Phileas French

Travel Writer

Phileas French

Phileas French

Travel Writer | Exploring every country in the world, one adventure at a time

Kandy Bats and Monkeys

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I was never going to make a visit to the beautiful Sri Lankan city of Kandy without a stroll around the stunning Royal Botanical Gardens, at the entrance to the city in the suburb of Peradeniya.

Astonishingly, the history of the gardens can be traced back almost 650 years, to 1371. Its current status came about during the eighteenth century reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, who made it a royal garden. It is coming up to the bicentennial of its life on the current site, when an Alexander Moon moved it to the botanically auspicious spot in 1821.

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Even for someone used to the vast expanse of Kew Gardens, the Peradeniya site is huge. The lovely, historic Plant House and Orchid House are near the entrance, but in my doomed quest to spot one of the two varieties (salt water and mugger) of native crocodile in the wild, we were soon rushing along through the majestic double coconut palm avenue towards the bridge over the Mahaweli River, where I’d heard crocodilians liked to hang out.

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On arrival we were greeted by a disorderly queue for the suspension bridge, and the less than reassuring feedback that the bridge wasn’t strong enough to hold more than seven people at once. Even so, groups of double that were risking their neck, weighing up a plunge into crocodile-infested waters against the tedium of spending twice as long in the line. My older daughter sensibly pointed out that the presence of a bunch of people swimming and washing clothes in the river suggested that we were unlikely to be treated to a plethora of 6 metre long reptiles.

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We stumbled gingerly out onto the bridge for a few minutes, saw nothing except a premonition of plummeting to a watery grave, and stumbled back. Hoping that the lake in South Drive would prove more fruitful, we headed that way.

En route, we enjoyed the brilliantly surreal spectacle of a very glamorous musical number being filmed, with a large crowd of spectators and an even larger quantity of dry ice.

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As the sky darkened, we glanced up to see what flock of birds was blocking out the sunlight before clocking it was bats. An awful lot of bats. We’d fallen in love with the extraordinary bats of the Maldives, in solitary silhouette against the sunset. We’d never seen thousands of fruit bats roosting out in the open before though, and whether they were hanging upside down or swooping down towards us, it was an unexpected, evocative encounter.

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It was so hypnotic, in fact, that it took a while for us to look down and realise that we’d been joined on the ground by some inquisitive little monkeys. They kept a respectful distance and seemed more interested in sharing dinner amongst their family group than us.

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The biodiversity of the flora in the gardens can be overwhelming, even when you’re not being distracted by the exotic fauna. Some plants jump out, especially the stunning umbrella of the Java Fig Tree, and I was struck by the immense size of some of the bamboo too. We spent an amazing afternoon but it would take days, maybe weeks, to let everything on offer really unfold. Even after just a few hours, we were grateful for the lovely little coffee bar at the exit by the gift shop, for a jolt of caffeine before we headed to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. It's deservedly considered a must-see for anyone visiting Kandy, and compares favourably to any of the world's great botanical gardens, from London to Singapore.

Phileas French
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Sunday, 15 December 2019