Sri Lanka is well known for its cultural and historical heritage and offers many places to visit to explore Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim temples and artefacts.
Founded in 457 BC by King Pandukhabaya, this is the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Historically it was revered throughout Asia for its excellent architecture and for the stunning temple art, irrigation systems and also for its military importance. It was through the ancient kings of Anuradhapura that Buddhism was brought to the country. Nowadays the Island is acknowledged as the homeland of Theravada Buddhism said to be the most pure and elaborate form of the master’s teachings.
Like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is another, although more recent former capital of the Island. While more recent it still flourished more than a thousand years ago. These temples date from the late 10th century when Sri Lanka was invaded by the kings of southern India who then then moved their capital to Polonnaruwa as it was better placed strategically to defend against attacks from the southeast of the island. Of special note both for its religious significance and skill of craftsmanship is the worldwide acclaimed “reclining Buddha”, which is a representation of the last moments of the great teacher.
Visiting Sigiriya requires a good head for heights if it is to be fully appreciated. The climb is in two stages and the last part beyond the Lion’s feet is a climb of 200m up shallow steps with a sheer drop on one side. The fortress was built in the 5th century AD and on reaching the top you can not only appreciate the all round views but also the ruins of the citadel with its ruined summer palaces and royal bathing pools that were filled with water from below – not a climb you would necessarily want to do without the benefit of the staircase placed there by the Victorians. If you look you can see the original steps cut into the side of the rock.
The complex was built around AD473-480. Midway up you can stop to admire the Sigiriya Damsels, beautiful wall paintings of
scantily clad court maidens. Only 22 have survived time, weather and vandalism and it is thought to be the only secular art to have survived from this period.
At the foot of Sigiriya are palace buildings and bathing pools rivalling the much later Italianate gardens of European palaces.
This is the site of one of Sri Lanka’s finest cave temples. Within five large caverns – the largest being 50m deep and 6m high are sitting, standing and reclining Buddha images by the score as well as Hindu gods – a truly multi-cultural shrine. Each cave is decorated with murals which are much more modern than the original carvings and statues within. Some murals are as old as 200 years but their colour and vibrancy are a sight to behold.
Sri Lanka’s second city is 500m above sea level and has a climate that is pleasantly cool compared the heat and humidity of Colombo. It stands amid green fields and plantations evidence of the areas lush fertility and on the artificial reservoir known as Kandy Lake which was completed in 1807.
A must see is The Temple Of The Tooth which is a pilgrimage for millions of devout Buddhists and is also where Sri Lanka’s premier’s and presidents traditionally deliver their post election speeches. The tooth relic is said to have come to the Island around 1600 years ago from India and inside the temple you can follow the story through murals. There is also a new museum celebrating the elephants used during the annual Kandy Perahera festival where bejewelled elephants march in procession with jugglers, dancers, musicians and fire eaters in perhaps the most lavish or Buddhist celebrations.
For anyone even slightly interested in flora and fauna a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. The gardens contain more than 4000 species of plants including orchids, spices, medicinal plants and palm trees. It also boasts one of the world’s largest fig trees!
Colombo is essentially a colonial city which didn’t really rise in significance until the 19th century and the establishment of British rule. This is a city of great contrast from the hustle and bustle of Colombo fort’s shopping area – Pettah Market (not for the faint hearted) to the quiet and tranquil European style shopping malls like Odel’s and Barefoot where you almost have to pinch yourself because of the contrast!
Negombo is 6km north of Bandaranaike International airport and is an ideal place to spend your last night in Sri Lanka due to its proximity (approximately 20 minutes by car).
It is quite built up and “touristy” but due to its rich marine life it is still a thriving fishing town.
Nuwara Eliya sits in a little valley but is the highest town in Sri Lanka. The “City of Light” quickly became a favourite of the British and
has many features worthy of note including the colonial style post office and The Grand Hotel earning its nickname of “Little England”. It is very picturesque and has a temperate climate being several degrees lower in temperature than coastal areas. It is considered to be the most important area for tea production on the Island.
Adam’s Peak 7,359ft tall and is a cone shaped mountain situated in the centre of the Island. It is well known for the “Sri Pada” (sacred footprint), a 1.8m rock formation near the summit, In Buddhist tradition held to be the footprint of Buddha, a Hindu tradition that of Shiva and in Muslim tradition that of Adam. Definitely not for the faint hearted it is suggested that you arrive at the summit at daybreak to see the sunrise. Be aware though that during religious festivals and on Poya (full moon) days there are thousands of devout Sri Lankans making a pilgrimage to this sacred place and it can be very busy. For those not so brave is the more sedate Little Adam’s Peak situated near Ella, you can always drop the word “Little” and say that you have climbed Adam’s Peak itself as I have done!
Trincomalee is a natural deep-water harbour on the north east coast of the Island. On the east side of the town, atop a cliff stands one of the oldest Kevil (Hindu temple) in Sri Lanka (Pathirakali Amman Temple). the Friday evening Puja (offerings) services are particularly colourful to see.
Galle is the most important town in the south and has maintained much of its colonial charm. The Portuguese, Dutch and British used the natural harbour as their main port on the Island until 1895 when it was replaced after significant development of Colombo’s own harbour. You should allow a full day to explore the old town enclosed within the Dutch fort which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988. Be aware though that it is recommended to take a hat and bottled water with you if you plan to explore in the late morning and afternoon as there is little shade available.
The old Dutch hospital here has recently been renovated to house a shopping precinct with 20+ small shops and boutiques that offer a unique collection of products including handicrafts, paintings, spices and jewellery as well as offering restaurants, cafes and a bar.
Pinnawela is perhaps the world’s most famous elephant orphanage and is home to about 70 elephants of which many are babies found abandoned or orphaned in the wild. They are cared for by the wildlife authorities. The best time to visit is during feeding times where you will see the babies being bottle fed and stamping their feet in outrage if the milk doesn’t come fast enough! There is also the opportunity to watch the elephants herded through town to the nearby river to enjoy their daily bath where they frolic and play and perhaps try to sneak away from the Mahouts in a game of their own invention. Take an opportunity while you are here to purchase notepaper, envelopes etcetera made from recycled elephant dung as a reminder of your trip.
Hikkaduwa is the Island’s most developed beach resort. It has a range of good restaurants and cafés lining the beach front offering a diverse range of food from around the world. There is good snorkelling at an easily accessible coral sanctuary which has amazingly flourished since the Tsunami, as well as scuba diving at a number of wrecks in the bay, tours by glass bottomed boats and at nearby Narigama there is great surfing depending on the time of year you visit. It is a relaxed place similar to other Asian beach resorts loved by Western travellers. There are also plenty of handicraft shops for that must have item to take home and presents for family and friends.