Sri Lanka is one of the most interesting and exciting places I’ve ever been. It’s a beautiful, chaotic and mind-blowing melting pot of culture and history. It’s intoxicating. Exotic. You can almost inhale the diversity. Breathe the spirituality. Oh, and gorge yourself on curry. Lots of curry.
It’s a little off the typical backpacker trail, and an amazing place to explore a world of cool culture on a short trip. Which is basically what I did with my wife Laura. And we loved it.
Sometimes imaginary people ask me, ‘Andy, what are your top tips for places to visit in Sri Lanka? Could you create some kind of arbitrarily defined numerical list article?’ The answer is yes. Yes, I can.
And here it is. Obviously, it’s not extensive; I also recommend Kandy, Galle, the iconic stilt fishermen, the tea plantations and putting lots of banana flower curry in your face. All great stuff.
But these are my top picks.
1. Yala National Park
Sri Lanka has loads of fantastic national parks. We ended up at Yala. The idea was to go on a safari. It took a day to get there, and when we did our tour guide keeled over and died. True story. It kind of put a dampener on the whole thing, but we did the safari anyway. It’s what he would have wanted.
Actually, the safari experience was further undermined by a British couple who kept making unflattering comparisons to their safari in Kenya, which was The Best Safari In The World Ever. They were the kind of travellers that are always comparing everything to the best time they’ve ever had. The best time in the world. Ever.
In fairness, Kenya is supposed to be the best place to safari. Is safari a verb? Anyway, although Kenya might be top of the safari league table, this was still pretty good; we saw a leopard – which was pretty rare – plus elephants, crocodiles, warthogs, deer and birds.
When we got back from the safari we got sad about our tour guide again. But then we remembered he would probably have wanted us to have some nice dinner, so that’s what we did.
2. Dambulla Cave Temple
The Buddhist cave temple at Dambulla is old. Really old. It’s essentially five adjacent caves filled with colourful statues carved into the surrounding rock. The first was created more than 2,000 years ago, and the rest is literally history you can find on Wikipedia.
The largest cave contains 16 standing Buddhas and 40 slightly lazier sitting ones (fun fact: having your photo taken with your back to the Buddha is highly offensive). The other caves vary in size, but all are deeply spiritual places and the complex is still a functioning temple. This meant we had to take off our shoes, cover our knees and shoulders and generally be pretty respectful.
Inside the caves the ceilings are covered with striking paintings, which haven’t lost their impact despite fading over the centuries. The Buddha statues are arranged in various poses, showing the Buddha in different contexts – from Nirvana to death. Walking through the temple was like immersing yourself in a world of spiritual history, and I decided on the spot that if I ever went religious it was Buddhism all the way.
There’s something very special and affecting about Dambulla. While outside it was scorching and hectic, inside the caves were cool and serene. I felt peaceful and contemplative. It was basically magical.
3. Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The ‘rock fortress’ at Sigiriya is basically a giant solidified volcanic mass that a king briefly turned into a ridiculously ostentatious military residence ages ago.
It’s an unbelievable place, with something random and amazing around every corner. There’s a massive man-made moat, the remains of an epic ground-level summer garden, ancient paintings on the rock walls, an immense ‘mirror wall’ and the ruins of a mind-boggling royal residence on top of the rock.
But for me the coolest thing about Sigiriya are the impressive remnants of an intimidating giant lion carved into the side of the rock mass. Only the paws remain, but they’re really, really big. Back in the day it would have essentially looked like a real life stone façade of the Thundercats lair. Picture it. It’s awesome.
A few tips for Sigiriya: It’s a steep climb, so dress comfortably and set off early morning or late afternoon; take plenty of water and snacks; beware of the young ‘helper’ dudes at the rock base – they assist the weary or unfit up the rock then ‘charge’ for their work.
4. Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Throughout history Sri Lanka has moved its capital, usually to avoid invaders from India and Europe. About 1,000 years ago it was Polonnaruwa’s turn. It’s an amazing site to wander and imagine either at the height of its olden times power or as a lush tropical vine-covered ruin discovered by early colonialists.
In the time since old King Vijayabahu I declared Polonnaruwa to be the capital of his kingdom around 1070 AD much of the site has succumbed to age and decay. But despite that, it’s a beautiful, fascinating place and a fully fledged UNESCO World Heritage site.
I’m a bit of a historical ruin geek. I love this stuff. So I found exploring the relics of beautiful temples, statues and other buildings scatted around the site an amazing experience. Interestingly, I learned that Polonnaruwa was only capital for a few hundred years, and since then not much has happened there apart from Duran Duran filming the video to their song Save a Prayer in 1982.
Towards the end of the site journey are sleek and stunning statues of Buddhas and kings. The authorities have erected massive iron roofs to cover and protect them, which is a bit rubbish, but they’re still pretty incredible. Go look at them. Now.
5. Bentota Turtle Sanctuary
Sri Lanka’s turtles were devastated by the 2004 tsunami. I don’t just mean they were upset; their numbers took a huge hit. Ever since that historic event sanctuaries have sprung up along the coast to conserve and protect them.
Most of these centres seem to be concentrated around Bentota on the south-west coast. We visited one and learned that eating turtle eggs might be a treat for the taste buds, but it isn’t exactly a win for protecting the species. It turns out the sanctuaries try and pay locals more for eggs than they’d get for selling them to restaurants.
It was actually a pretty low-key experience – the ‘centres’ are really just makeshift pools and hatcheries. But it felt like a genuine case of people making a small but significant difference in the world, and the organisers and workers seemed really dedicated and passionate.
They depend on funding to survive here, and a lot of the turtle pools are sponsored by tourists. A volunteer placement working there felt like it would be a pretty good idea.