‘Lanka’, as my Sri Lankan friends at home in Australia often call it, was somewhere I’d been desperate to visit for a while. When I finally got to fulfil that dream last year, it was as diverse, vibrant and wonderful as I had always imagined.
While admittedly it was the food that originally piqued my interest in Sri Lanka as a travel destination (and let me tell you, kotthu roti, string hoppers and endless rice and curry totally lived up to my expectations), there is so much more to this sub-continental wonderland than what goes into your belly.
The amazing beaches and landscapes, the incredible wildlife, and friendly people are some of the first things that jump to mind. But as a bit of a self-confessed history buff, one thing I wasn’t expecting to get out of my Sri Lankan holiday was a good ol’ dose of knowledge about an ancient and fascinating culture. But I did, time and time again.
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a picturesque, bustling colonial city nestled among the hilly Sri Lankan tea fields, was a cultural highlight. After arriving during peak hour and getting dropped off near the Temple of the Tooth, we manoeuvred our way through the throngs of locals selling trinkets to get inside the gates of the golden-roofed temple. The temple houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. Even during prayer, no one is actually allowed to see the tooth; it’s kept inside six golden boxes, designed like Babushka dolls, for protection.
If you head further north of Kandy, you’ll hit some of the most famous historical sites in Sri Lanka: Sigiriya, one of the world’s most impressive ruined rock fortresses; Dambulla, a holy cave covered in magnificent artwork; and Anuradhapura, which is the ruins of an entire ancient city. Don’t forget to wear long pants or a skirt, and cover your shoulders if you plan on visiting some of these Buddhist sites.
Despite a torrential downpour of monsoonal rain, we braved the climb to the top of Sigiriya. The stairs are steep and narrow in parts, but when you make it to the top, you’re treated not only to the ruins of the ancient royal fortress of Kassapa’s kingdom, but unbelievable views of the surrounding landscape. Don’t forget to check out the incredible rock sculptures of a lion’s paws, which account for Sigiriya’s other name: ‘Lion Rock’. If you’re up for a second (less strenuous) climb nearby, Dambulla’s cave temple is full of ancient Buddhist artwork and beautiful scenery. Take plenty of water on both these excursions, as the sticky humid weather can make the walks challenging.
Travel further north again and you’ll reach Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was a place that I was desperate to visit, and also to learn the correct pronunciation of. The way the locals say it bounces off the tongue quickly, and, after many missteps, I felt like I had it down pat (it’s Anu-rad-ha-pura for those playing at home!). You could spend hours exploring the ruins of this ancient city, but one of the best ways to see the highlights is to hop on a bike, with a local leader explaining the significance of the different sights.
My favourite site was probably Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree in Anuradhapura. It’s a beautiful tree, but the story behind it was what really got to me. Sri Lankans say that Princess Sangamitta, the daughter of the Indian Emperor and the sister of Mahinda (who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka), brought the tree cutting from India, which is why it’s so symbolic for Buddhists. It’s the world’s oldest tree to be planted in this way and has been continuously cultivated for the last 2000 years. Many people come to pray and make offerings, especially on poya (full moon), but even if you aren’t a Buddhist, it’s a stunning place to sit for a moment of quiet appreciation.
See all these amazing historical sites and more on our Circle Sri Lanka small group tour.
Feature image by Ryan Bolton.