Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Just the perfect breather from our beach hopping stint (and for my salty frizzy hair and sun-kissed skin), me and my buddy devoted two full days to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites inside the so-called Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. As usual, I had no idea on where we were going and what exactly we’re doing which actually works for me; setting no expectations on places we discover.

Sri Lanka was the third country on our two-month Beach Hop Asia 2016 backpacking trip. After exploring Malaysia and Thailand, me and my buddy headed to Colombo before we explored Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa.

We had a rented car from JNW Lanka Tours which made our transfers stress-free. We were collected from our home in Colombo, Clock Inn Colombo, at around ten in the morning. The six-hour ride was smooth and first thing we did upon reaching Sigiriya was to look for a nice play to stay for our four-day jaunt. Karu, our driver, brought us to Grand Regent Holiday Resort and Spa (check discounted rates here), which I must say is not that grand, in the strict sense of the word. The cottage resort had this rustic feel to it and our room faced a lovely sunset area. They also provide room for drivers for free which made everything convenient. We just battled most of the time with some deadly mosquitoes around which are quite common in this part of Sri Lanka.

Grand Regent Holiday Resort And Spa Sigiriya
That mosquito net was literally our safety net
Grand Regent Holiday Resort And Spa Sigiriya
Our private veranda/beer place/sunset spot
The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is one of the famous destinations for first-time visitors. Consisting of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the North and Central Provinces, it literally forms a triangle from Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. With a tight schedule, we only visited the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, Dambulla Cave Temple and Sigiriya Rock leaving Kandy and Anuradhapura for our future visit so that we won't be templed out just like what happened to us on our temple tours in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Sigiriya Rock

I asked my buddy regarding our first stop, he just told me that there’s just a hardcore climb, on a huge rock. I freaked out for a few seconds for I detest all forms of hiking, unless if it’s really needed. Nonetheless, we took our leisurely breakfast and waited for our driver to finish his. The resort was just five minutes away from Sigiriya Rock so we needed not to hurry.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock was an ancient citadel with a palace on the flat top of the rock
It was half past eight in the morning and tour buses slowly filled the parking spaces. There was an entrance fee of LKR4,260 each (US$30) and we sauntered under the shade of trees after getting the tickets. We then saw the greatness of the rock fortress as we emerged to what seemed like a ruined fortification. I took a deep breath and looked at my buddy with a dreadful grin. He shied away and continued his stroll to the pathway.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock (Lion Rock in Sinhalese language) is an ancient rock fortress built in 5th century A.D. under the reign of King Kashyapa. Rising 660 feet above the ground, the rock citadel is a complex of terraced gardens, man-made pools, massive boulders and ancient rock paintings. It was as if a huge rock was carved to form a castle, concealed from what I imagine was a thick forest below it; a good strategy for conquerors at that time.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
I've never seen so many green in my life!
We specifically wanted a DIY exploration so we didn’t seek any help from the tour guides around who ask for a certain fee. After conquering some series of stone steps, we then reached a metal walkway that led to a spiral staircase. We passed through a cavern that was once filled with paintings of half-naked women, only traces of those were left. And then another staircase.

What I love most about the arduous hike was the great view of lush greeneries. Another thing I noticed was the carved steps on the rocks. I suppose, these were used as ladders to go up and down the rock walls; quite clever.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Final assault at the Lion's Paw
Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
I suppose people back then used these carved steps to go up and down the rock fortress
Catching our breath, we arrived at the foot of the lion with the final assault in sight. I wasted no time and carried on with the climb on the metal staircase while my buddy was busy taking some landscape photos.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Definitely not for the faint-hearted
And as I took the last step, I surrendered to the punishing heat and exhaustion by resting on a spot under a lone tree. I was busy chatting with a caretaker as my buddy surfaced from the stairwell. It took us almost two hours to finally reach the top.

The view from our standpoint was breathtaking. I’ve never seen so much green in my life. I climbed up of what seemed to be the apex of a fortress and enjoyed a panoramic view of Sigiriya. Standing on top of this great marvel, and one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka (inscribed in 1982), was definitely one of the highlights of our Sri Lankan adventure.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Ruins of what used to be some grand terraced gardens and man-made pools
Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
360-degree view of Sigiriya

Dambulla Cave Temple/Golden Temple of Dambulla

Right after our Sigiriya Rock exploration we headed southwest, around 20 kilometers away to our next destination. Again, I had no prior knowledge about our itinerary so I wasn’t expecting that much.

The afternoon sun pierced my skin as we entered the temple complex. There were no entrance fees or whatsoever so we just went inside and wandered around.

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka

A concrete arch that looked like one of those entryways to theme parks revealed some steps leading to, well, we don’t know where. We followed it and realized that it was the way to our point of interest. It was a struggle, the hike. After the grueling climb hours ago, here we were stretching those leg muscles again to our next destination. Plus, stray monkeys around the area made it more challenging.

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka
Dambulla Cave Temple - largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. There are 153 Buddha statues
and murals covering an area of 23,000 sq.ft. on the five caves underneath an overhanging rock.
It took us 40 minutes to reach the top where a white sentry welcomed us. We were 525 feet above the ground at that point. We were then asked to leave our footwear outside which made us tiptoe into the temple grounds (though it wasn’t as painstaking as our barefooted temple runs in Myanmar). The guards also offered us a tour guide which we refused, expressing our desire to take our own time exploring it.

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka

The carvings and murals were dictated primarily by the size and structure of the cave itself.
Inscribed in 1991, Dambulla Cave Temple is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and is believed to have been built around first century B.C. during the reign of King Valagamba of Anuradhapura. It was eerily quiet as we sauntered to one of the corridors underneath the huge rock. The path revealed a number of openings. I entered into one of the shadowy doors.  

Old tiles, uneven walls and ceiling, carved stupas, images of Buddha, ancient paintings and more. It was crude yet you wouldn’t want it in any other way as it totally captured the ingenuity of the past era. Without any signs on what’s next and what’s inside, it felt like I was on a hunt for something. The other doors revealed more caverns with more Buddha figures. 

After visiting all the caves, I sat under a tree with so much admiration to this, yet again, marvelous gem of Sri Lanka (same as the great Hindu Temples in Bali,Indonesia). It is underrated but totally captured the glorious ancient days.

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka

Dambulla Cave Temple Sri Lanka
14-meter reclining Buddha
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

It was the third day of our cultural discovery in Sri Lanka and we woke up earlier than usual for our excursion to Polonnaruwa.

Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
One of the ruins around the Royal Palace which is believed to be a place for rituals and entertainment.
Having been to the ancient cities of Siem Reap in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, I somewhat had an idea on how this trip will be. The two-hour drive was smooth as we had a nice time chatting with Karu. We had to go first to the ticket office to pay the admission fee of LKR3,550 (US$24). The ticket served as our pass to some of the major temples, the guards actually checked it. The office also houses a museum, Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum, that provided an overview on the old city.

Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Ruins of the Royal Palace
Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Vatadage - round structure enclosing a stupa at its center.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa was established during the reign of King Vijayabahuin in 993 A.D. What remains now from this old city were different Buddhist temples, Brahmanic monuments, man-made pools, beautiful structures and well-planned irrigation systems. Inscribed in 1982 as one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, the ancient city is truly worth a visit.

Getting around the area is easier with a rented car, just like what we did, but if you have more time, you may opt to hire a bike to get a good grip of the whole area. Just be ready to bear the punishing afternoon heat.

Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Pilgrims going to the Colossal Dagaba of Rankot Vihara
Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Gal Vihara - a rock temple with four relief statues of Buddha carved on a single rock.
The reclining Buddha image is one of the largest in Southeast Asia.
Our brief encounter with some of the cultural heritage sites in Sri Lanka was made easier with the help from our rented car via JNW Lanka Tours. We wanted to visit the other five sites to complete the loop but my body was itching for saltwater. It will be beach hopping sesh again on our next stop.

JNW Lanka Tours
*JNW Building, 67 Maligakanda Road, Colombo, Sri Lanka
*Arrival Hall, Travel Service Counter No.6,
Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake, Sri Lanka
Contact Number: (+94) 777.396983 | (+94) 11.2698334
Email Address:

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