Between conducting research, attending events, and teaching an online class, my schedule in Sri Lanka has been pretty packed. But I knew that if I wanted to see the country and not just the inside of coffee shops in Colombo I would have to get out and leave my laptop behind. Given that my time here was drawing to a close, I decided to embark on a trip around what is commonly referred to as Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, an interior portion of the country with great historical significance, ancient ruins of political and religious import, and quintessentially Sri Lankan excursions. The plan I hatched would take me in clockwise fashion from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya and Dambulla to Kandy to Ella and back to Colombo.
The first leg of my journey ran from Colombo to Anuradhapura by train (450 Rs for 2nd-class reserved). I arrived in the late afternoon and traveled by tuk tuk to Hotel White House. The next morning I ventured by trishaw to the Sacred City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Ceylon featuring numerous Buddhist monasteries and royal palaces. As I was exploring on the Sunday following the Esala Full Moon Poya Day, the atmosphere was particularly festive, with Sri Lankans dressed in white descending upon the religious sites and small vendors seizing upon the commercial opportunities presented by the large crowds. Tickets for foreigners cost a whopping 3850 Rs (roughly $25 USD). The ruins were quite scattered across a large area, so I would recommend renting a bicycle (600 Rs) in order to cover the extensive grounds.
Later that day I set out for Polonnaruwa via the bus from Anuradhapura to Kaduruwela (160 Rs). As soon as I had arrived at my next accommodations, Thisal Guest House, I was asked by the manager if I wanted to join the party already geared up in the jeep for an afternoon elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park (6500 Rs). I'm glad I did. Our group got to see dozens of elephants grazing, walking in herds, and communicating across the marshy scrub lands. Our guide took us to Kaudulla and not the more popular Minneriya National Park because of the rampant elephant abuse that occurs in the latter, where animals are routinely surrounded by vehicles, occasionally causing them to charge at safari-goers out of fear and frustration.
The next day, having learned from my logistical blunder in Anuradhapura, I opted to rent a bicycle (300 Rs) to canvas the many Buddhist and Hindu temples of Sri Lanka's second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. Again, tickets for foreigners were 3850 Rs. In my opinion, the historical sites here were far better in quality than those I visited in A'pura. The Archaeological Museum, located on the lake side of the road opposite the ruins, offered a comprehensive overview of how religion influenced the architecture of the monuments. Admission was included in the price of the ticket.
The following morning I took a tuk to the bus station, where I hopped aboard a bus headed to Inamaluwa (90 Rs), a city just outside my next destination- Sigiriya. After some convincing I agreed to take a tuk to Hotel Sigiriya, my resting place for the next two days. I awoke the next day at 6am in order to beat the crowd that had come to ascend the famous Lion Rock, an ancient rock fortress notable for its palatial ruins and magnificent views from the top of the formation. The price of a ticket for entry to this cultural site was a stunning 4620 Rs (about $30 USD) for foreigners. I began the climb at 7:30am and reached the top just before 8am. It was more arduous than I was expecting, even at that time of day, but the views made it all worth while. For those planning on making the trek to the top of Lion Rock, start out as early as possible and bring plenty of water.
After walking back to the hotel and resting for a bit, I arranged for a tuk driver to pick me up and bring me to nearby Dambulla to explore the Rock Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. After paying the admission price of 1500 Rs and storing my shoes at a small depository (25 Rs for the service), I entered the series of conjoined sanctuaries carved into the side of a large sloping hill. The temples were remarkable for the sheer quantity and size of religious statues, of which there are over 150. This temple-cave complex is unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, so it's a must-see for anyone who has already visited other Buddhist sites throughout the country.
The next stage of my journey involved an early morning tuk ride to the bus station in Dambulla, where I caught bus 45 to Kandy (100 Rs), the last of the great Sinhalese kingdoms and a UNESCO World Heritage City. Shortly upon checking into Hotel Suisse, a colonial-style property with a history dating back to the 17th century, I embarked to Helga's Folly, the most eclectic, artsy hotel-restaurant-gallery this side of the Indian Ocean. There I had lunch with Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka Robert Hilton, several Sri Lankan and U.S. Fulbright alum, and Embassy staff. We talked about our experiences in Sri Lanka, the various illnesses we've contracted, and, of course, politics. If you happen to make it to Helga's Folly, come for the food, but stay for the schizophrenic interior.
Later after resting back at the hotel I secured a tuk and followed the contour of Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (known in Sinhala as Sri Dalada Maligawa). Fortunately, I arrived about 30 minutes before one of the three daily services was scheduled to take place (5:30am, 9:30am, and 6:30pm). I passed effortlessly through security, left my shoes with the depository (30 Rs upon pickup), and purchased a ticket to the temple and the adjacent World Buddhist Museum (1500 Rs). The interior of the temple featured a grand display of spectacularly ornate ancient architecture and golden decorations, religious iconography, and historical information. According to Sri Lankan lore, after the Buddha was cremated a lone tooth of his was saved. The tooth was brought from India to Sri Lanka, where it now resides. Once a year the tooth is paraded in its casket around the city during the festival of Esala Perahera, which occurs in July/August.
On my second day in Kandy as a tourist I ordered a tuk using PickMe (Sri Lanka's version of Uber or Lyft) and made my way to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. I bought a ticket at the front entrance (1500 Rs) and proceeded to traverse the grounds, which span 147 acres. My favorite attractions were the Orchid House, palm avenues, and Great Lawn, home to a massive Java Fig Tree. I spent about 1.5 hours at the gardens, a total that includes time devoted to helping Sri Lankan students on a field trip practice their English language skills. Following this floral jaunt I took the bus (17 Rs) to the Central Market, where I surveyed the fruits and fish of local merchants on the ground floor of the building and purchased wooden and cloth souvenirs from vendors on the second floor. Everything from spices to leather goods to batiks to carved elephant figurines can be found here at reasonable prices.
Early the next morning I grabbed breakfast at the hotel, settled my bill, and arranged a PickMe tuk for transport to the Kandy Railway Station. For this portion of my trip, the journey was the attraction. The train ride between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The ride normally takes about 7 hours, but due to some railroad maintenance we had to alight at Hatton, take a bus to Kotagala, and continue on a different train to our final destination. Despite the detour, the train ride was every bit as scenic and majestic as I had imagined. Cool air whipped in our faces as we sped through lush tea plantations, miles of symmetrically grown manicured rows delineating the rolling landscape. Photographs and videos were shot. Breath was taken.
I arrived in Ella after dark. This was not ideal, as my phone was dying and I didn't know exactly where my hotel was located. Nevertheless, my stroll down Wellawaya-Ella-Kumbalwela Highway was illuminating in its own right. Ella is a unique place. It feels like a Bohemian jungle ski bum town with gregarious restaurant hosts, tattoo parlors, tea shops, and outdoor adventure companies. It's tidier than Kathmandu, Nepal but rougher around the edges than Queenstown, New Zealand. The town exudes a funky spirit unlike any place else I have encountered in Sri Lanka. Luckily I obtained the assistance of an employee at a nearby hotel who called Leisure Dream Inn, where I was staying for the night, and arranged for the hotel manager to meet me on the highway. Once I walked up the hidden hill to the hotel, I dropped my things off and got a tuk into town, where I ate a high brow take on fish and chips at the woodsy and raucous Cafe Chill.
The last morning of my trip around the cultural triangle began with fresh coffee and a glorious sunrise emerging from behind Little Adam's Peak. The hotel manager also packed me a take-away breakfast consisting of rolled up yellow pancakes and scrambled egg sandwiches made by his mother. One free hotel-provided tuk ride later, I was back at Ella Railway Station in advance of my 6:49am train back to Colombo. The railroad issue still unresolved, I had to get off at Kotagala, take a tuk to Hatton, and board another train to continue on my way. However, the 12-hour return trip was supremely enjoyable, as I got to retrace my path from the previous day, at an earlier time. Eventually I got off when our train arrived at the Maradana station (the one right before Colombo Fort), and used PickMe to catch a tuk back to my Airbnb in Colombo 5. Thus concluded my 9-day whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.