GOLDEN BUDDHAS & MAGNIFICENT MURALS
Your base for the next few days is the CULTURAL TRIANGLE, the heartland of Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhalese civilization and the setting for some of the island’s most significant historical sights. If you're using a driver to get around (and you really should), you'll probably be picked up straight after breakfast for the scenic drive northeast to Dambulla. The road arrows diagonally across the island, past countless villages, coconut plantations and rubber estates and through the busy junction towns of Polgahawela (rail) and Kurunegala (road) along the way. You’ll know when you’re in Kurunegala, as the town is surrounded by massive rocky outcrops that are named after the animals they allegedly resemble – Ethagala (Elephant Rock) is easy enough to spot, but you’ll do well to pick out Ibbagala (Eel Rock).
It's just over 55km (around an hour and a quarter) from Kurunegala to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLES, the largest cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka and home of the best-preserved murals in the country; depending on where you stayed near Bandaranaike, it should take between 2 hours 30 minutes and 3 hours to get here from your hotel. Dambulla is often visited en route from Sigiriya to Kandy, but taking in the caves on the journey north splits up the sights more evenly and makes for a more interesting first full day in Sri Lanka. A sacred pilgrimage site for over two thousand years, the five cave sanctuaries that make up the complex [open daily until 6pm | Rs.1500, children Rs.750] contain over 150 statues, some painted gold, others carved out of solid rock, and thousands of intricate paintings. The most intriguing are dark, dank Cave 1, which is blackened with incense smoke and almost entirely filled by a reclining Buddha garlanded with flower offerings, and the showpiece Cave 2, a striking cavern of statues and dagobas and painted scenes from Buddha’s life that cover every inch of its sloping ceiling. The caves are hidden in the rock face a fifteen-minute walk uphill from the giant golden Buddha statue that marks the main entrance to the complex (the climb up from the back entrance is steeper and stepped but shorter and offers more shade; monkeys will accompany you on both routes).
TOP TIP As with all religious sites in Sri Lanka, you need to be dressed appropriately to visit the Dambulla Cave Temples (if not, you can rent a sarong for around Rs.100) and will need to remove your shoes and leave them at the entrance (Rs.25 for storage); the ground outside the temple can get searing hot, so it’s worth taking ankle socks with you to protect the soles of your feet.
THE LIJOMA LOWDOWN
Delve deeper with our tips on what to read and watch before you go, foods and drinks your kids must try, and some key cultural advice
From safari camps to beachfront villas – our pick of the most memorable places for families to stay in Sri Lanka
NEED TO KNOW
A handy overview of Sri Lanka’s weather and climate throughout the year, with recommendations for the best time to visit
Pre-trip practicalities, including getting there, visas and passports, health and safety and how to get around
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