Sri Lanka World Heritage Sites- a guide

This guide is a hand guide and is in no way meant to be used as an exclusive guide for all sites or any for that matter. It is meant to give you a brief preview of the sites along with basic information.
In case you find it difficult to read and process the information on the blog you can also download the pdf after signing up here.

Srilanka Heritage

Sri Lanka an island country in the Indian Ocean just off the southern tip of India, offers a huge wealth of cultural, natural and built resources which for the lack of better phrase will ‘ make you feel alive’. From the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura to the rain forests of the highlands there is not just a lot to see there is a lot to do as well. You can climb the Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) along with the pilgrims or you can bear witness to beautiful rock paintings of Sigiriya, and this is without factoring in the non world heritage sites sand activities like whale watching and surfing.

UNESCO lists eight World Heritage Sites there are actually ten with three of them joining together to form a bigger site. These include both cultural and natural sites which showcase built monuments and traditions as well as last remnants of rain forests and the endemic species. All of these sites can be easily visited in the prescribed 30 day time period of your visa though if you want to see more than these sites and also if you want to spend good enough time to truly take in the wonders, you might need the visa extension.

Transport

Travelling around Sri Lanka is quite easy and the country has developed its infrastructure in past few years. Trains and bus linking most of the big cities are quite frequent, the size of the country being an advantage it is possible to cross from east to west in one day on road. Buses are the lifeline of the country and if you are in doubt about whether or not you can reach someplace locate a bus stand and ask around chances are there will be a direct bus or a connecting option.

Currency

Currency of use is Lankan Rupees; you can exchange your currency both at the airport and at various money changer around the town including banks. Though if you are flying in from India, do not carry cash as of Feb 2014 Indian Rupee was not being exchanged anywhere. Indian debit and credit cards work well though.

Entry and Access

Remember to check up on transport and entry fees before you leave for a site. Cultural triangle ticket was recently scrapped and lead to many deciding to skip one site or the other because of high entry prices.

Accommodation

 Accommodation is easily available and reasonable though many find it expensive compared to India or other South-east Asian countries. We did not have any problem finding walk in stays even on a very busy weekend at Adam’s Peak. The links that I have included are affiliate links and even though I would be happy you book using those I still recommend you try a few un-booked stays as they abundant and cheap.

About the Guide

This guide is a hand guide and is in no way meant to be used as an exclusive guide for all sites or any for that matter. It is meant to give you a brief preview of the sites along with basic information.
In case you find it difficult to read and process the information on the blog you can also download the pdf after signing up here.

The World Heritage Sites

Sacred City of Kandy

Kandy temple of tooth
View of the Temple complex Photo Credit: POTIER Jean-Louis

Year of inscription: 1988

Entry fees: Free for Sri Lankans 10$ for foreigners you can buy online ticket as well
Closest base point: Kandy

Description

Kandy has been the seat of Sri Lankan royals for over two hundred years and if the legend is to be believed it is because of the relic housed in the Temple said to house the tooth relic of Buddha, hence the name ‘Temple of Tooth’. It is also believed that who so ever has the relic rules the land. Many of the struggles in Sri Lanka’s ancient history were because of the relic and each ruler took great pains to secure the relic. The temple was constructed as a part of the Royal palace enclosure.
As the seat of Sinhalese rulers Kandy has always played a very important part in politics, with the temple it has become one of the most revered place for the Buddhist. The temple organizes prayers and events in the evenings and every Wednesday evening there is the bathing ritual for the relic. The herbal preparation used to bathe the relic is collected and distributed among the visitors as holy water, believed to cure many problems.
Thought he Temple is best known the complex contains much more than the just the temple. Along with other buildings it also consists of a sanctuary which is home to the endemic bird species of  Lanyard’s Parakeet.

Getting There

Kandy is well connected with rail and road to major cities of Sri Lanka especially to Colombo. A three hour bus ride from the bus terminal near Airport will get you to Kandy City Centre which is walking distance from the Temple of Tooth enclosure. All the buildings are located in the complex while the entry for the sanctuary is a bit of the walk and lies on the right side of the Tapovanaya Monastery.

Accommodation

Kandy is full of sleeping options to suit all kinds of budgets and needs. There is also a decent couch surfing group. I have not seen any meets but we were able to get quite a few accommodation requests in a day or so. You should be able to find clean basic accommodation with attached toilets for around 800 LKR. As with most places in Sri Lanka you are quoted a cheaper price if you just walk in. For budget accommodation, look at Kandy City Hostel or Olde Empire. Both can be booked online like most of the places in Sri Lanka.

Ancient city of Sigiriya

Sigiriya
Frescoes of Sigiriya


Year of Inscription: 1982

Entry fees: foreigners 30$ including museum visit. 50% off for SAARC nationals
Closest base point: Dambulla or Sigiriya though you can visit easily from Kandy

Description

Constructed high up on a rock Sigiriya is both a palaces complex and a fort. Surrounded with beautiful planned gardens the rock stands tall and is considered the eighth wonder of the world by many. The 200m high rock can be climbed with 1200 steps both carved in the rock as well as steel steps hung from the side of the rock at a much later date.
As you go higher the steps get steeper and on the last leg you might see many clinging to the railing as they move up. Before you reach the summit of the rock to the actual palace ruins you will come across various stops. All of these are actually checkpoints, your ticket will have each one of them mentioned and a ticket checker will take the relevant part of your ticket as you cross the stop.
Mirrored wall is a stucco covered wall that runs along the steps. It is said that the polishing of the stucco was maintained such that the king could see his reflection in the wall. The wall is now covered by graffiti from 8th to 10th century, talking about the abandoned fort as well as the frescoes.
Frescoes of Sigiriya are perhaps the next image you will see after the beautiful sky shot of the rock. These frescoes believed to be of the king’s ladies, some believe covered an entire face of the rock. If this was the case then it would have been a huge picture gallery. The paintings look a bit like Ajanta caves but are believed to be of the same time period as Anuradhapura, though they are of a completely different style than the ones at Anuradhapura.
Almost three fourths of the way up you will reach the terrace which has the famous Lion feet stairway. It is believed to once have been a grand lion edifice with a gateway protecting the entry to the palace. This is where you will find most of the climbers resting. Summit and the palace ruins are now close by maybe another 10 minutes and you will be in the ruins which once saw the grandeur of a King’s palace.
There are many gardens all around the rock varying from a water gardens to Boulder garden. Look below from the ruins at the top for a grand view of the citadel. The citadel in its glory can be seen at the museum with a well done model of the site. The museum is well designed and the collection mostly related to Sigiriya is good. The entry for museum is included in your ticket price so there is no reason to skip it.

Getting there

The heritage site of Sigiriya is well connected by bus which arrive every half an hour or so from Dambulla. You can also hire a tuk-tuk or a taxi to drop you here or for a return journey. It is best to base yourself at Dambulla if you are only visiting Sigiriya rock.
Do Not get off on the main road if you have hired a private vehicle, insist on getting dropped at the ticket counter, it is quite a bit of walk from road as well as the parking.

Accommodation

If you want to stay at Sigiriya you will still have a wide variety of choice in accommodation as you move towards Dambulla on the main road. Though available most of the guest houses you will find online are not really as cheap as you will find in other parts of the country. Staying is Sigiriya is recommended if you plan on climbing the Pidurangala rock nearby which is free.

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Golden Temple
Buddhas of The Golden Temple


Date of inscription: 1991

Entry fees: Foreigners pay a flat fee of 1500 for all nationalities
Closest base point: Dambulla or Kandy

Description

The rock temple of Dambulla is situated high up on a rock and houses various Buddhist statues and paintings. Accessed after climbing a lot of steep steps the temples are in a series of five caves. Dedicated to king and Buddha the caves feature Buddha in various poses from standing to sleeping. Though these are the caves most of us visit there are around 80 documented caves in the area. The area is considered to have been a prehistoric settlement with a burial ground found nearby. I could not find a way to reach the ancient site or other caves.
Most important thing to remember is to buy ticket. Visiting the museum is free for foreigners but the temple requires a ticket. You might be told by locals that ticket is not required because it is free for them. In case you do forget to buy the ticket you will have to come down climb up steps to the ticket counter and then climb up again. It will not be pretty. The temples should not take an entire day and many visit both Sigiriya and the temple on the same day, which is easily done but hard on your legs.

Getting There

Like most of Sri Lanka Dambula is well connected by bus. You can take a non-ac bus for around 100-150 to Kandy and Colombo and vice-versa. Bus from Sigiriya starts a bit further down the road near the market, and will drop you there too. Do not go to the bus stand it is off the Kandy road by 1 KM or so.

Accommodation

Dambulla is usually considered as the base point for visiting other WHS cities in the area. You will find accommodation in all price and comfort ranges. Prices usually start from 1500 upwards for a double room though it is possible to negotiate as you walk in the place. It is also possible to visit Dambulla from Kandy. We did a Day trip to both Sigiriya and Dambulla from Kandy in a single day and though the climb was tiring the entire trip was easy and we did not skip anything.

Sacred city of Anuradhpura

Anuradhapura
Ruwanwelisaya Stupa Photo credit: Roberto Saltori


Date of inscription: 1982

Entry fees: 30$ for foreigners and 50% reduction for SAARC Nationals
Closest base point: Anuradhpura or Dambulla

Description

Centre of Sinhalese empire for 1300 years the city has seen various developments as well as invasions. The invasion of 993 by Cholas the capital was shifted to Polonnaruwa. The city was once even held by Pandayan kings who returned it to the Sinhalese monarchy in return against ransom. Though the city was established long ago it saw major development when Buddhism was introduced and the Bodhi tree was planted. The city has various monuments ranging from stupas to museums and monasteries spread over kilometers. You would require a tuk tuk or a bike to navigate the old town or the historical city.
Stupas of varying sizes can be seen all around the city including Ruwanwelisaya which is still a place of worship. The oldest and most voluminous of all stupas in the city it has been fully restored and painted in white.
Another stupa called the Jetavana or Dagoba is under restoration. The stupa standing at 120 m was once the largest structure in Sri Lanka and the tallest ancient stupa. It was indeed the third tallest structure after The Great Pyramids of Giza. Some do believe that the stupas were much more than worship centre owing to their layout which represents three stars on Orion’s belt much similar to the layout of The Great Pyramids of Giza.
The citadel itself is a sight to behold though most of the structures are now ruins.  The city was located in the dry part of the country and many tanks were built to supply adequate water which still stand. It also had one of the most complex irrigation systems in the ancient world.
Another structure not to miss is the Brazen Palace. Thought to be a nine floor monastery currently around 1600 pillars of stone can be seen. Called as Lovamahapaya because of the bronze roof it was right next to the Bo tree brought to the city by Asoka’s daughter Sanghmitra. The city tells stories of various times all through stone and the remnant of its citizen which can be visited in two of the museums.

Getting there

Bus from Colombo take 5 hours and run every 30 minutes or so. Buses are also available regularly from Kandy. Anuradhapura has two train stations with train from Colombo to Anuradhapura running earliest  at 5:45. It is always advisable to check and book tickets in advance for the train journey especially if you want to travel first class.

Accommodation

Anuradhapura has many budget as well as upper end accommodation options though budget to middle range are easily available but not so much online. A decent room with TV and fridge can cost you around 3000 LKR.

Ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa
Gala Vihara Photo Credit : Mahesh Kularatne 


Date of inscription: 1982

Entry fees: 30$ for foreigners and 50% reduction for SAARC Nationals
Closest base point: Polonnaruwa, Dambulla or Kandy

Description

One of the best planned cities of ancient time Polonnaruwa became the capital after Chola invarion in 993 when Anuradhapura was abandoned as the capital. The city has one of the most efficient rain water harvesting and irrigation system which still supplies water for paddy cultivation during the dry and hot season. A huge shallow moat called Parakrama Samudra encircles the entire city, acting as a safety from the enemy and a lifeline for the citizens. The moat is so wide that it is difficult to see the other shore. Gal Vihara is the most visited monument of Polonnaruwa with beautiful monolithic statues of Buddha carved into stone it is considered to be place where the King used to have congregation of religious leaders.
Several story high Royal Palace stands tall in the centre of the city with a audience hall nearby. Made of thick brick walls and wood parts of its edifice remain today. It is said to have been burned during an invasion. Remains of many other buildings like the shrine for tooth relic can be seen. It is better to hire a tuk tuk or a bike to shuttle between the sites.

Getting there

Polonnaruwa is a 6-8 hour bus ride from Colombo. It is around 3 hours from Kandy a distance of 140 Km. Buses are readily available and are quite reliable though they can get a bit crowded. A daily train runs from Colombo to Trincomalee connecting Polonnaruwa. The train journey takes around 6 hours and train runs at 6 in the morning.

Accommodation

Many budget guesthouses are available near the Batticola road with prices ranging from 800-1000. Higher end accommodation is also available and can be booked online.

Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications

Galle
Old Town Roads of Galle
Date of inscription: 1988
Entry fees: free for most part though there is a 5$ fees for the museum.
Closest Base Point: Galle, Colombo  or Matara

Description

Galle is one of the biggest reminders of Sri Lanka once being a Dutch colony and is one of the best example of fortified city developed by Europeans in south, south-east Asia. Covering an area of 52 Ha the city was defended by 14 bastions. Laid on a grid pattern adopted to suit the terrain the city housed around 500 families and was the centre of development and later designated the administrative centre for south of the country by British.
Present day Galle retains its charm of a fortified city and walking along the ramparts is one of the best ways to enjoy the fort city. These walls sustained the tsunami which led to massive destruction along the coastal parts of the city. Though many do stay in the city it is an easy day’s trip from the neighbouring famous beach towns on the south coast. The city is considered as a heritage site for being an urban settlement which resonates with both European and South Asian vibes and traditions.
The fortified city houses a private museum apart from the government run museum. The museum displays collection of one man. As you move around you will see people engaged in crafts like weaving the lace and polishing stones. You will also be directed through the shops in the museum which sell gems and other valuables.

Getting there

Galle is around two and a half hours journey by train to Colombo and an hour or so to most of the neighbouring beach towns of Hikkaduwa and Mirissa. Buses are easily available and run at regular intervals. Bus to Colombo may take 2.5-4 hours depending on the service and traffic. Train and bus station is right across the fort entry.

Accommodation

Galle has perhaps the most luxurious of hotels in Sri Lanka along with the southern coastal areas. Many budget and cheap guest houses and hostels can be found though they come at a relatively higher price compared to other areas in Sri Lanka with the cheapest accommodation option around 1200LKR.

Sinhraja Reserve forest

Sinharaja Forest
Sinharaja Reserve forest Photo Credit: Nadeera Jayasinghe


Date of inscription: 1989

Entry fees: 660LKR plus compulsory guide
Closest Base Point: Galle, Deniyaya or Weddagala

Description

Though to be the last haven for lions of Sri Lanka and definitely the last of undisturbed rainforest area in Sri Lanka Sinharaja national park is around 3 hours drive from Galle. The park houses most number of endemic bird species in the island country, around 18 of the 20 found in Sri Lanka have been spotted in these forests. The 189 sq km area of the reserve consists of ridges and peaks with Hinipitigala being the highest peak at 1171m.
The forest receives around 3000mm of rain each year going over to 5000mm a year. The drier months of August September and January to April are the best time to visit the reserve. The humidity remains at about 87% with a constant temperature of 24C. Be prepared for leeches as there are many along the way.

Getting there

There are three access ways for the reserve
Access ways
Kudawa entrance – Colombo –> Kalawana –> Kudawa
Pitadeniya Entrance – Galle or Matara –> Deniyaya –> Pitadeniya
Morning Side Entrance — Galle or Matara –> Deniyaya –> Morning Side Estate
The most convenient way is to hire a tuk-tuk or a private vehicle and drive to the entrance. You can easily get a bus to Deniyaya from Galle and then hire a tuk-tuk. Getting to the park is not very convenient  and you might end up spending a night at the nearby town.

Accommodation

Accommodations in all ranges are easily available around Deniyaya and Weddagala. Budget places are available starting around 10-15$ or you can opt for higher end lodges for around 150$+.
Contact number for forest department run places and other details can be found here.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Adam'e Peak
View from top of Adam’s Peak
Date of inscription:2010
entry fees varies while climbing the SriPada is free you might pay around 30$ for entry to Horton Plains.
Closest base point: Varies covered below

Description:

Home to the sacred mountain of SriPada held in reverence by four religions the peak wilderness protected area joins in with Horton plains and Knuckles Conservation Forest to make the central highlands of Sri Lanka. The highlands rise to 2500 m above the sea level and are one of the last remnants of Montane forests. With famous World’s End the highlands are a not to be missed while visiting Sri Lanka.

The Peak Wilderness Protected Area.

Though a large part of these forests were cleaned to make space for tea plantations around Nuwara elliya the remaining areas were declared a sanctuary in 1940. Though you can enter the forest with permission from Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Department you will not find any lodge in the forest to spend the night in. Care should be taken during rainy season as the weather is unpredictable and you can be stranded in life threatening situations in case of sudden floods and heavy downpour. To get a bird’s eye view of the sanctuary climb the SriPada.

Horton Plains

Horton Plains
Baker falls in Horton Plains Photo Credit: Sankara Subramanian
Covered with grasslands interspersed with Montane forests and cloud forests. With its low hanging clouds the forests are known for world’s end where you see nothing when the mist and cloud settle in valley formed by this sheer cliff with 4000ft drop.  It said that Indian Ocean, which is 81 km away to the south, can be seen during clear visibility days. The forests are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna some of which are not just endemic to Sri Lanka but some of those are found nowhere else except Horton plains.

Knuckles Conservation Forest

A vast of expanse of forest covers these ranges and are subjected to almost all climate variations found in Sri Lanka. These forests present a great opportunity to trek on undisturbed paths and are easily accessible. The forests are not just a must visit because of the flora and fauna you will spot or the trek you will enjoy, they are a great visit for their prehistoric sites many of which have been recently identified. Many drip ledges and caves associated with Iron age have been identified.

Getting there and Accommodation

All of the three sites are easily reachable and closest base points for each are.
Peak Wilderness Protected Area– Hatton is around 3 hours by train from Kandy. Stay at one of the places in Nallathanniya if you are climbing the peak. If not you can stay at Hatton.
Horton plains are around an hour’s drive from Haputale. It is easiest to hire a auto rickshaw which may be available for 2500 round trip. Be sure to ask around town. Here you are best suited to walk out of the train station and walk in to your accommodation options. We stayed in the first place from the station.
Knuckles Conservation forests
From Colombo through Kandy, Matale Rattota and Illikkumbura ir tajing a route from Colombo through Galeweka, Navyka pallegana, illikkumbura ,a five hour journey.
Through Kandy, Teldeniya, Bambarekka and through Ragala, Thangappuwa Kobert pass, Lullwatta, Deenstan , each route take about 6 hours or little more , depending on traffic and weather changes.
Two more routes to reach Dumbara forest are through Hunnasgiriya, Lullwatta and Kobert pass, Kaikawala , Meemure.
Accommodations are available around Ragala and Hunnasgiriya with limited budget options though higher end resorts and accommodation are easily available.
Contact number for forest department run places and other details can be found here.

A Few More Things

Sri Lanka has started to see many more tourists ever since the end of civil war. Though there are many more things to do and places to see these world heritage sites will provide you a window into Sri Lanka’s history as well as natural reserves. The country has launched many programs and conservation efforts and the same reflect in many places. The entry tickets are exorbitantly high though to be fair there is a lot we get to see when we pay 30$ for Anuradhapura.
You might come across some tuk-tuk drivers who will offer to show you around without tickets for price that might be way below the ticket price. This happens in both the cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Though they might not be able to get you in all the ruins many have had no problem while on such a trip. It is your choice if you want to contribute to local economy or conservation.
It is important to be respectful not only of the nature abut also the traditions and beliefs of the locals. While visiting the sacred cities you will be required to take off your shoes. Do not take photographs with your back to Buddha as it is considered disrespectful. All around the country you will find helpful people who will explain these traditions to you apart from the same being posted up as a sign.

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