It’s worth to spend more time in Kandy to visit old temples in the surrounding villages. You can easily combine sightseeing with a pleasant walk in between three of these temples: Gadaladeniya, Lankathilake and Embekke.
The three temples walk
I visited the tourism information centre to learn how to get to the temples by public transport and how much it should cost. The staff was knowledgeable and really helpful. We were going to have an 8 km walk from one temple to the other. It was supposed to be easy to find that path.
We boarded a bus to Pilimithalawa. It was very slow due to a traffic jam around Peradeniya (where Royal Botanical Gardens are located). We got off at Gadaladeniya junction and walked around 800 meters to Gadaladeniya temple. Since it was Sunday, there were plenty of local people wearing white outfits visiting the temple through a side entrance. The foreigners had to get a ticket of 300 LKR. This small temple was the least interesting (hence the best one to skip if short on a budget). Inside, there was a statue of a seated Buddha and some unrestored frescoes. The temple was perched on a small rock and had a whitewashed stupa covered with a typical Sinhalese roof. Unfortunately, the temple was covered with scaffolding at the time of our visit.
Walking from Galadeniya to Lankathilake
We asked at Galadeniya temple for directions to the next temple. The ticket seller told us the route through the forest is too complicated without a guide. We tried to find the path, supposedly starting somewhere behind the toilets, but failed. We walked along a busy B16 road for just a short distance, only until coming across a new Buddhist temple (Sri Bodhirathna Rajaramaya), where the road forked. I followed maps.me, taking a slightly longer, but much more peaceful and quiet tarmac road to the right. This road was mostly shaded and led through villages and some greenery. It was going up and down quite a bit, though. Google maps didn’t show a much smaller path which we followed using Maps.me. That little path eventually joined with Lakathilake Viharaya Rd before getting us to the second temple.
Lakathilake Raja Maha Viharaya was an undisputed winner among the three temples we saw that day. It was a pretty whitewashed square building with a typical Sinhalese roof located on top of a large rock. The rock was high, overlooking the mountains, hence offering a splendid panoramic view. Unlike other places, I got a leaflet describing and explaining some elements of the temple.
The entrance used nowadays is the back entrance of the temple. Hence, a rather underwhelming interior of the first chamber. However, walking around the building would get you to the imposing main gate. The interior is small but beautiful. Frescos cover the ceiling and walls, while a large, seated Buddha takes the central space.
When I entered the temple, I saw a Buddhist monk talking on the phone, using headphones. The internet router was hanging from the arch. I was admiring the frescoes when I heard the noise of the rain. It was a proper downpour. We stayed under a shelter for at least half an hour, having some snacks and waiting for the rain to subside. We were lucky. An elderly French couple arrived with a guide in a posh car. They were doing the three temples tour and promised to take us to Embekke. Before they finished visiting Lankathilake, it stopped raining.
We got to know from the locals that there was an easy, 1.5-2km shortcut to Embekke. There were some steps in the rock leading down and then connecting to a path through the paddy fields. We could have walked but didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Kandy from Embekke, so we took a lift instead.
Embekke was a devale, a shrine of one of Hindu gods considered ‘helpers’ of Buddha. This one was devoted to Kataragama, known in India as Kartikeya. Embekke Devale looked very different from the previous two. Its main feature was a long, roofed colonnade with beautifully carved, wooden pillars. There wasn’t much to see inside the temple, but the building itself was pretty. There was also an ancient barn adjacent to it.
Since the sun came out, we happily walked 200 meters to the main road, from where we caught a bus to Kandy. We got off at Kandy around 6 pm, just half an hour before the sunset.
Two off-the-beaten-track temples worth visiting
The places described above are the ones most commonly visited (though far from crowded). However, there are other old temples, located on the other side of Mahaveli Ganga river. I went there with our Couch Surfing host, who took us with his tuk-tuk. Judging from Google maps, it seems buses reach both of those temples. I’d suggest asking for the details at the tourist info.
Degaldoruwa cave temple
The first place we reached was a cave temple Degaldoruwa Raja Maha Viharaya, 30 km outside Kandy. It was deserted- not a single tourist in sight. This 18th-century temple clung to a natural rock. Our host arranged for a monk to come and open the temple for us. Photos were officially forbidden, but the monk allowed me to take some (without a flash, of course!).
All the walls and the ceiling- which was in fact the natural rock- were covered with impressive, Kandy- era frescoes. There was also a statue of a reclining Buddha inside. After seeing the temple, we went up the rock to see a stupa and a bodhi tree.
Since our host was in charge of everything, it was unclear whether this place had any official entrance fee. I’d assume the monks expected some small contribution.
Galmaduwa Hindu-like Buddhist temple
We proceeded to another temple, Galmaduwa Raja Maha Viharaya. Yet again, it was empty and closed. It had a very unusual shape of a pyramid tower. As I learned later, due to the influence of Tamil Hindu architecture. Our host found a man who opened the doors for us. The man spoke poor English, but tried his best to explain the history of this ancient, yet mostly reconstructed temple.
In the end, the guide asked us if we could see his handicraft workshop at the feet of the temple. We had no choice but to follow him, expecting he’d want us to buy something. In front of his house, his wife was decorating brass plates using a hammer and simple nails. Within seconds, she engraved on a tiny piece of brass an elephant and our names. The man invited us to his workshop and store.
He showed us how to burn the plates in the open fire, treat them with acid and create a concave pattern. It’d take three days to make a more complex plate. We used the toilet, asked for water and got served the most delicious tea with ginger. After such a treatment, I couldn’t simply leave, although most of his merchandise wasn’t within my budget. I bought the cheapest thing in the entire shop: a brass, elephant-shaped bookmark for 350 rupees. My friend decided to contribute by helping them out with promotion on Instagram.
How to get to Galadeniya, Lankathilake and Embekke from Kandy?
Go to Kandy bus station and take a bus to Pilimithalawa. Get off at Gadaladeniya junction for Gadaladeniya temple. Avoid walking the main road between Galadeniya and Lankathilake. Take a longer but much more pleasant way turning right at Bodhirathna Rajaramaya temple and follow Maps. me or Google maps to reach Lankathilake. The road between Lankathilake and Embekke devale (Embekka Devale Rd) is a smaller road. From Embekka it’s just a few hundred meters to Buwelikada from where you can take a bus to Kandy.
Prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of Feb 2019]
350 handicraft brass bookmark at a brass workshop
300 entrance to Galadeniya, Lankathilake and Embekke (each)
38 bus from Buwelikada to Kandy
20 bus Kandy to Gadaladeniya junction