The AFAR Guide to Sri Lanka

The island nation of Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Colonial rule is still evident in the capital city’s name, Colombo. Sinhalese and Tamil are Sri Lanka’s two official languages, though English is widely used. The culture is greatly influenced by Buddhist and Hindu traditions; the country has eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Hatton, Sri Lanka
Train travel in Sri Lanka is like stepping back in time - old locomotives, old tracks, and slow service. But it’s the best way to really see the middle of the country. Some stations like this one in Hatton are really busy - and you have to be prepared to push your way on board. But the locals love to talk to you on the train and will make you feel welcome - even if it is tight circumstances.
Kandy-Jaffna Hwy
The Buddhist temple complex of Dambulla consists of five cave temples carved under a very large overhanging rock. The temples were carved out over several centuries, but the oldest dates back to the 1st century B.C.E. The temples include numerous carved statues of Buddha, and his faithful disciple Ananda, as well as Hindu deities. The largest of the caves is known as the Maharaja Vihara Lena, or Cave of the Great Kings, so named because the cave contains the statues of two ancient, great Sri Lankan kings—Valagambahu and Nissankamalla. Fifty or so Buddha statues, including a life-sized granite one, are all contained inside the temple as is small stupa surrounded by eleven seated Buddhas. The cave walls and ceiling are entirely painted with paintings depicting early Buddhist historical events and murals with traditional Buddhist designs. Like all the other cave temples, this one is dimly lit, preserving the vibrant colors of the paintings and murals. Another unusual feature of this particular cave temple is the large metal bowl that was placed inside the cave centuries ago, presumably to catch rain dripping from the cave roof. It’s said that even in a severe drought, the water in the bowl does not dry up. Dambulla is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the region known as Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. If you ever go to Sri Lanka, you must go to Dambulla. It is a very unique and spectacular site!
Cheena Kotuwa, Galle 80000, Sri Lanka
Sithuvili is a fantastic place to shop for traditional hand crafted Sri Lankan masks, among other goodies. Being that masks are one of the only things I collect on the road, it was a great place to explore. Part of the fun of finding Sithuvili is exploring the old Galle Fort itself. The old cobbled streets, colonial homes, and imposing churches make for an atmospheric experience. Sithuvili is situated around the corner from the beautiful Galle Fort Printers Hotel.
Kandy - Jaffna Hwy, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
According to Buddhist legend, after the Buddha attained enlightenment, his feet made an imprint in the stone where he stepped. The footprints of the Buddha (Buddhapada) are highly revered in all Buddhist countries, especially in Sri Lanka and Thailand, as symbols of Buddha’s presence. Symbolizing the grounding of the transcendent, feet are also considered objects of respect. These beautifully painted soles belong to the 14 meter long, reclining Buddha housed inside the Devaraja Lena, one of the five cave temples in Dambulla. The cave’s interior is extremely small and the stone statue of Buddha pretty occupies all of it. There is barely a few feet of space between his head and feet and the cave walls. Most people walk into the small cave to stand in front of the Buddha and to leave flowers on the altar. Few venture to look at the soles of his feet but anyone who walks over to the far wall to look at Buddha’s feet will be rewarded with this view of his beautifully painted soles. If you go to Cave Temple Complex at Dambulla, be sure to buy at least two bunches of lotus flowers that you can leave behind as offerings as you visit the various temples. And, for every reclining Buddha you come across, be sure to check out his feet and leave a flower or two!
B199, Rambukkana 71100, Sri Lanka
Each day, the 90 elephants living at the Pinnewala Orphanage are led from their feeding grounds to the nearby Maha Oya (Maha River) to bathe. The elephants are split in to two groups so half get to go to the river in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. The path to the river runs partly through a narrow village street that is flanked on both sides by commercial establishments, including two hotels that have balconies overlooking the Maha Oya. As expected, tourists flock to the hotels for the vantage point views. The elephants’ daily bath ritual is a popular tourist attraction. As much as I enjoyed watching them frolicking in the water, I was equally fascinated watching them heading down to the water. With their mahout in the lead, I could hear their footsteps long before I saw the elephants marching in my direction. There is no etiquette when it comes to how elephants march so they basically filled up the width of the narrow street as they eagerly made their way towards the water. It was like watching a bunch of school kids being let out for recess; there was a bit of pushing and shoving and a bit of “shouting”, elephant style but all the elephants eventually made it down to the water. They did leave behind one broken storefront window though! The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is located near the hill town of Kandy. If you go to Kandy, plan on a half day trip to Pinnewala to watch the elephants bathe. It will be an experience you will never forget!
2C, Templers Place, Mt. Lavinia,, Colombo, Sri Lanka
This colonial artifact overlooks the turquoise Indian Ocean and the Coast Line train that runs along it. Sights from the ocean-view rooms stretch to the city of Colombo, 20 minutes away. Trainspotters should request a room at the hotel’s north end to score a balcony with views of the ocean and the tracks. From $105, 94/(0) 11-271-1711,
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