From Kandy to Colombo: A Sri Lankan Adventure

Posted June 27, 2013 by Rachel Lee in Just Back



After a 3-night stay in a village in Sri Lanka, my travel friend, Mahak and I decided we wanted to go to Kandy and Colombo. We arrived in Kandy by bus from our small village’s nearest bus station, and Colombo by train. We booked 3:30 train from Kandy after being there for about 3 hours, to Colombo.

My friend and I have not seen any foreign faces for the last three days; none were spotted, not even at famous village sights such as the village waterfall, temple, or the bus station. We finally felt a sense of familiar association at the sight spotting our tribesmen in Kandy: backpackers, western hipsters, and some Japanese travelers.

My friend is of South Asian descent and he could even pass for a local if he didn’t say anything; I was the only foreign-looking face on a bus of 50. All through the popular tourist spots in Colombo, we saw few tourists, giving us a sense that we were going to places no one had discovered yet.

In Kandy, we asked a tuktuk driver where we should go for an hour’s worth of sightseeing before our train departed. He enthusiastically suggested going up a hill to where a large Buddha resided, where we could also see the sights of Kandy. The trip would only take 40 minutes in total.

I hoped that there weren’t over a hundred steps to climb, though I realized this was usually the case when I visited many religious monuments (which remind me of Doi Suthep, Batu Caves and Notre-Dame de la Garde); and, that they were willing to overlook my friend’s indecently short pants that hovered just above his knees (a no-no at most touristic temple sites). What better way would there be to see a place than through the eyes of a local!

After making our driver promise that he would not leave our backpacks on the temple grounds and disappear for other customers, we left him in charge of our possessions.

“No tuktuk drivers in Sri Lanka will do that.”

We took off our slippers, and went to see the 88 foot Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue. It was white, and had his eyes closed, with a peaceful look on his face as we climbed the stairs to visit him. We even ventured up to peer over his shoulder to see all of Kandy. What a marvelous view and a great unspoiled view of the lake and its surroundings!


When we first reached Kandy, we found ourselves gravitating to the its municipal market: two floors of shops selling spices, fruit, souvenirs and local produce. There was a cafe in the corner of the ground floor selling sweet cakes, pastries and tea which we had for a total of US$2. I gravitated toward the souvenirs while Mahak gravitated towards a shop that seemed to sell nothing but shiny green leaves.

“Do you want tobacco?” asked the jolly, slightly large betel stall seller.

No. No tobacco for me. I was handed a shiny large leaf, and some bubblegum pink paste rubbed lightly over its surface, and shards of betel nut rolled into it. “How do you eat this thing?” I murmured to my friend.

The excited look on his face telling me he was already relishing the local treat in his mind. ‘Put it in your mouth, the whole thing, and chew.’

I looked up and suddenly saw all the stall helpers of Kandy Municipal Market staring at this girl who obviously would be desecrating their favorite mouth refreshing snack. Later, I observed many of the Lankan tuktuk drivers munching on something that leaves a rusty brown color on their tongues, munching on the same snack. I could not munch nor swallow it. The tingling, tangy, raw green taste was disgusting to me, and I wanted to Listerine my mouth. I tried, I did try to chew, but even a small piece of leaf was thoroughly inedible. Helppp, there are too many people looking at me, I need to retain my chic traveler look, I mumbled through a large chunk of betelnut leaf that I had stuffed in one cheek like a squirrel who was not willing to eat his nut.

My handsome South Asian travel friend was happily munching on his leaf, and could even laugh at my predicament. My eyes were on the floor as I sheepishly followed him out of the area, glancing at the many amused Lankan stall helpers not used to mirth on a Saturday afternoon.



I was told enthusiastically by my travel friend that we had to take the train on the Colombo-Kandy route, and so we did. Passing by the endless vista of hill ranges and crops as the sky slowly turned dark, the only eventful part of the peaceful journey was having the train security officer ask my travel friend if he was married to me, and having said no, he was asked the same question again, disbelievingly. At one of the train stops, a young Lankan male, having spotted me, pressed his face to the glass and smiled earnestly.

We planned to stop at the Fort Railway Station, Colombo, and if we had taken the train further, we would be able to see the slums along the Galle Road railway lines, poor rows of slums lining the beach that still felt the devastation of the ’04 tsunami as if it was yesterday. We did see the slums the next day, unknowingly wandering to that area of the beach after taking the 101 bus to Mount Lavinia.

Arriving at Fort Railway Station in Colombo in the evening, we wandered around the food shops littering the vicinity. Through the shop windows, I saw how they made ‘hoppers’, a kind of pancake similar to what I have been eating in Singapore when I was young – a palm sized pancake where you could eat plain with some sambal chilli, or with a cracked egg in the middle of it. We call them ‘appam’ in Singapore. Having tried ‘hoppers’ in the village, we wanted to try the ‘hoppers’ around the Fort Railway Station area the next morning, but walking from shop to shop, we were told that they only started making these local snacks at 3 or 4 pm.


The beach front of Colombo stretching from Mount Lavinia to Galle Face showed us diverse Sri Lankan faces. On the Sunday morning when we were at Mount Lavinia, groups of young men were playing beach volleyball while other partygoers, still holding strong in the early morning, were still moving to the sound of music as the waves lapped at their ankles. We heard that the parties here would not stop in the wee hours, they carried on all night long till daybreak.  Along most of the beach front, the rough waves made the fishermen of the day unable to go out in motorboats. Perched on some of the colorful boats were teenage lovers in each others’ arms.

This Sunday morning being our last day in Sri Lanka, we rather enjoyed walking aimlessly along the beach, only stopping once to partake of a ‘Kola Kanda Juggery’, a kind of gruel that sadly reminded me of healthy Chinese warm dessert, the type with barley and other grains mixed in some porridge-like, glutinous looking mixture that came in a cup. The ‘juggery’ saved the day, a brown sugar type of sweet that had the texture of coconut candy and the taste of molasses.


A young man in a cute cap, bright colored polo t-shirt and short pants approached us with his fruit of the day, neat packets of green mangoes sliced and an optional addition of seasoning made with chilli spice, salt and sugar. We took two packets and wanted to pay for it, but he waved it away and seemed to want to talk with us as we walked along the shoreline.

After determining where we were from, he told us that he lived in the slums just ahead. We looked around us, nervously, and realised that the look of the shore had changed. The first thing I saw that seemed out of place in this paradise was a tepid pool of grey colored waters, formed just around the slum huts, decorated around the borders by piles of trash, some floating, others wisely tiptoeing around the edges of the pool. Meanwhile, the young man who looked too hipster to live in a slum went on. ‘You married, no? You Christian? Me, Buddhist. My wife Christian. My wife, my baby. Lost in the tsunami.’ Here he made a whooshing sound and gestured wildly with his hands so we could be clear about the reason. ‘And my trousers, too. Gone.’ We did not know if that was a feeble attempt at a joke.

Being cosmopolitan, well-read individuals, we were hard nosed skeptics. ‘Do you think the tsunami really stuck here?’, whispered my handsome travel friend who was sick of Lankan people asking him if he was married to me. I had been on a humanitarian mission to Aceh in Indonesia with Habitat for Humanity in 2005 to rebuild homes for the victims there, and the only reason why I was sure that the tsunami had struck Sri Lanka too was, because, for a while, many Singaporeans chose to forgo their favorite dish, chilli crab, after hearing that the crabs feasted on corpses. (Large Lankan crabs are always imported to Singapore for this world famous dish.)  At home, we found on youtube footage of the actual slums that were being hit by the waves.

Half scared that we would somehow never appear out from the journey into the slum and half curious, we followed the confident hipster into his hut. But not before being horrified by the usual piles of trash, being ravaged by sweet looking kittens, seeing the laundry being hung to dry on the foundations of what used to be a house. He offered us his only chair, a plastic one, and we entered his abode. It was as clean as it could possibly be, with a roughly slapped together concrete floor. The walls were planks of wood. The roof was a metal sheeting and rice sack material used to patch up the parts that let the rains through. Later, we met his sisters, one who needed to attach a catheter bag to her waist for a medical condition. I wished we could do more for them than to just give them money – and we did not give them much. We asked him how was he able to learn English, he said that he had learnt it from the beach. It was obvious to us that he did all these to eke out a living and to support his two sisters and their kids in the slums.


Just a US$1 ride away by tuk-tuk from the beach area, we met with the oldest hotel in Sri Lanka, the monstrously palatial on the inside and dull on the outside – Galle Face Hotel, known affectionately as ‘1864’. The exterior winked at us sleepily, beckoning us to step in. We immediately were awed by the large, curving staircases framing the magnificent entrance with a really nostalgic flavor, large sculptures in every corner, plush carpets that invited my slippers to deposit sandy marks collected from the beach walk; and as we floated inwards, I thought to myself that the whole atmosphere made a suitable scene for many horror stories. Past the imposing entrance, we were greeted by a much calmer scene, impeccably dressed waiters in black and white outfits, busying along a broad verandah known as ‘The Verandah’, what else.

The glorious scene invited us to park ourselves at one of the seats with the sea view, mesmerising coconut palms swaying happily in the wind. Such a moment calls for a pina colada or a cup of decent coffee, but we decided on chocolate mousse instead. The sweet dessert reminded us of another sweet delight we had the last night with our new local friends, a couple whom we had rented the village bungalow from. They offered us a condominum stay at our only night in Colombo, and they brought us to not only the finest steaks in town (pitying looks thrown at my lately-veggie chomping travel friend) located just opposite the Galle Face Hotel, but also to their favorite chocolate dessert found at ‘Casa Colombo’. Casa Colombo was the kind of boutique hotel where ‘The Library’ meant books placed in thin slits in the walls up to the ceiling, and we had a peek at the Honeymoon Suite where there was a mac laptop and an old school bathtub, complete with claw legs, and an outdoor jacuzzi located at the open air balcony.

If the Galle Face 1864 was a dignified, upright, light cinnamon colored Lankan man, the Casa Colombo was a night time madame in a swishy, classy dress and maquillage, still keeping things light and breezy, but at a certain price.




  • A ticket on the first-class train costs 500 Sri Lankan rupees per person. The express train, called ‘ intercity’, is 1250 rupees.
  • Tuktuks are all metered, starting from 50 rupees. If you need an estimate, the tuktuk driver can usually tell you how much the trip will cost. We took the tuktuk from Colombo 03/04 to Colombo 10, and from the beach area to Fort Railway station. On average our trips cost 200-350 rupees, though many drivers did not have small change for 1000 rupees. Taking the tuktuk in a village turned out to be pricier –about 5000 rupees for one day’s trip around the town.
  • There are currency exchangers located at the exit of the International Arrivals at the Bandaranaike  International Airport.


  • Try the local food, it ranges from string hoppers, hoppers, local curries, and kotthu. There are several bread and pastry shops and stores selling Indian fare as well.
  • Fruits are found in abundance, including but not limited to different kinds of avocados, jambu (a pink, crunchy apple like fruit), and passionfruit. Jackfruit and green mangoes can also be found in stews and curries.

About the Author

Rachel Lee

She is a native of Singapore who loves the savage beauty of mountains and seas. Just over a year into making photographs in film, she aims to capture known and unknown places, arousing a sense of nostalgia for the fragile moments of everyday life, as observed in her travels around Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong, France, Sri Lanka and in the Philippines.

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