Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle includes some of the most unforgettable sites in the country. Consisting of an area in the central part of the island, just north of Kandy, it’s just a couple hours drive from Colombo Airport. There’s no shortage of things to do once you arrive, with plenty of wildlife to see, important Buddhist sites to visit, and a rich history to take in.
After leaving the beaches of Mirissa behind, my friend and I travelled to the triangle as part of a private tour, but it’s easy to reach by car if you are exploring on your own. We arrived early morning, and after dropping a few things off at our hotel, we were whisked away for a busy day. But one that was my favourite by far on this trip.
A Morning Climbing Sigiriya
One of the most impressive sites in the country, this looming ancient rock fortress first served as a monastery from 3rd century BC, before becoming a palace for King Kashyapa I in the 5th century AD. The king built a citadel at the top of the rock in hopes of keeping out his brother’s army, whom he usurped to take the throne.
Known as the Lion Rock, the feet carved into the rock are still visible today. As you climb up the staircases to the top, you’ll see remnants of what this place used to look like, including some sumptuously painted caves and the remnants of ancient rooms. Today, you can still explore the ruined palace, water gardens, and painted caves. In addition, you can still find the Mirror Wall the King constructed over 1600 years ago. While the once-gleaming white marble wall is now stained an orange hue, it is still intact, unlike most of the other structures that stood here during Kashyapa I‘s reign.
The rock plateau rises 370 meters above sea level at the top. It’s a long, near-vertical climb, but you’ll find the views over the forests below, and the chance to explore the mysterious ruined palace well worth the climb.
An Afternoon Exploring Dambulla Cave Temple
Also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, this UNESCO World Heritage site has been a sacred pilgrimage site for over 2200 years.
You will climb a lot of stairs (364) to reach the temple. It is carved into the face of a mountain, so get ready for some more climbing!
At the top of the staircase are five caves, or sanctuaries, representing the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in the country. Inside, you’ll find 157 statues, including the impressive Reclining Buddha, and Buddhist mural paintings, still incredibly awe-inspiring today.
An Evening Safari in Minneriya National Park
This was easily the highlight of the trip for me! We climbed into a safari jeep in the late afternoon with our tour guide and a park guide and set off down the road.
Along the way, we spotted monkeys, water buffalo, Sri Lankan axis and sambar deer, crocodiles, peacocks, and a variety of other mammals and birds. And if you are lucky, you could spot a sloth bear or even a leopard (we didn’t).
But the real highlight is waiting in the plains as the trees clear: The largest gathering of Asian elephants. The jeep stopped, and we were able to watch them for some time as the sun sunk lower in the sky. You really get a sense of their close family structures, watching the females minding misbehaving babies in the large group, while smaller groups of males challenged each other some distance away.
On the road back we spotted even more elephants. These guys were getting creative with getting some water from a well.
After a long day, we returned to our hotel, as it was beginning to get dark, for a big dinner and a long sleep!
Tips for visiting Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
Thinking of planning a trip to the cultural triangle? Here’s some need to knows:
What to wear
You want to take layers. The morning climb calls for good hiking shoes and cool clothing, keeping in mind it will get hot quickly. For Dambulla, there are a lot of stairs, so stay comfortable, but you need to cover up. I’d recommend taking a long pashmina scarf to tie around your waist if you are in shorts, and a light, easy-to-fold cardigan. I ended up changing into a maxi skirt for Dambulla, but still managed the stairs, and also changed into some comfy flips flops, to make it easier to take off my shoes at the top.
What to watch out for
Take plenty of water, climb carefully, and watch out for thieving monkeys at Dambulla if you have snacks.
Where to stay in the Cultural Triangle
This was the most luxurious of our Sri Lanka accommodations, and, as we were staying in a hostel the nights before, it felt extra posh! We loved the food and being able to wander around the lighted paths after dinner.
They are definitely all about Minneriya’s most famous residents here, the name, after all, means “the elephant” in Sinhalese.
Kandy is also often considered part of the triangle, but given there is so much more to see and do there, it deserves a post of its own, so stay tuned!