Head to the ruined ancient capital of Polonnaruwa in the morning. Whilst certainly interesting, this is definitely the weakest of the sights, and if you’ve ever visited Angkor Wat or Bagan in Myanmar then you’re likely to be quite underwhelmed. If you do go make sure you take socks with you. Shoes are forbidden within most of the religious structures and the granite stones hold the Sri Lankan heat like a poptart.
Get your driver to take you for lunch somewhere and head to Minneriya National Park for no earlier than 2:30/3pm. The elephants stick to the shade of the forest during the hottest hours of the day and only really emerge into the open in the late afternoon. Take a good camera and any zoom lenses you own. You’ll regret it if you’re stuck with nothing more than an iPhone.
Minneriya National Park
Sigiriya Rock is the enormous hardened magma plug of a long eroded volcano, jutting arrogantly out of the forested landscape like a giant fist. At 200m high it dominates the skyline for miles around, and throughout history has been a monastery, a palace and an intimidatingly impenetrable fortress. The 1200 steps to its peak were once only accessible through the mouth of a giant lion intricately carved into the rock. Which gives Sigiriya its alternate name, ‘Lion Rock’. Sadly only the lion’s two huge paws remain today, but they’re impressive enough to paint a vivid picture of how magnificent the completed structure must have looked.
At the foot of the rock, beautifully landscaped gardens with sophisticated water features and air cooling systems display the brilliance of early Sri Lanka architects. And for those of you not so easily impressed by ancient engineering, there’s a bunch of women with their tits out painted on the walls. So something for everybody.
The ‘Lion Rock’ Entrance
For an entrance fee of about $30 you can see both the gardens and the tits up close. It also allows you to climb the windy and winding stairs all the way to the ruined palace at the summit and all the spectacular views that come with it. However, for a tenth of the cost, you can climb nearby Pidurangala Rock, which has similar carvings, frescos and structures, better views (you can see Sigiriya from the top), and far fewer tourists swarming in front of them. Sigiriya itself, is admittedly more impressive, but not ten times more impressive. If you have the energy and time, climb both. But if costly entrance fees and crowds are something you’re trying to avoid, choose Pidurangala.
When it comes to lunch time make the most of it, because you have another huge, sun-baked climb coming up this afternoon. If you’re willing to splash out, head to the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, a certifiable masterpiece built into the mountain and swamped by the jungle. The hotel was designed by Sri Lanka’s greatest modern architect, Geoffrey Bawa, who also designed the Sri Lankan parliament. If budget is more of an issue, maybe just grab a coffee here and fill your tummies at a local curry joint.
Heritance Kandalama Hotel
Rested, fed and watered, head to Dambulla Caves. You may well feel like you’re sick of buddhas by now, but these 2000 year old declarations of religious fervour are very much worth the scorching climb.
Dambulla Cave Temple
King Valagamba initially converted the caves into a temple way back in the 1st century BC as a thanks to the refuge he sought here whilst exiled by South Indian usurpers. And over the centuries they’ve been added to, gilded and painted in by dozens of buddha-loving monarchs that followed. There are 153 buddha statues in total, 3 kings and 4 gods residing within the 5 caves. Start at the cave furthest away from the entrance and work your way back, that way they’ll get more impressive as you go along.
Where to stay?
Because you’ll be travelling everywhere by car, immediate location isn’t hugely important in the Cultural Triangle. Which is a great excuse to stay somewhere very much away from civilisation and bask in Sri Lanka’s abundant nature. There are several eco hotel and luxury treehouse type options in the area but most of these are real wallet-lighteners.
An exception to the rule is Galkadawala Forest Lodge, just a bumpy dirt track ride through the trees from Habarana. Galkadawala is an relaxing forest haven that is so chilled out it’s horizontal. It offers luxury without pretence, and at a fraction of the price of it’s contemporaries. Within walking distance of two large lakes (one is literally a stone’s throw from the lodge balconies…but don’t do this. Locals bathe there), the area is crawling with monkeys, birdlife, and even elephants. But most importantly, food here was some of the best, if not THE best we had in Sri Lanka, and was dished out onto our plates with a relentlessness that to an outside observer could be considered barbaric. At times I felt like I was being cultivated for fois gras.