Sri Lanka truly is an amazing little jewel of a country with something to offer everyone. With a history and culture spanning over 2000 years, the numerous UNESO listed heritage sites will satisfy the history buff, there is a huge array of wildlife for the nature lovers (particularly elephants, leopards, monkeys and birds), while the stunning tea plantations in the cooler mountains, and great surf beaches are a welcome relief from the heat and humidity!
Sigiriya is a good starting point to discover the Cultural Triangle, home to a number of UNESCO sites. Visible for miles from all directions, this rock fortress is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, and simply has to be seen to be believed. The monolithic rock rises 200 metres above the surrounding plain and was an ancient castle built by King Kasyapa during the 5th century AD. The moats and walls surrounding the complex are stunningly beautiful, enhanced by the preservation of the Water Gardens. Only one half has been excavated – leaving the other half untouched, protecting it for future generations of archaeologists to excavate.
The walk up Sigiriya is incredibly amazing, and slightly terrifying!!! It really is worthwhile arriving early to take a short visit through the museum first for a brief overview of the history of Sigiriya and a glimpse of what to expect at the top of the climb – it definitely motivated me to continue through the Lion’s Gate and take the final steps to the top!
Starting with a gentle stroll through the gardens and base of the rock, the 50 steps up (and then down again!) the enclosed spiral staircase to the Mirrored Wall and world famous Sigiriya Frescoes, is simply a warm up to the final accent.
The reward for conquering the climb is the stunning views of the Water Gardens and surrounding countryside. Take your time exploring the ruins of the King’s upper palace, including cisterns cut into the rock and swimming baths, before you begin the decent. Refreshingly, this site is almost completely free of hawkers – only a few are scattered towards the exit of the fortress. The rewarding view from the top, over the surrounding countryside and the landscaped gardens at the bottom is stunning.
Also situated in the Triangle is the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, one of Sri Lanka’s best planned archaeological sites. Housed within the walls of Polonnaruwa are the remains of palace buildings, temples and various other religious buildings, giving backdrop to filmed scenes for the Duran music video Save a Prayer in 1982.
The highlight of Polonnaruwa for me was the massive stone Buddha at the Gal Viahara. This is a temple of four statues of Buddha, carved directly into the face of a massive granite rock – a 4.6m high seated figure decorated with Lotus flowers, a smaller seated figure inside an carved out cave, a standing figure measuring nearly 7m high, and a massive 14-metre-high iconic reclining Buddha.
Minneriya National Park’s famous ‘elephant gathering’ has been named by Lonely Planet as one of the worlds “10 greatest wildlife spectacles” and they’re not wrong! The nearly 90 sq. km park has plenty of scrub Forrest and wetlands not only providing visitors with a stunning variety of scenery, but more importantly, shelter for the variety of wildlife. As well as the potential to see elephant gatherings of 200 or more, keep a look out for toque macaques, samba deer, buffalo and crocodiles. Bird spotters can expect to see little cormorants, herons, painted stalks and Pelicans – all fishing in the shallow waters of the Minneriya Reservoir. Being privilege to view this largest know meeting place of Asian elephants truly is something special.
Moving up the country and inland through tea plantations takes you to the city of Kandy.
A UNESCO world heritage lists site, Kandy is known to be one of the most beautiful cities in Sri Lanka. The towns’ pleasant climate makes it a comfortable city for tourists, and a visit to the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic is a must for any itinerary.
If you are feeling adventurous, an intrepid bus ride through the hills and suburbs with a few hair-raisingly close calls on the narrow roads will deliver you to a hidden treasure trove of Sri Lankan antiques and curiosities!! The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture is the ancient house of a village chief and today still maintains it historic Dutch style architecture. If you a history buff with a love of maps, this place is most definitely worth the journey.
For a more sedate afternoon, take a pleasant tour of Kandy’s botanic gardens, spanning over 60 hectares and bounded on three sides by a loop of the Mahaweli River.
Kandy is also famous as home to the Temple of The Tooth (Dalada Maligawa), Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist site. The sacred shrine receives many worshippers and tourists, with fewer tourists in the morning. Wear clothes that cover your legs and your shoulders, and remove your shoes.
For a truly unique experience spend a night or two mobile camping in Yala National Park. An incredible location with fantastic and knowledge staff ensure you see the best of the wildlife, and don’t go hungry! Think 4 courses minimum for each meal of the day! The legendary leopard remained elusive on our dusk and dawn safaris, but we did get up close and personal with elephants, monkeys, spotted deer (aka leopard food) and a visit from a monitor lizard! This national park is massive, spanning a huge 1267 sq. km.
Galle was without a doubt my favourite city. This Dutch town, (famous among cricket fans!) is encircled by fortress walls giving way to narrow cobbled streets – the perfect setting for enjoying the interesting old buildings. The street markets are a spectacle of fresh fish, fruit stalls and ramshackled little huts crammed with a huge array of spices and teas. The landmark lighthouse serves as a good point of reference to save from getting lost!
Beyond Sri Lanka’s stunning sites, history and wildlife I haven’t even touched on the delicious food and array of teas. Now is the best time to discover spectacular Sri Lanka, enjoying the affordability and reasonably uncrowded cities before the rest of the world catches on!