Dambulla is a quiet and pretty nice spot that isn't far from central Sri Lanka. You can use it as a base to explore the region and its magnificent ancient sites. For example the Dambulla Caves Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage, are right on the edge of town. Or the rock of Sigiriya, about an hour from here, which was one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka of the kingdom, and has been completely built upon an ancient rock. Dambulla has a pleasant climate throughout the year, with the rainy season from October. The coolest months are February and March. You can stay in guest houses for 5 euros and eat for less than two euros. To reach Dambulla, you can leave Kandy and take a bus towards Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. These two cities are great historical stops, so I recommend that you make them your next stop along your visit.
The Deraniyagala Cave is one of the most famous sights found in the sprawling Boulder Gardens built among the rocks which lie at the feet of the imposing Sigiriya rock. The cave itself, which is actually more of an overhanging rock ledge, was a shelter once used by monks and actually pre-dates the Sigiriya fortress.
The cave's main claim to fame are the faint and now barely-visible paintings of aspara (a sort of heavenly nymph reminiscent of the famous Sigiriya frescoes found in a cave on the rock itself) which were created around the 2nd century BC. Like I said, the paintings are very faded and at first glance you won't notice them. Take some time to really examine the cave walls and you'll suddenly begin to notice arms, breasts, and feet in what you first thought were just natural stains on the rock.
After seeing the frescoes of the Sigiriya Ladies higher up on the rock, those at the Deraniyagala Cave were a bit underwhelming, to be honest. With that in mind, I'd recommend swallowing your eagerness to climb the rock and really explore the ground-level caves and gardens first. Consider it a sort of appetizer!
In Anuradhapura (the holy city) there is a complex of temples, stupas and other buildings that are perfectly preserved with the incentive that they are "alive." Several times a day religious people go to gather and give all kinds of offerings and hold ceremonies.
The bastion of Utrecht still carries its original Dutch name, paying homage to the colonial era when the Dutch ruled the city of Galle. The stronghold, which is similar to a stonghold within the protective walls of the city, was previously known as the crescent. It watched over the army of Galle, together with the bastion of the Moon, the Sun and the Stars. In 1760, a total of 30 commanders and 220 soldiers with 15 guns looked out to sea in case of an attack. About two of centuries ago, the bastion Galle lighthouse was constructed, aiming also at protecting the national vessels against approaching pirate ships. As the fort was declared a UNESCO world heritage site 20 years ago, the bastion, in addition to the town walls, has benefited from an extensive renovation project and is now very well preserved.
Jayanthi Vihara is a temple in Anuradhapura, the ancient royal capital of Sri Lanka. The place was built more recently, and functions as a Buddhist temple and school. All Buddhists aspires to be monks. The little monks do not have to be monks all their lives, and in general it's a way for them to get a free education, food and shelter for 18 years. The temple is in an educational program in collaboration with NGOs to teach English and other general things. It is a good place to observe the daily life of a monks and Buddhist teachings.
It is a tiny town in the mountains which you can arrive to taking a direct bus from Matara to Wellawaya, Ella and Wellawaya. It is popular among tourists for being a base for hiking, trekking, visiting tea plantations, or bathing in the water falls. From there you can take the train to Haputale, which is one of the loveliest courses, and a major tourist attraction. It took a long time by bus because the mountain route was slow. From Wellawaya it is only about 30km but it took hours. There are many budget hostels to stay at, and most offer food. Rooms start at 3 euros a night, to places of luxury in the jungle. It was rainy season but it rained more than a couple of hours during the day. The height makes it cooler than other lower towns.
Thirukkovil is a Tamil people of the east coast of Sri Lanka. They were harshly affected by the 2004 tsunami, and most of the city was destroyed. The water came up to 400 meters of land, and today you can see damaged houses, and palm trees that won´t grow back. Thirukkovil is north of Pottuvil, up the road that leads to Ampara. It is a calm fishing village with a nice beach and less crowded than Arugam Bay. It's a bit hard to access but worth it. The foreigners and expatriates that you see see are mostly volunteers. Thirukkovil has a majority Muslim population, named the Moors of Sri Lanka.
The northern coast of Pottuvil is less populated than the south coast. You see almost no-one throughout the two hour drive to Ampara. But what you do notice is the destruction that was caused by the Tsunami. In many places, near the beach, you can see the ruined houses, and next to a new house there is a flag put up by international NGOs, Japanese or Canadian. You can also see newly built towns, constructed about 5 kilometers away from the sea. These villages are very controversial because people are fishermen, they have no cars, and yes, it had to be a little further from the sea for safety reasons, but now it's too far to go fishing! Some say that the aid was not particularly efficient in this respect. This area has a strong Muslim influence, you will see a population called the Moors of Sri Lanka, and they look different from the people that you see on the south coast.
Ampara is an important city on the east coast of Sri Lanka. It is a region that was heavily damaged by the tsunami, and although Ampara is inland and was notd much damage, it has a lot of NGOs that help coastal towns from Batticoala to Panama. If they prefer to live in Ampara, is because the coast has a large Muslim population, and it is difficult for Europeans to live in the small villages, so, Ampara offers a slightly more relaxed environment. There are various businesses and a small central market, and is a very cheap place where you can stay for less than €5 per night for a decent place. Ampara is on a major crossroads on the Siyambulan to Wellawaya to Pottuvil along the coast, and by exprress bus to Kandy, which takes five hours. Most of the population is Sinhalese but yoy can also hear Tamil spoken in the streets.
Padiyatalawa is a town which is situated on the crossroads between Ampara and Kandy. The heated bus services that go the back and forth between the two cities pass by this town. It is a busy city, with shops arranged on either side of the main street, and there are also some restaurants. You can stay in this city because it is convenient for the two natural parks and Maduru Gal Oya Oya. In Gal Oya you can see the elephants, and there is also amazing wildlife to be seen in Maduru Oya. The village itself is not of particular interest. Although there are some temples, overall it is a fairly modern town, without much history. However, taking into account the poor quality of the transport in Sri Lanka, it is a practical place to stay if you want to visit these parks. There is less tourism here and the people are more relaxed, it is a place to discover the real Sri Lanka.
Laksala is a traditional handicraft shop in Sri Lanka, with fixed prices as declared by the government. I thought it was fairly cheap, and it's great if you don't like to haggle for hours. Everything is a fair price, which guarantees the artisan a decent wage. Tourists are also guaranteed an authentic product, great for jewellery and gemstones. Sure you can find things cheaper, but they will be lower quality or fake. There are leather objects, beautiful bird, snakes and gods masks to protect you from all evil, and little details to take home. They made us a straw box to protect the objects inside, but they did not seem very used to it. Another advantage is that you can pay by credit card instead of always carrying cash with you.
This modern statue represents the Buddha, and is at the entrance of the monastery of Dambulla. While the painted caves of the monastery are just gorgeous, the Buddha itself is really not that impressive. A plaque tells you it is the largest Buddha in the world, which is represented in the posture of Dhamma Chakka, and is 30 meters high. It is not even the largest Buddha on the island! But it gives the place a touch of amusement, while the caves behind are much more authentic. The majority of people come to visit the caves while others truly come for a moment to worship.
The fourth Dambulla cave temple is one of the smallest. It looks a bit like the 80 other caves, farther from the five main caves. When we wanted to go it had closed as they do several times a day to make their ritual offerings without having tourists taking pictures. You have to cover your shoulders and knees before entering, and you cannot take a picture with Buddha, where you turn your back. The fervor of the place is very intense, but people respect foreigners ve do not say anything, even if thy feel very offended. The cave has several representations of Buddha, sitting and lying, and beautiful frescoes on the ceiling.
The land around Sigiriya are very flat and fertile. I found this part of Sri Lanka very green, and with the presence of a lot of water, so it is notreally surprising that the kings decided to install thier capital there. The capital was built on a giant rock that dominates the area. You can tell the beauty of the scenery as you go up in the direction of the ruins of the city. There are several lakes around the city, and in one of them we saw an elephant, who was bathing quietly. There are less than 2000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka, so it is not something you see often. It must be very nice to be able to organize a few days exploring with a guide here, but we did not get the opportunity.
It was the 1st time we had to take a bus in Sri Lanka, and it is confusing. We were lucky though, because It was a small city with a small station.. You have 2 types of buses, reds, which are the CTB, from the ministry of transport, and travel short distances. That means it will stop every 20 meters. Then there are the "nationals" that go to big cities, stopping every 100 meters. Generally, you're going to walk 30 kilometers per hour on average with a bus. Prices are cheap. You can travel the country for less than 5 euros. But it takes days. The solution is first class, some minibuses, which stop at the bus stand only if there is room, and those are the ones that go a little faster and are more comfortable.They come by less often, though.
Matara's name during the Portuguese colonization was Maturai, which meant the great fortress. There are two forts in Matara, the Star Fort is visited as a museum, and has been renovated, while the Dutch fort is a place where Dutch people still live, it's not a monument where people visit to learn about its history. The Star Fort was built by the Dutch during colonization, and it retains its star shape today. The construction ended in 1765. Nilwala River is nearby, but you almost don't notice it because it's pretty low. The roof of the fort was covered with sheets to facilitate its discretion, but now that's been replaced by a tiled roof. The letters VOC that are on the central door refer to the company that operated in the colonial city. There's another inscription, "1765," which refers to its opening date. The weapons have inscriptions in Dutch.
Kandy is the cultural and spiritual capital of Sri Lanka. To get there, you can take the intercity buses from any major city of the island, which are much faster than normal buses and are air-conditioned. The city is organized around an artificial lake, and is 500m high, which helps keep the city cool. You can spend a week in Kandy without getting bored. The best time is at the end of July when there are processions and the Esara Perahera festival which light up the city for 10 days. Spiritual life is organized around the "Temple of the Tooth", which houses Buddha's tooth, and is a place of pilgrimage and the holiest of the country. Around Kandy, there are parks, a beautiful botanical garden, and an elephant orphanage you can visit, and several other temples and monasteries.