The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: a 4 day itinerary

This post is a travel guide to the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka with a 4 day itinerary including places like Sigiriya, Pollonaruwa, Anuradhapura and Dambulla.

“Most tourists only come for Sri Lanka’s beaches and few make it all the way out here, explained the friendly hostel owner in Dambulla, “They think there is nothing to see in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, except for some old stones”.

Why visit the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka?

Obviously, the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is much more than some old stones. It’s an area rich in history that played an important role in the development of Sinhalese Buddhist culture.

Here you will find former royal cities with well preserved ruins of temples, buddhist statues and palaces, mysterious rock formations and beautiful cave monasteries. As old as they may be, some are still active places of worship for the Buddhist population.

I love history and therefore I didn’t need someone convincing me to visit the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. Little did I know that this is also an area with thick jungle teaming with wildlife and an excellent place for a Sri Lanka safari.

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 is now running the Dambulla Oasis Tourist Welfare Center. I used the hostel as a base to explore the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. Below you will find my 4 day itinerary.

A monkey in Sigiriya Sri Lanka

The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka in 4 days

Day 1 Sigiriya & Dambulla

Sigiriya rock

Start the first day of your cultural triangle of Sri Lanka itinerary in Sigiriya. Climbing Sigiriya rock is one of the amazing experiences in Sri Lanka and worth conquering any fears of height you may have.

I remember my Sigiriya experience very well. The wind was blowing through my hair. Adrenaline was going through my body and I was too scared to look down. The steep stairs at the side of the rock were at a dizzying height. I focused on my steps. Step by step I climbed up. It was a relief when i reached the top for an amazing view over the jungle below.

Sigiriya rock is a lava plug left over from an extinct volcano. One can only imagine how this must have been built, 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 the thick jungle surrounding it. There I saw a large number of monitor lizards, monkeys and even 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.

There is another smaller rock nearby that is cheaper to visit. Climbing this rock is at your own risk tough and I heard it is rather tricky. Read more in this post from the Italian abroad on how to climb the Pidurangala rock. Besides the rocks there are more things to do in Sigiriya and you might want to consider spending more time here. 

How to get there: Sigiriya is only 30 minutes by bus from Dambulla and there are two buses per hour till 5 – 6pm

Entrance fee: 4200 rupees

Sigiriya rock is one of the top attractions in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka

The Dambulla cave temples

Dambulla itself might not be the nicest town in the cultural triangle of 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 in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. It’s a short climb on a hill full with playful monkeys looking for opportunities to steal your food.

How to get there: 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).

Entrance fee: free

Dambulla cave monastery in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka

Day 2: Anuradhapura

The second day of your cultural triangle of Sri Lanka itinerary is all about Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of Buddhist Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese built it in the 4th century BC and it has always been at the centre of Sinhalese culture.

For 600 years the Anuradhapura kings ruled Sri Lanka untill they were conquered by the Chola’s and the city fell into decline. Jungle took over and it were the British that discovered its ruins. Together with Buddhist priests they restored Anuradhapura to its former glory. Now it is full of well preserved temple’s, stupa’s and dagoba’s.

Unlike Pollonaruwa it is not only ruins, because most temples are once again active. For the Buddhist world, Anuradhapura is a sacred city and there are a number of new monasteries. Frequent ceremonies and daily rituals give Anuradhapura a spiritual and vibrant atmosphere that you won’t find elsewhere in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.

How to get there: There are frequent busses between Dambulla and Anuradhapura taking between 1 and 2 hours

Entrance fee: 3250 rupees

Monkey in Sigiriya Sri lanka

Day 3: Pollonaruwa

The third day of your cultural triangle of Sri Lanka itinerary is all about Pollonaruwa. An ancient Hindu city that developed after the decline of Anuradhapura, because of Chola invasions from Southern India. In the tenth century the Chola kings made their new capital in Pollonaruwa and introduced Hinduism in the country.

Even though the ruins are well preserved it has kept its atmosphere of an abandoned city. The ruins of what were once temples and palaces are surrounded by thick jungle teeming wildlife.

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. There are two deers. 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 Hindu and Buddhist ruins amidst green jungle and rice paddy fields is a wonderful experience.

Pollonaruwa is like one big open air museum that is best explored on a bicycle. They can be rented anywhere in town. The entrance fee to Pollonaruwa is 3500 rupees.

How to get there: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.

Entrance fee: 3500 rupees

Pollonaruwa on the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka
Pollonaruwa on the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka

Day 4: Elephants in Minneriya

THe last day of your cultural triangle of SRi Lanka itinerary is all about nature. 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 is located in the center of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka and has one of the largest populations of elephants in the country. Every year in august they gather all together in Minneriya National Park. The rest of the year they actually wander around in neighbouring parks. In Habarana they organise safari’s and the jeep drivers are very knowledgeable about the current whereabouts of them.

Therefore I visited the nearby Hurullu reserve as this was were most elephants were at the time of my visit. 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.

Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle

Arranging your elephant safari

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 the where about of the elephants and they 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.

How to get there: 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 Sri Lanka Safari: Minneriya, Uda Walawe or Yala

Monkey in pollonaruwa Sri Lanka

Where to stay in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka

When you are planning a cultural triangle of Sri Lanka itineray, consider basing yourself in one of the places and then make day trips from there. You can either stay in Dambulla or the more scenic town of Sigiriya.

While Sigiriya is much more quiet and in the middle of the jungle, Dambulla is more convenient as a transport hub with frequent buses to Anuradhapura, Pollonaruwa, Sigiriya, Habarana and Kandy.

I stayed in the Oasis Tourist Welfare Center in Dambulla. Simple and basic, but with a friendly owner. It is a great place to meet other backpackers and very budget friendly.

monkey in Dambulla Sri Lanka

Insider tips for the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka

The entrance fees in the cultural of triangle of Sri Lanka are a big part of your budget Sigiriya (4200), Pollonaruwa(3500) and Anuradhapura (3250). Either calculate this into your budget or make some tough choices.

The ticket for Anuradhapura is only valid for one day and includes a number of temples while others are free. If you stay more than one day in Anuradhapura make sure you visit the paid temples first.

Wear modest clothes, especially when you visit Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. Women should at least cover their shoulders and legs.

In most temples you have to take off your shoes, so bring shoes that you can take off easily and that you can recognize among all the others.

The best and cheapest way to explore Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa is by bicycle. Renting a bicycle should cost between 2 or 3 dollars per day. It can get very hot so bring enough water with you.

You can also rent a tuk tuk, but be prepared to negotiate.

Taking selfies with buddhist statues is frowned upon.

Last updated: July 2020

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