"Don't know much about history..." Well, I am actually a complete history geek. My high school history teacher was great and ignited a big interest and love for anything old in me (No, not in him! He looked anything but Indiana Jones...). So needless to say I was beyond excited when we arrived at Cinnamon Habarana Lodge and were not only greeted by a gazillion monkeys but also by our very own archeology professor.
Sri Lanka Itinerary - The North Central Province
For our Sri Lanka itinerary through the North Central Province that TBCAsia had organized for us, Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne, who we quickly just called Professor, was going to be our very own Indie. We were in for a treat and off to explore the most important historical places in Sri Lanka.
Each morning after a breakfast of beetroot and spinach hoppers and all the curry, we set out from our hotel, professor in tow, to discover some Sri Lanka highlights and everything that the North Central Province has to offer.
Dambulla Cave Temple
First up was the Dambulla Cave Temple, a highlight in the Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka. With over 153 Buddha statues and 2,100 m² of murals, it is the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. While some restoration work was done the original paintwork is still from the 1st century BC.
Be prepared for a little hike to get up there (well worth it and also - more monkeys!). It wasn't too bad but I was definitely in awe to see many older people who go there each day to pray. They definitely put me to shame the way they quickly and without huffing and puffing got up there.
You could tell that it was a sacred space and I was surprised to find that while people were minding their own prayers they made me feel welcome to share this space with them. Some curious looks from both sides, some smiles - I felt welcome, even though it was pretty obvious that I wasn't there to pray. Still, a beautiful experience and my first glimpse that Sri Lankan hospitality extends to all areas of life.
One of THE best places to visit in Sri Lanka is the city of Anuradhapura, one of the country's ancient capitals and one of the most famous UNESCO heritage sites.
Keep in mind that this used to be a city - you will need to get transport to get around and definitely take your time. We saw the most important temples and stupas in one day, but at the end, we were properly stupafid as our professor called it.
Some of the stupas contain enough masonry to build a town for twenty-five thousand inhabitants (according to Wikipedia) which makes about 2 million bricks. When faced with such proportions I asked our professor if he worked on its excavation. He just giggled and said no, his stupa was bigger than this. Boys!
If you are templed out, I recommend you head over to see some holy greenery in Anuradhapura. The Sacred Bodi tree was something I was incredibly keen to see and definitely one of the Sri Lanka highlights. After all, I have planted quite a few trees myself and think it is an awesome practice to declare trees sacred.
This one is even more special as it is a sapling from the sacred Indian Bodhgaya - the tree Buddha was sitting underneath when he got enlightened. Being from 3rd Century BC this is the oldest historical tree on record!
And I? I was completely disappointed when I saw it. I even may or may not have told our professor that I thought it was underwhelming, something I got teased for a lot for the remainder of our trip.
What can I say? It really was underwhelming to me, surrounded by walls and shrines - I wanted to hug it but that was definitely not an option.
Mind you, I thought it interesting that this tree got its own guards during the Sri Lankan civil war and that even today it is not only sacrilege to harm the tree but seen as an act of terrorism against Sri Lanka.
*Just note that to visit any holy place in Sri Lanka you will need to take your shoes and hats off and have shoulders and knees covered. And yes, that goes for guys as well - a few of my guy friends had to wrap a sarong around them as their shorts were too short!*
From Anuradhapura head to Mihintale, another Buddhist pilgrimage site for the perfect sunset view. My favorite was the Aradhana Gala, a rock pilgrims climb up (or in my case pull yourself up). I only made it halfway up because we shared the place with a few school classes and my weird acrophobia kicked in. But the view over the Maha Stupa and a white Buddha statue for sunset was breathtaking - definitely one of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Mind you, I was happy to be down again and was greeted by some of those school kids with laughter, lots of 'where are you from?', 'what's your name?' and 'how old are you?'. My objection that the latter is not a question you ask a girl was ignored until I told them
So, Sigiriya. Man, I was scared of that hike but it can not miss from any Sri Lanka itinerary. I am not really fit at the moment and I also didn't bring any hiking shoes but had a choice of Converse or Birkenstocks. I chose the latter and really shouldn't have worried. Sigiriya is mainly neat steps. A lot of them but you will not need hiking boots.
Sigiriya, meaning Lion Rock in Sinhalese, is a 200m high rock formation that was chosen by King Kasyapa for his new capital in the 5th century. Just wrap your head around this - he actually had a palace built on top of it - no elevators, but a gate that looks like lion paws thus the name. To this day it is considered on of the best examples of ancient urban planning and you can still see why once you made your way up there. After the king's death, his successor returned the capital to Anuradapura and Sigiriya became a monastery.
For the climb, make sure you take enough water, sunscreen and unless you are on a blogger trip too and can
annoy ask other people to take your pictures, pack your selfie stick - this is a view you don't want to miss. For those of you thinking it might be a good place to take some aerial views with a drone - don't bother, drones are strictly prohibited, not all Sri Lanka highlights are meant to be photographed from above.
The best view of Sigiriya is either from the water garden below or from adjacent Pidurangala Rock. I didn't care for another climb and a scramble but those who went up absolutely loved the view. If you are not keen either, I recommend getting up early for a sunrise shot from the nearby village.
Hurule Eco Park/ Minneriya
Places to visit in Sri Lanka also include one of its many nationalparks in search of wildlife. Yala has leopards, Minneriya has the elephants and so it was only fitting that the tour with the Midnight Blue Elephant on board headed there. Or was supposed to because as I was in Sri Lanka during rainy season we headed to close by Hurule instead for better chances to see some.
As it goes with safaris the one and only golden rule: you need patience. We didn't have any and after not seeing elephants for over an hour we basically gave up and practiced our karaoke skills instead. You would assume that this sealed our fate and chased the elephants away for good, but quite the opposite. All of a sudden, we saw them.
Mama elephant, papa elephant, baby elephants and another mama elephant, this time, a pregnant one. Cue a lot of elephant selfies and we were a happy bunch - a Sri Lanka highlight for me!
Rule number 2 of safaris - do not forget your zoom lens at home like someone I know may or may not have done or be lucky enough to get super close.
For most of us, one of the best parts about traveling is meeting the locals. Even if they ask you how old you are and then repeat it very loudly for the world to hear. Yes, I am looking at you, little boy from Mihintale!
But usually, meeting the locals is easier said than done. At least I don't really walk around knocking on people's doors - do you?
I was happy to learn that the hotel can organize village walks to show you a glimpse of rural life in the Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka. This included literally walking into people's front yard in Hiriwaddunna to learn more about local plants, a catamaran ride and a cooking class where we learned how to make coconut roti from scratch as well as coconut sambal. It must have been one of my favorite meals during the entire trip - is anybody else as obsessed as I am with coconut everything?
While you will need to make do without your personal Indie, I highly recommend the Cinnamon Habarana Lodge as a starting point to discover the North Central Province on your Sri Lanka itinerary. From here it is easy to travel to all of the places mentioned (no drive was longer than 1.5 hours) and the hotel will gladly organize your excursions.
Have you been? What are your Sri Lanka highlights?