Sri Lanka – Kandy, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Passikudah, Habarana, Colombo

Our fourth visit to Sri Lanka was an action packed 10 day getaway, hatched as a “thank you” present to Becky’s aunts and cousin who have been taking care of us this past year in Vietnam. Sri Lanka ETAs (electronic travel authorization) were super easy to get (even for Vietnamese citizens), so we mapped out a few highlights of Sri Lanka, hired a private van and driver, and made guesthouse bookings.

Unfortunately, ticket prices (for foreigners only) for almost all of Sri Lanka’s main sights have skyrocketed as the island has become firmly entrenched upon any Indian Ocean itinerary. We were shocked and dismayed to realize that sights like Sigiriya Ancient Rock Fortress have priced themselves beyond consideration. Locals pay a mere Rs 60 while foreigners pay a whopping 30 USD, or Rs 4,800! What a rip off. Especially when we compare it to visiting a UNESCO World Heritage sight like the Taj Mahal ($20) in nearby India, there is no way that Sri Lanka can demand $30 to climb up to the top of a rock. The greed and shortsightedness of Sri Lanka’s extortionate pricing scheme really put a damper on our plans for a return visit, so we decided to custom our tour to include as few of the pricier sights as possible, while still giving Becky’s family a taste of Sri Lanka.

Highlights of our tour were:

1. Elephant Safari at Kaudulla National Park – seeing over 100 wild Asian elephants gathered by a lake in the late afternoon was magical
2. Dambulla Cave Temple – still impressive even after the second visit. The Buddha statues and paintings here are mesmerizing
3. Polonnaruwa ancient city – phenomenal and worthy of a full day visit. We opted for Polonnaruwa instead of Anuradhapura due to the sheer variety of ancient sites to see, as we remembered that Anuradhapura consists mainly of stupas
4. Colombo’s religious buildings. The Buddhist temples of Kelaniya, Gangaramaya and Seema Malaka should not be missed. We especially liked Jami Ul-Afar Mosque, which stands out as one of the most unique looking mosques in the world. And last but not least, the Hindu Temple of Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil is notable because of its detailed stone carvings. Colombo is truly a melting pot of religious tolerance and faiths…we loved all of its religious icons.
5. Relaxing and enjoying seafood at the lovely beach of Passikuda

Ancient Buddhist temple of Lankatilaka Vihara; Udunuwara Interior temple paintings; Lankatilaka Vihara Buddha statues; Lankatilaka Vihara Temple ceiling, Lankatilaka Vihara Lankatilaka Vihara temple, visible on the Rs 500 note Wood carver; Udunuwara Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha statue, a massive hilltop landmark providing amazing views of Kandy Climbing up to check out the Buddha statue View of Kandy from the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha statue Cultural dance show; Kandy Lake Club Fantastic costumes and performances at the Kandy Lake Club cultural show We enjoyed the hour long cultural show. Be sure to book tickets online to score front row seats (price is the same online or in person, Rs 1000 per adult) Durian munchers; balcony of The Peppermint guesthouse; Kandy 5:30 am view of the Temple of the Tooth, located in the Royal Palace Complex; Kandy Don't visit on a Sunday if you want to avoid the crowds! We were shocked to see so many early morning visitors. Entering the tunnel to the Temple of the Tooth A massive crowd gathers to view the sacred tooth relic; Temple of the Tooth Interior of the Temple of the Tooth Temple of the Tooth; Kandy Walls of the Royal Palace Complex; Kandy Carved details on the Temple of the Tooth; Kandy International Buddhist Museum Water fountain outside Kandy's Temple of the Tooth Lotus flowers for sale; Temple of the Tooth Saying goodbye to Pringi and her husband, our friendly Kandy hosts at The Peppermint homestay Pilgrims visiting the Aluvihare Rock Temple, located 30 KM north of Kandy in Matale Reclining statue of Lord Buddha; Aluvihare Rock Temple Ornate entrance to a monastery cave; Aluvihare Rock Temple Beautiful frescoes and Buddha statues inside the monastery caves; Aluvihare Rock Temple Tucked away on a hill, the Aluvihare Rock Temple dates back to the 3rd Century BC Buddha statue; Aluvihare Rock Temple Ingenious coconut husk wall; spice garden near Matale Striking a pose at Nalanda Gedige, an ancient Hindu Temple Di Phuong feeds the friendly dogs at Nalanda Gedige Scenery on our climb up to Dambulla Cave Temple Save yourself a hassle and ensure you buy a ticket before you hike up to the temple as the staff here will not let you pass this entrance without one; Dambulla Cave Temple There are five caves (shrine rooms) at the Dambulla Cave Temple complex Interior view; Dambulla Cave Temple Jaw dropping frescoes and Buddha Statues; Dambulla Cave Temple Buddha statues; Dambulla Cave Temple Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. We expected massive crowds but were pleasantly surprised during our mid-afternoon visit Reclining Buddha; Dambulla Cave Temple Massive Buddha sculptures; Dambulla Dambulla Golden Temple Gold stupa at the Dambulla Golden Temple Sri Lankan hoppers (crepes) for breakfast; Seyara Holiday Resort The ladies posing at the King's Council Chamber; ruins of Island Park; Polonnaruwa A Sri Lankan couple taking wedding photos; Polonnaruwa Potgul Vihara Statue, Polonnaruwa A family of toque macaque monkeys, unique for their unusual whorl of hair that grows from a central crown. These monkeys are endemic to Sri Lanka Family photo at the Royal Palace Group; Polonnaruwa Impressive staircase leading up to the audience hall; Polonnaruwa Locals visit the King's swimming pool; Polonnaruwa Souvenirs for sale; Polonnaruwa Sacred quadrangle; Polonnaruwa Atadage, a 54 stone pillar house believed to be the only surviving building built by King Vijayabahu I; Sacred Quadrangle Curved columns of Nissanka Latha Mandapaya, Sacred Quadrangle The Vatadage, a circular relic house, stands in the center of the Sacred Quadrangle; Polonnaruwa Dancing dwarfs carved into the Vatadage's staircase; Polonnaruwa Staircase dragon and lion carvings; Vatadage Temple opposite the Vatadage; Sacred Quadrangle Buddha statues; Sacred Quadrangle Moonstone carving; Sacred Quadrangle Galpota (book of stone) inscriptions; Sacred Quadrangle Seven storey Satmahal Prasada; Sacred Quadrangle Pabalu Vehera, the 3rd largest dagaba (stupa) in Polonnaruwa Rankot Vihara, a 54 meter tall stupa Shiva Devale No. 2, one of the few Hindu temples remaining in Polonnaruwa A troop of gray langur monkeys; Lankatilaka Gray langur in an angry mood Gray langur monkeys dare visitors to disturb them at Lankatilaka ruins; Polonnaruwa A curious gray langur monkey checks us out 700 year old Dagaba Kiri Vihara ("milk white stupa"); the best preserved unrestored dagaba in Polonnaruwa Chi Xuan and Di Tam gaze at the sitting Buddha; Gal Vihara Admiring the Buddha statues of Gal Vihara, carved from a single massive granite rock View of the 7 m standing Buddha and 14 m reclining Buddha statues of Gal Vihara The girls wowed by amazing Gal Vihara A toque macaque mother and baby; Polonnaruwa Crumbling exterior of Thivanka Image House, the most northerly site in Polonnaruwa ancient city Fantastic stone carvings of the Thivanka Image House The lotus pond, used by Buddhist pilgrims to bathe on their way to the Tivanka Patamaghara Image House Road side fruit stand; Kaduruwela Betel nut seller; Passikudah Passikudah Beach Maalu Maalu Resort & Spa; Passikudah Beach decor; Maalu Maalu Resort Enjoying the lovely swimming pool of The Calm Resort & Spa; Passikudah Beach time; Passikuda Enjoying our lazy days at The Calm; Passikudah Excellent seafood at the Calm Resort; Passikudah Uniformed school girls walking to school Medirigiriya Vatadage, a Buddhist monastery from the 3rd century BC and 13th century AD Lizard sunning itself; Medirigiriya Vatadage Buddhist ruins; Medirigiriya Vatadage Buddha statues on display at Medirigiriya Vatadage Prayer flags; Medirigiriya Vatadage Lotus flowers for sale; Medirigiriya Vatadage Fresh coconut juice, 6 for $2 Robby and the coconut seller; Medirigiriya Vatadage Roughly 200 elephants live at Kaudulla National Park. Every afternoon, the elephants gather to graze by the lake's edge Elephant family portrait Only a handful of elephants have tusks at the Kaudulla National Park Robby gets excited to see a bull elephant stroll past us; Kaudulla National Park We spent about 2 hours watching the elephants play around at Kaudulla National Park - a highlight of our visit to Sri Lanka! Posing with our jeep safari vehicle; Kaudulla National Park Bye for now...see you next time! Water buffalo grazing right next to the elephants at Kaudulla National Park Enjoying our dinner at Disna Homestay; Habarana Becky with the lovely owners of Disna Homestay; Habarana Robby with Ishan, our amazing Sri Lankan driver At a height of 11.36 meters, Aukana is the tallest ancient Buddha statue in Sri Lanka Hindu God Ganesh; near Aukana Buddha Statue The steep staircase leading to the citadel of Yapahuwa, a medieval capital of Sri Lanka Yapahuwa staircase Yapahuwa Lion stone sculpture, which was on the old  Rs 10 note Becky poses at the top of the Yapahuwa staircase Still plenty more stairs to climb to reach the peak of Yapahuwa Amazing vistas from the top of Yapahuwa Panorama of the ruined Stupa and lake at the summit of Yapahuwa Rock Kelaniya Buddhist Temple is 7 KM from Colombo and well worth a visit 18 foot stone statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara; Kelaniya Temple Amazing interior detail at Kelaniya's image house Paintings depicting key events in the life of Buddha on display inside Kelaniya's Temple Di Phuong stands next to a massive elephant carving; Kelaniya Temple Offerings at the base of the Bo tree enclosure; Kelaniya Temple Pilgrims line up to make an offering to Buddha; Kelaniya Temple Cheeky temple carvings; Kelaniya Temple Lotus flower vendors; Kelaniya Temple We were lucky to visit the Rowing Club tonight as the Colombo club emerged victorious in the 118 year rivalry between Colombo and Madras! And yes, we drank grog from the championship cup Meeting up with Phiroze to celebrate Colombo's win over Madras; Colombo Rowing Club Di Phuong, Chi Xuan and Di Tam posing next to a statue near the entrance of Gangaramaya Temple Colorful interior; Gangaramaya Temple Buddhists praying inside Gangaramaya Temple Interior courtyard display; Gangaramaya Temple A row of Buddha statues; Gangaramaya Temple Buddha statues at Gangaramaya Temple Purple jade Buddha; Gangaramaya Temple Stuffed elephant; Gangaramaya Temple Face mask on display; Gangaramaya Temple Devotee making offerings; Gangaramaya Temple Golden statue near the entrance of late 19th century Seema Malaka Temple Wedding photo session; Seema Malaka Temple Base of Seema Malaka Temple Courtyard; Seema Malaka Temple Buddhas overlooking Lake Beira; Colombo Galle Face Hotel; Colombo Front facade of Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (Red Masjid); Colombo Architectural detail of Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque Interior view of Jami Ul-Alfar, a candy cane colored mosque that is one of the oldest in Colombo Posing in front of Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, one of Colombo's most popular tourist sites Pettah Market; Colombo Street vendor; Pettah Market Entrance gate; Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Cornerstone sculpture of Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil, a Hindu temple built entirely out of granite Interior view of Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Column carving detail; Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Burning candles; Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital, Colombo Dewatagaha mosque, one of Colombo's most prominent foto gallery lightboxby v6.1

Our 10 day itinerary

Fly in and sleep at Negombo (Crescent Beach House). Next morning, drive towards Kandy while visiting Lankatilaka Temple enroute. Arrive to Kandy and check out Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue. Walk around Kandy Lake before taking in a dance/fire show at the Kandy Lake Club. Overnight at “The Peppermint”. Wake up super early to catch the 5:30 – 7 am morning alms ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. After breakfast, leave Kandy for Aluviharaya, Nalanda Gedige, and Dambulla Cave Temple before heading towards Polonnaruwa (Seraya Holiday Resort). Next day, leisurely check out the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Spend the next 3 days at The Calm Resort and Spa at Passikudah Beach. Then backtrack to visit Medirigiriya Vatadage on our way to Kaudulla National Park, where it is Elephant Safari time! After spending the afternoon surrounded by elephants, crash in Habarana at Disna Homestay. The next day, check out Sri Lanka’s tallest Buddha at Aukana, before hiking up the steps of the ancient capital city of Yapahuwa. Continue driving towards Colombo, stopping to check out the impressive Kelaniya Temple. Check into our comfortable apartment (WEG 09 Residency opposite the Majestic City Mall) and link up with a dear Sri Lankan friend. Last day saw us visiting a few of Colombo’s sights – the candy cane colored Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Gangaramaya & Seema Malaka Buddhist Temples, Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Hindu Temple, and shopping for souvenirs at Odel. Relax at our apartment for the last few hours before our driver picks us up for the return trip to the airport for our flight back home. Whirlwind tour complete.

Accommodations – made with and Agoda

Negombo, Crescent Beach House – An uber-budget option near the airport. Rooms were a bit grimy and dingy. Staff was friendly though.

Kandy, The Peppermint – Fantastic home-stay with a welcoming Sri Lankan family (who were expats living in Italy for years). They will bend over backward to ensure you enjoy your stay. Good home cooked meals here thanks to the lovely Mrs Pringi

Polonnaruwa, Seraya Holiday Resort – Two thumbs up for the swimming pool, the perfect way to relax after sightseeing in the heat. Friendly, helpful staff. Great buffet meals here priced just right ($5 dinners and Rs 400 breakfasts). Recommend an upgrade for the AC rooms…the fan rooms were barely comfortable

Passikudah, The Calm Resort & Spa – Fabulous resort on the beautiful beach. We were upgraded to a pool/sea view deluxe room even though we had scored a crazy cheap special with, which made our stay here an incredible value. Rooms are gorgeous…very spacious with attention to detail. Breakfast buffet is full on with loads of variety. For dinner, we opted to go à la carte which was a much better value than the dinner buffet. The seafood meals here are excellent..great place to splurge on crab, shrimp, squid, and fish. Swimming pool here is divine. Two huge thumbs up for The Calm!

Habarana, Disna Homestay – Great option for checking out the nearby Kaudulla or Minneriya National Park for the daily afternoon elephant safari. Only one room here had AC (which is recommended). Rooms were spotlessly clean. Host family is super helpful and friendly. Dinner ($5) can be prepared upon request and is good value

Colombo, WEG 09 Residency – Convenient location near the train station and opposite Majestic City Mall’s KFC. 3rd floor apartment offering beach and city views. AC, WiFi, kitchen, satellite TV, two bedrooms and a sofa bed, laundry facilities. This apartment was an excellent choice for pricey Colombo. The only drawback was we didn’t realize there is a Bollywood Club on the 6th floor, pumping loud music from 10 pm to 6 am. Bring earplugs if you are a light sleeper!

Sri Lanka Private Driver ( We wrote Shiyan Fazool about creating a custom itinerary and got an amazing quote. Cannot recommend this company high enough. Great, clean, comfortable van to transport us around. Driver was excellent, spoke perfect English and was super helpful and kind. Our family fell in love with him. Price was super affordable. Best way to see Sri Lanka hands down…stop where you want to stop and do what you want to do, with zero hassle to do mandatory shopping stops.

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