Sri Lanka is a dream holiday destination if you’re looking to combine culture, mountains and endless beaches. The country is conveniently divided with most the cultural sites located in the north-central. This area is known as the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. If you’re looking for ancient temples, historic landmarks and religious monuments, this is the place to be.
We had 14 days during this Sri Lankan adventure of which we spend 5 in the cultural triangle. We decided to hit the following cities: Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Kandy. You might see that one of the countries famous historical sites isn’t included, the ruins of Anuradhapura. Since we didn’t want to lose too much time on the bus and the historical sites are quite expensive for Asian norms, we chose Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura. We loved the elephant safari in Polonnaruwa and climbing both rocks in Sigiriya. If you have limited time, I would suggest skipping Kandy since this was the least impressive city in our opinion.
Take an elephant safari// Our first excursion in Sri Lanka was immediately one of the highlights of our trip, the elephant safari in Polonnaruwa. There are 3 parks within a 30 minute distance of the town. The elephants migrate between the parks during the year but the driver will know which park to go to in order to have the highest chance to see elephants. We were lucky to have had the most wonderful driver during our safari. Thanks to his magnificent skills we saw elephants from nearby in a very serene and pure atmosphere. He slowly approached the animals, shut his engine off and just let us enjoy the big and baby (!!) elephants for at least 30 minutes. When the troops of other jeeps started to arrive, we were off. During the 3-hour safari we were able to spot 25 elephants, a bunch of monkeys and some water buffalos.
Explore the ancient temples of Polonnaruwa// What once was the capital of Sri Lanka is now a magnificent memory of ancient temples, pagodas and shrines filled with monkeys. Our favorites were the 2 big stupas and the reclining Buddha. Riding a bike is definitely the best way to discover Polonnaruwa since the temples are scattered throughout the domain. It took us approximately 4 hours to visit the whole site with our bikes. Make sure to go early to beat to tourist busses and the midday heat. The park opens at 7 AM.
Climb to the castle on Lion Rock// Mad kings don’t only exist in Game of Thrones. Once, a mad king lived in Sri Lanka and his life project was to build a magnificent castle on top of a giant rock! After killing his father, that is. I’m sure you remember another red wedding? (Ok, I will stop now with the Game of Thrones references!) He succeeded in his mission and the remains of the castle are now the main tourist attraction in Sigiriya. You’ll need to climb very steep and winding stairs to get access to all the beauty. I don’t have fear of heights but I didn’t bother looking down too much either! Mid-way to the top you’ll find a painting of nude women where it’s a fun game to look for the errors. Spoiler: one of them has 3 boobs 🙂 In the past you had to enter the palace by climbing through a big lion’s head but now only the 2 massive claws remain at the Lion’s gate. On top you’ll get a stunning 360 degree view of the area. Take your time to walk around the remains of the castle. There’s even a swimming pool on top of the rock. Acted as a through mad king! As always, go early for the best experience! In the afternoon, people had to queue at least an hour in the heat before they could reach the top and it makes the experience just a little less magical. It took us about 4 hours to visit the complete site including the climb of the rock and the surrounding gardens.
Sunset views on Pidurangala rock// Next to the famous Lion’s rock is the little less famous Pidurangala. This rock is a great alternative if you’re on a tight budget. We climbed the rock in the evening to get a great view on the Lion’s rock and enjoy the sunset. The climb starts at the bottom close to a small monastery where you pay the entrance fee. You’ll pass 2 reclining Buddha’s and some big rocks at the end of the climb. After 30 minutes you’ll be able to enjoy a stunning view that’s similar to the one of Lion’s rock. Go to Pidurangala rock if you want to enjoy a stunning sunset view with your head in the clouds.
Visit the Royal botanical garden of Kandy// If you want to escape from the busy streets of Kandy, the Royal botanical garden is where you need to be. It consists of several pavilions with flowers and cacti and some very –VERY- big trees. Animals are a big part of the fun here as well. You can watch monkeys devour canon fruit, birds eating the leftovers of the school children’s pick-nick and thousands (!!!) of bats hanging mere meters above your head. They also have a collection of grass which is totally trivial but also funny to see.
The Temple of the Tooth// We know this is the main religious building of Sri Lanka but if we’re honest, I must say I was a little underwhelmed by this temple. It’s definitely not the prettiest or biggest temple I have ever seen but it certainly holds big importance to the locals. If you find yourself in Kandy, you’ll need to drop in just to experience it for yourself. The walkway between the temple and the lake is the ideal setting for a romantic evening walk.
STAY// One night at the rock cascade costs Rs. 2500. The next night at Vee guest house in Sigiriya was a little cheaper at Rs. 2000/night. Our cheapest stay in the cultural triangle was with our sweet AirBnB hosts in Kandy. We rented the room of their son for just Rs. 1700 a night.
EAT// Fresh fruits, local dinners and refreshing beers to celebrate our first days in Sri Lanka took Rs. 5200 from the budget. For 5 days this was the smallest weight on our budget.
DO// Definitely the biggest part of our budget went to excursions and entrance tickets! The elephant safari was RS. 4750 per person, independent of the number of people in the jeep. We rented bikes (Rs. 200/bike/full day) to discover the ancient temples. The entrance ticket for the Polonnaruwa site is Rs. 3550 and you’ll get a museum visit included in the price. You’ll get access to Sigiriya rock, the gardens and the museum for Rs. 4260/person. The smaller Peridangala Rock is priced much lower at Rs. 500 per person. In Kandy, we’ve spend Rs. 1100 for an entrance ticket to the Botanical gardens and Rs. 1000 for the Temple of the Tooth.
TRANSPORT// We used the bus as our main mode of transport with twice a tuktuk in between for the convenience. The biggest trip was from the airport to Polonnaruwa at 635/per person with half of that budget going to a tuktuk from the airport to the bus station (7km) which was a total rip-off but it was 4 o’clock in the morning and we wanted to hit the road as fast as possible. Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya was Rs. 110 per person and Sigiriya to Kandy was Rs. 200 per ticket. We found it pretty easy to find buses and never had to wait longer than 30 minutes before we could catch the next one. Cheap + Convenient = Win-Win!
TOTAL// We’ve spend Rs. 47.740 or €285 for 5 days and 2 people in the cultural triangle. Although this is higher than the average budget for an Asian vacation, we didn’t want to say no to any of these great experiences.