As a signatory to the UNESCO convention since 1980 and despite years of vicious civil war in the meantime the small island nation seems to have got its World Heritage list pretty well sorted. Fortunately the sites were largely spared during the conflict and today Sri Lanka has 6 cultural inscriptions, 2 natural ones, a further 2 on the tentative list and none on the ‘in danger’ list. Not bad for a small and still relatively impoverished country with a further plus being that all sites are easily accessed, fairly close together and indeed if you were in a mad rush you could probably cover all sites in the space of a couple of days.
Conveniently 4 of the cultural sites are located in Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ – a concentration of historic sites in the north central party of the country which includes: Anuradhapura, an ancient city and former capital founded in the 4th century BC no less, the spectacular Sigiriya – a 5th century city/fortress constructed atop a sheer granite outcrop, Polonnaruwa, another ancient city which replaced the former as capital from the 10th century and last but not least the incredible 2,200 year old cave temples at Dambulla.
Lying where the southern limit of the Cultural Triangle meets the central hill country is another cultural site, Kandy. Again a former capital – until the British moved it to Colombo on the coast – Kandy’s most famous sites are the Temple of the Tooth and old royal palace though there are plenty more historic buildings and temples along the shores of the town’s scenic central lake.
The final site on the cultural list is the coastal town of Galle – perhaps more famous outside of the country for it’s cricket pitch – but originally founded by the Portuguese as far back as the 16th century and described by UNESCO as “the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia”. The picturesque old town built on a natural rock outcrop jutting into the Indian Ocean has something of a St Malo feel to it and with its Dutch and Portuguese fortifications, British colonial buildings and old Arab trading quarter is a fascinating place to visit.
Sri Lanka’s 2 sites on the natural list are the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in the southwest part of the island, said to be the best preserved area of primary, lowland rainforest on the island, (home to no less than 50% of the country’s indigenous mammal species), and the Central Highlands incorporating the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest and considered to be the best remaining area of tropical montane forest.
5 of the 6 sites on the cultural list feature on our Sri Lanka tour with only Anuradhapura omitted due, not because it’s so difficult to pronounce, but simply down to time issues and to avoid making the itinerary too busy. (You can’t comfortably fit everything into a 2 tour.) A day hike through the magnificent Horton Plains is included with a 2 day, 1 night visit to Yala West National Park, (surely another candidate for the list?), replacing Sinharaja since it’s just so good for spotting wildlife.