Sri Lanka is well known as an island paradise of long, sandy beaches with a tropical climate, making it a real draw to visitors from across the globe. There is however so much more amazing culture, nature and history to this island nation, an exploration of which is sure to cement memories of any visit here for years to come.
If it hadn’t been our base for the Plan My Gap Year Sri Lanka volunteering projects, Ambalangoda on the southern coast of Sri Lanka may well have been some anonymous town passed through whilst on the road elsewhere. This would be a mistake though as even here there are important historic perspectives on Sri Lankan culture to be found. The Sri Lankan mask making culture originates in this tiny town, where you can visit the museum explaining the role of the different masks in ceremonies to rid people of evil spirits and treat illnesses. Next door you can watch the masks being made by highly skilled individuals and of course, there are numerous places to purchase this unique form of art.
The old Dutch town of Galle is still heavily fortified. So much so that, during the 2004 tsunami, the people inside the walls were less affected than those outside, thanks in part to the excellent drainage that remains from the colonial era. Not only can you walk around the entire walls giving excellent views of the harbour, beach areas and out to sea, but you can explore inside too. The inner section of Galle is very diverse with Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, a mosque and several differing denominations of Christian church. The quaint, cobbled streets also contain many small eateries, modern guesthouses and traditional buildings containing the history of Galle, best told through one of its many museums. Consider staying for more than a few hours and you won’t be disappointed.
Part of the cultural triangle found in central Sri Lanka, this is likely to appear on your list of places to visit, particularly if using a tour group or following one of their itineraries. The Dambulla cave complex is the main attraction with Buddhas lining the inside of each of the five caves as well as images adorning both the ceilings and walls. There are over 150 Buddha statues making this an impressive sight to see. At the same location there is also a small Buddhist museum and a Buddhist temple. From the top of the caves you’ll have an impressive view, particularly on a clear day where you will see Sigiriya in the distance.
Another ‘corner’ of the cultural triangle, this is actually a collection of sites that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site aiming to preserve the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
Hire a driver or a bike to get from one to another and refer to a pre-purchased guidebook to make the most out of what you see as many of the sites are now only ruins. You will need a bit of imagination to fully appreciate the splendour and scale of this former capital city which reached its peak in the 12th Century. If you find this difficult to visualise then head to the museum which has several reconstructions as well as accompanying information on the purpose of each and every structure.
The final section of the cultural triangle is best visited first thing in the morning as it is a huge rock that stands in an otherwise flat landscape. The sun is overpowering at midday so be sure to have ascended and descended prior to this time if possible. The climb up is not for the faint-hearted but worth it for anyone who doesn’t suffer from vertigo in order to: witness the famous frescos, view the design of the landscaped gardens below (which you walk through though are unlikely to appreciate the scale of); see the sculptured terraces; get a glimpse into the layout of the palace and accompanying buildings on top; and get an unequalled view of the surrounding terrain. Once back safely on ground level, explore the caves below and learn in the impressive collection held by the museum with a reconstructed fly over giving you the archaeologists best guess at what it would have looked like.
The capital of Sri Lanka is likely to be your port of both arrival and departure into the country and is well worth allocating a day or two to explore whilst passing through. In truly capital style, Colombo has a mix of modern and historic, open space and congested living and is home to many national centres of information which provide a great context for your wider exploration of the island. For those seeking an overview of Sri Lanka’s history, art, religion, achievements and development, head over to the National Museum. If you’re more into your Buddhism than your history, then why not visit the Gangaramaya Temple which contains a library, museum and an array of Buddhist art and trinkets. Both of these are closely located to Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park), a well cared-for green space that is busy (especially with courting couples!) but spacious.
At the end of your day(s) exploring, head over to the local hangout: Galle Face Green. A large expanse of grassland located on the shore of the Indian Ocean, this is the place in Colombo to watch the Sun go down. This is always busy, especially on a weekend when hundreds of locals come down to fly their kites long after the sun has set. A long promenade is littered with stalls and cafes serving traditional Muslim cuisine. Whilst they don’t look like much, check out the busiest street food stalls that will normally have an array of local and foreigners frequenting them. Try out the shawarmas with chicken or mutton – you won’t be disappointed!
These are just a small snapshot of the incredible culture and history of this small but significant island. If you have the opportunity to plan time to explore into your visit here, you will be able to gain a strong appreciation of how this bastion of Buddhism has developed into the island seen today.