There is a ton of ancient history that rests in the “Cultural Triangle” of Sri Lanka. It can be a bit overwhelming to decide which places are worth the visit and which you can skip. The triangle covers the area from the tip of Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in the East and stretching to Kandy in the West at the entrance of “Tea Country”. I’m not the best at travel budgeting so I didn’t do much planning for attractions before my trip and I didn’t anticipate how pricey things could be.
Despite not going to all the “TOP PLACES OF THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE IN SRI LANKA” I had an amazing time and wanted to share all of that with you. In total, I spent three days there so let’s get going!
Most travellers take two routes from Colombo: they go north to Anuradhapura and Jaffna, or along the southern coast to Galle and the beaches. I knew I wanted to be on a beach for new years so I chose to go north and I went by train. One thing to note that I didn’t know, Sri Lankans have a holiday for pretty much the whole month of December. According to the locals, buses and trains were MUCH busier during this time and took a tiny bit more planning. Go early!
There is so much to see in Anuradhapura and it gave me a bit of Siem Reap vibes. You can rent a tuk-tuk driver/guide to show you around and I chose to go with the same person who drove me to my hostel at a fair price. To see the “main” 10 or 12 UNESCO sites, there is an admission price of $25 USD.
I didn’t have a super large budget going on my trip and I really wanted to conserve my money near the beginning. I personally wanted to treat myself later on in my adventure.
5 sites you can visit for (almost) free
- Isuruminya Vihara
This temple is my favourite site in Anuradhapura. It is made of a giant rock cave, a stupa, and a small museum. At only 200 rupees to enter, I’d say this is a site worth paying for as it has a chill relaxing vibe and a nice view from the top. There are also many historically significant carvings here that you should check out that are kept in the museum.
- Ranmasu Uyana
Not far from Isuruminya Vihara are this ancient bathhouse ruins. I thought it was cool that you could follow the drain from bath to bath and to the lake. I always imagine what it would have been like to live in this era.
This is the first Buddist temple to be built in Sri Lanka and features a pristine white dagoba surrounded by aged pillars. The pillars used to help hold up a vatadage which would protect the stupa. It’s a quiet little site that holds a lot of significance in Sri Lanka’s history.
This colossal dagoba has a great deal of historical importance and played many roles in its past. It is the tallest stupa in the world and should not be missed on your tour of Ancient Anuradhapura.
This is one of the most popular and most sacred sites in Anuradhapura. When I visited, it was busy and filled with locals. Taking photos here was difficult as I didn’t want to be rude while people were praying, so I photographed lots of monkeys.
I really loved all the moonstone carvings everywhere. We saw most of them at Ruwanwelisaya. Among these 5 sites, there were three more that we went to and our tuk-tuk was 2000 lkr. I don’t know if that’s too expensive* or not, but I felt it worth the price and thoroughly enjoyed this ancient city.
*Small disclaimer/warning: I’ve read that there are lots of scams going on in this city which is very unfortunate. The most important thing is to be fully aware of what you are paying for and not to feel obligated to go with someone based on your host or drivers persuasion. We went to all the spots our guide offered, were never promised any site that was on the admission list and made aware of the 200 lkr charge for Isuruminya before our tour started.*
The main thing in Dambulla that I highly recommend is the Royal Cave Temples. Entrance is 1500 lkr and only takes about 15 mins to get to the top. I think older people or those not in the best shape will be able to do this too, however, there are no handrails so just take your time. I saw many families enjoy the caves.
These caves date back to the 1st century and then the building was added in the 1930s. Inside each of the caves were a collection of Buddha statues and the ceilings were covered in paintings.
Lastly, you know how I like a view and the horizon from here was not too shabby!
We just passed through Dambulla. It was easy once we got off the bus from Anuradhapura, we negotiated with a man who took us to the Golden Buddha Temple, the Cave Temple, and a perfume farm before driving us to our homestay in Sigiriya.
There are two main things that most people choose to do in Sigiriya and both involve hiking up a giant rock. The more famous Sigiriya Lion Rock has earned that name by the recognizable lion paw statues at its base. There are a whole bunch of fortress ruins at the very top and it has been declared as worthy for the title of the Eighth Wonder of the World.
While that all sounds amazing, I was not about to pay $30 USD to hike up this rock when I heard there is a similar rock for a fraction of the price. That’s right, I chose to climb up Pidurangala Rock.
It only costs 500 lkr for entrance and I was surprised by the lack of other people. By the time we got to the top for sunrise, there were only maybe 10 people including us. The hike up is not bad until you get close to the top where a headlamp and some basic bouldering skills come in handy.
Our hosts drove us to the rock, then picked us up and drove us back to Dambulla where we needed to catch a bus to Kandy.
Other notable places that we did not visit
- Kandy – What was once the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth is here and is highly recommended. We travelled through but I was feeling uncomfortable and my anxiety was telling me to move on. My personal experience was unfriendly, unhelpful and aggressive locals and I hope I can go back someday to rectify that opinion. For now, we skipped Kandy.
- Mihintale – It was recommended by our host to go here for sunset. It features a giant white Buddha Statue sitting on top of a mountain. I can imagine the view to be exquisite.
- Poḷonnaruwa – Another ancient city that doesn’t see as many tourists as Anuradhapura or Kandy. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site so there is an entrance fee to many of the popular attractions for around $30 USD.
We actually spent the whole afternoon when we arrived in Kandy to try to go to the Ambuluwawa Biodiversity Complex. Unfortunately, the road was closed but we still got a nice drive through the area outside the city. Most people like to take the scenic train from Kandy but knowing it would be difficult to even get on a train and not wanting to stay the night, we hopped on a bus to Nuwara Eliya.