Have you seen this book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Shultz? I bought it when it first came out years ago, and it’s been through several revisions since then, I think. I’ve knocked out a quite a few sights in the edition I own, but there are some I just ignore. For example, the Five Star hotels with ridiculous price tags? Who cares? But when I checked the section on Sri Lanka, after I went there, I felt this country was seriously underrepresented in this book. There are only two recommendations for Sri Lanka, but there’s way more to see in this beautiful country. This book really missed the mark on Sri Lanka.
During my two weeks traveling in Sri Lanka with Geckos Adventures, I saw some beautiful places and got a glimpse of this conundrum of a culture and a hint of their history. This tour was really organized and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It was my first group tour that lasted longer than a few hours. Two weeks on a bus with the same people didn’t appeal to me, but after I arrived and met everyone, it turned out to be a lot of fun. What I didn’t know when I booked my first tour was that tour companies require you to purchase travel insurance, which I had also never done before. Upon my friend’s recommendation, I bought my travel insurance through World Nomads. Luckily, I didn’t need it, but I did fall down some stairs at Lion’s Rock and after that, I was glad I had it, even though I wasn’t injured.
Here’s my Top 6 list of what not to miss in Sri Lanka.
#1 Kandy in the Central Highlands
Kandy is a town in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, with its own unique climate and atmosphere compared to the rest of the country. There is a significant Muslim population here, which adds to the variety of cuisine and culture to experience.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is located in the city. This temple houses the sacred tooth of Buddha, which was smuggled into Sri Lanka in 301 A.D. The tooth is protected by 7 golden caskets and is housed behind a small window where worshippers can make their offerings after waiting in a very long, very slow line. This temple is one of the most revered and holy sites in Buddhism. Each year in July or August, you can experience the Esala Perahera festival where the tooth is paraded around on the back of an elephant, trained especially for this job.
Speaking of elephants, about 1.5 hours outside of Kandy is the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. There are several orphaned elephants here cared for by caretakers and tourists alike, and there are many adult elephants they prepare to be released back into the wild on different parts of the island. You’ll get to interact with the elephants here by bottle-feeding the babies, and you can take a walk down to the river where the elephants bathe and play in the water. I have mixed feelings about the elephants we saw chained here so that tourists could interact with them, but we were assured this is only during tourist visits and there were no marks on any of their legs. They were mostly under two years old and seemed happy, but also a bit restless.
Tip: Please don’t sit atop the elephants while they are in the water. This is allowed there, but it is not good for the elephants. You can still play and interact with them in the water without sitting on them.
#2 Dambulla Cave Temple
This extraordinary cave temple is about 75km north of Kandy. These five natural caves have been transformed into Buddhist temples that will likely leave you speechless. Inside there are 157 statues of Buddha in all sizes, shapes, and poses, and the paintings that covers every inch of the walls and ceilings is so ornate and detailed you won’t believe it is freehand painting.
Also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, this site has been used for sacred pilgrimages for 22 centuries. It’s a cave monastery and has five sanctuaries (caves), making it the largest cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. I couldn’t believe how well-preserved it was and how bright the colors were, although since they are not exposed to direct sunlight, this helps with the preservation, as does regular upkeep. Inside are 157 Buddha statues, but the mural paintings are just as important as the statues. They cover 2,100 sq meters of the cave walls and ceilings.
#3 Sigiriya Rock Forest or Lion’s Rock
Locals call Sigiriya “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and after seeing it, I understand why. Sigiriya, also known as Lion’s Rock, is what first peaked my curiosity of Sri Lanka. This giant rock stands tall in the midst of flatlands that are covered in gardens. It used to be part of the ancient civilization that resided atop the rock. It is 200 meters taller than the jungle lands that surround it.
Atop the rock is a complex that includes what remains of a ruined palace. It is surrounded by gardens, canals, ponds, and fountains that were either for decoration or protection from enemies. This area of Sri Lanka was inhabited and thriving for thousands of years, but now it is the most visited monument in Sri Lanka, only inhabited by visitors.
Between the 3rd and 5th centuries BC, Sigiriya was a monastery. After the 5th century, King Kasyapa built his royal residence here on top of the rock, which might explain the “swimming pool” up there. After King Kasyapa died, this was once again a monastery until the 14th century. For some reason, it was then abandoned.
The north entrance is the most photographed site in Sri Lanka and the reason this rock is so famous. The lion’s feet have survived through the centuries, but the head and neck were destroyed, which makes me sad. Imagine what it must have looked like.
#4 Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Polonaruwa was actually my 2nd favorite site in Sri Lanka. I think it was because we rode bicycles around the ruins because it covers such a large area, and that really did wonders to help the rice belly I developed in the first few days of my trip. I was also tired of riding the bus. But these ruins are really incredible. Be sure to look closely at the intricate, hand-carved details on some of the ruins.
Polonaruwa was the actually the second capital of Sri Lanka in the 11th century. The first was Anuradhapura, which we also visited, but it was almost completely destroyed in 993. Polonnaruwa contains Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas and the amazing garden-city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century. The ruins are surprisingly intact and the entire complex, even though is spans a vast area, is well-cared for and easy to tour by bicycle. I will let the photos speak for themselves.
#5 The Town of Galle
Galle is famous for the Galle Fort, which now consists of the old city walls built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Inside the old city walls is a town that is quaint and maybe a bit touristy for some, but I think it is beautiful. There are many cafes, restaurants, and shops, but it is expensive compared to other cities in Sri Lanka. There is a beautiful Dutch church inside the walls, as well as St. Mary’s Cathedral, other churches, and a beautiful lighthouse constructed in 1848, at the edge of the city walls by the sea. You can’t visit inside the lighthouse as it is still in use, but it makes a fantastic picture from outside.
Also inside the city walls are a National Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Galle, which is located in the oldest Dutch building inside the fort. I wish we’d had more time in Galle, but we only had a few hours in the morning. If I return to Sri Lanka, I would definitely stay here for at least one night. The architecture alone makes for great photo opportunities.
Yes, I am recommending a visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s biggest city. I had two days here and I think Colombo is definitely worth a visit, even though I didn’t take full advantage of what Colombo has to offer. The Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara temple is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism, and beautiful because it is not as ornate as many Buddhist temples. The Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple is also worth a visit.
I liked the Galle Face Green, which was next to my hotel, Galle Face Hotel, which I highly recommend. The Green is a wide open green space that is right by the sea and great for people watching or a game of football. Nearby the Green is the Fort and the lighthouse, which is a great place to eat, drink, and see some great old architecture. The Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct is great for shopping and photos as well.
Sri Lanka is fast becoming a hot destination because of its monuments, its beaches, and an up-and-coming food scene that includes a lot more than rice. The history of Sri Lanka has been overlooked for a long time, but this country is finally getting the recognition it deserves. You might find more than you bargained for in Sri Lanka, including your manhood…