Sri Lanka: The Cultural Triangle

It seemed to me that a lot of people that travel to Sri Lanka hire drivers and are driven around in luxurious aircon conditions, opting only to take the prettiest of train journeys recommended in whichever travel guide they’re stuck in.

That’s unfortunate and to me completely unnecessary, although I don’t judge, they’re relatively inexpensive and great when you’re short on time and Sri Lankan transport isn’t always the most reliable.

I however chose to travel exclusively by train and local bus, because it’s bloody brilliant!

Sure sure, it’s frustrating and a little stressful at times when you have no idea where the bus stops, or if it’s going to stop at all where you want, but it also provides the best (or worst dependent on your disposition) entertainment, as was proved when we took the bus from Kandi to Damboola.

2 hours of the cheesiest most dramatic pop videos I have ever witnessed, every pop band circa 1990’s had nothing on these guys, I’m talking killing, suicide, kidnap, manipulation, I felt like I was watching an episode of Eastenders! Most of it seemingly revolving around arranged or forbidden relationships or jealous lovers for some hierarchal reason. Whatever the case I sloped off the bus in a practically depressive state. It had me questioning how comfortable the younger generation truly is with the older traditions regarding love or women for that matter.

However that’s another post, I’m talking about another kind of culture, the crumbly kind that you can walk round for hours and doesn’t leave you mind numb from all the bad acting.

The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka involves 3 sites in relatively close proximity and provides a variety of insights into what makes up Sri Lanka’s history.

Damboola Cave Temples sit a sweaty walk up a hill behind a huge golden Buddha which commandeers the skyline as you enter the town from Kandi.
These beautiful ornate caves house a reclining buddha as well as a plethora of other, you guessed it, Buddha statues, the cave walls/ceilings are painted in recurrent colourful buddha icons and illustrations, giving it a well loved kind of feel that kind of gave me neck ache just imagining how long it took to finish.

Through the doorway of one of the cave temples

Through the doorway of one of the cave temples

Perhaps tarnished only a little by the fluorescent lighting and wild children tearing around your feet (although I’ve heard they’re not a permanent feature- the children that is), the peaceful and eery atmosphere echoes through all 5 caves with the views outside the gleaming white terraces that lace the entrances attracting just as many “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” as the history within, with views across to Siguryia’s Lions Rock as well as the seemingly endless rolling green hills.

Outside the cave temples

Outside the cave temples

Getting a close up with the lovely giant Buddha back down the steps is pretty impressive as are the monk statues lined up to the left of him, although pretty much Buddha’d out for the day at this point I amused myself instead with the monkeys using monks heads as pruning perches and places to generally relax and cup their balls. Spiritual.

The largest sitting Buddha with this mudra in the world... apparently

The largest sitting Buddha with this mudra in the world… apparently

I spared you any close ups of the dirty monkey action...

I spared you any close ups of the dirty monkey action…

Damboola itself doesn’t necessitate a nights stay and the caves could be seen in a fly in visit, we could of saved our selves and our sanity a night if we’d known this.

After a night in possibly the most questionable accommodatoin of our travels yet, including Mel launching across the room as yet another foreign and unidentifiable insect flew/bounced and scared the living day lights out of us, we stepped onto another bus ride.

This time thankfully with no melodramatic videos, we arrived in the sleepy town of Polonnaruwa, home to the ruins of an ancient city built by the rulers of the Sri Lanka of old. All that remains now of this great kingdom is some pretty majestic ruins that nature, it seems, is determined to take back.


Stone work laced with green moss and ageing Buddhas, once carving a lone figure now stand the centre piece in a bouquet of unforgiving shrubbery.

We hired bikes from a guy on the side of the road and rode from the rather impressive old palace through ruined temples, bathing houses, monks quarters and unidentifiable mounds of rubble in the blaring sun light. We relished the breeze as we whizzed from one site to the next on our rickety bikes with questionable brakes and non-existent suspension. At each site, as is custom and respectful, we removed our shoes, a task that became more torturous as the day went on, in the end it became rather reminiscent of being a child pretending the floor was lava, leaping from shaded spot to patchy grass in order to protect the sensitive skin on our feet.

Responsible picture taking on our bikes

Responsible picture taking on our bikes

Deep red bricks provided beautiful stark contrast against the green and towering stupas peaked over treetops, some relics we savoured alone and others we were simply swept along with the crowds, each vying for their idyllic secluded photograph.



The third stop on the cultural triangle loop is Sigiriya, famous for the ‘lion rock’ and notoriously overcrowded in the early morning, everyone trying to make their way up the staircase for stunning views of the awe inspiring landscape.

In Kandy I’d met some guys that had told me of the sister rock, Pidurangala, and raved about the views over towards the famous rock and the serene undisturbed setting, with a fraction of the entrance fee (about £2.50 compared to around £15).

I was wary, would we be missing out not going the well travelled route? Would I regret the missed opportunity to walk the ruins of the place that adorns so many adverts for Sri Lanka? After we scaled the last few rocks and summited the relatively easy and short climb (perhaps half and hour) I knew we’d made the right decision. It takes around 30-45minutes to climb up and I recommend some good footwear, it was slippy in places and the friendly, smiling monk that gave us our ticket rightly warned us of a false turnoffs and unkept steps.

Group photo looking over Lions Rock

Group photo looking over Lions Rock

Although perhaps not as mapped out, the wilder less structured path gave the feel you were exploring something a little more off the beaten track. The views that greeted us at the top were breathtaking, we were looking upon Lions Rock with an unhindered view, there was no pushing or sly elbows to the ribs, no one was standing in the way of my photos, we were alone. An increasingly hard feat in Asia. The rocks surface is quite vast and you could walk around for panoramic views and just to generally bask in the beauty of your surroundings.

A buddha on the way up to top

A buddha on the way up to top

It reminded me a little that we travel to explore and search outside of the confines of the ‘normal’ 9 to 5 routines and separate to that which we are told to do by others.

Lonely Planet holds all the answers no more than the local paper, the world changes faster than any one can publish a book, we must create our own footpaths in this world. One persons treasure could be another persons rubbish.

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