The dry, flat area northeast of the Hill Country is known as the Cultural Triangle and covers Sri Lanka’s most famous archaeological sites - some dating back 2,500 years. It was the seat of the Sinhalese civilisation, which grew through the centuries under the influence of Buddhism, and the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are magnificent sights. Both contain crumbling temples, irrigation lakes and dagobas (solid mounds) – plus, in Anuradhapura, the scared Bo-Tree, believed to have grown 2,300 years ago from the tree under which Buddha became enlightened. The region also encompasses spectacular cave temples, rock fortresses and monasteries – and when ruin-fatigue sets in, there are elephant-filled national parks to discover. At the heart of the triangle is Dambulla, perhaps the best base for exploring; to the south, Kandy is also a possible starting point, with lots of places to stay.
The rock temple of Dambulla, sited on a granite outcrop jutting up from thick jungle, is one of the area’s best-known attractions and, despite the tourists, it’s well worth visiting. Skip the Japanese golden temple at the entrance and climb up to see the beautiful interiors of the 5 caves, richly painted with over 150 images of Buddha.
Housed in a sprawling set of bungalows, renowned batik artist Ena de Silva's heritage centre is a great place to shop for batik, brass work and embroidery, as well as beautiful wood carvings. There's also a restaurant serving traditional food, which makes a handy lunch stop before or after a visit to Dambulla, plus gardens and workshops to stroll around.
Put on sturdy shoes for the precarious climb up Sigiriya, an awesome rock fortress (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) which towers over the surrounding plains. You'll walk past ancient graffiti and frescoes to the remains of a 5th-century palace and water garden, with magnificent views all around. It’s worth starting early to avoid the crowds and the heat of the midday sun. For a more unusual perspective, book a sightseeing flight and soar overhead in a small plane.
Kandalama, the jungle hideaway of famed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, is a wonderful spot for lunch. It’s a huge, sleek-lined structure covered in foliage, and you can take a post-meal dip in one of the 3 swimming pools.
The haunting and little-visited forest monastery of Ritigala, which was founded by solitude-seeking hermits in the third century BC, offers another breath-taking view. Some parts of the site have been restored, but others still lie buried in tangled trees – a fact which only adds to the air of mystery.
After your visit to Ritigala, stop to marvel at the nearby Aukana Buddha, an imposing Buddha statue (the tallest in Sri Lanka), which stands at 13m high and was carved from a single rock.
The wildlife-rich national parks of Minneriya, Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa form an elephant corridor, and large numbers congregate in different spots throughout the year – local guides will be able to point you in the direction of the greatest concentration at any given time. The parks are also home to sambar, deer, macaques, langur monkeys, sloth bears and a huge array of birds, as well as a small number of elusive leopards.