The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is in the center of the country, about a 4 hour drive from Colombo on the coast. When planning our trip, we were initially excited about the beaches of Sri Lanka but were soon intrigued by stories of ancient cities, cave temples, and mountain top palaces that we just had to see for ourselves.
Our home for three days was Sundaras Resort and Spa, which sounds a bit fancier than it was. There was no elevator, and we were on the 4th floor with Rachel and Laurence directly above us on the 5th floor. Rooms were basic, but clean, and most showers had warm water. Luckily none of us mind stairs, and we very much enjoyed the pool with swim up bar serving some lovely fresh juice cocktails (that detail allowed us to relive one of the ways we were pampered in Fiji with Elaine/Mom and Aunts Linda and Sue). We stayed in Dambulla, placing us equidistant from 2,000-year-old Anuradhapura and the
relatively youthful 1,000-year-old Polonnaruwa, as well as a short drive from the palace/fort-on-top-of-monolith Sigiriya. As an extra bonus, the cave temples of Dambulla were right down the road and visible from our hotel balconies. It was a busy and wonderful few days.
On our first full day there, our driver took us 90 minutes northwest to Anuradhapura. We had him drop us off at one end and pick us up at the other so we could walk the whole thing. It should be noted that it was hot, most days around 90 degrees with 70%+ humidity, so all the walking was ambitious but totally worth it.
Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a recorded history that dates back to the 5th century BC, with archaeological evidence that goes back to the 10th century BC. It was a place of great significance, conquered and reclaimed by various rulers over 1,000 years. As we walked around, we first saw the
remaining ruins of the 2nd century BC Buddhist Abhayagiri Monastery that once housed 5,000 people and which the Buddha is supposed to have actually visited. Much of it is being gradually reclaimed by nature, but it’s easy to imagine the thriving center it must have once been. We then walked through the ancient citadel and then continued on to the Sri Maha Bodhi, a temple with a sacred bodhi tree at its center. This tree was grown from a cutting from the Bodh Gaya tree where Buddha attained enlightenment and has been continuously tended for 2,000 years with historical records to back up the claim, making it the oldest documented living tree in the world. The temple itself was full of people, many chanting prayers alone or in groups, creating this reverent cacophony as we walked through. The whole experience was amazing, but after 4 hours in the hot sun we were delighted to head back to the pool at our hotel.
The next day, we went 90 minutes northwest to Polonnaruwa. Along the way, we were delighted to see a lone elephant at the edge of a lake as we passed Minneriya National Park. Of course, we got out to spend some time watching it wander and eat before continuing on.
While Anuradhapura is really large and spread out, Polonnaruwa is a bit more compact and manageable, although our determination to see it all still meant a lot of walking in the heat.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century and much of it is still intact.
While it was all truly amazing to see, perhaps the most impactful part was Gal Vihara, a 12th century rock temple comprised of four magnificent carvings of the Buddha. As at all temples, we removed our shoes and hats to Melissa’s blistered feet. While Hindu temples often force people into close quarters that inspire jockeying for position, Gal Vihara is built to face out toward a large open area where people stand or sit to gaze and pray, with plenty of room for everyone.
We finished the day at Polonnaruwa with a visit to the Tivanka Image House with a beautiful statue of the Buddha inside and, in the words of our guidebook, “energetic dwarfs cavorting around the outside.” And of course our day wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of wildlife in the form adorable monkeys and a snake! We then met up with our driver and asked him to take us to the Dambulla Cave Temples.
The Cave Temples were like nothing we’d imagined. After paying admission, we climbed over 300 steps to breathlessly get to the temples which are basically rooms carved out of the solid rock of the cliff. Inside the five rooms are an incredible number of statues of the Buddha, some clearly carved right there from the stone of the cliff while others appear to have been brought there. The largest is a 15-meter long reclining Buddha with exquisite detail. So very beautiful.
A word about the paid admission. Sri Lanka is an extraordinarily affordable place to visit, even compared to India. These ancient sites are a bit of an exception. We as foreigners each paid between $25 and $40 for each site, astronomical by South Asian standards. However, as we mentioned, most of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and they are beautifully maintained, especially by South Asian standards. They are simply beautiful. We probably would have been happy to pay the fees on any occasion, but now, with the current American administration refusing to pay the US dues to UNESCO, we felt like those fees are important to pay, not just acceptable. These sites world wide must be supported so they don’t fall in to the ruin we have seen in other places. And wealthy countries like the US need to do more than their fair share.
On our final morning in Dambulla, we got up early (kind of a big deal since this was New Year’s Day) and drove the 30 minutes to Sigiriya. Laurence remembered wanting to climb Sigiriya 20 years ago, and we were all pretty excited about it. It’s definitely not a climb for the faint of heart, and not one to undertake without some serious determination. The total climb probably took only about 45-50 minutes, but that entire time is climbing straight up, often on small steps with just tiny railings to prevent a fall down the cliff. But, oh, was it amazing at the top! The early start time was key, since starting later would have meant climbing in the heat of the day in direct sunlight. The views were gorgeous, as were the ruins of the 5th century palace fortress constructed by Kassapa after he murdered his father and seized the throne. Some carvings are much older, and there may have been a monastery there before Kassapa’s arrival, but it’s easy to imagine why a vulnerable king might choose this inaccessible location.
When we weren’t marveling at antiquities, we spent our time at our resort. We learned that Sri Lankans don’t generally eat dinner out, so restaurants are essentially creations for tourists. Our dining options consisted solely of hotel restaurants, so we decided we’d be just as happy at our own hotel as at anyone else’s. And the evening buffet was pretty tasty, served by the charming and very international staff. And we couldn’t beat cocktail hour split between drinks at the pool and drinks prepared by our resident mixologist, Laurence, using fresh limes and passion fruits spirited away from the breakfast buffet.
We debated our New Year’s Eve options and considered staying up until midnight as usual, but we decided that our desire to climb Sigiriya was greater than our desire to greet the new year through bleary eyes, so we went to bed around 10:30. Of course, we woke up at midnight anyway, thanks to abundant but brief fireworks.
Next, onwards to Kandy!