Ayubowan. This gentle Sri Lankan greeting means “long life” and is presented with prayer hands and a smile. Think of it as the “aloha” of South Asia. Ayubowan is not just a form of welcome, it’s also a metaphor for the well-preserved cultural treasures to be found in these seven Sri Lanka points of interest.
Of course, I was aware of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage before going to the country. But seeing these places surprised me nonetheless. I had half expected ancient cities and temples crumbled by an encroaching jungle. I’ve visited so many Mayan sites like that with piles of rocks and tree roots representing what was once a sophisticated civilization. Not so with Sri Lanka. They have eight sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a remarkable number considering the small size of the country.
Many of these cultural places to visit in Sri Lanka aren’t just well-preserved, they’re also still in functional use. Visiting them is a lesson on the ongoing Buddhist influence in the country. What follows is a list of 7 things to do in Sri Lanka that will give you a lesson on both its ancient history and also its present day culture.
The Golden Triangle
Colombo might be Sri Lanka’s modern capital, but its ancient capitals are all located within the Golden Triangle in the center of the country. The Golden Triangle represents the heart of Sri Lanka’s historical religious and economic power.
This fortress rock shoves itself up from the valley floor and demands attention. Built by King Kashyapa in 477 BC as a fortress and pleasure palace, the ruin still gives off a whiff of decadence. From the painted frescoes, the lion’s paw stairway and the vast view of the elaborate gardens, Sigiyra sends a message of power.
Pro Tip: It should take you about 2.5 hours to climb and tour the temple. We went at 8:30am. But if you can go at dawn, all the better. It will be cooler and there will be fewer crowds.
2. Dambulla Caves
This temple cave complex was originally built in 89 BC but it was a multi-century work in progress. The interior statues were added in 12th century. Ceiling paintings were added in the 18th century. And the temple veranda was created in the 1930’s.
There were two things that impressed me most about this site.The first is that while the caves are natural, they have been painstakingly modified with carved drip ledges and large statues hewn out of the rock. So despite the added frescoes and statuary, there is still an organic feeling to the caves. And the second notable fact is that the Dambulla caves are still a functioning monastery. Visitors are expected to respect the site as they would any other religious building. Which is why I gave my guide a fit by laying on the floor to get the above shot of the ceiling frescoes. Sorry…but they are stunning.
Pro Tip: Ask your guide or hotel for the temple schedule. You don’t want to climb all the way up to the temple only to find that it is closed for prayers.
in 1070 AD, King Vijayabahu established himself as the leader and built a capital in Polonnaruwa worthy of his ambitions. In 1155 the city designed an elaborate reservoir and waterway system to support the agricultural economy.
While viewing the waterworks, I thought about the Romans. During my Hadrian’s Wall itinerary to the UK last year I was impressed by the Roman’s advanced water engineering and enduring structures. But unlike Hadrian’s structures, the water infrastructure in Polonnaruwa is still in use today. The palace is also notable for both it’s scale and beauty. The palace ruins are known for their unique carved granite columns, moonstone slabs and Buddha statues. The Gal Vihara reclining Buddha took my breath away with its soft features and marbled granite surface.
Pro Tip: The site is huge. If you have a guide, as we did, they can drive you to the various sites. Otherwise, rent a bike to get around.
4. The Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic in Kandy
The last kingdom of Sri Lanka was located in Kandy and ran from the 15th-19th centuries before finally succumbing to British colonial rule. Most notable in Kandy is the relic of the Buddha’s tooth. Now, I’m a religious skeptic and find the notion of relics to be sort of creepy. But I went into the temple with an open mind.
The relic itself is enshrined like a Sri Lankan/Russian nesting doll. The temple site is protected by a security perimeter, then grassy grounds, a large exterior temple structure, a small interior temple, a set of doors, and then the relic. But visitors can’t see other than during the Esala Perahera festival. Nonetheless, amidst the shove of tourists, there were plenty of sincere worshipers placing fragrant jasmine offerings and taking a quiet moment to pray.
Pro Tip: Kandy is the transit point for taking the scenic train ride into tea country. But beware that there are two train stations in town so get yourself to the correct one.
Sri Lanka Points of Interest Outside the Golden Triangle
5. Dutch Canals
Before there was British Colonialism, there was Dutch Colonialism. And before that were the Portuguese. In the mid 1600’s, the Kandyan king invited the Dutch to help him defeat the Portuguese. The Dutch did just that, opening up Sri Lanka for a trade monopoly in cinnamon and other spices.
The Dutch built series of canals to aid the transport of goods to port. Well, say “ayubowan” to the canals too because they are still in use today. They extend 125 kilometers north out of Colombo through Negombo. It’s worth it to get out on the water if you are staying in Negombo. You can hire a boat right in the center of town near the fishing docks and it costs ~$27USD for four people.
Pro Tip: Nebombo is a good base for spending your first and/or last night in Sri Lanka. It’s very close to the airport, has nice beach, a wildlife refuge and the canals.
Get prepared for your trip and buy the Lonely Planet guide
6. Galle Fort
Galle Fort is another artifact from the Dutch occupation. The Portuguese built it in the late 1500’s and the Dutch expanded it in 1659. Parts of the fort have been reconstructed and the new ramparts actually helped to save the town during the 2004 tsunami.
You can tour the fort ruins and nearby churches and lighthouses. Galle is also a popular destination to get away from the crazy hustle of Colombo. It’s an easy 1-1/2 hour train ride down the coast and is fairly close to the beautiful beaches in Marissa.
Pro Tip: Galle has become quite touristy so you may want to visit earlier or later in the day to avoid crowds.
7. Gangaramaya Temple
Gangaramaya is not an ancient site, but it is a religious touchstone in downtown Colombo. And, frankly, it’s one of the weirder things to do in Sri Lanka. The temple was established 120 years ago as a center of worship and learning. It is also a jumble sale of statuary, texts and Buddhist knick knackery. All housed in an architecture inspired by an MC Escher drawing.
Their intentions are genuine but wandering the temple is a a kooky experience. Don’t let that stop you, though. Take the opportunity to explore all the nooks and crannies of the temple as if it were your own personal treasure hunt.
Pro Tip: This is a major tourist site. And yet the tuk tuk drivers can’t seem to find it. I presume that they are just running the meter. Do yourself a favor and get a local SIM card so that you can map yourself around the city.
Why Visit Sri Lanka Now?
Sri Lanka is a hot destination right now. They were a no-go zone during the civil war in the 80’s and 90’s. But they have since settled into a stable economy with a reasonably well-developed tourism infrastructure. And most Sri Lankan’s speak at least some English.
Your travel dollar goes very far in Sri Lanka. So if you are a budget traveler, you can do a lot for a little. But you can also do luxury for less in Sri Lanka with four star properties often going for far less than $150USD per night.
But beyond your budget you should consider the cultural value that Sri Lankan places upon the Golden Triangle and other points of interest. These well preserved treasures are a testament to Sri Lanka’s long and rich cultural life. Ayubowan.
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