The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka: a great 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, 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 to go on 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.
The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka in 4 days
Day 1 Sigiriya & Dambulla
Start the first day of your itinerary in Sigiriya. Climbing Sigiriya rock is one of the amazing experiences in Sri Lanka. It is certainly 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. 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 such as a boat ride on the Hiriwadunna lake. Like no other place in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka this is where history meets nature and tranquility.
How to get there: Sigiriya is located about 180 km north of Colombo, and is easily accessible by car or bus. You can rent a car or take a bus to the nearby town of Dambulla, which is the main transportation hub for visiting Sigiriya. Sigiriya is only 30 minutes by bus from Dambulla and there are two buses per hour till 5 – 6pm
Entrance fee: 4200 rupees
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. They are considered to be one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, and are also a UNESCO World Heritage site. 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.
The history of the Dambulla Cave Temples dates back to the 1st century BCE, when King Valagamba (also known as Vattagamini Abhaya) took refuge in these caves during a period of exile. During this time, he ordered the caves to be converted into a Buddhist monastery and also renovated the caves and added rock-cut statues and paintings.
The caves were further expanded and adorned with frescoes and statues by later kings, such as King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196 CE) and King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 CE). The frescoes and statues depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, as well as various gods and goddesses from Buddhist mythology.
It’s worth noting that the frescoes are among the best-preserved in the world, and the statues and sculptures are considered some of the finest examples of ancient Sinhalese art. 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
Where to sleep: Dambulla is a transport hub and therefore a great place to base yourself. Great budget hotels include the Peacock resort, the Dambulla tourist resort and the Oasis tourist welfare center.
Day 2: Anuradhapura
The second day in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is all about Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of Buddhist Sri Lanka for over 1,300 years, from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE. The Sinhalese built it in the 4th century BC and it has always been at the centre of Sinhalese culture.
The history of Anuradhapura dates back to the 3rd century BCE, when it was founded by King Pandukabhaya. During the next few centuries, the city grew in importance as a religious and political center, and several significant religious and architectural monuments were built during this time.
One of the most important of these is the Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree that is believed to be a sapling of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The tree is considered one of the oldest living human-planted trees in the world, with a recorded history of over 2,200 years.
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 temple’s, stupa’s and pagoda’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.
Insider tip: 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.
How to get there: There are frequent busses between Dambulla and Anuradhapura taking between 1 and 2 hours
How to get around: The best and cheapest way to explore Anuradhapura 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 you will have to negotiate.
Entrance fee: 3250 rupees
Where to sleep: In Anuradhapura I can recommend the Sweet Home tourist resort
Day 3: Pollonaruwa
The third day of your cultural triangle of Sri Lanka itinerary is all about Pollonaruwa. An ancient city that developed after the decline of Anuradhapura, because of Chola invasions from Southern India.
The history of Pollonaruwa dates back to the 11th century CE, when King Vijayabahu I, who had successfully waged a war against the Chola invaders, moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. During the next two centuries, the city grew in importance as a religious and political center with a number of significant temples.
One of the most important of these is the Gal Vihara, a complex of rock temples that contain some of the most renowned statues of the Buddha in Sri Lanka. The city fell into decline in the 14th century CE, due to invasions by the South Indian kingdoms, and was eventually abandoned.
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.
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.
How to get around: Pollonaruwa is like one big open air museum. the best way to explore it is on a 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 you will have to negotiate.
Entrance fee: 3500 rupees
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 on a Sri Lanka safari. 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.
Arranging your elephant safari
You can reserve elephant safari’s through your hotel, but you pay per jeep. 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.
Where to sleep: the nearest town is Habarana with a great number of resorts like the Priyavimana resort.
To read more about Sri Lanka’s Wild parks read my post on Sri Lanka Safari: Minneriya, Uda Walawe or Yala
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.
The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka travel tips
The entrance fees in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka are a big part of your travel expenses. The entrance fees are: Sigiriya (4200), Pollonaruwa(3500) and Anuradhapura (3250). Either calculate this into your budget or make some tough choices.
Your other biggest expense is accomodation. However, there is enough choice that you can make this as cheap or as expensive as you like.
If you are on a tight budget I recommend travelling by public transport. It is very cheap and there are excellent bus connections between the major sights in the cultural triangle.
How to travel around
The best way to travel around the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is by bus. Dambulla is the transport hub of the area with frequent buses to Sigiriya, Habarana, Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. There are also excellent connections in between these places.
In my experience travelling by bus was very easy and convenient. I never had to wait long for a bus going in the direction that I wanted. I can recommend this article on why you should travel by bus in Sri Lanka.
If you prefer to travel by train there are unfortunatekly no train connections in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, but you should definetly check out the famous Kandy to Ella train that brings you to Sri Lanka’s tea country. Another great area to visit in this amazing country.
Sri Lanka is a budhist country. Below are some tips to respect the local culture when visiting budhist temples.
In most budhist 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.
Wear modest clothes, especially when you visit Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. Women and men should at least cover their shoulders and legs.
Taking selfies with buddhist statues is frowned upon.