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We arrived in Sri Lanka in Trincomalee, which is a bit unusual for tourists, who normally fly into Colombo. But our location meant we were close to some of the biggest attractions in Sri Lanka; the Cultural Triangle.
There are five main parts of the Cultural Triangle; Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy, and Polonnaruwa.
Hiring a Driver
We got a recommendation from a fellow cruiser. I met with Raj and explained the timeline (3 or 4 days) and all the things I wanted to do. Raj said we could do them in three days, two nights, no problem. He had a very, VERY reasonable rate for his time and a van to carry the four of us plus luggage. Raj would pick us up in Trincomalee and drop us off in Kandy.
When Raj took us places to eat, either he was given a comped meal as a commission, or we paid for him. I am sure he got a commission when he brought us to certain shops and we bought something. The hotels we stayed at had driver rooms for him to sleep in. We did not book our hotels in advance; Raj would make a suggestion and we could accept or look around more. The hotel always included breakfast.
Anuradhapura – Day 1 ( March 7th)
Anuradhapura is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is one of Sri Lanka’s eight World Heritage sites. It is the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka and was capital for the longest.
Raj asked us if we wanted to see two of the historical sites, or eight. We opted for two – and we’re glad we did. Eight would have taken us all day and we had a lot of ground to cover in the Cultural Triangle.
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Our first stop was the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred tree with a temple surrounding it. In 288 BC, a branch from the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in India was planted in Anuradhapura. The Sri Maha Bodhi tree is where Buddha sat and attained enlightenment. Planted over 2,300 years ago, Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is “the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date“.
With every Buddhist temple we visited between Thailand and Sri Lanka we gained more knowledge. At the Big Buddha in Phuket, visitors (usually tourists) could buy a heart-shaped bronze ornament to write a message on and hang in the trees. Now we know the shape comes from the Bodhi tree leaves. Visitors to the Bodhi trees may take fallen leaves with them to clean and laminate, to be able to worship part of the tree at home.
We were oddities at the sacred tree. The temple was crowded with people, but not tourists; worshippers. We watched people give offerings and chant, in addition to seeing the lunch-time ceremony. This is not really a tourist destination. There were no signs for us to read about what was here, so we consulted Google and chatted with a groundskeeper. In hindsight, it is worth it to hire a guide – our groundskeeper offered a 10-15 minute guided tour.
It was morning for our visit, but rapidly becoming hot. In every temple, you must take your shoes off. We all took our socks off, thinking we would keep our socks clean and use the foot washing fountain after we were done. Nope! Wear your socks; the stones of the temple were so unbelievably hot on our feet. Towards the end, we were doing little dances and hustling to get back to the cool ground.
Our second stop was the Ruwanwelisaya stupa, built in 140 BC. Stupas hold Buhddist relics inside for worship. You can not go inside the stupa, and once again, the ground was insanely hot for the walk around the stupa.
We stopped at Mango Mango Restaurant for lunch. This was our first chance to try Sri Lankan food. I ordered a simple chicken and rice dish served with a hard-boiled egg. David got a similar dish, masala chicken. Kimi ordered chicken curry, which came with all the typical trimmings; rice, chicken curry, vegetable sides, and condiments. My chicken was a bit dry, but I sampled Kimi’s plates, and it was good. The variety of flavors was interesting and it wasn’t as spicy as we had been warned.
Minneriya Park Safari
After lunch, we hired a Jeep for a 3-hour safari in Minneriya National Park. It was definitely a highlight of our tour in the Cultural Triangle.
Hotels in Habarana
We stayed at Benetha Vella Resort in Habarana. It was the nicest of the hotels we stayed at over the three nights in the cultural triangle. The owner, Carol, is a lovely French woman who was happy to serve us a French-inspired breakfast with Nutella and omelets. She has a garden in the back and raises chickens.
Sigiriya – Day 2 (March 8th)
Another highlight was hiking Sigiriya Rock on our first morning.
We stopped for lunch at the Tropical Village Hotel & Restaurant. The meal was buffet style and featured what felt like a bit more local options. Our favorite dish was Negombo pork kalupi curry, or black pork curry.
After lunch, we stopped by Oak Ray Wood Carvings. In the workshop, we were shown the different types of wood grown in Sri Lanka and how they look. Sri Lanka grows mahogany, ebony, teak, coconut, rainbow wood, and others I can’t remember (bad notetaking!). Our guide showed us each wood, and then gave us a special demonstration with the rainbow wood.
He filed part of the orange-colored rainbow wood down to a fine powder. He poured a glass of hot water and stirred the powder in. The water turned a reddish-orange color. Then, he rubbed a knife (iron?) with sandpaper, I assume to warm it up.
“What color do you think we will have next?”
He plunged the knife in. Dark purple!
“And now we add lime juice.”
He squeezed and spun, and the water became yellow.
“This is calcium carbonate”
He stirred a spoonful into the glass and the water became an opaque lavender.
“This is why we call it the rainbow tree. We can make the rainbow colors out of this wood.”
In the workshop, we could watch a guy carving an elephant, which was pretty interesting work. Then the showroom. Yes, it’s touristy. There’s negotiating, and a bit of sales pressure. We bought a nice little teak elephant for $22USD to commemorate our recent elephant tours.
You never know when you might wake up from a nap in the car and find this out your window….
Things went a little downhill after the wood carving shop.
Polonnaruwa is a bit confusing right now. There’s a lot of construction going on, which is both good and bad; Polonnaruwa is reputed to be the cleanest city in Sri Lanka, and the projects are making massive strides in developing the city. However, it makes it hard for tourists to get around!
Now, here’s where I learned a lesson. I didn’t really have anything in particular in mind to see, just trusting Raj to get us where we should go. Raj passed us off to two tuk-tuk drivers, who we hired for a tour and said that the tuk-tuks were “free”. Well, what really happened is that they took us around the locations we could get to without a ticket, and the money that we would have spent on the tickets went to the drivers instead. We saw some cool things, but not a lot of the big attractions of Polonnaruwa.
Then we had some hotel troubles. Raj took us to a hotel, The Deer Park, which was absolutely beautiful, but way out of our price range at $120 a night. We all agreed that it was a lovely place, but to eat, shower, and crash in bed, it was too much. If we’d had two nights, I would have enjoyed the crap out of the sauna, spa, and view of the sunset.
Then we had an issue because we were in the middle of nowhere. Raj took us to another place, whose name I don’t remember, and the boys vetoed the room for cleanliness issues. We checked out another place, and we’re negotiating prices when Raj’s friend called and said he has room back at the Prasanna Hotel for the price we wanted. Well, that was a bit of a mistake. We should have gone with the third place, as they agreed to our price but Raj hustled us away. Unfortunately, the Prasanna Hotel was the worse place we stayed at, with mold in the bathroom and just generally dirty.
Breakfast, though, was surprisingly good with a selection of bakery items including egg roti (Kimi’s favorite).
Dinner at Prasanna
We ate our dinner at the hotel, which was fine and cheap. Fried rice, fried noodles, or a new dish called kottu roti, which soon became my favorite.
Dambulla – Day 3 (March 9th)
Our second morning in the Cultural Triangle, we wanted to tackle a bit of shopping. Kimi had her heart set on a Sri Lankan sapphire. I had gone shopping with Carlanna in Phuket and was also interested in looking around. What was supposed to be a quick stop ended up being a LOT more interesting than we expected.
The experience of Gamini Gems & Jewelry was nothing like my experience in Phuket. Here, we were welcome to take photos and ask lots of questions. We started by watching a 12-minute video on mining in Sri Lanka.
Then, our guide, Wasala, walked us over to the cases that displayed the loose gems. We could see raw examples and cut stones. Just like Thailand, Sri Lanka is famous for its sapphires, and they come in orange, yellow, and blue. There are also star sapphires and cat’s eye.
The shop has a mock mine setup to show us how the gems are found. No mechanical mining is allowed in Sri Lanka, meaning the mining is not destructive to the jungle, and child labor has been banned since 1992. Sri Lankan sapphires are pretty ethical gems.
After walking through the mines, we got to visit the workshop. Instead of being hustled through, Wasala showed us what the workers were doing. It was a small shop, just a handful of men making the jewelry. We watched them cut and polish the gems. Then, Wasala led us out to the furnace, and we saw silver being melted into bars.
Finally, we got to the showroom. While the selection was smaller than the gigantic gallery at Gems Gallery in Phuket, I liked the designs better. I believe the galleries target two different demographics; Phuket has a lot of Russian and Chinese shoppers, while Sri Lanka has many Indian tourists.
Kimi got right down to business, while David and I walked the entire circuit of the room. We did have a gentleman shadowing us, who would take out any piece I looked closely at and encouraged me to try it on. I didn’t feel very pressured to buy, and in fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to.
We were offered, and accepted, a cup of tea. While we sat the gentleman showed us a lot of pieces he thought I might be interested in – I hadn’t really clarified what I would be looking for. But after the tea I started zoning in and asking more pointed questions; is this silver or white gold? What do you have in a dark blue sapphire? What is the price? Is that the best price you can give me?
Blue sapphires come in a gradient of color. The medium (or Royal) blue has the clarity and color, while the lighter blue ones have more clarity, and the darker ones have more color. The blue sapphires in Sri Lanka that I saw did not get as dark as the ones I saw in Phuket – they get almost dark navy or black.
Finally, Kimi and I both found sapphires we were happy with!
Was there a price difference between Phuket and Sri Lanka? It’s hard to compare apples to apples, but yes, I believe that Sri Lanka is a little bit cheaper.
Dambulla Cave Temple
After the excitement of gem shopping, we visited the most famous site in Dambulla, the Golden Temple of Dambulla, also known as the Dambulla Cave Temple.
This temple complex contains five caves and 153 Buddha statues – even a massive one reclining. The walls are covered in murals, making hundreds more depictions of Buddha.
By now, we’re experts; we bought flowers to make an offering, and we kept our socks on to avoid the heat of the stones.
The temple was a short visit, but it was an awe-inspiring visit to behold the depictions of Buddha and the view overlooking Dambulla with Sigiriya in the background.
We had lunch at the Sangraha Restaurant at the Countryside Hotel. It was a vegetarian buffet, except you could order chicken curry to go with it. The beet salad was good, and we tried jackfruit curry for the first time (I like the fruit much better!).
The staff offered a free tour of the Spice Garden, and we almost said yes, until they today us it would be two hours long. I’m sure it would have been a lovely tour, but we wanted to get to Kandy. This is one of the things I wish Raj had clarified a bit more; “you can do this spice tour, but you’ll miss out on the Kandy Cultural Show later”. Looking back, we are glad we did not do the spice tour.
Kandy is the southernmost point of the Cultural Triangle, making it a common entry point to the Cultural Triangle for tourists coming from the south (like the tea plantations on Nuwara Eliya or Colombo).
Hotel in Kandy
We arrived in Kandy around 4 pm. Raj parked at the Golden Temple, but we said we’d rather avoid the mistakes of the previous night and get checked into a hotel first. Then, if we have time, we will make it to the Kandy Cultural Show.
Raj took us to the Star Light Guest House and the boys gave it the stamp of approval. And just in time for us to walk to catch the Kandy Cultural Show.
Kandy Cultural Show
Raj walked us over to the Dances of Sri Lanka show at the Red Cross Hall. We got there just in time and grabbed some seats about 1/3 of the way from the stage. David didn’t have anyone sitting in the three rows in front of him for the first 20 minutes of the show. But, then a busload of people arrived 20 minutes late to the show.
The show has about a dozen performers. A program was available talking about all the dances and what they represent. The music was heavy on drums and flutes. The costumes were amazing, and it was fun to see such a high energy show – some of the male dancers performed flips and acrobatics.
Then we moved outside, where the performers breathed fire and walked on hot coals.
Onward via Train
In Kandy, we ended our Cultural Triangle tour by splitting up with Kimi, Trevor, and Raj. Raj was taking the crew of Slow Flight back to their boat in Trincomalee, while us Star Chasers took off on a train to see one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
Costs for Three Days in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
We paid 40,000 LKR for 3 days/2 nights of Raj’s nice van. That works out to $140 USD per couple. All these prices are estimations (again, bad notetaking, Amy!)
- Lunch: $10
- Safari: 80
- Dinner: $12
- Hotel: $20
- Sigiriya & Guide: $71
- Lunch: $14
- Tuk Tuk Tour: $50
- Dinner: $8
- Hotel: $28
- Lunch: $16
- Kandy Dance Show: $12
- Hotel: $28