Sri Lanka is an ancient and mystical place. Vast ancient palaces lie ruined across its countryside, giant granite lions paws guard the rock hewn staircases to inner sanctums. Centuries old swimming pools hint at the grandeur of these past empires and ancient portraits adorn rock walls, a kings tribute to his five hundred strong harem. Nature is allowed to run wild in this tropical paradise, from the smallest orchid to the mighty elephant, the boisterous monkeys to the vibrant kingfisher. Ancient stone idols stand sentinel and the azure ocean laps the golden beaches. Here is our guide to the best of Sri Lanka.
Citadel of Sigiriya
Constructed around a natural mound that’s so impressive it would be worth seeing in its own right, Sigiriya citadel is the remains of an ancient palace constructed hundreds of years ago to house the king and his five hundred strong harem. After crossing the moat you are confronted by four massive water tanks, two excavated, two not. These were the swimming pools enjoyed by the young women the king kept for his entertainment. A winding stairway leads up the mound past the youthful portraits of the girls that lived here. A pair of gargantuan lion paws are all that’s left of a giant statue that leads to the summit and the inner sanctum of the palace. These are the best views in the whole of Sri Lanka.
The temple of the tooth, Candy
The tooth temple was built to house one of Buddhism most sacred relics. A tooth that was removed from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in a princess’s hair. The temple is a myriad of elephant ivory and Buddha sculptures watched over by orange clad monks and bare chested drummers. On special occasions you are allowed to glimpse the jewel clad golden chest that contains the alleged tooth. We were there for one of these occasions and did indeed see the over elaborate casket, but the push, crush and noise in the clamour to see it was ridiculous. For this reason it must rank along side some of the least spiritual places I have ever been despite its eminence. A trip here will likely include a cultural dance show which was interesting but goes on a bit too long.
Udawalawe elephant orphange
Not so much an Orphanage anymore as most of the resident elephants were born in Udawalawe. They do still take any elephants in need of care and a home though. We had mixed opinions of this attraction. All of the animals seemed happy enough. They have a natural looking setting with mud baths and they are walked down to the river four times a day where they can have a really good wallow. The only real problem was a couple of babies were chained in small pens and seemed a bit frustrated. Tourists have the opportunity to feed the elephants fruit and we were lucky enough to help bath a very content elephant too. Bit of a tourist trap with everyone wanting a tip.
A sacred city grew around the sacred Bodhi tree, a tree grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. Or so the story goes anyway. Like tooth temple, this is a major centre of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Interesting.
Kings ruled from this ancient city 800 years ago, it was the second capital city after the sacking of Anuradhapura over one thousand years ago. This UNESCO world heritage site is packed with history. This is the site of the ancient royal palace, the amazing twelfth century ‘garden city,’ the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba and the most incredible reclining Buddha statues carved out of the living rock. The day that we were here was one of the hottest days that I have ever experienced, the totally unremittingly, brutal heat was an experience in itself.
Dambulla Buddha caves
This is the best preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka and has been a sacred site for over two thousand years. The caves are packed with thousands of images of the Buddha, as well as over 150 statues too. Its really something to see. The walk up to the caves is a really good place to watch monkeys.
The old town of Galle is an old trading port with stately Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques, churches, mansions and museums. The massive stone walls have repelled many attackers over the centuries and when the tsunami devastated large parts of Asia in 2004, they once again protected those lucky enough to be within them from the carnage.
A VIP’s footprint
Atop a Sri Lankan mountain has been left an impression by a very important person. Which person depends on who you are talking to and which brand of religion they subscribe to. For Buddhists, the six foot footprint on the peak is Lord Buddha’s; Hindus trace it back to Shiva. It is also attributed to be St Thomas the Apostle’s by Portuguese. Muslims and Christians, meanwhile, believe that the footprint belongs to the Prophet Adam. I believe it to be a hole shaped a bit like a footprint, but what do I know?
Sri Lanka (ceylon) is one of the most famous places in the world for tea production and a trip up into the mountains to see the industry in action is worth taking. They call this region ‘little England’ as the climate is wetter and cooler than the rest of the country and of course all the land was/is owned by rich English people exploiting cheap local labour. There is lovely scenery up here too and some marvellous waterfalls to take a dip in.
Yala national park
We took an afternoon and evening safari out to Yala national park and its still one of the best experiences of my life. This is the best place in the world to see Leopards. Other Yala residents include Elephants, Peacocks, Sloth bear, Water Buffalo, Toque Macaque, Crocodiles, flying snakes and 215 bird species.
Other things to do and see
We had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka, one of our favourite things we did was hire bikes. They costs us £2 per day and it was by far and away the best way to access some of the remote fishing villages.
Markets are an experience not to be missed, local markets not tourist ones. We were the only tourists around and some of the children had never seen white faces before! We became the attraction when we sat down for a cold drink in a small cafe, we caught the girl behind the counter trying to take a sneaky photo on her phone of us. An excellent place to buy spices.
Go snorkelling. A world of brightly coloured fish and coral await just below the waves. Not to mention the turtles.
Coconuts, loads of em. Cheap and the most refreshing drink there is. They are sold literally everywhere. More than two a day will have a laxative effect.
Ayurveda. The traditional healing system in this part of the world. Totally fascinating and effective.
See the stilt fishermen. That simply cannot be a comfortable place to sit. They will want money.
Gem mines. Sri Lanka is know for its precious and semi precious gem stones. A mine is worth a visit just be prepared for their hard-sell techniques when it comes to the jewellery shops attached.
Dangers and Annoyances
Just the usual ones to be honest, there is nothing in particular to be wary of. We felt safe in all parts of the country. The biggest irritation is that people want tipping for everything, even when they haven’t done anything for you. Sri Lanka is a nation of beggars, and cheeky ones at that.
When cycling around the country we noticed the kids shouting “bonbons” at us. Of course they wanted sweets and are very grateful and polite when you give them some, using as much English as they can manage to thank you. Not annoying to us, more of a pleasure really making children happy.