3 weeks in Sri Lanka. Part 2: The Cultural Triangle with kids
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle covers around one tenth of the island, stretching from Kandy in the south, up to the ancient cities of Anuradhapura in the north and Polonnaruwa to the east. As the name suggests it’s all about culture and history. Of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO world heritage listed sights, six can be found in this relatively small area. From crumbling ancient cities perched on top of giant rocks to century old cave temples and immense buddha statues, there is a lot to see and do, and Dambulla acts as the perfect central base to explore them all. Throw in some great national parks, that deliver, despite their relatively small size, and some excellent accommodation options and you’re onto a winner.
We were located around 20 minutes south of Dambulla city at a small collection of boutique chalets with stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding forests. The chalets were finished inside with stylish art work and tiled wallpaper offering a vibrant splash of colour while the reception and restaurant area were open plan and maximised the views of the surrounding countryside.
We also spent a wonderful day at a fruit and spice farm a further half hour or so south of where we stayed. After a delicious traditional Sri Lankan lunch at Mango Villa, overlooking a sweeping view of the jungle below, we made our way back to reception, a five-minute stroll past giant jackfruit trees, coconut palms and passion-fruit vines, ready for our tour of the farm. We followed the resident Ayurveda doctor around the grounds as he pointed out various fruits, nuts, spices and vegetables that are farmed on the estate. It was incredible just how many crops they produce and was a fabulous opportunity for the kids to run around, pick up sticks and burn off some energy. We finished up with a quick dip in the pool, located at Hill-Top Villa, surrounded by increasingly swaying palms as the weather took a slight down-turn. The farm has 14 family rooms located throughout the grounds and is one of the most unique places to stay in Sri Lanka. You can use it as a base to visit the Cultural Triangle to the north, or the rolling tea plantations and Kandy to the south.
The cultural triangle is undoubtedly an interesting and exciting part of any Sri Lankan holiday and should definitely be included as part of your itinerary. It’s worth considering the age of your children and how interested in the cultural side of things your family is – as that will probably determine the length of your stay. With our kids just 3 and 5, we opted to avoid the crowds where possible and didn’t visit many of the ancient archaeological sites. Here are our top picks for the cultural triangle with kids.
- Pidurangala Rock is a huge rock formation, a few kilometres north of the famous Sigiriya fortress, offering breathtaking views of Lions Rock and the surrounding countryside. It's a more adventurous climb than Sigiriya with the final stage involving scrambling over and squeezing through large boulders, but with a quarter of the steps and far less people, the ascent is much easier for little legs to manage. We set off about 7.30am and had the trail to ourselves. Since the rock is also a retreat for monks, cover your shoulders and knees as you approach the temple. About two thirds of the way up, just before the reclining Buddha, you'll notice little brick cells where the monks retire for meditation. It’s a welcome rest point and much to the delight of our 3-year-old, a troop of monkeys decided to breakfast in the nearby trees. Our 5-year-old enjoyed the challenge of the climb and only really needed help when we reached the final boulder scramble, just before the summit. Our 3-year-old stayed in a back carrier for peace of mind! It was an incredibly windy day when we visited, so although the panoramic views of Lions Rock, the surrounding forests and lakes were breathtaking, we had to be careful at the rocks summit. With just a small 500-rupee temple donation per adult, Pidurangala is amazing value and offers an enjoyable and peaceful mornings hike, away from the growing tourist crowds. It is however worth trying to get there early. As we were leaving (around 9.30-10am) a few more people had started the hike.
- The Dambulla cave temples are a UNESCO world heritage site, with extensive intricate cave paintings and over 150 Buddha statues. The temple has been built 160m up, directly into the side of the mountain, protecting the caves hidden works of art. It's a 5-10-minute climb up a fair few steps and as it’s a religious site, remember to cover shoulders and knees (children don't need to worry). It's a fascinating place to visit and the art work painted on the ceilings of the caves, as well as the carved statues inside, are beautiful. Head there early to avoid the large tour groups and get a greater feel for the peace and serenity of the surroundings. You'll only need an hour or so as children’s intrigue soon tires, although our two loved watching gifts of bright purple lotus flowers being given as offerings to the countless Buddha statues, and enjoyed spotting a few monkeys hanging around on the walk up and back down.
- Kaudulla National Park forms part of the elephant corridor, running between Minneriya and Wasgomuwa national parks. Much like its better-known counterpart, Kaudulla boasts its own elephant gathering at the ‘tank’ (reservoir) as the giants make their famed pilgrimage down to Minneriya. We set off intending to head into Minneriya, but our driver got in touch with a local guide, who confirmed better sightings at Kaudulla. He also advised a 12:30pm start rather than the favoured 3:30pm (supposedly better for larger gatherings). This was amazing advice as we departed the park at 3pm, past a trail of jeeps waiting to pile in! Kaudulla isn't huge but packs a punch. You begin driving along a straight road, slightly elevated from the forest and river bed running parallel on either side. As we drove on we saw two sunbathing crocodiles, a tiny chameleon, a rebellious owl (who should have been hidden asleep) and two of the larger native eagles. The road then opens to the large grassy plains and a vast reservoir - the perfect spot for thirsty elephants to congregate. Much to our delight, an initial family of around ten elephants were joined by a further two families. We loved watching the group munch down tonnes of grass, flicking their trunk from side to side to sift out unwanted clumps, and stroll towards the water, with babies frolicking at mum's side. At times there can be as many as three hundred elephants gathering at one lake. Whilst we didn't get anywhere near that number, it was an incredible experience and one that the whole family adored.
- Spice Gardens - On the southern road leading into Dambulla there are a series of small spice gardens that are open to the public. Tourists will receive a free tour complete with tea tasting and optional massage (tips obviously expected). Afterwards you can pick up some local spices a little cheaper and a lot fresher than you would back home. They also concoct a range of medicinal balms and ointments, in keeping with the practice of Ayurveda, the ancient holistic approach to health and well-being still widely used in Sri Lanka today. These were all way out of our budget or needs, but interesting to see and hear about none-the-less. The kids enjoyed the short tour at the Ranweli Spice Garden and took advantage of the outdoor space to have a run and play. They also found the sight of a rather portly Sri Lankan man massaging 'daddy' utterly hilarious!