Kandy: the former capital of Sri Lanka, and the land of tea and exotic fruit

During our time in Sri Lanka, we decided to do one side trip from Colombo and chose Kandy. Kandy is the former capital of Sri Lanka when the island country was ruled over by a monarchy. Today, it is the capital of the Central Province of the country and one of the country’s most populous cities. It is considered a cultural capital of Sri Lanka, given its rich history and being home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is known as one of the most sacred places for Buddhist worship in the world. Kandy is a popular destination for domestic travelers seeking a holiday, as it is in the midst of a number of tropical plantations, especially tea. Given the higher elevation of Kandy at over 1,500 feet, the area surrounding Kandy in the Central Province is very popular for growing tea.

When we arrived, it certainly felt like an interesting mix of chaotic urban hustle and tranquil, lush flora. The city encircles itself around the main sprawling square area, which is hustling and bustling, and the huge artificial lake, which is home to a number of interesting fauna, including various species of large birds and the notable Asian water monitor, which is one of the largest lizards in the world. When I first saw this animal, I got a bit spooked and didn’t know what it was. Initially, it seemed like an alligator or crocodile, but not quite. We speculated that it must be in the lizard family based on its outward appearance. We actually got to see this peculiar creature our first morning in Kandy while walking around the lake: this massive lizard was eating its breakfast: a big, fat fish, slowly being sucked down its throat in huge gulps!

One of the main sights I was eager to visit while in Kandy was the Central Market: it’s known as the locals’ market for everything from clothes, household items, jewelry, trinkets, souvenirs, to fresh produce. Of course, we were not interested in the clothes or household items, but the produce! I especially had my eyes (and stomach) set on a few types of fruit: durian, jackfruit, rambutans, mangosteen, and mango. When we were in India, we knew that durian was not a fruit that was either native or liked, and we were told that we had just passed peak jackfruit season there, so we unfortunately did not see any jackfruit being sold anywhere. But on our first visit to the Central Market, we immediately found one single vendor selling durian, and we zeroed in on him immediately and asked how much it would cost. He smiled and replied that it would be 400 LKR per kilo; that’s $1.33 per 2.2 pounds!! We agreed, but only if he’d cut it for us, which he happily had one of his people do. We picked out one durian, and they weighed it out: in total, it would cost us 1,400 LKR, which is the equivalent of $4.50 USD — what a total steal for us! I don’t know what I was initially more excited about — the fact that we found a fragrant, ripe durian, or how cheap it was! We parked the stroller and literally just stood there, eating durian with a random plastic fork I found in the diaper bag and our bare hands. The surrounding vendors found this so, so comical: they all watched us intently, with each bite we took, and kept smiling at us. As for the durian itself: it is likely one of the very, very best durians we’d eaten in a long time. It was perfectly ripe, extremely creamy, sweet, custardy, and complex tasting. We kept marveling how good the durian was (Kaia took one bite and refused; I guess she doesn’t have the same taste buds as back in the autumn, when she willingly ate Malaysian durian…). And after the first cut, we erroneously thought we were done, but no! The vendor cut the NEXT part of the durian to reveal two more massive hunks of durian for us to gorge on! That was pretty much our dinner on our first evening in Kandy!

When we were just about to leave, I realized that they had king coconuts, the unique orange-hued coconuts that are native to Sri Lanka. These king coconuts are famous for their special water and are used for drinking almost exclusively, especially since they don’t yield much coconut flesh. So, I asked for one to cut open and drink. It cost just 150 LKR, and we had king coconut juice for the very first time. The juice was sweet, but sweet in a very different way than the coconut water that comes from green coconuts. Oddly enough, it also felt a bit lighter. The king coconut water had this tartness at the end that was unique. When I asked if they could cut the coconut open after we were done drinking, they hacked it open with a small machete to reveal a small amount of white jelly. Well, even the coconut FLESH is different on a king coconut than a green coconut! I had no idea! It was just a small amount of flesh, but all three of us, even Pookster, relished it.

We told the fruit vendors that we’d come back to have more fruit, and we made well on our promise. The next day, we came back and asked for a few kilos of jackfruit, which was also ripe, sweet, and so satisfying. They indulged Kaia with two free bananas, which she happily ate (she refused the jackfruit, sadly), and also cut open a mangosteen for us to eat (also super juicy, sweet, and yummy). We also had some free rambutans, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t eat more fruit at that point to buy more; we were so stuffed!

We also visited the Embilmeegama tea factory for a free tour and tasting. It’s located just outside of Kandy, so we had an Uber driver take us there (someone who was very eager to make a commission, so he lied and told us he was driving us to the larger version… which was a completely different tea factory altogether, made and marketed for tourists, and had no relation to Embilmeegama. When I walked into the facility he drove us to and asked if they were Embilmeegama, they said they were not, but a “much better place for tea.” Well, I said thanks, but no thanks! Then, I went back to the car, told the driver this was not right and that he had to take us to the spot we originally requested). When we entered the actual Embilmeegama tea factory, a woman dressed in a sari walked up to us and greeted us in English. She took us on a quick tour of the factory. I’ll be honest and say that this is real tea production without even the slightest bit of sugar coating or glorification. This is a real, working tea factory that is producing tea for real human consumption. They talk through the production process while there are real workers right there in front of you working the machines, manually sorting through tea leaves, and enduring the extremely hot, dusty conditions inside. The guide noted that after sorting, the “inferior” tea leaves and dust were used in tea and tea bags for the locals, while the vast majority is exported to western and Middle Eastern countries (read: rich countries. Ouch. Again as I said: no sugar coating here. They say it just like it is). As educational as the process was, it actually made me feel sad that there are real people who have to endure these dark, hot, dusty conditions every single day; this is a grueling, truly thankless job. I have been a tea drinker for most of my life and a tea lover since college, yet like so many things we consume, I’m totally removed from this arduous and ugly process of tea production. I’m in a privileged position: I just get the fun, delicious part — enjoying the actual drink. It definitely leaves me with conflicting feelings.

When we did the tea tasting, which was held on the top floor of the building in a massive, open, well appointed and inviting room, I ended up purchasing three items: one box of fancy tea bags for my friend (tea bags that are actually filled with real tea leaves, not dust as tea bags are usually stuffed with), one box of Silver Tips Ceylon tea, often consumed as a health tonic as opposed to a “tea” (and… priced as such, as it was extremely expensive by any standard of currency, and likely one of the most expensive teas I’ve ever purchased!), and one box of luxury broken orange pekoe fannings, extra special (BOPF, ES), which is only sold directly in the factory and not exported at all. I was a bit hesitant when I heard how expensive the latter two teas were, but I figured: when am I going to be back here or in Sri Lanka in general to buy these? Plus, I knew if I were to attempt to source the equivalents back home, they’d likely be even more expensive. Tea is obviously a commodity, but it’s also an experience, and so I wanted to bring this experience back home with me.

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