The 5 historical sites of the Cultural Triangle, some of them 2.300 years old, are definitely worth the 5+ days necessary to discover them. They are the remains of a great civilization that developed an architecture unique in Asia. They were also built at different periods of time and hence display completely different styles and features, making it impossible to recommend one over the other. Simply put, each one should be visited!
It is important to be at the sites at the right time (basically very early) if you want to enjoy them without large crowds of organized tours. This was especially the case in Sigiriya (where you should arrive at 07:00 am sharp), but not only…
And yes, those historical sites are expensive! Visiting the 3 main ones (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya) will cost you no less than 80 USD entrance fees per person! This might sound much, but it is definitely worth it…
Riding a bike through the remains of this large antique city is an easy and pleasant undertaking, though it can be quite hot around noon time (don’t forget sunblock, we ended up as red as lobsters)… You will need a full day if you want to see all the main sites of the first capital of an empire that would last more than 1.000 years… Most of this city was built in the 2nd Century BC.
The highlight of our visit was definitely the Dagoba of Ruvanvelisaya, where large numbers of pilgrims, all dressed in white, covered the colored ribbon around the Dagoba with a new orange one. Being one of the only foreign visitors amongst this large crowd surely enhanced the spirituality of this moment…
It is a steep climb to the top, but you can save approx. half of the 1.843 steps up if you take a car or a tuk tuk to the parking lot. The reason to be there very early is less the heat than the fact that Mihintale is a spiritual experience early morning, when large pilgrim groups make the climb to pray at the very place where King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura met Mahinda, who converted him to Buddhism.
Go first to the top, when pilgrims sit around the Dagoba of Ambasthale and pray. Then climb up the Aradhana Gala (Rock of Meditation) for stunning views. This is a rough climb, and quite a sobering experience: proud as we were to have made it to the top despite the vertiginous path, and overcome our fear of height, we were joined by a whole family, carrying a baby and taking along the elderly with their walking sticks…
Built in the 11th Century after the fall of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa offers a completely different experience than the other sites of the Cultural Triangle: you come here for the vestiges of a great city and especially the stunning carvings that survived almost 1.000 years. Before heading to the actual site, start first with the excellent Archeological Museum that will give you a very good overview of the site and of its history.
To us, the real highlight of Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, with its four rock relief giant statues of Buddha, carved in the 12th Century. They represent the outstanding Sinhalese sculpting and carving technics at their best.
It is critical to be at the gate at the opening hour (07:00 am): yes, it is a long & rough & especially vertiginous climb to the top of this huge holy monolithic rock that overhangs the whole area of dense forest.
But what you want to escape here are the crowds that arrive slightly later: this is definitely the highest tourist concentration of the island… tens of buses, hundreds of people creating long lines and an unpleasant atmosphere of mass tourism at its worst.
Obviously, you might have stunning views of the surroundings forests and lakes from this huge monolithic rock… On a clear day! Well, we had a hazy day and saw almost nothing…
At first sight, this bustling commercial hub has nothing inviting, and there are actually few reasons to stay here longer, especially overnight. Nonetheless, Dambulla is a must-do on the way down to Kandy from Sigiriya, and is especially convenient for a mid-day stop, as everything you want to see here is inside 5 cave temples.
There, you find a stunning collection of rock paintings and of Buddha statues of all sizes, seating or reclining. Not to be missed!