Many people come to Sri Lanka just for a beach holiday, but they are missing out on the best this country has to offer. We are just finishing up thirty days in Sri Lanka and found the country and people beautiful and welcoming while the ancient historical sites are truly amazing. Getting around the island by bus and train may be slow, but it’s easy, cheap and convenient.
From the airport or the capital of Colombo, tourists either go east to visit the Cultural Triangle or head south to the beaches. We headed east by Sri Lanka’s famous rickety and slow railway to the sacred city of Anuradhapura: one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a sprawling ancient city filled with dagobas, ruins of palaces and monasteries and a 2,000 year old Bodhi tree that was bred from the same Bodhi tree under which Buddha himself attained enlightenment. Oh, there are tons of monkeys everywhere! Entrance is $25 per person. Riding a bicycle is the best way to get around so make sure you ask your guesthouse for a map because the park does not provide them.
All over Sri Lanka, we stayed in guesthouses. Most had less than five rooms, provided breakfast and dinner if requested. In Anuradhapura, we stayed at Andorra Tourist Rest, a kilometer from the entrance to the ancient city. On staff was a professional chef who cooked divine dinners. We rented bikes on site to ride all over the ancient city.
TIP – You’ll be negotiating tuk-tuk fares several times a day, so keep your cool. Ask the driver the cost before getting into the tuk-tuk and talk him down. The only metered tuk-tuks are found in Colombo so make sure you only use metered taxis while in the city.
The next stop on the Cultural Triangle was Polonnaruwa, another ancient capital city and World Heritage Site. This time, we hired a tuk-tuk to drive us throughout the park to all historical sites and ruins. Beware of tuk-tuk drivers offering you a tour and entrance into the sites. Some do not actually purchase entrance tickets but pay off guards to let you in. Insist on purchasing the $25 ticket and hiring a tuk-tuk to drive you around for 1,000 to 1,500 rps.
TIP – Most hotels and guesthouses can arrange tours for you. Rather than negotiate directly with tuk-tuk drivers, first speak to your guesthouse and negotiate prices with them.
Polonnaruwa has ruins of beautiful temples, Buddha statues and a king’s palace. It is also home to the amazing Gal Vihara – four sculptures carved from one large slab of granite. The giant reclining Buddha and seven meter tall standing Buddha are both amazing and beautiful.
We stayed in a four-room guesthouse called Ruins Villa surrounded by farms and trees near Gal Vihara. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of Kottu Roti and a breakfast of egg crepes with coconut and honey and had many good conversations with the owner (who spoke excellent English!).
TIP – Hotel booking sites like Bookings.com actually charge the listing hotel 18% of the price the room. If you contact the hotel or guesthouse directly, you can usually negotiate the room rate lower (usually 20% lower).
The final stop in the Cultural Triangle is Sigiriya Rock, or simply called “The Rock” ($30 entrance ticket). As the name suggests, it’s a giant rock with a flat top that was first used as a monastery before becoming a king’s palace after years of abandonment. On top of the rock once stood buildings, shrines and temples. There is a large pool carved into the rock to collect sacred water. The grounds around the base of the rock have beautiful carved boulders and water gardens meant to capture the sacred water descending from Sigiriya Rock.
The hike to the top of the Rock is somewhat challenging but filled with rewards along the way. Midway, there are cave paintings depicting beautiful women adorned with jewelry (it is believed that the king’s harem resided at the top of the rock) and giant lion claws mark the final ascent to the top. We heard the views from the top are breathtaking, but unfortunately it was cloudy and raining so we couldn’t see much further than a hundred meters.
Here we had our favorite guesthouse stay at Paradise Inn in Sigiriya. It is a five-room home, owned by a wonderful, friendly and smiling family just a kilometer or two from the Rock. Since the entire family – two daughters, one son and their parents – lives in the guesthouse, it really feels like you are home with family. Momma cooks traditional dinners and breakfast (dinner at additional cost) and was the finest food we ate in Sri Lanka (in fact, they were building an additional 4 rooms and kitchen where momma will offer cooking classes). Their home sits next to the family’s rice paddy with the Rock looming in the background.
TIP – Sri Lankan people are really friendly and kind, however some are looking to make some money off tourists. If anyone starts to give you a tour or offers to take you somewhere without your request, know that they will ask you for money. They are not intimidating or pushy, so don’t be worried.
While staying in Sigiriya, we also went on a half day safari in Kadulla National Park to see dozens of wild elephants. While it was amazing to see a large herd of females and calves, there were about fifty jeeps – many with only one or two tourists – racing through the mud to get closer to the herd. It is similar in other national parks and I would hope the Sri Lankan government will start to intervene and limit the number of jeeps allowed in parks.
Another worthy side trip from Sigiriya is to the Cave Temples in Dambulla (40 minute tuk-tuk drive, 1,200-1,500 rps including wait time). In these five dark, damp cave temples reside hundreds of golden Buddha statues and colorful rock paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. There are two large reclining Buddhas that span over forty to fifty feet. Please be aware that in this and most temples, shoulders and legs must be covered, shoes left outside and one should never pose for a photograph with her back facing the Buddha.