How fast time flies, it’s already been nine months since I was in Sri Lanka and experienced one of my favourite and most eye-opening countries to date. It may have been nine months, but I’m still dreaming of this beautiful country, the amazing people and the delicious food, because some places truly stay with you a long time after you have visited. One post I always meant to write, but has been sitting in my drafts folder unfinished for a long time, is my guide to visiting the Cultural Triangle. For those who don’t know, it is a centre for culture, history and heritage in the country and some pretty awe-inspiring sights lie waiting for those travellers who venture into its midst. The spiritual heart of the country encompasses ancient cities, and a treasure trove of incredible natural sights, ruins and wildlife, and is definitely somewhere not to be missed when planning your stay.
Where is it?
Just north of Kandy, the Cultural Triangle stretches between Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla, encompassing everything in-between, from ancient cities and both historical and religious sites, to cave temples, elephant safaris and the iconic Sigiriya Rock. It’s easily accessible by bus/taxi/train from Colombo (where the airport is) or even by internal flight depending on your budget/timescale, and will take 2-3 hours to reach Kandy by public transport and then depending where you are staying, a further hour+. Direct transfers from the airport will take around 3.5 hours to Habarana, 4.5 hours to Anuradhapura, and 2.5 hours to Kandy. It can easily be planned into various itineraries whether you would prefer to visit the beaches of the East Coast, head south to Kandy, Ella and Yala National Park or head to the south-western beaches such as Bentota and Mirissa. You have the option of travelling independently, as I did, which is very easy to organise due to the fantastic public transport system, or you can book a tour if you prefer to have everything organised for you.
Where to stay?
We first visited Dambulla and stayed at the beautiful Diyabubula Hideaway which was the perfect artist’s retreat and offered all the luxury you could ask for while being slap bang in the centre of the Cultural Triangle. It was a fab location for exploring the area and a truly beautiful accommodation, I really recommend staying there and you can read my review here. We also had an amazing opportunity to enjoy a sunrise hot air balloon ride across the countryside while we stayed here and it was honestly one of the most amazing trade experiences of my life. I organised it long before we set foot in the country and despite all the amazing things I did while travelling, it still remains my favourite experience in Sri Lanka.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly accommodation and one with a more authentic local experience, you should check out Habarana Hideaway, which was one of my favourite places we stayed in Sri Lanka. A family-run guest house, we stayed in a brand new apartment overlooking the family’s own organic garden and rice paddy, where they would collect fresh fruits and vegetables for our morning juices and for our dinners. We were given a warm welcome and were invited to eat with the family each night, and our wonderful host took it upon himself to show us the town and the Cultural Triangle, organising safaris, drivers, visits to the attractions and UNESCO sites, and even took us to the markets. If you want true Sri Lankan hospitality at its finest, this is where you should stay.
What is there to see?
One of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Anuradhapura is a former capital city, from the 4th century BC, set on the banks of the historic Malvathu Oya. Surrounded by Buddhist monasteries and one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in the world, it makes for a breathtaking sight as you wander through the well-preserved ruins of this ancient civilisation. Make sure you give yourself a full day to explore as you’ll find endless ruins, carvings and statues waiting to be discovered.
One of my favourite parts of the Cultural Triangle, this ancient city and working town is a must-see while in Sri Lanka and will blow your mind with the spectacular Buddha statues and beautiful ruins that have survived for hundreds of years. With the Royal Palace and several of the huge Buddha statues still intact, this one makes for great exploring and you’ll need most of a day here. It’s worth renting a bike from the bike stall near the bus stop as there is a lot of ground to cover and it’s a great place to cycle around, and don’t forget to check out the museum and the gorgeous lakes to start with, it will help you to get a bit of background knowledge about the ruins.
Dambulla has lots to see and do, which makes it a great base for exploring the Cultural Triangle, as well as the hot air balloon rides and amazing accommodations (read more in the Where to Stay section above), there is also the Golden Temple and the Dambulla Cave Temples situated nearby, plus the rose quartz mountain range and ironwood forest. World Heritage Site, The Golden Temple of Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave system in the whole country with 80 caves, with five filled with paintings and statues, including a 14m statue of Buddha. Each of these take a few hours to walk around and prepare to be wowed by the sights that await you.
Now see natural and man-made Sri Lanka combine at it’s finest at the spectacular Sigirya Rock. This ancient rock fortress holds the ruins of a 5th century city which are another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are not to be missed when exploring this part of the world. Arrive early to beat the crowds and tour groups (trust me, it gets bloody busy!) and make sure you have plenty of water as the climb up steep stairs is directly in the hot sun and will test you if you get stuck behind slow tourists. It only really takes around 30-60 minutes but if you get stuck in a slow procession, it could take hours. During the climb, you’ll see the famed Mirror Wall which was said to be polished to such a shine for King Kashyapa to see his reflection, plus countless frescoes and the spectacular Lion Gate. Take the time to check out the views from the top and bring your camera. For a more unique view, why not hike nearby Pidurangula Rock, which offers a great view from the top of Sigirya Rock?
As I mentioned above, Habarana is a great place to be based during your stay in the Cultural Triangle because it has great access to all these attractions and the shortest travelling time. It is also a gateway to safaris in Minneriya National Park which is home to hundreds of Sri Lankan elephants, leopards, loris and sloth bears. If you’re a nature-lover, you will be in your element and will definitely want to go on safari here. But do be careful who you book to do a tour with, first read my experience of seeing 100 elephants on safari here.
When to go?
It’s important to plan your stay well, and to make sure you look at the changing seasons and expected weather during your stay as Sri Lanka’s countryside changes dramatically from dry to wet season. This could really affect your activities and even the access to national parks and certain ruins due to monsoon season. When I visited (In November) it was definitely heading into the rainy season and we found certain times quite stormy and unpredictable, especially on the East Coast, luckily we were blessed with fantastic weather when we visited the Cultural Triangle, but I would really recommend avoiding the northeast monsoon season between November and March which really affects the area, we were lucky to avoid it but could see in the national park how the rain had left some parts inaccessible. Dry season hits different areas at different times, but April to September is the best time to visit the heart of Sri Lanka, with temperatures sticking around 26-32°C all year round and across the island.
How to dress?
Don’t forget that some of these are Buddhist monasteries and religious sites, dress appropriately, ladies take a shawl or something for your shoulders and try to wear trousers or a long skirt. Be respectful.
Have you visited the Cultural Triangle – what was your favourite part? Have you visited any other UNESCO World Heritage Sites? What do you prefer – history and culture, or beaches and partying when you travel?