Discover Three Thousand Year Old History in Sri Lanka

When you think of Sri Lanka, you may picture a tropical island dotted with sandy beaches, wildlife reserves filled with elephants, coconut groves, spice and tea plantations. Surely, the small island located just south of India merits all these, but there’s also three thousand year old temples, palaces and caves to explore.

Here are some places in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka that are must see:

Rangiriya Dambulla Cave Temple

This UNESCO World Heritage Site also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, dates back to 1st century BC. Burial sites in the area indicate that prehistoric Sri Lankans lived in these cave complexes 2700 years ago.

You must ascend over 100 stone steps to see the complex of 5 caves carved into a 160 meter rocky hill. Inside you can see 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses, along with various cave inscriptions. Every inch of the roofs of the caves are covered with colorful murals (many still intact) covering an area of 23,000 sq. ft. You will feel insignificant in the presence of one of the largest statue of Buddha spanning 15 meters located inside the first cave.

Hotel Tip: Stay at Habarana Village by Cinnamon in Habarana for luxurious village style retreat near the spiritual sites. The hotel organizes village tours including bullock cart rides and traditional meals by the river. 

Sigiriya

Also know as Lion Rock, this ancient rock fortress is the iconic image of Sri Lanka in posters and tourist brochures. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital. You can see this example of urban planning by climbing up the  massive column of rock nearly 200 meters (660 ft) high. On the way, see a gateway in the form of an enormous lion, the palace ruins, painted frescos, and a swimming pool. On top, enjoy spectacular views of the canopy and gardens surrounding the complex, with giant white Buddha status propping in the green.

Hiking Tip: The best time to climb Sigiriya is early morning when it’s not too hot or late afternoon so you can see the sunset. The best photos of the rock are aerial shots, but you must obtain permission to fly a drone prior to your visit. 

Anuradhapura

Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Anuradhapura was the first capital of Sri Lanka from the 5th century BC to 9th century AD. The ancient city, has 16 square miles filled with monasteries.

Pay respect to the oldest historically documented tree on earth (over 2,200 years old). The Bodhi tree is considered to be the island’s oldest Buddhist shrine, as Buddha got enlightened under it (the sapling comes from the original tree in India). A large white stupa as well as small alters surround the complex. Look for impressive white ‘dagabas’ (relic chambers), stone carvings, rock sculptures and more.

Temple Visit Tip: It is necessary to cover arms and legs; remove shoes, hats and sunglasses when visiting holy sites in Sri Lanka. You will find the locals typically dressed in white, a symbol of purity. While it’s ok to take photos inside the temples, it’s illegal to take a picture with your back towards Buddha. 

Mihintale

This is where Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka and is therefore regarded as the cradle of Buddhism. On this rock are many shrines and dwellings, originally used by monks. A grand stairway of 1,840 steps made of granite slabs 15 feet wide, leads to the summit from where one could get a splendid view of the surrounding countryside.

Polonnaruwa

There are mostly ruins of temples, palaces and stupas to be seen in this medieval city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a brief perspective at the museum, visit the Royal Palace complex including the Kings Palace and Audience Hall, the Quadrangle with its concentration of ancient heritage and the spectacular Gal Vihare complex of four massive images of the Buddha, cut from a single slab of granite. Some of the best examples of the Hindu influence – the Temples of Shiva, intricate statues of Hindu Gods, fascinating Buddhist temples, the Lankatileka and Watadage, the Galpotha, the Lotus bath, the Kiri Vihare Dagoba and the remains of a former Temple of the Tooth are other impressive sights.

Temple of the Tooth

This is one of the most important shrines for Buddhists and pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka come to the hill town of Kandy through the year, offering trays of lotus flowers and sweets, as they pay respect to the tooth relic of Lord Buddha. While you can’t actually see the tooth (the door encasing it is opened once a year), you can admire the beautiful carvings and splendor of the palace-turned-temple located on the lakeshore. Spend some time walking the temple ground, listen to the drummers dressed in traditional costumes and peek into the museum for some historical facts. There are two ceremonies performed each day so make sure to time your visit accordingly.

Kandy Tip: Kandy is a popular tourist town, mainly because of this temple, access to hiking areas, trendy restaurants and lots of shops selling tea, gems and souvenirs. Stay at Cinnamon Citadel by the river and reserve a special Sri Lankan curry lunch overlooking the city at Theva Residency.

The above sites can be visited in 2-3 days and give valuable insight into the belief system of the Sri Lankan people. If you are the kind of traveler interested in ancient history and culture, add Sri Lanka to your travel list.

Booking Tip: To avoid the hassle of making hotel reservations, public transport and finding guides, contact The Holiday Place for a custom made itinerary in Sri Lanka. They can arrange a private driver with knowledgeable guide, tickets to the monuments and hotel reservations. 

Do you have a travel tip for Sri Lanka? Post your comments below…

Five Tips for Traveling to Moldova

I have a few friends from Moldova here in Atlanta. But many others have never even heard about this tiny country in Eastern Europe. So the biggest question I get is: “Why would you want to go there?” My response – why not!

Moldova got a bad rep after Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven named it “the least happy nation on the planet” and travel writer Eric Weiner recounted his miserable account to Moldova in his 2009 book – The Geography of Bliss. He said the post Soviet country was full of poor, sad people that never smiled. Yes, Moldova suffered during communism, still has a very low GDP and is the least visited country in Europe, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go visit.

Besides, I found the people in Moldova to be quite friendly and happy (not LOL or gregarious). They joked, laughed and enjoyed time with family and friends as people do in any part of the world. They also complained about the cold weather, job shortages, and political distrust as we do out here. I dined with several locals, went sightseeing with them, as well as stayed with a Moldovan host at his cozy apartment. Everyone was welcoming and eager to show me around their country.

However, being an informed traveler will make your experience richer and more enjoyable. Here are some things to know before you plan a trip to Moldova.

Don’t Touch and Go

Most people stay in the capital of Chișinău,and get disappointed because it’s not the most beautiful European city. There are a few museums, lakes and parks, but 1 day is enough to cover them. Moldova is a small country but many of the attractions are far from the capital and require all-day trips. Plan for at least 4-5 days in the country if you want to see it well. Some of the places to add to your list are Milestii Mici (largest underground winery in the world), Tipova monastary (oldest), Saharna (pilgrimage site), Orheiul Vechi (cave monastery), Monastirea Curchi (largest monastic complex), Codru Natural Reservation (forest with wildlife), and Transnistria (a breakaway unrecognized country).

The Food is Really Good

Moldovan cuisine has not surfaced on the global scale but you will definitely not be disappointed with the food, which has influences of Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Think grilled meats, rolled dolmas, roasted vegetables, creamy polenta, steamed dumplings, fresh salads. If you like pork, cheese and bread, you will be in heaven. The soil in Moldova is very fertile so produce is fresh and plentiful. I had the sweetest apples ever!

The national dish is Plăcintă, fried pastry stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, eggs or mashed pumpkins, eaten as appetizer, snack or side.

Locals typically eat a big lunch and small dinner of cold cuts, salad and bread. Sample to seasonal fruit compotes (homemade juices), divin (Moldovan brandy) and wine.

Search for Good Wine

The country is full of wineries and you may want to do a few wine tastings/ winery tours while you are there. In fact, Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world (ranked in top 20). But most of the wine they produced was for a discerning Russian market and was not the best quality. Things are improving now as Russia banned Moldovan wines (political play) and Moldovan wine makers upped their game to appeal internationally.

One of my favorites was Mimi Castle, a relatively high end producer of dry red, sparkling and sweet whites. Definitely have a wine paired dinner at their beautiful restaurant set inside a historic castle. Chateau Vartely also makes some nice ice wines.

Save Some Money

Compared to other cities in Europe, you will feel rich in Moldova. A nice dinner with wine will set you back $20-30 for 2 people. Wine bottles cost $2-3, and young wines even less than that. A wine tour runs about $8 and a top of the line exclusive tasting of 10 wines less than $60. Many of the wineries have hotels attached to them so look for a wine/ stay/ meal package.

Fall is Ideal for Festivals

My friends in Moldova told me summer is the most boring time of the year as nothing much is going on. Fall is the best season to visit Moldova because of the leaves changing colors and lots of events going on. The Moldova wine festival, officially named “National Wine Day“, takes place in Chisinau during the first weekend in October at the end of the grape harvest.

I attended Tulburel Young Wine Festival at Mold Expo where families gathered on a Sunday to eat, drink and dance. Exhibitors from all over Moldova and surrounding countries brought their unlabeled young wines for tasting (some of which were decent). There was also food, honey, candy and crafts.

Moldova is pretty easy for tourists to navigate. There is no visa required to enter Moldova (even though its not part of EU), rental cars are available at the small airport in the capital and roads are easy to drive on except for a few bumps and a short rush hour traffic. Most people speak English and are polite. They respect each other and expect you to show up at the appointed time (even at restaurants and wineries). It is also extremely safe and affordable.