Sri Lanka is an island ringed with palm-fringed beaches. The landscape is a fertile plain that rises through rolling hills, planted with tea bushes, to misty mountains. Rain forests cover the southwest area. The forested slopes even rise into the clouds. The mountains are home to monkeys, elephants, and parakeets, while crocodiles lurk in the rivers. The rich beauty of the island inspired its name, Sri Lanka, meaning “the shining land”.
When in Sri Lanka, make sure to check out these top ten not-to-be-missed places:
Ruwanwelisseya Dagoba (Anuradhapura)
The huge Ruwanwelisseya Dagoba is an important sanctuary and is visited on high holidays by countless Buddhists. You can circumnavigate it together with them or alone (but always clockwise!) The 230 foot high Dagoba’s presence here is somewhat meditative and relaxing. Even from afar, one is struck by the majesty of the dome that rises from a clearing. There are so many pilgrims dressed in white who bring their offerings, prayers and lotus flowers — and this helps to make the place very exciting and impressive. It is a large white Dagoba located behind the Jetavanarama Museum. The wall around the Dagoba is decorated with statues of elephants, created out of gratitude to this animal for the help in the construction of the monument.
All around there is lush greenery with remains of columns and other ruins. The air is filled with the pleasant sweet smell of incense sticks. Shoes and hats must be taken off and modest clothing is expected. The plates around the stupa are red-hot from the sun, therefore the floor can be painfully hot when the sun is at its peak and without socks it is quite difficult to walk. There are hordes of green monkeys begging for food. It is wonderful to see the faithful who walk clockwise around the dome reciting their prayers.
Located only 8 miles from Anuradhapura is the town of Mihintale, the origin of Sri Lankan Buddhism. This visit involves an increasingly steep staircase, but it is feasible to arrive at the 40 foot high Dagoba, The Kantaka Chetiya. As expected in any place of Buddhist worship you have to take your shoes off, leaving them in custody at the entrance and giving a 40 cents tip. Along the way you meet dozens of monkeys, giant squirrels and a lot of so-called simple guides or escorts who offer their support to reach the top, even if their help is not strictly necessary. Before heading to the main stupa, the symbol of the cradle of Buddhism of Sri Lanka, your attention will be “stimulated” by a cliff, located about 330 feet from the final flight of steps.
The cliff is accessible by means of an uphill slope where you must climb barefoot (remove the socks) up small steps carved into the living rock while tightly clutching onto the attached iron handrail. After that comes another climb on a hill that is over 660 feet.
Once you reach the summit, you will see remarkable views. You must wait for the sunset on the top of the stupa and be cheered by the music of some local musicians who delight every guest with the sound of drums, flutes, and small percussion instruments. The beautiful sunset view seals the memorable day of visit. Nearby, there are also other attractions of interest: the Refectory of the Monks and the House of Relics, where there are “Tables of Rules” that dictate the behavior of the monks and their servants. Mihintale is also home to the Ancient Hospital, of which there are remains of small rooms and areas for medicinal baths carved into the rock.
Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple
The Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple is located not far away from Colombo. Over a period of more than 120 years it closely intertwined the two religions — Buddhism and Hinduism. The so-called founder of the temple was a monk named Devundara; he created not just a sacred place but also a popular center of cultural and religious training for the population. The complex includes the temple, school classrooms for future monks, a library, rooms for prayer and meditation, a seminary, a nursing home and an orphanage. Also included on this site are residential and religious facilities, a workshop and a unique library. Lay people can receive free technical education here and learn English.
The main feature is a multi-stage staircase with seated Buddhas whose halos are illuminated at night with colorful twinkling lights. In the center of the courtyard is a growing Dagobah, a sacred Bo tree (Bodhi ficus), under which India attained enlightenment through Gautama Buddha. This tree was brought from India to Sri Lanka and eventually showed up in almost all the temples of Ceylon.
On display also in the courtyard of the temple is a unique historic gift from the Pope — his personal vintage car. Inside the temple there are impressive giant size sculptures and an abundance of neighboring Buddhist-Hindu concepts. The scope of work is impressive. The walls are painted with frescoes of the life of the monks and the royal families.
In addition to religious and architectural attractions in the temple can be seen Gangaramaya, the temple elephant. The elephant is considered a sacred animal, but not every sanctuary in Sri Lanka can afford one. Therefore, the place is quite popular for wedding ceremonies and photo shoots of both religions. There is so much to see at this temple alone. The fee for visiting the museum will not be charged, but donations are accepted before you leave in the average amount of $1.60. Visit it at least once and be able to see and absorb everything with your own eyes.
To reach this amusing beach, take the train from the Colombo Fort and arrive at Mount Lavinia in about 20/25 minutes, ride a tuk tuk and in a few minutes you reach the beach at the seaside town of Columbus. The beach is very wide with fine sand and almost 1.5 miles long, and the sea is wide and not dirty. For a relaxing day while staying in Colombo, this is just fine. There are several small hotels and bars that offer beach chairs and umbrella for a modest sum.
You can have lunch or even if you just want to sit and drink something, the cost is really negligible. It is a great place for a one / two-day rest after arrival in Sri Lanka, on the way south of the island. There are lots of shady places where you can take refuge from the sun, and drink water, a soft drink or beer. In the nearby village there is a very large selection of hotels and B & B’s from luxurious and to those intended for overnight stays only. This beach is where most locals spend time and you will be surprised too at the sight of numerous monks who come every afternoon to bathe.
Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa)
The Temple of the Tooth is the most important Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka that houses the legendary Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, which was found after various adventures in India and in Sri Lanka. Nothing remains of the original temple. The main shrine of the present temple was initially built in the late 1600s and early 1700s and then subsequently restored several times. The temple was restored in 1998 after an attack by the Tamil Tiger (during the civil war in Sri Lanka). A car bomb reduced the facade to ruins.
Schedule a visit on a Sunday to witness a huge crowd of the faithful who pay their respects at the room of the relic, even for a short time. You should enter without shoes and in some parts of the sanctuary you cannot take pictures using the flash. It’s a mystical place that has a strong influence even for those not of that religion.
Nuwara Elia and Tea Country
The natural beauty of Sri Lanka belongs certainly to the breathtaking highlights of the town of Nuwara Eliya. It is a mix of colonial chic that blends with the hospitality of the Sri Lankans — and where the landscape invites you to admire it for hours. The food is great, the possibilities for walking are endless and the weather is so pleasant that you will wish you could stay here forever. The Nuwara Elia and Tea Country is composed of numerous tea factories that can be visited. The factories are located in the tea fields and often have terraces with great views. Tea samples in cups are freely given here. Drink a cup of tea in a small teahouse and take part in a guided tour through the factory.
Just the winding route along the tea plantations is worth seeing. When the pickers are out working in their colorful saris, the scene gets even more beautiful. The tea leaves are collected only by women and only from 8 to 12 am, during which time one person can collect up to 110 lbs. By doing the norm they get money for every pound. All tea plantations are owned by the state and the tea pickers get free housing as one of the privileges. The state builds houses for them, and gives them medicine and training (before obtaining a degree in the Institute) which is free for all Sri Lankans.
The World’s End is a wildlife area that is situated on a plateau that ends with a breathtaking cliff. Along the way you can meet the typical animals that are endemic to the forests of Sri Lanka. A hiking adventure can be arranged with a hotel complete with a local guide. The tour starts in the early morning and the tour provider brings along a packed lunch. The path up to the top is long but very nice. It is advisable that you bring warm clothing, waterproof shoes, and hiking boots. The walk is not short and not recommended for those who have little experience and adaptability.
All that the guide narrates and shares about the place amply rewards the small inconvenience of the hike. Be sure to reach the site before 8 o’clock not only to see the wonderful view, but above all witness the rise of the mist that in a few minutes she can hide the whole panorama. Don’t forget to grab a camera to capture the phenomenon of the fog that envelops everything. Going back down, the trek is good and not particularly strenuous.
Located in the northern part of Polonnaruwa, Gal Vihara is a sacred site that consists of four distinct statues of the Buddha each made from a single slab of granite. The first statue is a standing Buddha 23 feet high, the second statue is lying down and is the act of the Buddha entering Nirvana; the other two statues represent the Buddha in a sitting position.
Like all sites that involve religion, even for the visit of these great rock statues depicting the Buddha, you must remove your shoes and hats before entering. Pilgrims frequent this place and leave flowers and rice cakes at the statues’ feet.
Citadel of Sigiriya – Lion Rock
The Citadel of Sigiriya is a huge rock formation that rises over the forest. The climb towards the top is rather laborious and can be divided into two sections. After the first part, you come to a large open space from which you begin the real climb to the top of the rock — where you can enter into the remains of the palace of King Kassapa built primarily as a self-defense (the story can be read on the rails).
At the first terrace, you can still see the remains (the two front legs) of the huge lion that was originally at the entrance of the climb to the summit of the rock, hence the name Lion Rock. The last part of the climb is through a full-scale iron attachment to the mountain. At the top, you can also see a large tub carved into the rock, the throne of the king, and the 360° views over the forest. Going down you can also see the Cobra Hood Cave that is a rock shaped like a cobra.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is more than just a sanctuary for these pachyderms, as it aims to show tourists the herd of elephants in their natural habitat. On the one hand you can watch many elephants graze and pet their young while on the other hand there are lots of visitors. You can see many young elephants, and to watch them swimming in the river is a remarkable experience — you will see them run down to the river to bathe, and then go back to their pasture, observing the adults and all their behaviors.
The whole orphanage is surrounded by a large green area close to the rice fields. Observe how the elephant keepers help the calves to drink milk using a big bottle every 4-5 hours. They look like “giant children”. It is great to see the calves covered by fur and looking very tender. The local stalls offer local crafts that are beautiful and inexpensive.