After 5 nights in Nilaveli our next stop was The Cultural Triangle. Eight sites of Sri Lanka have been inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and 5 of these are in the Cultural Triangle; the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the ancient rock top city of Sigiriya, the Golden Temple of Dambulla and the magnificent temples and palaces of the royal city of Kandy.
There’s a lot to do in the area, even on top of these magnificent cultural sites. Some of my favourite highlights are below.
DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE
This site is known interchangeably ‘Golden Temple’ and ‘Cave Temple’ (it’s the same thing). The site is 160m above the road so there’s a bit of a hike up a steep staircase – probably not great for the elderly – but on the way up you get superb views of the surrounding countryside. There are 5 separate caves with wonderful wall and ceiling paintings, as well as many beautiful buddhist statues. It is some of Sri Lanka’s most important religious art, with some of the images created over 2000 years ago. Over time, kings have added to and embellished the artwork so they are in good condition.
We loved this experience, however, interestingly we visited another very similar set of cave temples whilst in the south of Sri Lanka at the yoga retreat in Tangalle (Sen Wellness Retreat). Dangling off a rocky crag 16km northwest of Tangalle town, and nestled away amongst the forest, is another set of cave temples, known as Mulkirigala. The climb is a little more aggressive I think, and the views perhaps even more amazing. There are 7 caves in total scattered around this mountain on terraces, best explored as you ascend the mountain. Similar to Dambulla, they contain both small and large Buddhist statues as well as extensive rock paintings.
As Mulkirigala is much less touristy, I think it is an excellent alternative to the Dambulla caves.
SIGIRIYA & PIDURANGALA
We had planned to just drive past Sigiriya and have a look having heard many tourists say the rock just simply isn’t worth the $40 per person to climb it. However we heard of Pidurangala through friends and decided to climb that instead. It cost us a 500Rs (about $4) donation to the monks who live at Pidurangala. Make sure to wear appropriate clothing coving your knees and arms if possible.
It’s a wonderful climb and takes about 30 minutes. Again, it’s probably not a great one for anyone who isn’t that mobile, though I did see some old Sri Lankan ladies making their way up! It’s more of a scramble at some points, which I liked, making it feel like a little adventure. There is no trail towards the top you pretty much just clamber your way up the boulders. The view from the top is amazing, looking directly on Sigiriya rock (which looked awfully crowded!). There were only about 15 other people up the top of Pidurangala. We ventured up in the late morning but I’ve heard it’s a great place to go for sunrise or sunset.
Nonetheless, the historical citadel of Sigiriya is meant to be a wonderful site to visit, and so I wouldn’t discourage this. Everyone who goes raves about it. We just felt we needed to make some tough decisions about how we spent our 4 days, something for next time! Pidurangala is also an excellent choice for those on a budget.
We decided on only visiting one of the two ancient cities (Anuradhapura / Polonnaruwa) in the interest of not waring ourselves out and using our time efficiently. After some extensive research Polonnaruwa seemed like the best choice for us, I was a little more interested in this city as the ruins are arguably more intact and it’s slightly more compact.
It took about an hour to get there by tuk tuk from where we were staying. We probably spent about 4 hours there, our tuk tuk driving taking us between all the different sites. A lot of people have said that doing it on bicycle is also great.
We loved visiting Polonnaruwa and imagining the lives of the ancient Sinhalese kings and queens. I would definitely recommend going later in the day or early in the morning as it was VERY hot.
ELEPHANT SAFARI AT KAUDULLA
Sri Lanka has 22 national parks, many of them offering tourists the chance to spot elephants. When arriving in Sri Lanka, we originally planned to visit Yala National Park, which is probably the country’s most popular with the highest concentration of leopards (although apparently still tricky to spot!). We soon found out how touristy Yala is and how unpleasant the experience can be with lots of other jeeps around and lots of waiting. However, we decided to hold off on the National Park until we were in The Cultural Triangle and visit Minneriya National Park.
Basically the way it works is the guides will tell you whether to visit Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park when you are there, i.e. which park has the higher concentration of elephants at that time. I also heard that Kaudulla was less touristy again so we agreed to go to there. The park is also situated on an elephant migratory path (an Elephant corridor) and each dry season (August / September) there is a ‘gathering’ at the water tanks.
Sadly it seems that perhaps there are no parks left that are not touristy. Possibly you might find one in the northern part of the island, which is in itself much less touristy. Whilst on our safari in Kaudulla we saw lots of other jeeps, and lots of other tourists. Perhaps most frustrating was the fact that many of the cars only had 2 people in them (as ours did), I would have been very happy to go with other people, but the guides obviously make less money that way… I’d be happy to pay the same to be honest and be with others. If the Parks made it mandatory for Jeeps to be at least 70% full and then limited the number of them coming in per day this would make a HUGE difference, and would go a long way in preserving what makes Sri Lanka so special.
A huge highlight for me, despite all this, was of course seeing the elephants in the wild. We saw about 20 at different times, mostly at dusk, but also a very new born calf (2-3 days old). It was magical. My mum’s favourite animals are elephants and so at a very young age I decided they were mine too.
However, I can’t deny the experience was seriously marred by my worrying about what the future holds for Sri Lanka’s elephants. Apart from the elephants we only saw buffalo (that were branded), peacocks and some other birds. Eco tourism doesn’t seem to have taken a hold yet but hopefully something changes soon.
OTHER PARTS OF THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
Major attractions aside, the Cultural Triangle is peppered with other interesting but less-touristy sites and monuments, so if you’re hungry for more, have a look into: the abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara; the great Buddha statues of Mihintale, Aukana and Sasseruwa; the absorbing temples of Aluvihara and Ridi Vihara; and the haunting forest monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
I did very thorough research around accomodation and whilst I didn’t see or stay at all the below, think any would be an excellent choice.
*** Heritance Kandalama – this hotel is very popular as it’s big, his multiple pools and most importantly, was designed by Geoffrey Bawa. I had a very bad experience with them being charged without my consent for a preliminary booking and they wouldn’t refund me. It took me 2 months to recoup the money. But more significantly, they keep an elephant on the hotel grounds, I assume as another way to draw tourists in. So that is awful in itself. Steer clear.