Vesak Festival in Colombo


About a week after I returned to Sri Lanka from my month in Vietnam (posts to come soon – promise!), the Vesak poya (full moon) festival was celebrated by Buddhists in Colombo and around the country. Vesak is a holiday that is celebrated annually by Buddhists to honour the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. We also get two holidays off work, which is always fun (you probably get tired of hearing about all my holidays… Sri Lanka apparently has the most in the world!).

During Vesak, Buddhist parts of the country become adorned with lanterns and alit with string lights (just like back home at Christmas!). It’s a beautiful sight to witness, especially at night when the decorations give a festive feel to every public space and little side street. In Colombo, the government sponsors massive installations to celebrate the festival. There are pandals, which are huge murals lit up with many bright and moving lights to depict scenes like Buddha’s enlightenment, and there are displays of giant lanterns, which also depict scenes from Buddha’s life story and sometimes even include movement!

Three nights during the festival, I explored the decorations. On Vesak day (the full moon day), I walked along a road where some of the giant, handmade lanterns are. It was breathtaking to see the craftsmanship that goes into these works of art but I found the waves of people a little overwhelming so I didn’t stay for too long (it reminded me of the crowds during pilgrimage at Adam’s Peak in February…).

The next night, I went with friends to Gangaramaya Temple, the Buddhist hub of Colombo. We followed the evening crowds to Beira Lake, which was completely decorated with lights (some even creating the Buddhist flag) and even a lit-up boat taking worshippers to Seema Malaka, the meditation centre on the lake. We got to see even larger and more beautiful lanterns but the crowds, again, were a little much and it was still thirty degrees Celsius at ten o’clock at night so we didn’t try to get into the temple that evening.

On the weekend, though, I took a staff member visiting from Canada again to Gangaramaya temple and we were late enough in the festival that the crowds had somewhat dissipated so we were able to not only explore more of the lanterns but we were also able to get into the temple, which was fun to do with so many people out and about. It was a late night but worth it for the views!

Those who follow me on Instagram (@katherinelmacg) have seen some photos and I recommend you check out a few of my Instagram posts from last week to see videos of the lanterns in motion. For more of a taste of what the festival looks like in Colombo, here are some photos:


This is a good example of the simple lanterns and string lights found around the city. Notice also the Buddhist flags and the lotus flower lights, showing that this is a Buddhist festival.


Buddhist flag strung up over a street


An installation of a lotus flower at a roundabout (it lit up after dark)


These lotus flowers and stupa created with string lights were outside a government department tasked with preservation of cultural sites like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa


This tree is filled with so many lanterns, making it a breathtaking sight to take in!


Some of the very large crowd on the way to Gangaramaya Temple (it took us over an hour to navigate our way there on Thursday then on Saturday it only took about fifteen minutes!)


This is one of the moving lanterns. To stand in front of it was extraordinary!


It was so hard to capture good photos of moving lanterns!


I’m quite fond of the Buddhist-kitsch aesthetic of this lantern (also moving)


This one, though smaller than some of the showstoppers, was one of my favourites


The lights in this lantern, like many others, would change colour with the music!


Another stunning medium-sized lantern


This lantern was MASSIVE! This moving section was the bottom level and there were THREE levels above it! 


Some of the spectacle around Beira Lake


Seema Malaka, the meditation centre designed by Geoffrey Bawa, was all decorated for the festivities


My favourite site of the entire festival was this giant flashing pandal and the boat that took people across the lake to Seema Malaka! So bright!




A Kandyan birthday weekend


Last weekend, we awoke early on Saturday to catch an 8AM train from Colombo to Kandy. I stared out the window while Sabrina napped. The views from the train of the valley below as well as an audiobook kept me entertained throughout the approximately two hour journey. When we arrived in Kandy, I used the washroom specifically designated for tourists, feeling grateful for a clean washroom but uncomfortable with the segregation of locals from tourists. Then, we met up with another volunteer, J, who was generous enough to both show us around Kandy and let us stay at her home just outside of city centre.

For our first day in Kandy, Sabrina and I covered our legs and took off our shoes to explore the famous Buddhist Temple of the Tooth, which houses a tooth relic from the Buddha himself. Kandy is the location of a huge perahera in mid-August, a festival of lights and dancing and music that occurs each night from the 7th of August until Poya on the 17th. I will be traveling back to Kandy to watch the perahera the weekend of August 13th. It is going to be so busy with thousands of people during that weekend so it is better to visit the temple and museums another time when the perahera is not happening, which is why we visited this past weekend.

On Saturday afternoon we spent about three hours wandering through the Temple of the Tooth. It is a large complex filled with amazing Buddhist art and imagery as well as several museums, including the Museum of World Buddhism, the Kandy National Museum, and the Museum of Archeology. While you cannot see the actual tooth relic, you can see the gold casket it is housed inside at specific times of day when the doors of the temple where it is housed are opened. We didn’t visit the temple during those specific times since we should see the gold casket during the perahera, when it is paraded around Kandy on the back of an elephant.

The next day we visited the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens. The weather was perfect for most of the time we walked through the beautiful, lush gardens… except for a twenty minute downpour that sent everyone running for shelter! We spent about two hours walking through the gardens, exploring the various sections including trees and plants from all over the word. The rest of the day was spent relaxing at J’s house and going for a walk in the area, taking in the beautiful scenery.

Monday was my birthday (!!) but also a workday so we worked in Kandy, visiting the Women’s Development Centre where J is currently working. Then we walked into a few shops along the way to dinner out at the White House to celebrate. I bought myself a couple of treats, including a long green dress and a couple of books. We had a lovely dinner out then returned back to J’s to crash before heading back to Colombo the next day.


The train to Kandy


Interesting motivational signs in the Kandy Railway Station


Outside of the temple of the tooth


One of the images of the Buddha inside the temple of the tooth


There was beautiful art everywhere inside the temple of the tooth!


The lake in central Kandy


Hanging out in Peradeniya Botanical Garden

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Tree-hugging at Peradiniya


Some of the many, many bats at Peradiniya


Exploring the beautiful, lush streets around Kandy


Such a beautiful sunset


One of the many awe-inspiring views around Kandy


One of the two elephants we saw on our way from Kandy to Colombo… in preparation for the perahera!


The second elephant we saw on our way back to Colombo


View from the highway, looking out at the Bible Rock

If you would like to donate to my fundraising campaign for Uniterra (note this money supports local partners not my volunteer mandate), check out my Canada Helps page.