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The Udawattakele Sanctuary

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The small, densely-forested Udawattakele Sanctuary is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, and offers a number of long, secluded paths for exploration. During the morning we spent there, we felt completely alone, almost frighteningly so. Amazing, considering the fact that Uduwattakele is basically in the middle of Kandy.

Cave Buddhist

The Sanctuary’s entrance is just a couple hundred meters past the Temple of the Tooth. Tickets cost around $6 for foreigners, but there’s a lot to see and you could spend hours on the various tracks. We chose a path which would bring us past cave temples and deep into the jungle.

Udawattakele is full of life. Huge trees block out the sun almost entirely, and are entwined by giant creeping vines. With over 80 types of birds, including endemic and threatened species, the park is famous as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Most of the mammals which inhabit the woods are nocturnal; fine by us, since I wasn’t eager to run into a wild boar or greater bandicoot rat. We did, however, see monkeys and a snake.

We had followed a path down the side of a hill overgrown with jungle shrubbery and spiderwebs to a cave sanctuary hollowed out of the stone. A quiet sense of evil pervaded the place, made worse by a creepy collection of art — the legs of a reclining Buddha posing without the rest of the body, an elephant molded into the wall peering out with one great white eye, and a disturbing sculpture of a starved human corpse abandoned half-done on the ground. A curtain hung over the entrance to the sanctuary and, after calling out to see if anyone was home, I steeled my nerves and swung it open. The only thing I saw was a small serpent retreating into the blackness.

Udawattakele isn’t just a sanctuary for nature, but also for the religious. A number of hermitages dot the grounds, and the cave sanctuary we found was built for crazy enlightened people who’ve decided to live on their own in the woods. I’m not sure anyone lives there now, but it’s certainly possible. We hurriedly got back onto the main path, before the monk could return home and invite us in for a cup of rice and snake meat.

If the noise and congestion of Kandy are getting to you, Udawattakele is a great place to escape and let your mind unwind. The fact that an area of such wild, pristine nature exists within the country’s second-biggest city is incredible.

Location on our Kandy Map
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February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am Comments (0)

The Archaeological, National, and Elephant Museums of Kandy

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Just behind the Temple of the Tooth are a couple museums which might be worth a visit, depending on the degree to which looking at piles of old stuff turns your crank. The Archaeological Museum, hosted in the former King’s Palace, and the adjacent National Museum are stuffed to the gills with artifacts and treasures from days long gone by.

Kandy Royal Palace

We had just left the Vishnu Devale, which sits across the Temple of the Tooth’s moat. A hundred yards away, an old man was frantically waving at us. Curious and a little apprehensive, we approached him. With every step closer, the guy’s excitement level increased … at 50 yards, he started hopping up and down. At 25, he grinned and began directing us as though he were on a runway, holding glowing sticks. And when we were 10 yards away, I swear he started convulsing. As soon as we were within striking distance, he grabbed our hands and dragged us into the Archaeological Museum.

This museum is hosted in the former palace of the Kandyan Kings. Most of the palace has been destroyed, though the front door and some supporting structures remain intact. The museum displays artifacts found in and around the city, in a dusty and poorly-presented collection. If not for our guide, we wouldn’t have understood anything we were looking at — and even with him, it wasn’t all that interesting. Pots. Moonstones. Other, larger pots. Most of a statue. But, the museum was free (apart from a small tip) and we enjoyed the opportunity to step inside the former royal palace.

Sri Lanka Antigues

The nearby National Museum is far more compelling, though it costs 500 rupees to enter. Here, we found Kandyan-era weapons, like spears and bows, masks and ceremonial costumes, and a lot of information about the lives of the native people. There were ancient, but still legible, ola leaf manuscripts, as well as a copy of the 1858 Kandyan Treaty which ceded power to the Brits.

We should also mention the nearby Raja Tusker Museum, found inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. This is almost certainly the only museum I’ll ever visit which is dedicated to a single elephant. Raja Tusker was beloved by Sri Lankans and his death in 1988 sparked a period of national mourning. This bizarre museum is nothing more than a room decorated with photographs and, in the center, Raja Tusker’s enormous, taxidermied corpse.

None of these museums is essential during a trip to Kandy, but all are worth a peek if you have a few extra hours, or a deep interest in the history of the city.

Location of the Archaeological Museum
Location of the National Museum
Location of the Raja Tusker Museum
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Photos from the Royal Palace
Kandy Dragon
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Culture in Sri Lanka
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The Raja Tusker Museum
Raja Tusker Museum
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February 29, 2012 at 6:29 am Comments (0)

A Great View at Kandy’s Hotel Casamara

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Guesthouses in Kandy

Kandy is surrounded by mountains and steep hills, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of places from which to gain commanding views over the city. The Bahirawakanda Buddha is one of the most obvious. The viewpoint on Rajapihilla Mawatha (location) offers an unbeatable perspective over the lake and the Temple of the Tooth behind it. The Slightly Chilled Lounge on Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha (location) serves up great Asian food and sports another excellent view from the east. But for us, the best lookout over the city is right downtown at the Hotel Casamara.

The Casamara doesn’t look like much from the outside but is the tallest building in its immediate vicinity and makes good use of its height with a top-floor bar. The view of Kandy is different from here, less romantic and more lively, because you’re in the middle of the city. Though the tuk-tuk-clogged chaos of the streets can be stressful when you’re down in it, it provides endless entertainment from above.

This was our favorite spot in town for a drink, and it’s largely ignored by both locals and tourists. We were almost always the only people inside. So if you’re in the mood to relax, and look down on the street life of Kandy like a haughty god, check out the Hotel Casamara.

Location on our Map
Views from Hotel Casamara

Hotel Casamara
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Lonely Church in Kandy
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Moped Mess

Another fun viewpoint, discovered while we were lost during our final days in Kandy, is at the Panorama Resort high up on a hill, on the eastern side of the city. You don’t actually have a view of the city here, but of the verdant valley to Kandy’s northeast. It’s a great place for a drink — I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more generous gin & tonic — and the view is amazing.

Location on our Map
Views from the Panorama Resport

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Panorama Resort Kandy
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February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comment (1)

Kandyan Dance at the YMBA

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Kandyan Dance, an exuberant combination of drumming, costumes and athletic dancing, is the most famous cultural product of Sri Lanka. A few places in Kandy put on a daily show, and we decided to check out the performance at the YMBA. Yep, that stands for “Young Men’s Buddhist Association” — and good luck trying to spell it out with your arms.

Crazy Dancer

We were lucky to get decent seats, because the first fifteen rows had been cordoned off for giant groups of tourists on package holidays. Okay, fine: it wasn’t exactly luck. For a small consideration, the guy selling tickets agreed to get us up front. Bribery is swell. Every chair in the small, sticky, mosquito-infested hall was filled with a white-faced European fresh off the bus. An authentic cultural experience, this wasn’t. Once the incredible show started, though, any annoyance I’d been feeling disappeared.

The style of dance particular to Kandy was actually brought to the region by Indian shamans, who used it to appease the god Kohomba and help cure a mysterious illness under which the Kandyan King had been suffering. After the king’s miraculous recovery, the style caught on, and is today considered the national dance of Sri Lanka.

We were entranced by the performance from the moment the drumming began until the climactic finale. The costumes were beautiful, the drumming skillful, and the dancing far more exciting than I’d expected. The show, which lasted about an hour, included ten different styles. Not all of them were strictly Kandyan Dance — one of my favorites, the thelme dance, came from the low countries of Sri Lanka. This involved dervish-like whirling, only much faster and more intense.

There was plate-spinning and acrobatics and ladies dressed like peacocks, but the highlight was the Ves Dance, which came towards the end of the show. The drumming built slowly in intensity and the dancers wore headgear with long tassels, which they swung about wildly.

I’m happy we decided to ignore our inner cynics and check out a show, especially since the tickets were only about $5 apiece. Well worth your time if you happen to be in Kandy.

Location of the YMDA on our Map
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February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

Kandy’s Three Temple Loop

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Conveniently, three of the most ancient and interesting temples in the central highlands are within easy walking distance of one another, southwest of Kandy. Even if the temples themselves weren’t fascinating, and they are, the seven-kilometer path which connects Embekke, Lankathilake and Gadaladeniya leads past rice fields and through small towns, and would be worth walking in its own right. Judging by the enthusiastic manner in which locals greeted us, I don’t think a lot of tourists pass this way.

Embekke Devale

A twenty-minute bus ride from Kandy brought us to the village of Embekke (or Ambekke, or Embekka; as often happens in Sri Lanka, English spelling is fluid), and after a kilometer’s walk, we found the Devale. A ceremony was getting underway and we watched as about 50 Sri Lankans dressed in white came to pay their respects to Buddha. I’m still trying to get a handle on Buddhism; the worshipers here didn’t do much besides stand around, listen to the drums and watch the main temple dude first carry plates back and forth, then spend five minutes ringing the paint off a bell.

All of the temples we’d see today were built in the 14th century, before the Kandyan Kingdom was fully established. Embekke is famous for the intricately carved wooden pillars of its digge, or drum hall. These were incredible; each pillar had a different pattern carved into each of its four sides. Wrestlers, stick dancers, warriors, elephants, lions, peacocks and flowers. My favorite was a strange hybrid of a bull and an elephant.

Location on our Map

3 Temple Loop Kandy

The most beautiful stretch of our walk was between Embekke and Lankathikale. As we rounded a curve in the road and descended a hill, an extensive paddy field spread out in the distance, and atop a massive stone outcrop was the temple. We both spotted it at the same time, and simultaneously stopped walking, so gorgeous was the scene laid out in front of us.

This ancient temple was our favorite of the day. Tall and looming on top of its rocky perch, with nothing in sight except pristine nature, it was the most lovely place we had yet visited in Sri Lanka. Inside, the temple was high-ceilinged and dark, with a massive Buddha as its centerpiece. A little Buddhist monk, no older than twelve, was there to greet us and remind us to keep the flash off. Outside the shrine, a roped-off section in the stone protected a 14th-century engraving recording the construction of the temple.

Location on our Map


The road to Gadaladeniya was the most wearisome stretch, along a dusty road through an endless town of identical shops, none of which had cold water. I entertained myself, and annoyed Jürgen, by repeating the name of the upcoming temple over and over. God-Allah-Denny-Ah! Gotta-lot-a-NEE-ya! Although Gadaladeniya turned out to be the least interesting of the three temples, it has by far the most delightful name.

This temple was unfortunately under construction when we visited, though we were able to take a look around inside. The best feature of was a large dagoba surrounded by four mini-dagobas, each of which you could enter. We gave short shrift to Gadaladeniya, because of the construction, because of the piping hot stone on bare feet, and because we were templed-out, but it was still an amazing place.

Location on our Map

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More Pics from Embekke Devale
Traces of Hindu
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Amazing Wood Carving
Carving  Embekke Devale
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Elephant Attack
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Sri Lanka Wood Carving
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Waiting For Puja
Embekke Devale Shrine
Shello Blower
Curtain Holder
Ding Dong Bell
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Eyes Of Sri Lanka
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Rice Field
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Old Stone Carvings Gadaladeniya
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February 27, 2012 at 6:23 am Comments (3)

The Millennium Elephant Foundation

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Awwwww! Baby Elephants!

Spurred by the popularity of the Elephant Orphanage, the area around Pinnawela has become something of a strip mall for elephantine adventures. Up and down the narrow road leading from the highway are signs and shops touting “Elephant Rides!” or “Pet an Elephant!” It’s a little dispiriting, but after our positive experience at the orphanage, we decided to push our luck and visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation before heading back home.

One Happy Elephant

We should have saved our money. The Millennium Elephant Foundation’s aim is to provide a home for old, retired elephants. Sounds noble, but no sooner had we stepped out of the taxi, than we were pounced upon. “Would you like the 30-minute Elephant Ride?” No. “Then the 45-minute Ride, yes my friends, only $40, step this way!” No, we don’t want any elephant ride! (Anyway, what kind of rest-home for retired elephants encourages people to ride on top them?) No, we just want to see the elephants and help wash one. “Oh”, the friendly smiles vanished, “Well, then just it’s $6”.

After being hurried through a small “museum”, we were ushered down to the river, where an enormous elephant was laying on his side. A guy working there showed me how to scrub the big guy with a coconut shell. This was kind of fun. The elephant was totally loving it, and I really had to scrub hard! But it was impossible to fully enjoy, because the scrub-master kept grabbing my arm and asking for money. Literally, every twenty seconds. “Yes, my wallet is on shore, just a moment!” Nothing I could say stopped him from touching me, pushing his cupped hands towards me, or making pitiful “I need money” faces. After a few minutes of this, I threw my coconut in the water, stomped up to shore, and got him his damned bribe money. We were done with this place in like fifteen minutes and left disgusted.

Foreign volunteers can pay to work at the Millennium Foundation, and I spoke with a few of them. They seemed to be positive about the experience they were having, so it must be different when you’re actually spending a lot of time with the elephants and not being constantly hassled. I don’t know, though. If you’re just passing through, I would steer clear of this one.

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Elephant Washing
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February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am Comment (1)

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

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Established in 1975, the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has become one of the most popular touristic destinations in Sri Lanka, for reasons that should be obvious. What, you need it spelled out? Fine: Orphan Elephants. Baby Orphan Elephants. Lots and lots of baby orphan elephants, that want to cuddle with you, and then frolic and play in the water. What kind of person could say “no” to that? Honestly, who could be like, “Nah, that sounds dumb”.

Pinnawela-Elephant-Orphanage Sri Lanka

We had an amazing time during our visit, as we knew we would. The elephants were remarkable. Beautiful, utterly friendly creatures, who’ve been lived their whole lives in the orphanage and are completely comfortable with humans. The day’s only negative was provided by the people working at the park. The “guards” who, from the moment we entered to the moment we left, were looking for money. Tips for petting an elephant. Tips for feeding, tips for pictures. Tips, just ’cause. Their wearisome greediness never abated. If an elephant approached you, a guard would appear like magic, angrily shooing it off with a pointed stick. Then, he would turn to you with a smile. “You like touch elephant?”

But this was a minor annoyance and it was hard to stay angry, surrounded, as we were, by at least sixty elephants. Besides, try as they might, the guards couldn’t keep up with everything. Once, a baby elephant the height of my chest waddled up to Jürgen and I, with its trunk extended. He squeezed my hand, and then pulled me close alongside his body. I figured he wanted a hug, so I gave him one. We had a full minute alone with this little guy, and it was a minute I’ll never forget.

The day’s highlight was bathing time. The elephants were led in a giant procession to the nearby river, where they were allowed to splash and play for two hours. The little ones rolled around in the water, while the adults sprayed water onto each other and cuddled. I could have watched them bathe all day long. So many elephants congregated in one place — I’m sure it’s possible to see something similar in the wild, but this was truly a special experience for us.

So we wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The money-grubbing guards are annoying, but as long as you’re prepared to ignore them, you’ll have an unforgettable experience.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
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March of the Elephants
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February 24, 2012 at 11:48 am Comments (15)

The Four Devales of Kandy

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According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.

Vishnu Devale
Vishnu Temple Kandy

Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.

Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Kataragama Devale
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Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.

Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Pattini Devale

One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.

Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Natha Devale
Oldest Temple in Kandy

Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.

The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

Arrack – The Discerning Sri Lankan’s Beverage of Choice

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In Sri Lanka, liquor and even beer aren’t normally sold in supermarkets. You have to find a “Wine Store”, as they’re generally called, and join a long queue of thirsty locals. During my first experience in this line of shame, at a dingy shed behind the grocery store in Kandy, I watched in amazement as the twenty-odd guys in front of me all ordered the exact same thing. Arrack.


Arrack is far and away the most popular liquor in Sri Lanka. A sign at the window clearly stated that only ten bottles could be sold to an individual. Well, then! The clerk even kept boxes of it next to him, so he didn’t have to stand up to fetch orders, which were always the same. When it was my turn at the counter, I followed suit and all the way home was in a giddy state of anticipatory bliss. A new sort of liquor! What would it taste like?!

Turns out, arrack tastes great. Mostly like rum, a little like whiskey, but then also not like either of those. The liquor is produced from coconuts; specifically, from the sap of unopened coconut flowers. Every morning at dawn, toddy tappers climb onto palm trees around Sri Lanka’s coastlines to harvest the flower — every tree can provide up to two liters per day.

The collected sap immediately ferments into toddy, which is mildly alcoholic. Within hours after harvesting, the toddy is brought to collection centers for distillation, a process which takes about 24 hours. During maturation, which can last up to twelve years, the liquor is flavored with herbs. Arrack is billed as the world’s “only naturally fermented alcoholic beverage“, which obviously means that it’s totally healthy, and I’m allowed to drink as much as I want. Shut up, Jürgen, that’s what it means. I said shut up.

Arrack goes down easy, both straight and mixed. While in Kandy, it become something of a ritual of ours to sit out on the balcony with a drink during sunset. I’m a master mixologist, and after finding a half-empty bottle of ginger beer in our fridge, I invented the following drink, which I’ve named in honor of my hero.

Arrack Obama
Ginger Beer

Sit back and enjoy!

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February 22, 2012 at 6:26 am Comments (8)

Leech Attack at the Knuckles Mountain Range

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About twenty kilometers east of Kandy lies the Knuckles Mountain Range, pronounced by locals as “nuck-less”. This is one of the most infrequently visited corners of Sri Lanka’s hill country, which is surprising, given its beautiful expanses of untouched forest, easy accessibility from Kandy, and softly curved mountaintops which indeed resemble knuckles. By all rights, this park should be one of the region’s touristic highlights.

Knuckles Sir Lanka

Maybe it’s the leeches. We intended to walk the Dothalugala Trail which leads past waterfalls and up to a viewpoint. Sure, we’d been warned that the path was infested with them, but whatever. We’re men, not sniveling sissy-boys who run squealing from harmless pests like leeches. Or so we thought…

Two kilometers into the hike, I noticed movement on the ground. A leech! Huh, the information was accurate after all, and I bent over to examine it. This wasn’t the black, full-bodied leech I’m used to, but a teensy worm-like thing crawling along the dusty ground. Almost cute! And, look, Jürgen, there’s another. And another! And oh my god the ground is covered with them! They are on me! Run!

And run we did. Back down the path, swatting at our legs in terror, every once in awhile pausing to bash leeches off our shoes with a rock, or flick them off our legs with a stick. During the panicked retreat, I knocked at least thirty leeches off me. Two managed to sink their hooks into my flesh, and one succeeded in latching onto Jürgen’s leg. It was like a scene out of the most horrifying terror movie you can imagine, only more horrifying. Once we reached safety back on the paved road, we immediately disrobed down to the undies and examined each other like overgrown monkeys.

Luckily, there was a second, leech-free hike out to a viewpoint known as Mini World’s End. This two-kilometer walk was a breeze, and soon enough we found ourselves at the edge of the mountain, with cliffs that dropped straight down to the plains below. The view was magnificent, stretching for miles in every direction. We sat down to drink some water, which felt blissfully cool against throats bruised raw from terror-squealing, and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

So in the end, it was worth the anguish. We were utterly alone in the Knuckles park, and didn’t see another tourist the entire day. To get there, we just hopped a bus bound for Mahiyangana, got off at Hunasgiriya, and then took a tuk-tuk for eight kilometers to the Conservation Center. Total journey time, one hour each way; round-trip cost, $3 per person. Not bad. If you go yourself, wear leech socks… or just be a little tougher than us. Shouldn’t be that hard.

Location of Knuckles Conservation Center on our Map
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February 22, 2012 at 3:07 am Comments (12)

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The Udawattakele Sanctuary The small, densely-forested Udawattakele Sanctuary is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, and offers a number of long, secluded paths for exploration. During the morning we spent there, we felt completely alone, almost frighteningly so. Amazing, considering the fact that Uduwattakele is basically in the middle of Kandy.
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