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The Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka

Pilgrims, Lankatilake temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

North of Colombo
From Colombo we headed north for a week. You could also do the same, or combine it with the South Coast of Sri Lanka route (in a separate post) in order to create a 2 week trip to Sri Lanka. On this trip we went from Colombo to Kandy and then up to Dambulla. From Dambulla you can make 3 stunning day trips – to Sigiriya, Pollonnaruwa and Anuradhapura (preferably overnight rather than a day trip).

Colombo to Kandy
Colombo airport is north of Colombo near the coastal town of Negombo. Because you don’t have to drive through Colombo, it is a relatively straight forward drive of 3  hours up to Kandy.

There are 2 main options when it comes to transport – hire a car and driver (for about USD70 per day), or ask your hotel to collect you from the airport. For Colombo to Kandy a car collecting you will cost around USD100, but you won’t need a car for the days that you stay in Kandy (you can use a rickshaw / tuk tuk arranged by the hotel to get around as it is not particularly big.)

Alternative you can hire a car and self drive although you need a GPS as while the roads are good, the signage is not particularly. There are several rental hire places located in the airport terminal.

Rickshaw and Bus on Dalada Vidiya street, Kandy, Sri Lanka (Janu

Rickshaw and Bus on Dalada Vidiya street, Kandy

Kandy, pilgrimage city
Kandy is a UNESCO World heritage site, and hill town best known for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This is a beautiful pilgrimage site and we spent quite a while wandering around and exploring it. (Do remember to dress modestly and cover your legs and shoulders. You will also be asked to remove your shoes and check them in before entering the temple).

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka (January 2014

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy

Said to house a tooth of the Buddha, it is the most important Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. Upon entry we were greeted by drummers and followed the pilgrims up the stairs. There was a long queue of women with flowers in their hair and men dressed to pay their respects carrying lotus blossoms and frangipani. Beyond the main hall is a large, open aired meeting hall, and a separate hall housing Buddha statues and beautiful painted scenes from the Ramayana.

Inspired by an episode of Peter Kuruvita’s cooking show where he visited the temple and found a quiet niche in which to pay his respects to his departed father, we also found a site of solitude within the walls of the temple, which despite it being a busy attraction is quite possible to do. There are very tranquil areas with monks in prayers that were a pleasure to seek out.

At the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

At the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Around Kandy
From Kandy I did a half day tour by Tuk Tuk / rickshaw through the countryside to visit 2 other temples; Lankatilake and Gadaladeniya Temples.

Gadaladeniya Temple is a relatively simple stupa (rounded temple shape) structure which had a roof constructed over it to protect it from the elements when I visited. The site is Buddhist, but there is also a Hindu annex at the back. The location is very peaceful with lotus blossoms growing amoungst the ponds, and it was a nice pause on the way to Lankatilake.

You approach Lankatilake through rice paddies, and past a small school. It is set on the top of a hill with a magnificent view over the fields. At the front of the temple is a locked room containing a Buddha image surrounded by painted walls. The monk opened the room for me to have a look, and explained that it was from the 7th century. The gold embossed walls on a dark red background were very beautiful, and it was all the more special for being in there alone with the monk.

Buddha sancturm, Lankatilake temple

Buddha sancturm, Lankatilake temple

The temple also features carved elephants, Kandy period paintings, a Hindu praying area and rock face inscriptions. There were hardly any other people visiting while I was there and it was very atmospheric. Actually it was one of the highlights of my trip because of its simplicity and location.

Pilgrims, Lankatilake temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

Pilgrims, Lankatilake temple, Kandy

Pilgrims, Lankatilake temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

Pilgrims, Lankatilake temple

Villa Rosa Hotel
In Kandy we stayed at Villa Rosa hotel. Situated on top of a hill it has beautiful views out over the valley beyond from the restaurant and many of the rooms. The food was very good (although we only ate Sri Lankan food while we were there) and the room was generous in size and decorated with local antiques. There is also a library area where you can relax, and a large enough piece of grass for a little football game for Liam.

View from Villa Rosa Hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

View from Villa Rosa Hotel in Kandy

Kandy to Dambulla
From Kandy to Dambulla we again asked the hotel to arrange us a car and driver. It is around a 2 hour drive, but it took us longer as we stopped at Aluvihara Monastery on the way.

Aluvihara Monastery has a series of caves featuring reclining Buddhas amidst painted rooms, and some bizarre scenes of devils meting out punishments to sinners (not for kids – although they can enjoy the rest of the monastery). Attractively located amoungst large boulders which have fallen from the nearby mountain. We climbed up onto one of them for beautiful views to the mountain, but you could also climb further up to the large Buddha statue further up the hill for more views if you wish.

Golden Buddha,  Aluvihara monastery, near Dambulla, Sri Lanka (J

Golden Buddha, Aluvihara monastery, near Dambulla

Dambulla Cave Temples
The highlight of a trip to Dambulla are the Cave Temples. As we hiked up to them, we paused to look back towards Sigiriya Rock which is clearly visible some 20km away. The history of these caves is thought to date back to the 1st century BC, but the Buddha statues and wall paintings are remarkably well preserved given this long history. In total there are 5 caves and some 150 Buddha images.

We combined it with our drive up from Kandy and stopping in Aluvihara to make a rather long (and hot) day, but it is quite possible to do this if you are on a tight schedule. (Don’t forget to bring your own water with you though, as the site is exposed to the sun during your walk.)

Dambulla cave temples, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

Inside one of the Dambulla cave temples, Sri Lanka (January 2014

Inside one of the Dambulla cave temples, Sri Lanka


Kalundewa retreat
Our hotel in Kalundewa is one of our stand out hotels in Asia. Our room was one of 2 in a glass box sitting in the middle of a small lake. You share the living room and plunge pool, but when we were visiting we were the only guests booked in. The hotel has other rooms that are bungalows nestled amoungst the rice fields. Hornbill birds were flying around our room at dusk, and we walked amoungst the rice fields while we waited for dinner. It was quite magical!

Rice fields surrounding the Kalundewa Retreat hotel, Dambulla, S

Kalundewa Retreat hotel, Dambulla

Malabar Hornbill birds, Kalundewa Retreat hotel, Dambulla

Malabar Hornbill birds, Kalundewa Retreat hotel, Dambulla

Dambulla day trip to Sigiriya
From Dambulla to Sigiriya is a half hour drive. From there we walked up to the top of the grand rock and enjoy the rock paintings on the way, and the ruins of an old palace or temple (the exact origin is disputed) that sits atop it. The views over the surrounding countryside are quite stunning, and the walk up was well worth it.

Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka (January 2014)

Sigiriya Rock

Cave rock paintings, Sigiriya Rock

Cave rock paintings, Sigiriya Rock

Polonaruwa, heritage city
Polonaruwa is a former capital city of Sri Lanka and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is around 1 1/2 hours drive from Dambulla and you can easily spend a day wandering around it. We tried to squeeze it into the second half of our day trip to Sigiriya, but it was a bit tight. We were very hungry and tired from walking up the rock, and ended up rushing it more than it deserved.

That said, it was well worth the trip. At around 1000 years old, it is quite well preserved, although on a smaller scale to Anuradhapura (which we did not end up visiting, but would love to go back to visit).

The Royal Palace Group, Quadrangle area and Gal Vihara were stand out areas of the ruins, with the last housing beautiful buddha images which are housed under a roof to protect them from the elements.

Vatadage Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka, a gem to be explored futher
Somehow Sri Lanka has captured a little piece of our heart. It is a place that we would love to go back to again and explore even further. Anuradhapura, The Horton Plains National Park and World’s End, and Ula Walawe National park with its elephants are all still on our wish list. So who knows, maybe we will have to plan another escape back to Sri Lanka soon.

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On retreat, South Coast, Sri Lanka

Apa Villa Illuketia during a rain storm

One of the joys of living in Singapore is that travel in Asia is so accessible. New Year, Chinese New Year, and Easter are great opportunities for a longer trip away within Asia, without having to spend too many of your vacation days.

For one of these longer weekends we decided to go to Sri Lanka for 7 days to enjoy the coastline from Galle along the coast. This could also be done from a further away location for 6-10 days depending on your travel time.

Travel logistics
We flew into Colombo on Sri Lankan airlines, which offers some excellent flight deals to Sri Lanka from many destinations (we flew there on good deals from Delhi and Singapore). It is a full service airline with check in luggage and full meals (note: we have no relationship with this airline).

From Colombo over the new highway to Galle is a 3 1/2 hour drive by car. Cars to drive you to Galle from the airport can be arranged through the hotel for USD$100-120, or you can also arrange private car hire for USD$70 per day for your entire trip.

On our first trip we hired a car and driver for the whole trip, but were not satisfied with our driver and ended up firing him and hiring a different car and driver from each location to the next through the hotel. While the day rate is slightly more expensive than $70 per day, we saved on the days that we did not need a car and could use a local taxi or tuk tuk instead, and so the total cost was about the same. You can consider both options depending on your preference.

Woman with an umbrella walking past old buildings in the streets

Galle, South Coast of Sri Lanka
We started the trip near Galle staying at the two properties of Apa Villas. Just 8km from UNESCO heritage site listed Galle, Apa Thalpe is a boutique resort of just 7 rooms which look out over an infinity pool, and beyond to the ocean.

The pool at Apa Villa, Thalpe, South Coast, Sri Lanka (March 201

Each room has a small private courtyard with a table. There is no restaurant at the hotel, and instead all meals are served on your private terrace. You can order food at any time from 7.30am to 5.30pm during the day, and dinner is a selection of set menus catering to Western or Sri Lankan tastes which you pre-order during the afternoon. They can also cater to food restrictions including Vegan and Vegetarian on request. Each evening we put our son to bed, and enjoyed a Sri Lankan dinner together with our ocean view. It was the definition of luxury!

Past the courtyard you enter into a sitting area with a library. The owner of the hotel was the creator of the “Insight Guides” and there is a great collection of books and guides to browse through. Beyond the sitting area is the spacious bedroom with air conditioning (needed in this tropical climate) and luxurious double bathroom. The attention to detail with fresh flowers on the bed each day and cotton sheets is as you would expect from a top boutique hotel.

Next to the hotel is a small beach. While it is not a spectacular beach, it was nice for a stroll each morning to see the local fisherman.

Man walking along the beach next to Apa Villa, Thalpe

Man walking along the beach next to Apa Villa, Thalpe

Apa Villa, Illuketia
Our second 2 nights were spent at the sister property 5km away – Illuketia. Where Thalpe looks out over the coast, Illuketia is nestled into the forest. It was originally a manor house, and retains a period property feeling with antiques and mature gardens.

The swimming pool is surrounded by forest, and has a small shrine next to it – a perfect place for your morning yoga practice.

By the swimming pool at Illuketia, Apa Villas

By the swimming pool at Illuketia, Apa Villas

Illuketia features a cluster of tables with a view over the garden where meals are served, and while it misses the intimacy of the private terraces of Thalpe, it does offer a similarly delicious menu of Western and Sri Lankan meals to choose from and a kids menu if you are bringing children with you. The more communal restaurant, but similarly small scale of the hotel meant that we came in contact with other guests in the library and lounge with whom we shared a very enjoyable afternoon.

Apa Villa Illuketia during a rain storm

Apa Villa Illuketia during a rain storm

Out and About from Apa Villas
From Apa Villas there are a few day trips to choose from. The most obvious one is the 8km trip by car or rickshaw (tuk tuk) into Galle’s Historic Centre. While Galle Fort (which survived the 2004 Tsunami almost intact) is the draw card attraction, the historic centre is worth simply wandering around without a clear destination in mind. There are lovely little boutique shops, and plenty of cafes and restaurants to sate your hunger and thirst.

Liam watches the local ladies go by, Galle

Liam watches the local ladies go by, Galle

Dolphin and Whale watching
Another (longer) day trip option is along the coast to Mirissa to go whale and dolphin watching. Here we do recommend choosing your tour operator carefully and considering ethical considerations. We went with Raja and the Whales who adheres to global whale watching standards of respect for the whales and provides research data to various international marine wildlife research and conservation organisations.

Unfortunately from their boat we saw many other operators who weren’t as considerate to the whales and were chasing the whales and getting too close. This is surely distressing for these majestic creatures.

While we were never particularly close to any of the sperm whales, we did have 4 different sightings during the day, and had schools of dolphins swimming very close to our boat on several occasions. While we were most interested in seeing the whales, the dolphins were actually the highlight of the trip.

Dolphins off the coast of Mirissa

Dolphins off the coast of Mirissa

Other trips
Tuk tuk drivers and touts will also suggest that you visit the spice garden and the turtle hatcheries. We were briefly driven into the spice garden before insisting politely that we leave again, and also went to the turtle hatchery, but we found it very disappointing and even had ethical questions over the experience. The tanks are very small and while the hatchery claims that they dig up the turtle eggs to stop them being poached, we wondered if this were not a good reason for earning money from tourists and left feeling uncomfortable about having come.

Further along the South Coast
If you would like to extend your visit further along the coast, Talalla Beach, Weligama and Tangalle are both options further along the coast. Talalla Retreat was on our wish list (but was full during our visit), but we have heard good reviews from other people who were able to visit.

We stayed at Maya near Tangalle and enjoyed delicious food, with enough grass for our son to run around on, and a very inviting pool. It is a little way from the coast though, so you need your own transport to make the most of it.

A mother and her sons  at Tangalle Beach

A mother and her sons at Tangalle Beach

Sri Lanka: a special destination
Sri Lanka really is a special destination; with delicious food, world class boutique hotels, a vibrant culture and stunning scenery. It is also small enough in scale that while you can’t see the whole countries in a trip of 10 days, you can pick areas of the country that you would like to focus on and see a big variety of countryside and sights.

It is a destination that you can consider with children. The people were very friendly – especially towards children – and catering to our sons food requests was never a problem.

In another post we share our experiences in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, which was similarly stunning.

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