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Sri Lanka’s Attractions

Top 10 attractions in Sri Lanka

With its endless miles of golden beaches and abundant natural riches, Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s ultimate tropical paradises. However, it also has tremendous physical, cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as a long and distinguished history enriched by centuries of foreign influence.

Ancient City of Sigiriya

Rising from the central plains, the iconic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most dramatic sight. Near-vertical walls soar to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa, and there are spellbinding vistas across mist-wrapped forests in the early morning.

Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily, and you’ll have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases attached to sheer walls to reach the top. On the way you’ll pass a series of quite remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock. The surrounding landscape – lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and quiet shrines – and the excellent site museum, only add to Sigiriya’s rock-star appeal.

Lovely place to wander - Galle Fort

Galle divides into two parts: the bustling if nondescript new town, where you’ll find the bus and train stations; and the nearby Galle Fort, enclosed by towering bastions, which is where you’ll find the old Dutch town. The contrast between the two could hardly be more striking: as you head through the imposing walls, the pace of life changes and the centuries seem to slip away. Galle Fort seems barely to have changed in two hundred years, with low, quiet and mercifully traffic-free streets lined with old villas, churches and other mementoes of the Dutch era.

The Temple of the Tooth Relic

Just north of the lake, the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha.

During puja (offerings or prayers), the heavily guarded room housing the tooth is open to devotees and tourists. However, you don’t actually see the tooth. It’s kept in a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa), which contains a series of six dagoba caskets of diminishing size.

The entire temple complex covers a large area and as well as the main shrine there are numerous other temples and museums within the complex. The following are some of the key sites.

Anuradhapura Sacred City

The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas, soaring brick towers, ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the ambience at Polonnaruwa.

Current-day Anuradhapura is a rather pleasant albeit sprawling city. Mature trees shade the main guesthouse areas, and the main street is orderly compared to the ugly concrete agglomerations elsewhere.

Hikkaduwa & Around

Hikkaduwa has been a firm fixture on the Sri Lankan tourist map since the 1970s. This long exposure to international tourism has left it a little worse for wear. Uncontrolled and unplanned development has meant that the swaying palms of yesteryear have given way to an almost unbroken strip of cheap guesthouses and restaurants that vie among themselves to be the closest to the lapping waves. This in turn has led to terrible beach erosion, and in parts the once-famous sand has now been almost completely replaced with sand bags fighting a vain battle to retain what little beach remains (although in recent years sand does seem to be beginning to return to large parts of the beach – a trend we can only hope continues). To make matters worse, the appalling Colombo–Galle road, with its asphyxiating smog and crazy bus drivers, runs right through the middle of it all, which can make stepping outside of your guesthouse as deadly as a game of Russian roulette!

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

The last major undisturbed area of rainforest in Sri Lanka, this forest reserve occupies a broad ridge at the heart of the island’s wet zone. On most days the forest is shrouded by copious rainclouds that replenish its deep soils and balance water resources for much of southwestern Sri Lanka. Recognising its importance to the island’s ecosystem, Unesco declared the Sinharaja Forest Reserve a World Heritage Site in 1989.

The only way to get about the reserve is by foot, and excellent park guides, or freelance guides available through many hotels, can lead you along slippery trails pointing out the wealth of stunning plant, bird and animal-life.

Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home

This home, helping to care for the area’s injured elephants, is on the main road about 5km west of the Uda Walawe National Park entrance. Supported by the Born Free Foundation , the complex is a halfway house for orphaned elephants. After rehabilitation, the elephants are released back into the wild, many into the Uda Walawe National Park. Although you can’t get up close and personal with the elephants, a visit at feeding time is still a lot of fun.

At the time of research 98 elephants had been rehabilitated at the Elephant Transit Home and subsequently released. A boisterous group of around 40 juvenile and teenage pachyderms are currently there. Most 4WD operators include a visit here in their trips.

Dambulla cave temple

The beautiful Royal Rock Temple sits 100m to 150m above the road in the southern part of Dambulla. The hike up to the temples begins along a vast, sloping rock face with steps in some places. The ticket office is at the gate near the monstrous Golden Temple, and your receipt is checked at the entrance at the base of the hill. Cultural Triangle tickets are not valid here. Photography is allowed inside the caves, but you’re not allowed to photograph people. There are superb views over the surrounding countryside from the level of the caves; Sigiriya is clearly visible.

The caves’ history as a place of worship is thought to date from around the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba (Vattajamini Ahhaya), driven out of Anuradhapura, took refuge here. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples. Further improvements were made by later kings, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interiors gilded, earning the place the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock).

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Kings ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa 800 years ago, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. From here, free-marketeers haggled for rare goods and the pious prayed at any one of its numerous temples. The glories of that age can be found in archaeological treasures which give a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. You’ll find the archaeological park a delight to explore, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs and temples, statues and stupas – in a compact core. The Quadrangle alone is worth the trip.

That Polonnaruwa is close to elephant-packed national parks only adds to its popularity. And the town itself makes a pleasant base for a day or two, fringed by a huge, beautiful tank with a relaxed ambience.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

One of the latest inclusions on the list of World Heritage Sites, under UNESCO, is the Central Highlands region of Sri Lanka. Located in the south-central wet zone of the island, they consist of some of the most important conservational regions of the country, including the Horton Plains National Park, the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, and the Knuckles Conservation Forest.

This area is about 2,500 metres above sea level, and hosts an extraordinary variety of endangered flora and fauna which are not found anywhere else in the country. That is the reason why it has been regarded as an ecologically rich biodiversity hotspot

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