“No pictures with Buddha, please. You will go to jail,” said my guide, eyeing me in particular.
“Darn it, I was hoping to jump onto his lap for a picture,” I replied, earning a look of incredulity in return.
Tucked away in a picturesque jumble of rocky outcrops, the cave temples are a series of atmospheric manmade caves that date back to 100BC. It was founded by King Vattagamini who sought refuge here after being overthrown by a group of Tamil invaders. After reclaiming his throne, the king thanked the heavens – literally – by constructing temples here. In the shrines are dozens of Buddhas carved out of rock and religious murals that still retain their vivid colours.
After a short (and steep) uphill trek and leaving our shoes for safekeeping at the top, we scampered barefoot over the stone’s steaming, jagged surface, as if walking on hot coals.
Some of the caves tiny and claustrophobic, so there was a lot of respectful jostling going on. My habit of looking strangers in the eye and announcing, “Any closer and we’d have to get married, bud” usually deters the men somewhat.
After the third cave, we gave up. We certainly weren’t as tenacious as other Sri Lankan holidaymakers.
Mad props to them.
We were in the heart of the Cultural Triangle, a sprawling region with a blockbuster mix of World Heritage sights, including imposing monuments (many built into gargantuan granite rocks that rise from these flatlands, because #FTW), the remains of royal cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and ancient Buddhist temples, all surrounded by scrubland teeming with wildlife. Steeped in local lore and legend, Sri Lanka’s central plateau – the hottest and most arid location in the country – gives visitors a glimpse into the golden age of Sinhalese art and architecture.
We stayed 4 nights here and loved every minute of it.
Ensconced in a national reserve, our hotel Kumbukgaha Villa has only handful of villas and a swimming pool in the bush. It was our little oasis in the middle of nowhere, and staffed by a group of benevolent elderly gentlemen who glide barefoot from guest to guest to attend to their needs.
We spent evenings swimming under the moonlight, our surroundings lit by oil lamps and then, fearing snakes, darting to our hotel room where we resumed bathing in the open-air bathroom.
We didn’t see any elephants (though they do come by sometimes), but we saw plenty of peacocks and also a poor errant monitor lizard, which we found cowering near the porcelain throne one morning while the husband was on it. After laughing and squealing our heads off, we made sure he was gently rescued and dispatched off by a broom-wielding staff.
We explored the nearby village of Hiriwadunna on a tour but it proved to be the naffest thing we’ve done. The tour started off with us trying very hard not to be thrown from the terrifically bumpy ox-cart pulled by two overworked buffaloes.
We were then transferred onto a rickety raft, and continued our ‘adventure’ by rowing aimlessly around a manmade reservoir filled with water lilies and waving at other foreign tourists who are in a similar predicament as we are (the local tourists however, seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously here, laughing and singing on the boats).
We were rewarded for our patience by our boatman, whose talents were not just confined to boat-rowing but to hat-making as well, judging from the marvelous chapeaux he has fashioned out of nature.
He then deposited us on the lake’s fetid shores, where a tuk-tuk waited to bring us to the ‘village’, which was really just a single mud hut in the jungle. A lone woman and her daughter welcomed us and served us ‘lunch’ – a dry piece of naan bread with coconut sambol and chunks – and a few chunks of palm sugar for our hungry children to suck on, before demonstrating how to make thatched roofs for the hut.
The surroundings were suspiciously clean so I asked if she really did live here. She said no, she lived some miles away. I wondered why we were taken to that village instead, instead of this ridiculous museum piece built for gullible tourists who hasn’t seen an actual village before.
Of course, everyone goes to the Cultural Triangle for the Citadel of Sigiriya – we’ve heard so much about it and seen so many pictures of it but nothing quite prepared us for our first glimpse of this impregnable fortress, which rises steeply from the plains like a mound of cake. We were super stoked just to be there on Christmas Day, even if it seemed like the entire country was on holiday with us.
First inhabited by Buddhist monks in 300BC, this gigantic rock was transformed into a palace and fort by King Kassapa who – in the quest for the throne – murdered his own father and drove his brother Mogallana, the rightful heir, into exile in India. Mogallana vowed vengeance and, as a result, his brother constructed his new residence on top of this rock and waited.
The site itself was massive. The kids had a lovely time running around the elaborate royal pleasure gardens, including a fountain that still works after heavy rain, some 1,500 years later. We took a longer route uphill to beat the crowds, passing by several monastic caves pre-dating Kassapa’s era.
The climb looked daunting but it turned out to be surprisingly manageable, even with two children. Our castle-obsessed 4-year-old – who would usually start whining after 5 minutes of walking – happily bounded up the stairs on his own, knowing this was someplace special.
Upon reaching the first level, our guide motioned for us to be quiet, gesturing to a huge hornet’s nest looming above our heads like a bad omen. Apparently, hornet’s attack have occurred several times in the past despite the authority’s best efforts to evict these little monsters. I could just see the headlines. Fun day out turns tragic for couple and their two children.
Local monks claim it is divine retribution for the impious behavior of visiting tourists. I have a feeling my Buddha joke wouldn’t go down so well with these hornets either, so I summoned up my ninja skills and stealthily crept past the nest with two very confused children, who were blissfully unaware that their lives were in danger.
At the lion’s platform, a long line of holidaymakers patiently waited to ascend several flights of vertigo-inducing staircases and walkways that will take them to the summit, where the Royal Palace once stood.
We joined the line and shuffled our way to the top, occasionally saying a prayer to Baby Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad. We swore. We hyperventilated (or at least I did, because I was worried that the metal staircase would give out under the weight of so many people).
But we reached the top just in time to watch the sun set, and it was the best thing ever.
King Kassapa died on the day of the long-awaited invasion – but only after he descended from his high and mighty palace and rode boldly out with an elephant to meet the attackers on the plains below. It is said his elephant bolted from fright, leaving Kassapa’s troops to mistakenly believe the king has retreated. Facing capture and defeat, Kassapa killed himself (karma is a bitch), but oh, did he live a most fabulous life up on that mountain. Dan Brazilian would be jealous.
On the last day, we were in an open jeep, whizzing breathlessly past thorny bushes and ramshackle huts towards Minneriya National Park when the unthinkable happened.
It began to pour.
“Wait one minute,” said our guide Kalum and clambered to the top of the jeep like a monkey to manually affix the roof, which is really just a plastic tarp.
And then we continued on our way, feeling like Indiana Jones though not quite as intrepid, any panache we had acquired from donning those safari trousers earlier in the day now washed away by the steady drizzle.
At the park entrance, we were greeted by an even bigger problem: massive hordes of safari goers parked in stationary jeeps, all waiting for their turn to enter. But Kalum was slicker than he looked. Sensing my apprehension, he whipped out our park tickets – bought and collected days before we arrived – from his pockets and the guard flagged us in. We zoomed past the queue of wary tourists, leaving a trail of dust in our wake.
Overplanning has its advantages.
As we made our way deeper and deeper into the bush along a dirt road – the only one in and out of the park – it occurred to me that the search for Minneriya’s famous elephants would be long and a difficult one. The rain has turned the soil into mud and, no matter how expertly Kalum navigated our jeep, it was difficult to avoid the grooves and bumps made by the vehicles before us. We held on for our lives, but ended up bumping our heads several times anyway.
To top it all off, there were half a dozen other jeeps on this path, and the pungent smell of the forest mingled with the smell of exhaust fumes. Any peace I felt from being in nature was interrupted by the revving of engines. This was not the meditative safari experience I had hoped for.
But then we finally came to a clearing. After the hellish journey, this place looked like the Promised Land. The rain has stopped just in time, revealing a glassy lake surrounded by low hills. The lake is actually an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 yearsago, and for centuries, Asian pachyderms come here to bathe, mate, socialize and feed in a yearly event known as “The Gathering”, the largest of its kind in the world.
The scenery before us was enchanting despite it being out of season. Herons and ibises swooped overhead and peacocks called to one another, strutting with their feathers gloriously splayed out. And there…just several meters away, were the stars of Minneriya, big ones and baby ones, purposeful ones and playful ones, grazing on the park’s abundant flora. There were so many of them, we eventually lost count.
We had endured multiple concussions and whiplash for this…..and it was all worth it.
Kumbukgaha Villa This unique hotel is a collection of pavilions and villas nestled in a nature reserve filled with peacocks and sometimes elephants. Tastefully furnished and roomy, these villas all come equipped with outdoor showers and a lovely balcony. You’ll need a car and the food isn’t great but you’ll be rewarded with fine views and some peace and quiet away from the tourist trail. $$
Aliya Resort & Spa Massive, impersonal resort with top-notch facilities like a badminton court and several decent restaurants. The centerpiece, however, is its pool, with its gorgeous backdrop of Sigiriya in the distance. Stay in one of the luxurious wooden cabins for more privacy – supposedly no children are allowed here but they made an exception for us in high season so you might want to check ahead. $$$
- If you are a picky eater / traveling with one, be sure to check if your hotel has a restaurant(s) serving international cuisine. The food scene in the Cultural Triangle is mediocre at best, and most local eateries dish out traditional Sri Lankan fare buffet-style. To avoid the hassle, most tourists eat in their respective hotels.
- Avoid Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Cave Temples on a weekends and public holidays, because these sights get extremely congested with locals.
- Elephant watching in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park is extremely popular with tourists to the Cultural Triangle, so it’s wise to book ahead with a reputable tour guide to cut waiting times and to avoid being ripped off.
- We did not go to Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa but it is said the ruins are best explored with a bike. Samagi Villa Safari offers bikes for rent at the entrance of Polonnaruwa, but you can call / email them to reserve ones with baby seats.