Stretching north from Kandy up to Anuradhapura and east to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” covers a large swathe of the island’s northern plains and all its most notable ancient monuments. The name itself is an entirely modern construct, coined in the 1970s as a way of marketing the area – the region is more properly known by its traditional name of Rajarata, “The King’s Land”.
The Triangle is far and away the island’s most historically significant region, the cradle of Sinhalese civilization and home to its two great early capitals. The first, Anuradhapura, dominated island life for over a thousand years from the earliest flickerings of civilisation. Its second, Polonnaruwa, ushered in the period of Sri Lanka’s greatest cultural brilliance and economic power.
The remains of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are still two of the region’s major draws, along with the memorable cave temples of Dambulla and the extraordinary rocktop citadel of Sigiriya – the Cultural Triangle’s traditional Big Four. There are many other smaller sites to explore, however, many of them little visited and well off the beaten track. These include the remote forest monasteries of Ritigala and Arankele, the ruined cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara, the great Buddha statues of Aukana and Sasseruwa, the exquisite Hindu-style temple at Nalanda and the marvellous shrines and temples of Mihintale – all testament to the island’s two millennia of Buddhist worship and imperial dreams.
The Triangle is also a great place to go wildlife-watching, with several of the island’s premier national parks including Minneriya, Kaudulla and (a bit further afield) Wasogamuwa. Expect elephants, lots of them.
There are so many things to see in the Cultural Triangle and so many different ways of linking them up that putting together a tour can be a perplexing business – it’s very much a moveable feast with can be consumed in dozens of different ways.
Choosing a base (or bases) is the first decision. Many of the main sights (including Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa) are quite closely clustered together, meaning that you can visit them all from a single starting point, avoiding the need to be constantly moving hotels. The crossroads town of Habarana, roughly equidistant from Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, is a popular choice.
There’s acceptable if unexceptional accommodation in all the main centres, but pretty much all the nicest places to stay are away from the towns. In Habarana, the standout option is the big but surprisingly peaceful Cinnamon Lodge, set in vast, idyllic lakeside grounds. There’s also an excellent selection of places to stay dotted around the countryside between Dambulla and Sigiriya including the jungle-covered Heritance Kandalama, one of the island’s most remarkable hotels, and the bucolic Amaya Lake. Closer to Sigiriya is the remarkable Jetwing Vil Uyana, set amidst a man-made wetland constructed in the style of ancient Sri Lankan irrigation works, with luxurious villas and plenty of rustic chic. Or for something a bit more off the beaten track try one of the back-to-nature eco-resorts run by Back of Beyond.
Other good options include the romantic Brook Boutique Hotel and Spa, southwest of Dambulla, and the idyllic The Deer Park, near Polonnaruwa in the town of Giritale. Near Anuradhapura, the long-running Palm Garden Village hotel, 6km west of town, is a deservedly popular choice, and there’s also the swanky new Ullagalla Resort, 25km to the south.
You’ll need a day to see Polonnaruwa, and another day to explore Anuradhapura, although it’s well worth spending a second day at Anuradhapura in order to really get to grips with the place and also to make the short side trip to Mihintale. Dambulla and Sigiriya can be combined into another day, ideally visiting Sigiriya early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the crowds and heat are less intense.
The most obvious plan is to spend two nights at a hotel around Dambulla/Sigiriya, visiting Polonnaruwa on one day, and Dambulla and Sigiriya on the other. You could also include an extra half-day or day to visit Minneriya and/or Kaudulla national parks. From here you can head north to Anuradhapura (and, ideally, Mihintale), perhaps stopping off at Ritigala on the way (the Aukana and Sasseruwa Buddhas could also be included in this trip if you want to make a full day of it, although this involves a fair bit of backroads driving).
If you’re driving north from Kandy to Dambulla at either the beginning or end of your tour of the Triangle, be sure to stop off at Nalanda temple and the famous old monastery of Alu Vihara, both of which are right on the main road. There’s also a further cluster of little-visited sights on the eastern side of the Triangle including Yapahuwa, Panduwas Nuwara, Arankele and the lovely temple of Ridi Vihara, near the town of Kurunegala. You could make a day of these (you’ll need a car and driver) starting from Kurunegala or Kandy. Alternatively, if you’re driving up to the Triangle from Negombo or Colombo you’ll also pass within striking distance of several of these attractions, as well as the Aukana and Sasseruwa Buddhas.
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