“Most tourists only come for the beaches and few make it all the way out here, explained the friendly hostel owner in Dambulla, “They think there is nothing to see here, except for some old stones”. Dambullah is one of the former royal cities in the Cultural triangle. An area in the center of Sri Lanka that is considered to be the birthplace of Sinhalese Buddhist culture.
I love history and I didn’t mind seeing some old stones and ruins. Little did I know that the cultural triangle is also an area with thick jungle teaming with wildlife. This is where the German hostel owner met her Sri Lankan husband years ago when she herself came as a backpacker. She fell in love and stayed and is now running the Dambulla Oasis Tourist Welfare Center.
I used the hostel as a base to explore Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. Dambulla’s central location makes it the ideal place to explore the area.
Backpacking Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle: a 4 day itinerary
Day 1: Visiting the cave temples in Dambulla
Dambulla itself might not be the nicest town in Sri Lanka, but this is compensated by the beauty of the cave temples. The temples date back to the first century and the ceilings are painted with intricate religious images about Budha and his life. There are around 153 buddha statues in the caves and four statues of Ganesh and Vishnu.
Surprisingly, the admission is free unlike the expensive fees at other places. It’s a short climb on a hill full with playful monkeys looking for opportunities to steal food.
Logistics: It is a 5 hour bus ride from Colombo to Dambulla. As an alternative you can also take the train from Colombo to Kandy and then take a bus from Kandy to Dambulla (2-3 hours).
Day 2: Climbing Sigiriya rock
The wind blows through my hair. Adrenaline is going through my body and I am too scared to look down. The steep stairs at the side of the rock are now at a dizzying height. I focus on my steps. Step by step I climb up and it is with relief when i reach the top of the rock.
Sigiriya rock is a lava plug left over from a long gone extinct volcano. One can only imagine how this must have been built-in the early days, but on top of the rock there is a network of ruins. Nobody knows for sure what these ruins once were. A palace? A Buddhist monastery? Sigiriya rock remains a mystery in the midst of a thick jungle surrounding it.
I enjoyed the walk through the jungle from the entrance to the rock just as much as climbing the rock itself. I saw a large number of huge monitor lizards, monkeys and a snake.
Climbing the rock is not as difficult as it looks, except if you are afraid of heights like me. The warning signs about possible hornet attacks in the case of sudden loud noises were also not very encouraging either. There is another smaller rock nearby that is free to visit. Climbing this rock is at your own risk tough and I heard it is rather tricky.
Logistics:Sigiriya is only 30 minutes by bus from Dambulla and there are two buses per hour. The last bus from Sigiriya back to Dambulla is at 6 pm
Day 3: Cycling through Pollonaruwa
I am cycling on a dirt road surrounded by the green jungle when all of a sudden a monitor lizard is crossing the road in front of me. I stand still and listen to the birds. In the back of my eye I see something moving and when I look I see two deer. For a short time they look back at me before running away in the forest.
I actually came to see the ruins in Pollonaruwa, but ended up seeing deer, monkeys, squirrels and wild pigs. Cycling through this small town full of old Buddhist ruins amidst green jungle and rice paddy fields is a wonderful experience. Bicycles can be rented anywhere in town and it is the best way to explore this town. The entrance fee to Pollonaruwa is 3500 rupees.
Logistics:There are frequent buses between Dambulla and Pollonaruwa. The bus journey takes about an hour and goes straight through the Minneriya NP. It is good to keep your eyes open, because sometimes you can see elephants on the road.
Day 4: Getting up close with elephants in Minneriya
Nothing feels like the excitement and thrill of seeing a wild elephant up close. Our jeep driver points out the dark back of an elephant behind the tall grass. He drives closer and soon we see it is not just one elephant, but a herd with several baby elephants.
Minneriya has one of the largest populations of elephants in Sri Lanka. Every year in august they gather all together in Minneriya National Park. The rest of the year they actually wander around Minneriya and neighbouring parks. In Habarana they organise safari’s and the jeep drivers are very knowledgeable about the current whereabouts of them.
I actually did not visit Minneriya national park itself, but the nearby Hurullu reserve as this was were most elephants were at this time. They are wild elephants, but quite used to visitors in their habitat. Due to conservation efforts the elephants are well protected and are not scared of people. With the jeeps you can get pretty close to them and the elephants will simply continue with whatever they are doing.
Most elephant safari’s are reserved through hotels. If you are an independent backpacker it is best to travel to Habarana and arrange a jeep there. However, It might be difficult to find other people to share the costs with. In my experience paying for the whole jeep was still cheaper than some of the prices hotels ask. ‘Be aware that there are actually 3 different parks in this area. Minneriya, Kaudulla and Hurullu.
There is just one herd of elephants tough and they do not know anything about park borders. The jeep drivers are quite aware of where the elephants are and will bring you to the right park. If for some reason you specifically want to visit Minneriya, because of other wildlife you want to see be clear about this.
Habarana is about 30 minutes from Dambulla and there are frequent buses back and forth.
To read more about Sri Lanka’s Wild parks read my post on Wild Sri Lanka: Minneriya, Uda Walawe or Yala
Day 5: Anuradhapura
Unfortunately I did not have a fifth day in my schedule. I decided to skip Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura is one of the royal cities with several old ruins. I heard it is rather similar to Pollonaruwa and after reading several reviews I choose Pollonaruwa over Anuradhapura. I can’t say if I really missed out on something, but if you do have the time you might want to see for yourself.
There are frequent busses between Dambulla and Anuradhapura taking between 1 and 2 hours
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle Accomodation
To explore the cultural triangle you can stay in the more central town of Dambulla or the more scenic town of Sigiriya near Sigiriya rock. I stayed in Dambulla in the Oasis Tourist Welfare Center. Simple and basic, but with a friendly owner and her pets. Great place to meet other backpackers and very budget friendly.
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle Logistics
Transport: Buses are frequent and cheap between the places in the cultural triangle. I never had to wait a long time before getting on a bus.
Entrance fees: The entrance fees to Sigiriya (4200), Pollonaruwa(3500) and Anuradhapura (3250 = 25$) are high. Either calculate this into your budget or make some tough choices.
Consider basing yourself in one of the places and making day trips from there. I stayed in Dambulla and it worked out really well. From Dambulla it is easy to get to Kandy and continue your journey with the scenic train from Kandy to Ella.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.