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…

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Fes Express

Fes or Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco and its old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. While it was not in our original itinerary of touring Morocco, Leslie, Cheryl and I made an impromptu decision to make a day trip to Fes, which is about 3 hours each way by train and usually done on a weekend. It was a crazy idea, but doable! At least, we wanted to test it if it was attainable or not.

The same evening we went and purchased three first class tickets for the following afternoon. After working in the morning at our respective sites, we reached the train station at 12:30pm and grabbed some food there. I got a BBQ chicken pizza and a Miranda from Pizza Hut to go. It was actually better than I expected. The train left at 1pm and was quite comfortable. Only later we realized we were sitting in the second class cabins having paid for a first class fare.
The views on the way were spectacular! There were tiny villages, open grasslands, factories, mountains and bare desert. The train made a lot of stops. At times we felt jolted by another train passing by, giving the impression that there is an impending collision.


We also had an interesting incident. While Cheryl was waiting for the toilet by the door, a guy started talking to her about what she was doing, where she was going (normal chit chat), etc. He said that he worked for a tour company and could get us a guide in Fes who would pick us up from the train station, take us to the Medina and the major attractions and drop us back in time for our train in the evening. He stated that he was taking some Australian tourists in the same train and that his guide would be wearing an official batch. It sounded the ideal thing to do since we were short on time and people had warned us that it was easy to get lost in the Medina of Fes which boasts 9000 streets! We analyzed his business card and discussed it over. He made me talk to the guide on his cell phone, who spoke good English and asked for 120 Dirhams ($15) for his services. It was reasonable. We decided to go with it.

 

But then we contemplated with the idea some more. We never saw the Australian tourists and he was insisting on the batch a bit too much. We thought to ourselves “What is the worst that could happen if we go with this guide and he turns out to be a con?” Well, we had been warned of con artists and fake guides by many tourist books and people who have visited Morocco before. My personal experience from watching a lot of movies said that we could be driven to the desert instead of the Medina and asked to surrender our money, and maybe abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So I suggested to the other girls that we hide our money in our shoes, keep a cell phone securely and tie a whistle around my wrist. If something like that were to happen, at least we would have some money to go back home!
During the next two hours of our ride, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We would rather get lost, miss our train and spend the night in a hotel if we have to. When we got out of the station 30 minutes late, the guide was there calling “Leslie, Leslie” while she walked right past him nodding her head that she wasn’t Leslie.

We took a taxi from the train station to the north side of the Medina, got off and started walking, absorbing the sights and smells, taking a lot of pictures and following “Sucheta, the unofficial, unpaid guide” reaching all the way to the south end within 45 minutes, without getting lost! We actually had an hour to kill before our departure, so we walked around the neighborhoods. Then we hired a taxi and got an unofficial drive-by tour of the major attractions. The taxi driver did not speak English and we don’t speak Arabic. He was trying to explain to us what we were looking at and I was playing charades, making reasonable sense and translating it back to English. We made it to our 6:50pm train well ahead of time, so we had gelato and crepes for dinner. The ride back was smooth, uneventful and in first class. We got back home around 10:30pm and lived to tell the rest of the group that a visit to Fes can actually be done in half a day!

 

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