Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle - and a trip down the south coast. The ultimate guide!
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
A jewel in Asia with many gems, which to leave and which to see? You've got everything from historical sites to beautiful beaches. Steeped in history with rich culture Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. In this blog I hope to provide a guide to the best sites to see in the Cultural Triangle, the South Coast and in between while getting down to there.
I decided I wanted to add 10 days in Sri Lanka as part of my travels to the south of India. If I were to re-do this tour I would give myself just a few days more so it is not too rushed and fit in the few bits I missed out. Now when I say 'tour', I did not book this through some operator, no, I did my own months of research and careful planning then found an extremely good driver (comparable costs to trains etc. when x3 people), mapped my own route of what I wanted to cover and how long I think each aspect of the trip would take. Arjun - the driver, recommended a small change which had no impact on timelines and meant we could enjoy the trip better so all worked out well.
I would thoroughly recommend a driver to get around if you are going on a complex route or have several people in your journey, I found it helped with language barrier, carting luggage and stopped us getting ripped off when out shopping, he managed to get us some really good deals in places and his local knowledge meant we could see hidden places you would otherwise miss. I would be happy to share his contact details for anyone interested - he gets booked months in advance (small heads up!) If you don't plan a driver there are trains, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks to help get around. Buses and trains do however get rather crowded, but then that's all part of the experience :)
Car journeys mean you also get to see BIG monitor lizards/komodo dragons (I can never tell them apart), we stopped the car so I could grab a few snaps of this one. You will find lizards here in all sizes, they roam the streets freely.
My trip was 10 days but I would recommend this to be around 14 if you followed a similar trail to allow a bit more time. All my hotels were pre-booked with booking.com and you will find that many will offer rooms with no pre-payment and you are able to cancel up to a certain time before you are travelling. I had pre-booked all 8 hotels before I left London, paid for all of them on check-out/arrival. You will find in the key tourist locations the better known hotel chains are Cinnamon and Jetwing, however I have provided the names of the hotels I stayed at and those that I recommend.
On the right is a little map of the tour covering what I did. We covered a lot more along the trail as the car meant we could stop over to see things en route.
I have of course like with all my blogs covered all the pictures in an album, do check those out.
I landed in Colombo but as it was a daft time and would have meant not getting to really see anything until the next day so losing 2 days I decided we drive straight to Anuradhapura so we arrive where we want to start our sightseeing in the Cultural triangle in the morning.
Anuradhapura is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was the capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th Century BC. There are well preserved ruins and historical sites alongside dagoba's and Pagoda's to see. Arriving at night we literally checked in and crashed for the night.
Hotel: We had an amazing room at the White House Hotel, such a well priced hotel for what you get. Breakfast was also included in the room rate, we had a lovely welcome drink on arrival too - which we got in all hotels. I regret not having more time here but when I return to Anuradhapura this is where I will stay.
Things to see: Not limited to but the highlights include the following: Sri Maha Bodhi, Ruwanweliseya (Rathnamali Maha Stupa), Lowamahapaya, Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery, Jetavanaramaya Monastery and stupa. I did not get to cover all as I had half a day before we headed to Polonnaruwa, so depending how long you have I would recommend starting early and give yourself at least a day or maybe two to cover ground as the places are spread far apart.
We arrived here after seeing some of the sites in Anuradhapura and hit the ruins of the Ancient City straight away to not waste any time. I found Polonnaruwa to be far more interesting and could easily spend a few days here. For someone that has a keen interest in ruins and historical sites I was like a kid in a candy store. Things to see are closer together here than in Anuradhapura but you will benefit from a tuk-tuk or maybe hiring a bike to get around as walking is not really a good option with a lot of ground to cover.
Things to see: Royal Palace, Audience Hall, Swimming Pool, Sacred Quadrangle, The Vadatage, Shiva Devale No. 2, Rankot Vihara, Pabalu Vehera, Dagaba Kiri Vihara, the Buddha statue at Lankatilaka, Gal Vihara, Gal Pota, Archaeological Museum.
Hotel: We stayed at Thidas Arana Lake, now although this hotel had really friendly staff, an amazing view of the lake where we even saw elephants from outside our room at the lake, I wouldn't recommend it. I had to ask several times for someone to come and clean - and I had only just checked in. I personally wouldn't re-book here and would look for alternate accommodation; The Lake Hotel, Giritale Hotel or Ekho Lake House all look appealing.
We headed over to Sigiriya the following day, now I had been debating before I even flew if I would climb up as I had not fully recovered from an ACL op to the knee and whether I could manage it. There are 1,200 steps to get up and it can take anywhere between 1.5 - 3 hrs, depends on how quick you are. You must remember that's then also 1,200 to get back down and also a few more hrs to add. Having re-irritated my knee in India the week before I decided it was probably not a good idea, also being afraid of heights probably didn't help. However, we went to see it and got a tuk-tuk ride on the inside to the different viewing points. Climbing this remains a wish, maybe for when I re-visit and my leg has healed. It is said that once you reach the top the views are spectacular, and the climb up offers a great experience as there preserved paintings on the walls to see.
Hotel: There are several hotels in Sigiriya which were amazing so you are spoilt for choice. I picked Fresco Water Villa as it was cost effective and like most of the rooms I needed, it was just to sleep in overnight. The room was great, clean and sufficient for an overnight stay and came with good breakfast. The staff were also great so could not ask for more.
Before I left London I mentioned to Arjun I wanted to see elephants, but not in some zoo or so called sanctuary Like Pinnawala where they are controlled by mahouts, live with a chain on their legs and are beaten. Elephants free, like you and me living their best lives is what I wanted to experience. I was informed by the locals that the elephants move around depending on where the watering holes are, so I need to allow for some flexibility along the route. They anticipated either Minneriya or Kaudulla and the plan would change to accommodate. We ended up in Kaudulla National Park. There several others like Udawalawe, but these were not on route. You should plan according to when you want to visit, I went in November so was able to fit Kaudulla in.
I could not have asked for a more amazing experience. I saw over 200 elephants playing, eating and just having fun, a group even walked over to our jeep within touching distance. Of course the animals do not know the boundaries of National Parks so we saw a few even on the outside (is the norm). I would truly recommend to experience a proper safari instead of visiting elephants in places where they are 'trained' for you to meet them or give them a bath, a chain on their leg should say it all.
After viewing the Lion Fortress and meeting the elephants we headed to Dambulla for the Golden Cave Temple the following morning. This can be seen in two parts, the main entrance is at ground level, then the cave temple is a climb on the outside of 364 steps - not as bad as the rock eh?
Things to see: Other things you may wish to do time permitting; Minneriya Safari, Pidurangala Rock.
After finishing at the Golden Cave Temple we made our way towards Kandy. Unlike many of the other cities visited so far, this is far more bustling and we got a spot of shopping in. It was on the request list of a few back home for some hand carved crafts and Kandy proved the best place to find this.
The must see attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, named as such as it houses the tooth of the Buddha. It is considered to be very sacred across Sri Lanka so is very popular, Arjun said we should go in the morning when they open the main part of the temple so we can offer prayers. He wasn't wrong, the queues were insane, but the wait was worth it the temple is beautiful and I caught a glimpse of the shrine, The Dalada Maligawa so was very pleased.
Things to see: If you are here for longer you may wish to see the Botanical gardens, Kiri Muhuda (Kandy Lake), Udawattakele Forest Reserve, Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue.
Hotel: Would highly recommend the Earl's Regent Hotel, I absolutely loved this hotel. Staff were great, rooms and service was great. The food was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G, especially the desserts, yum!
Nuwara Eliya, Seetha Eliya, Ella
With the Tooth Temple visited we completed the key attractions in the cultural triangle so headed straight out towards Nuwara Eliya and Ella to take a drive down towards Yala and the South Coast. I have grouped these three locations into one as the things to see in this area kind of merges. For me, seeing Seetha Eliya was a must (so am a bit religious and it held importance). For those who have interest, the temple is said to be built on the location which was Ashok Vatika where she was kept prisoner, there are markings which are said to be Lord Hanuman's footprints there too. However, for those who it does not matter, and days are short, you may want to cover things in Ella which I had to compromise to visit the Aadishakti Seeta Amman Temple. I would definitely say to visit a tea plantation and getting a taste of the tea.
Places to see: Several waterfalls (Ravana falls, Dunsinane Falls, St. Clair's Falls, Devon Falls, Aberdeen Falls,), tea plantations - pick one, Seeta Amman Temple, Lake Gregory, Hakgala Botanical Gardens, Little England cottages (we drove through the little town by the lake, got a nice view of the area), Bomburu Ella, Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) - around 5,500 steps so be prepared, Little Adam's Peak, Nine Arches Bridge, Ella Rock, Ravana Caves.
Hotel: I stayed at a hotel that had the most amazing view of Ella, I saw the best sunrise from here and could see the Ella gap from the room's balcony. However, I am apprehensive to recommend it as I booked Hotel Onrock months in advance with information they provided on the website that was untrue. They advertised as taking card payments but upon check-in (at night) tell me they don't and will want cash when I check-out (in the morning). This was a pain as travel costs were pre-planned and the cash I carried was not large sums to cover hotel payments, I showed him my booking reference which clearly stated they take card but he still refused and went on to tell me where I might find a cash point. We had arrived late so were hoping to just grab a bite at the restaurant, but found they don't actually have a bar & restaurant as advertised, so a bit more false information. Now being located on a very steep hill (found that out the hard way too), we had to find 2 tuk-tuks to take out into the main street for dinner. Breakfast served in the morning was ok, room was acceptable (no AC but had a fan), but I was not happy with the dishonesty used to sell the rooms. With that in mind, I personally would not re-book but would rather look into Ravana Heights, Zion View or The View Ella.
We left from Ella early after having breakfast and headed for Tissamaharama, about 20-25 mins away from Yala. My hotel was booked here on the advice of Arjun. It is close to the National Park, you can get there in around 20-30 mins but costs are far cheaper. I took his advice as of course 3 weeks of travels means you need to be wise with where you can save the pennies. I literally needed a hotel with a clean room that had good breakfast. I found just that in Tissa. They had great service, we arrived just before lunch, they whipped up some sandwiches and packed them up for us to go as we had planned to join the afternoon safari at Yala. They have 2 in a day, the morning one starts at 6am - 10 am, the afternoon one is 3pm - 6pm. I decided why waste the afternoon as we had got there in time and there is no evidence to suggest the morning vs. afternoon safari is any better. It is your luck. Animals will come and go as they please, you need to just remember that. This safari is also very different from Kaudulla (or any other elephant one), you really have to look for the animals and birds, some are more easily seen than others. Alas, I did not see the damned leopard, it was there but we didn't want to join the countless other jeeps waiting in line to see it as it refused to come out of hiding. We'd miss out on the rest of the park if we had. I most certainly say this is a 'must do', and would like to hear whether you found the morning visit more fruitful?!
Hotel: As I mentioned we stayed in Tissa, the room was basic, no frills and came with breakfast included, was very clean and everything we needed was provided for. I stayed in Serene Park Hotel, situated right opposite Tissa lake. It was extremely cost effective for just sleeping over. Of course if you don't have a budget issue both Jetwing and Cinnamon have a hotel in Yala near the park.
Unawatuna and the South Coast
After so many days of early starts and late finishes while travelling around Sri Lanka, we were finally heading for Unawatuna for a few days of doing nothing but chilling by the beach and some shopping!
Our drive down pretty much covered the route along the coast so we passed through and stopped where we pleased along the way, We passed through Tangalle, Matara, Mirissa, Koggala Sea Turtle Farm & Hatchery, and we went to Galle to see the Dutch buildings and a spot of shopping before checking in at Unawatuna. As we drove down what was amazing to see is how well the country, and in particular these small communities have rebuilt themselves following the tsunami that destroyed the south coast. It was a great feeling to see everything back up and running. Spending the next few days here was just what I needed. Golden sandy beaches on our doorstep, going whale watching in Mirissa - with Raja and the Whales, pre-booked from London, taking boat trips, looking at the coral, eating fresh sea food and sipping cocktails (or coconut water) on the beach was the best way to wind down and enjoy Sri Lanka a bit differently. For those interested there is also shisha available 2 doors down from the hotel we stayed at, they set it up for you on the beach too. Needless to say it was a great way to end the week of madness. I have heard it is just as relaxing in Bentota or Mirissa if you want another location along the coast heading back towards Colombo.
Things to see: Take a trip to Galle, whale watching, snorkeling & diving - there is coral to see, boat trips, Japanese Peace Pagoda, Jungle Beach and of course Unawatuna beach.
Hotel: I stayed at Thaproban Beach House, it's a hotel on the beach front and serves a great range of fresh sea food in the evenings. Rooms have a fab view and the staff were really friendly and trying to do whatever they can to help you. Breakfast was also nice here. Already marked as a place to return.
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Local Languages: English, Sinhalese, Tamil
Religion: Its pretty mixed but you will find a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim
Travel visa - for British citizens you can get e-visas online (ETA), its quick and cheap and tourist visa's are usually for 30 days. You can also obtain on arrival but I imagine immigration would be smoother if you have in advance.
Carry cash for some of the smaller shops as they will not take card.
Dress appropriately when vising temples - cover arms (no sleeveless) and remove shoes.
If taking photos near a Buddha statue don't face your back to it, it is considered disrespectful (learnt after taking mine).
Critters like snakes and lizards (big and teeny) share your public space, we saw plenty of the latter from the roads to the beaches. Not many snakes, but be prepared. The lizard mean no harm and actually run away from you, snakes on the other hand, depends what it is I guess!
Coconut water is cheap and damn good. Serious thirst quencher, drink it whenever you can.
Try local street food like kotthu and hoppa, make sure you're ordering from somewhere that is clean and they are making it fresh.
Typical Sri Lankan breakfast is curry, it is very spicy - and this is coming from an Indian. Even their fish or chicken dishes for lunch or dinner have a good amount of kick to them, you've been warned. Chicken fried rice out here is good.
Most places will serve papaya juice, but if you can do try fresh guanabana juice - also known as soursop. You don't get this without all the E numbers and a tonne of sugar here in the UK and it just doesn't taste the same!