After visiting the gleaming white Japanese Peace Pagoda which provided a wonderful view of Galle Fort, we climbed down toward the true destination of our day trip — Jungle Beach. Not another person in sight, just twin stretches of deserted sand trapped between the ocean and Rumassala Rock. Having just experienced the soul-crushing lameness of Unawatuna, this beach was exactly what we needed. Peace, solitude and gorgeous nature.
The fact that the Jungle Beach was completely empty was a minor miracle. It’s not exactly a secret — you can clearly see it from the Fort, and everybody in Galle knows exactly where it is. And getting there wasn’t even difficult: a 400 Rupee tuk-tuk drive to the pagoda, and then a quick ten-minute downhill hike. So, why do 72,319,310 people pack onto the beach at Unawatuna, and nobody comes here? I don’t know, and I don’t care.
This was the best bit of beach we’ve found during our weeks on Sri Lanka’s south coast. It’s worth the effort of searching out.
You’ll want to get an early start when you visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, for a few reasons. Mornings are cooler. The later the day gets, the more tourists arrive. And the archaeological site is so large that, even with a bike, you’ll need an entire day to see everything. But the chief reason is that you’ve just paid $25 to enter. And damned if you’re not going to get every single rupee’s worth.
You might assume that tickets would be sold at site’s entrance gate, but then… you might have forgotten what country you’re in. No, you have to make your way to the Archaeological Museum, which isn’t anywhere near the entrance. At 8am sharp, we stepped up to the desk and, with big grins plastered on our faces, plopped down $50 for two day passes. “Any chance we could get a map?” No map. “Or some information about the ruins?” No info. “How about a hug?”
Our plan was to bike to the northern end of the site (nearly 2.5 miles in length), and work our way back towards the south. This turned out to be a good idea; we were completely alone for the first part of the day, and had a good sense of the park’s layout before checking out specific sights.
First up was the amazing Tivanka-patamaghara image house. The exterior, under a heavy layer of scaffolding, was difficult to appreciate but the interior was breathtaking. Tivanka means “thrice-bent”, referring to the sassy pose of the giant Buddha housed within (bent at shoulder, knee and waist). There was also an impressive collection of original paintings on the walls.
One of our favorite sights in Polonnaruwa was the modest and graceful lotus-shaped pond, near the image house. Still in a remarkable state of conservation, this was thought to be used for ritual baths. It would make an awesome hot tub.
Probably the most famous of Polonnaruwa’s ancient monuments are the four Buddhas of Gal Vihara. Carved from a single rock, these statues are beautifully upheld; the massive reclining Buddha is especially revered. Unfortunately, these amazing relics of the past have been shielded from the sun by an enormous roof of concrete and steel: a modern monstrosity which ruins the magic of the place, and ensures that the statues can never be properly photographed.
Further south, we found the remains of the Alahana Pirivena monastery. These included the Kiri Vihara, a nice-looking white stupa, and the awesome Lankatikale which is a temple that protects a giant headless Buddha statue between its narrow walls (seen in the top pic). A bit further south is the Buddha Seema Pasada chapter house.
The ruins of Polonnaruwa are nicely preserved and the light forest setting is quite beautiful. After we had explored the Buddha Seema Pasada, though, the crowds began to appear. Whereas we were always able to find pockets of solitude in the extensive grounds of Anuradhapura, there was no escape in Polonnaruwa. Weary, we sat down at a canteen near a large pond, for coconut and rotti. This bit of rest and relaxation was vital — we weren’t yet halfway through the ruins, and still had a long day in front of us.
A few kilometers east of Anuradhapura is the small town of Mihintale, famous as the place that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. While on a hunt in the woods, the reigning Sinhalese King Tissa encountered a monk named Mahinda, who had been sent to the island by the Indian King Ashoka to spread the faith. Mahinda found a willing convert in King Tissa, and Sri Lankans quickly embraced their ruler’s new religion. Ever since, the country’s Sinhalese majority has been staunchly, proudly Buddhist.
Today, the mountainous site of Mihintale is filled with stupas, ruins, statues and temples dedicated to the glory of the historic encounter between Tissa and Mahinda. It’s a wonderful place to visit on a day trip from Anuradhapura but, before leaving, make sure to lace your sneakers up tightly and do some stretching. To see everything Mihintale has to offer, you’ll have to climb 1840 stairs. Stop laughing, that’s not a joke.
From the bottom of the mountain, the path up looks ominous. Luckily, it’s split up rather frequently by cool things to see. After the first fifteen minutes, we found ourselves at the remains of a large stupa called the Kantanka Chetiya. Around the back is a set of caves which can be explored. We spotted giant squirrels here, and watched a family of langurs play in the trees before heading back up the hill.
After climbing hundreds of more stairs, we arrived at the main terrace, which is an active place of worship requiring the removal of our shoes. A large white stupa is the centerpiece, flanked by statues of Tissa and Mahinda. Around the stupa, a number of paths lead to various sites: up to a seated Buddha, then down to the cave where Mahinda slept, then up to a lookout point, then over to a pond where monkeys were swimming. And then we seriously wanted to collapse.
But the path continued on. After recovering our shoes, we climbed yet more stairs to arrive at another stupa, where a monk invited us into an adjacent temple and smilingly urged us to make a contribution. We were exhausted, easy prey. Past this, another awful, endless flight of steps led to Et Vehera, where we found another small, completely ruined stupa and a view which stretched to Anuradhapura. Gleefully, I looked about — yes, we were as high as possible! Not another step remained! My calves were burning, and I laid down for a bit, daydreaming about all the people who’d be fainting at the sight of my newly muscular legs, or shyly approaching to ask if they could but touch my bulging, heroic calves. But I would not let them! They may take pictures, or present offerings, or compose poems to my strength…
Later that night, as I was laying exhausted on the bed, stuffing chips into my mouth and lazily drinking a beer which had mostly slobbered down my chin to form in a fetid pool at the bottom of my neck, I allowed the daydreams of my calf-worshipping acolytes to continue. So what? I think 1840 steps earns a man a little self-delusion.
An extensive complex of ancient cave temples is found in Dambulla, a bustling town just twelve kilometers from Sigiriya. It’s awfully convenient that two of Sri Lanka’s best cultural sites are within such easy access of each other, and we visited one right after the other. The Dambulla Temple was constructed in the 1st century BC and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
On arriving at the temple’s gate, we were immediately put off by its gaudy modern facade, which makes the complex look suspiciously like a bargain China Buffet. But after buying tickets and skirting around the massive golden Buddha and smiling dragon, we found a much better atmosphere on the other side. Rocks, forest, monkeys and, after a steep fifteen-minute climb, incredible views which stretch to the Lion Rock.
The temple is spread across five caves of varying size. We started at the back, in cave #5, which is the best way to tackle them, since they become more impressive as you walk back towards the entrance. The caves are rather shallow, the maximum height reaching no more than about ten meters, and are filled to the brim with ancient sculpture and artwork. Over 150 Buddha statues and a mind-blowing collection of murals that cover over 20,000 square feet.
The caves had been used for shelter long before Sinhalese King Vattagamini Abhaya found refuge here. After having been driven from Anuradhapura by an Indian invasion, he lived in the caves for fifteen years, biding his time, nursing his wounds and building an army. He eventually returned to the capital and drove out the foreigners. In celebration, he built the Abhayagiri Stupa on the site of his victory, and Dambulla’s Cave Temple at the place of his refuge.
At over 160 feet in length, Cave #2, the Temple of the Great Kings, is the largest and most impressive of the five. Buddha statues line the walls and the murals cover every inch of ceiling. Two sections paintings show the attempts of Mara (the Buddhist Satan) to distract Buddha during his meditation under the Bodhi Tree. In the first, Buddha sits in the “Have No Fear” pose, while on all sides a horrifying array of demons shake the earth and threaten attack. In the next, Mara has switched tactics and sent a bevy of busty beauties to tempt Lord Buddha from the path of enlightenment.
Although the murals have been touched up and repainted numerous times over the centuries, the age of the caves is jaw-dropping. It’s an amazing feeling to be in a dark mountain temple, which looks much as it did over 2200 years ago when a victorious Sinhalese King was celebrating the recovery of his kingdom. Dambulla is yet another must-see experience in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.
Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.
Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.
Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.
Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.
One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.
Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.
Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.
The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love traveling and learning about new cultures, so we've decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists would get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.