Conquering Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle

Leaving Colombo was a rather stressful affair.  We had arrived in Sri Lanka during a holiday and every reserved seat on every train in the country appeared to be sold out.  It would take anywhere between 5-7 hours to get to Habarana from Colombo and our only option was to purchase tickets in the unreserved 2nd class section 30 minutes before the train’s departure.  Well, we did have the option to buy tickets through the tourist info office, but only if we also hired a private car for areas where the train did not run and booked our entire trip with them. This would cost us $300 US each.  To put this in perspective, we each spent roughly $15 on buses and trains during our entire stay in Sri Lanka.  If the price was not ridiculous enough, the sales pitch, that we could pay the private car to follow behind our train with our luggage so we would not have to deal with it ourselves, resulted in a “what the hell” stare from all of us at the sales agent and us politely walking away saying “we’ll think about it”.

moonlight mile – taking the train from Mount Lavinia to Colombo

We decided to take our chances and braced ourselves for the worst.  The train station is strict about not over-selling reserved seats, but they will sell an infinite number of unreserved tickets. This means that there is no guarantee that all ticket holders will fit on the train.  Stress levels were high as we got off the suburban commuter train from Mount Lavinia to the main Colombo station a little after 5 am. We recalled seeing unreserved train cars in India, mostly filled with men, with limbs hanging out the windows to make space for more bodies. We each took our tickets and a bit of money in case we were separated on the cars and agreed that if one of us managed to get a seat, we would do our best to rotate who got to sit in it. After all our worrying the train pulled into the station 20 minutes early and we boarded the empty cars, managing to get 3 seats together with a spectacular view out the window.  During the 5 hour trip to Habarana, our car was never 100% full.  Go figure.

watching other trains pass by

In case you are curious about our destination, there is nothing of particular interest in Habarana, but its location makes it possible to stay somewhere for two consecutive nights and see multiple highlights of the Cultural Triangle including Polonarruwa, Sigiriya Rock and the Dambulla Caves.

We arrived at the station by mid-day and were met with the regular crowd of tuk-tuk drivers desperate to wrangle business. We asked if our tuk-tuk driver could take us to The White House. No, we were not staying at the actual White House (although did show its location as the one in DC making getting there a little tricky), but our host Karan treated us as though we were dignitaries in town for a visit.  After driving through the heavy wooden gates we were immediately seated in the front porch surrounded by a well manicured garden for a cup of tea.  He saw to all our needs from arranging a driver for a safari, producing the wifi code for wifi that actually worked and asking us in a serious tone exactly how many beers we wished to have chilled in time to enjoy with that evening’s dinner. With the exception of a warm beer offered up on our surprise first class flight to Colombo, alcohol had not crossed our lips in 10 days.  We were happy.

Our host Karan and our safari driver

It was also with Karan that we experienced, for the first of many times, the “half an hour time difference” that exists everywhere in Sri Lanka.  It is not like Newfoundland with its own halfan hour time zone, but, in the opinion of most Sri Lankans, we are always “30 minutes off” in our requests for everything.

Conversations would go a bit like this….

“And what time would you like dinner”

“7pm please”

“Hmmmm I think 7:30 would be better”

“What time would you like breakfast”


“Hmmmm I think 6:30am would be better”

We soon learned to request things an hour earlier or later than we actually wanted to help us in our negotiations.

Later that afternoon our safari driver arrived (30 minutes before we had requested) with a opened back jeep and brought us to a reserve to see wild elephants.  We got a little nervous when all the jeeps stopped to allow people to take photos of a bird, (would this be the highlight of the trip??) but 10 minutes later we arrived in a clearing with dozens if not 100 elephants.  It might sound a little boring to be watching elephants grazing out in the open for more than a couple of hours, but every once in awhile, our driver would decide to move on to another heard, this meant we got to stand up in the back of the jeep as he navigated the uneven terrain and drove us through small rivers and large puddles.  When we returned Karan had a phenomenal curry prepared for us.

The next morning we pulled ourselves out of bed at 6am to catch the bus to Polonarruwa.  While this seems like a ridiculous hour to be getting up voluntarily, especially after being up at 4am the previous day, we were determined to beat the heat and the crowds. Our strategy paid off.  By the time we were finished with the bus ride, found a shop serving breakfast and negotiated bikes for $2 each, it was around 7:30am.  We peddled to the furthest temple in the ancient temple complex and worked our way back, only encountering foreign tourists at the last site a few hours later. By early afternoon we were comfortably relaxing back at the White House as Karan and his assistant, who he referred to as John Kennedy, prepared that evening’s curry.  

Polonarruwa - The Cultural Triangle


Polonarruwa - Cultural Triangle

As Karan laid out the various curries on the table, we asked him how he came to be such a great cook.  He hesitated for a moment and then asked if he could join us at the table while he told us his story.  What followed was an incredible tale of successes and hardships intertwined with the political and social history of Sri Lanka over a number of decades that finished with him sitting across from us at the dinner table 4 months into managing the White House.  I don’t feel that his story is ours to tell so publically and Karan had admitted to us that we were the first guests he had felt he had wanted to share it with. If you ever do find yourself staying at the White House and he hints that he may be willing to share it with you, say yes.  By the time he is done you will feel you have just finished reading an epic novel that will stick with you for life.  

The next morning Karan was up at 6am to serve us morning tea before bidding us farewell.  We took a tuk tuk to Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress over 200 meters high.  Sigiriya was made the capital by king Kasyapa around the late 400s and he built his palace at the top of the rock.  The palace was abandoned after his death and used as a monastery until the 14th century.   Once again, forcing ourselves out of bed early paid off and we arrived well before the group bus tours.  The thought of climbing the somewhat sketchy stairs drilled into the rock face with that many other people was dizzying, to say the least. We were pretty choked to have to pay over $40 Canadian as an entrance fee, but sucked it up and asked to have our bags stored with the tourist police. For $40 we were going to demand that that service was included. We managed to climb the rock and explore the top, only meeting a herd off a bus tour just as we finished descending the sketchy stairs.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock - Cultural Triangle Sigiriya Rock -Cultural Triangle
From Sigiriya we took a bus to the next stop of the Cultural Triangle, The Dambulla Caves, which thankfully were free to explore. We did not realize that the caves were at the top of a steep climb and were hesitant after conquering Sigiriya, however, the trek was worth it to see the multiple caves with dozens of detailed statues carved into the rock and every centimeter of ceiling covered in intricate artwork.

After the caves, we headed to the southern tip of the Cultural Triangle, the city of Kandy, where we would stay for 2 nights to visit the Temple of the Tooth and visit one of the world’s strangest hotels, but that is for another post.


cultural triangle - Dambulla

Dambulla Caves


Monks outside of the Dambulla Caves

Extra notes for Travelers:

Scammers at the cave entrance will try to convince you that normally it costs 4000 rupees to get in, but you are visiting on a holiday so it is free.  Then they suggest that you now can definitely afford to hire them as a guide for just 1000.  Decline and walk away.

Tuk Tuk Ride to the White House from the train station: 300 rupees

Tuk Tuk ride from Habarana to Sigiriya 800 rupees

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