Set in the scenic hill country around a pretty, manmade lake, Kandy was the last seat of the Sinhala kings. Today it is the site of Sri Lanka's greatest annual spectacle: the Esala Perahera. The perahera (or "procession") is a 10-day event—usually held in late July or early August—celebrating the sacred tooth allegedly snatched from Buddha's funeral pyre, which now rests in Kandy's Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth). Whether the tooth exists or not (or whether it is a molar, incisor or bicuspid) is unverifiable because no one actually sees it. The tooth supposedly rests inside a golden casket kept behind a glass wall in the Dalada Maligawa. You can see the casket at certain times of the day.
Tooth or no tooth, it's a spectacular show. Although it occurs for 10 consecutive nights, the perahera is the best during the last few nights. Essentially a three-hour parade, the procession includes whip-crackers, fire-jugglers, flag-bearers, hundreds of dancers and drummers, and more than 50 elephants dressed in brightly colored robes and lights. Many of the performers are children. Be sure to reserve your seat along the parade route early in the day—many Sri Lankans start squatting on the curb at 2 pm for the 8 pm start of the procession. It's equally important to reserve your accommodations in Kandy well in advance.
The rest of the year, the perahera elephants can be seen in the courtyards of the Temple of the Tooth. The massive complex sits in the center of town along the lake. In addition to the elephants, the courtyards contain small shrines dedicated to Buddha. Women sell lotus flowers to worshippers, and monkeys scamper around the buildings. The main temple contains the well-guarded tooth casket, as well as a series of elaborate Buddha images and a detailed legend on the how the tooth arrived in Kandy. Be prepared for numerous security checks around the Temple of the Tooth.
We also recommend the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (the orchid house is beautiful) and shopping at the Kandyan Art Association, which has a good selection of art and crafts. Travelers interested in Buddhism may want to check out the Samadhi Cultural Center, which has a small collection of Buddhist artifacts from around the world, with signs in English and Chinese.
An interesting day trip from Kandy is a visit to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, where you can get close to elephants of all ages. Try to get there to see one of the twice daily elephant baths. Another worthwhile option: the spice gardens around Matale, about 12 mi/20 km north of Kandy. Although spice gardens exist all over the island, there's a large concentration of them around Matale. All of the gardens have guides who can explain how Sri Lanka's famous spices—cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaves, peppercorns and saffron—grow in the wild and are processed for consumption. Other day-trip options include visits to the royal cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla. The train from Colombo to Kandy offers some breathtaking views of the countryside, including elephants and giant plants (try to book a seat in the observation car). Kandy is 60 mi/100 km northeast of Colombo.
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