where the spices we had seen in their natural environment were nicely packaged to fit in our backpacks with sky-high price tags attached. Our guide held an empty basket for us to fill. We politely looked around for a minute and said goodbye heading for the door as quickly as possible.
The next stop was a tea factory where we got to watch the tea making process from start to finish and relax with a cup of tea at the end of the tour. Cheryl purchased some tea to gift to friends back home, but Steph and I left empty handed. We then requested to go to Helga’s Folly, which took about an hour to reach as we traversed midday traffic in Kandy just as it began to rain. Simba told us that drinks were very expensive at the hotel. This was disappointing news to us since we had wanted to hang out there for a bit. On the way to the hotel, Simba asked us if we wanted to see a gem shop, but we said no. He also stopped at a Batik shop and insisted that we would like to look around. None of us were too keen, but we agreed anyway since we had time to kill. The women inside showed us the process of making Batik (cloth painted using dye and wax) and then took us through the shop that had adopted the IKEA philosophy of making it mandatory for patrons to walk through the entire shop, 3 levels, before exiting. Despite their efforts, which were not overly pushy, we declined to buy anything and returned to the tuk tuk, determined to get to the hotel.
I had asked Steph to explain to me what was so special about Helga’s Folly, but she kept insisting that she couldn’t, or at least Rita had not given her enough of a description, she just insisted that it was something we needed to see. We finally understood her inability to describe the place when we walked through the doors. The hotel was a cross between the Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland. Every inch of it was covered with paintings, stuffed animal heads, cobwebs, gramophones, melted candles and so on. The hostess offered a choice to either pay 300 rupees each to enter or purchase a beverage. The beer was reasonably priced, about 500 for a large 1-litre bottle, so that made the decision easy. We found it strange that Simba had said it was expensive since we were used to paying at least 500 for beer everywhere else we had been. We hung around for an hour, picking up on new details everytime we walked around and sketching pictures into the large book on the coffee table with the provided crayons as the rain poured down outside. When we emerged from the hotel, Simba appeared to be less friendly and chatty and his warm flirty smile was nowhere to be seen.
He brought us to a market and said he would be back in 2 hours to pick us up. Simba had promoted his services the day before saying the advantage of hiring him was that he would wait for us wherever we went so that we could leave whenever we wanted, but we did understand that perhaps he could make a bit of money driving people around during the 2 hours we were exploring the market. We found a spot for lunch and then explored the various stalls, finding large packets of spices and the identical lotions the spice garden had been selling for ¼ of the price.
When Simba picked us up, he asked again if we would like to go to the culture show before going to the Temple of the Tooth. We told him that we would not have time since we needed him to take us to get our laundry and return to the tailors. With that, you could cut the tension in the tuk tuk with a knife and he hardly spoke to us again. We weren’t quite sure what was going on since he said we were hiring him to take us wherever we wanted. En-route to the tailor, he told us that temple was going to be our last stop and it would be up to us to make our own way back to the hotel. We had to insist on him taking us to drop off our laundry first since we did not have the option of leaving it in the tuk tuk and we didn’t want to drag our underwear through a temple filled with a 1000 people. With this request, I was almost certain we could see the smoke coming out of his ears. Steph whispered in the back that perhaps we should end the tour at the hotel and just walk to the temples ourselves. He must have overheard because when we got out of the tuk tuk she handed him the 2000 rupees owed and said we were fine with ending the tour there. He did not protest or ask why, he just said “yeah” and sped off.
It was only after being dropped off that Cheryl pointed out that Simba most likely thought he had hit the jackpot when he picked up 3 girls for a tour because he would make a commission from all the shopping. Also, via research, we found out the culture show only costs 500 rupees, not 1000, so his intention was to skim 1500 off the top from our 3 tickets. It was clear that Simba had made a bad choice when he picked us out of the crowd.
We had to leave for the temple right away in order to make it in time for the ceremony. We found our place in line and tried to keep our cool as people tried to push in front of us. For our patience, we were rewarded with a 5-second viewing of the room the tooth of the Buddha was in and then spent the rest of our time exploring the temple. Despite the crowd, the temple was worth the visit. We had made the most of our time in the city and were ready to move on, in a way following in Buddha’s footsteps. Our next destination was southwest of the city of Hatton to climb the 5000 steps to the summit of Adam’s Peak where they say Buddha’s footprint can be found.