Sri Lanka Multi Centre Tour

Sarah Freeman on 10 December 2021
Sri Lanka lies in the Indian Ocean just off the tip of India. With a fascinating albeit turbulent history, it’s a great destination whether you’re a beach lover, culture vulture or thrill seeker.

I recently returned from a 12 day tour visiting some of the top tourist attractions.

We flew from Manchester with Qatar Airways who we couldn’t fault and had to transfer at Doha, the airport is huge and immaculate given the recent investment for the upcoming World Cup. We arrived in the early morning and after having our PCR test, health form and vaccination certificates checked we headed to the arrivals hall. You can’t take Sri Lankan Rupees into the country, so the easiest thing is to change your money at one of the counters in arrivals hall (and then change any extra currency back at one of the lenders before you check in for your return flight).

Given the expanse of the country it’s a good idea to hire a driver/guide for your trip, so we were welcomed by Roshan who would be with us for most of the trip and was invaluable and a true joy to be around. Our first stop was Negombo a bustling, fishing town on the west coast, close to the airport and ideal as a resting point before the start of any tour. We arrived early morning so we were staying at one of the JetWing properties for one night to rest after the overnight flight and acclimatize (Sri Lanka is 5.5 hours ahead of the UK).

Leaving the next morning we headed to the northern Matale District and the village of Sigiriya, best known for its proximity to the magnificent ‘Lion Rock’ ancient fortress which rises 200 metres from the jungle and offers a breath-taking climb to the top. En-route we headed to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, an archaeological treasure trove with countless fascinating ruins. This was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries, the kingdom of Great King Parakrambahu and is now a World Heritage site. It’s an expansive site and highlights include the Gal Viharaya which features three huge stone monoliths of the Lord Buddha, in a sitting, standing and reclining position.

We were staying at the stunning Aliya Resort & Spa in Sigiriya for two nights, nestled in the middle of the countryside with wonderful views of the distant mountains. The hotel has a grand staircase entrance, jaw dropping infinity pool and was decorated with an elephant thematic, with one off paintings and sculptures. The next day it was an early start as I wanted to climb the rock fortress and to avoid the crowds and hot sun we wanted to be there for the opening at 6.30am. Considered the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya was built in 5AD by patricide King Kasyappa and at one time had 500 hand maidens living in the palace. Leading up to fortress you pass through landscaped gardens before starting your climb. There are over 1,000 steps and it’s not for the faint hearted, the metal staircase has open treads and is quite narrow in places but if you keep looking up when you get to the top the view is well worth it! On the summit are the remains of the ancient civilization including old bathing pools and even the King’s throne carved in rock, and then part way down you get to see the famous cave frescos which amazingly still retain their colour after all those years.

Late morning we headed to Anuradhapura the 1st chronicled capital of ancient Ceylon and a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site due to the Bo Tree and the 2nd Century Ruwanvaliseya Temple, one of the world’s tallest monuments (100m tall, 77m wide and 300ft in diameter). It’s one of Sri Lanka’s premier ancient attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and really does live up to its reputation. The sheer scale of the site where all you can see for miles are giant white stupas in every direction was awesome. To enter any religious site in Sri Lanka you have to take off your shoes, our guide advised us to keep on our socks as the ground was absolutely scorching especially as we’re not used to walking around barefoot! We were lucky enough to be there for the local pilgrims chanting prayers and reciting mantras and giving offerings to the Bo Tree, you have never seen so many plates of fresh fruit and flowers. The sacred tree was planted in 288BC and legend says that this tree grew from a branch taken from the holy Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India under which Buddha became enlightened.

For the afternoon, we decided to take a break from history and we went on safari in the Minneriya National Park – the jeep was a little rustic but the 3 hour trip was really fun. The driver/guide was ex military and had a real passion for wildlife, we saw over 60 elephants including calves and a huge pregnant female, plus mongoose, peacocks, crocodiles and too many birds to name.