History, culture and a whole lot of tea in Sri Lanka

There’s a lot of talk about Sri Lanka at the moment. If you read any travel magazine or website they’ll tell you “it’s the place to go”. So what is it about Sri Lanka that suddenly has everyone talking? 

After coming out of a 30-year civil war in 2009, tourism in the country has started to blossom. 

And it’s no wonder. Sri Lanka has a unique mix of stunning beaches, abundant wildlife, interesting architecture and stunning scenery. But it is the rich cultural history that is the real highlight of any trip to Sri Lanka.  

At Polonnaruwa – a Unesco World Heritage listed site – you can wander through a vast maze of ruins dating back to before 1070 AD. It is the second most Ancient city in Sri Lanka. After Anuradhapura was invaded by India, Polonnaruwa became the next capital so you can see the remnants of the King’s palace, the giant Stupas – one of the largest I’ve ever seen – temples, and the tooth relic. 

As a former city Polonnaruwa is huge and it would take days to wander through all the ruins, so we stop at the highlights and take in the vast expanse from comfort of our van traversing the roads that wind their way through the historic site.  

The museum at the entrance is excellent and provides us with a great context not just to this city, but also to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. The museum contains lots of photos and scale models of what the relics would have looked like at their peak. It provides an interesting insight into the cultural, religious and political history of the country. 

The one-time capital of Sri Lanka, Anuaradhapura is a Sacred City built around the cuttings from the “tree of Enlightenment” – Buddha’s fig tree.  

The old ruins are fascinating and are a stark pointer to the significance of the site to the country. Two large Stupas stand out across the landscape – one in disrepair, the other stark white with a gold top. The original stupa was originally over 100 metres tall, but has now lost its top and is about 70 metres in height. 

The white stupa is still a working temple and it is beautiful to sit and watch the followers all dressed in white, gathering to pray at sunset. Their prayers are sung out loud for all to hear, creating a very spiritual, and moving, experience.   

Like Polonnaruwa, there are hundreds of ruins to walk through in Anuradhapura and you could spend the full day or many days in the city wandering around. But our time is limited so our guide picks out the main sites for us to amble over and the rest we view from the air-conditioned comfort of our van. 

But my favourite of the historical sites in Sri Lanka is Sigiriya. From the ground it looks like a giant rock formation rising from the flat earth that surrounds it. But this is no ordinary rock. 

In fact, the attraction is a giant palace built centuries ago onto the top of the rock – 1200 steps and 200 metres straight up! 

The Palace was built for King Kasyapa (who ruled from 473-495), his wife, and 500 concubines (according to legend, that is). The palace no longer stands but you can wander around the ruins, and there are signs throughout that give you the background of the site, which was used by Buddhist monks before King Kasyapa moved in and built his palace. 

After the King committed suicide the site returned to a Buddhist monastery. Today it is recognised as a World Heritage site by Unesco and is one of the most important cultural locations in Sri Lanka. 

The walk up is tough, but very pleasant and well worth the effort. After walking through what would have been the water gardens you wander through a rock arched entrance, past caves containing rock paintings of the concubines and the original “mirror wall” before finally reaching the official entrance to the palace. At some time this would have been an imposing lion, but all that is left are the feet and the final steps.  

The top of the rock is covered with the ruins of the old palace, the palace gardens and swimming pool. The grounds are impressive, but even more so is the intricate water system that ensured all rain water was channelled for use within the palace grounds – it’s amazing to think how long ago this was built. 

But it’s not just the historical and cultural sites that take my breath away in Sri Lanka. A visit to Kandy and the tea fields leaves me with a sense that this could possibly be my favourite view in all the world. 

The drive up is not for the faint-hearted. I don’t think I’m particularly squeamish but a single lane road winding up the side of a mountain to 850m above sea level, sharp hairpin turns – all that is fine, until we come to a bus or truck coming the other way. There is not a lot of room for two vehicles to manoeuvre around each other. 

Tea plants are spread across the mountains in this part of the world, but our guide continues to take us higher and higher as he tells us about the history of tea and how the leaves are picked.  

When we arrive at the plantation we stop and look out over acre after acre of tea – camellia sinensis – plants. By the time we arrive the workers have all left for the day and there is no one here but us. Literally, all we do is look out over the tea plants and it is glorious. The view is stunning and the tea plants so green.  

But at the end of it, all I really want is to have a cup of tea! 

Want to see this for yourself? Checkout our Magical Sri Lanka tour here. 

Diane Squires is a tour host with Two’s a Crowd. 

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