Artistic, historical and architectural gems from 1,500 years’ worth of dynasties and power struggles are contained within central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, home to ancient Buddhist temples; a staggering rock fortress that gives Cambodia’s Angkor Wat a run for its money; and the Ritigala Mountain, from which the monkey god Hanuman is said to have leapt across the sea to India.
One of the Cultural Triangle’s most famous sites is the Dambulla cave temple complex, an impossibly atmospheric site which is a sacred spot for Buddhists. There’s also the ruins of Anuradhapura, which was allegedly built around the Buddha’s ‘tree of enlightenment,’ and was one of the great cities of medieval Asia. Most impressive of all is the 5th century Sigiriya citadel, which looms over the landscape from the top of a 200m sheer column of rock.
Reaching Sigiriya is an incredible experience in itself, as you climb a series of vertiginous spiral staircases – orange-cloaked monks sprinting past you on the way – before you reach the beautiful boulder gardens, detailed frescoes, and ancient examples of town planning that make the citadel so impressive. While in the area, you may also wish to visit the buildings of Geoffrey Bawa: a famous architect who played a pioneering role in eco-design.
The famous tourist hotspots of the Cultural Triangle are a great jumping-off point for Sri Lanka’s east coast, where off-the-beaten-track adventures await. Still a little raw around the edges, the east remains primarily a land of traditional fishing villages, dusty lanes, and chickens clucking in the yard. It's a culturally fascinating combination of ocean-orientated Muslim communities, astonishing Hindu temples, crumbling colonial forts, dazzling markets and a coastline of killer surf, hidden bays and miles of white sand beaches. The east’s main hub is Trincomalee, home to the beautiful Jungle Beach resort.