Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Kandy is set amongst the tropical plateaus of the centre of the island. It’s the site of one of the most significant Buddhist temples in the world – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth – a must-visit sight for any traveller. It was said the left canine tooth of the Buddha was retrieved from his funeral pyre and eventually brought to Sri Lanka, smuggled in the hair of a princess. It was brought to Kandy, where it was the responsibility of the monarchy to ensure its safety. Encased in seven gold caskets, and set under a golden canopy, it’s a much-venerated sight. Plan your visit to the temple complex to coincide with the daily ‘puja’ – prayers; the ceremony includes drums and flower offerings. Once you’ve ‘done’ Kandy’s key attraction, you have permission to unwind along the shores of the milky manmade lake or spot cinnamon trees in the local spice gardens.
Visit Kandy on the full moon, when a public holiday sees the temple doors open to hundreds of white-robed pilgrims, and the city is resplendent in lights.
Sri Lanka’s rich history is best seen in the so-called Cultural Triangle to the north of Kandy. The triangle’s ‘points’ are Kandy, and two ancient cities, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The first sight you’ll encounter after Kandy is Sigiriya Rock, a lone plinth in the rainforest topped with an ancient fortress and known for its great Lion’s Gate – an entrance between two massive rock-hewn paws. At UNESCO-listed Anuradhapura you’ll see important religious sites, including three stupendous stupas. At Polonnaruwa there are the remains of an ancient city, now populated with cheeky troops of toque macaques. Venture into the atmospheric rock temple at Dambulla to see murals and great statues of the Buddha reclining in dimly-lit caves.
Instead of climbing with crowds at Sigiriya, set out at dawn to climb Pidurangala Rock. From the top you’ll have beautiful views over the neighbouring fortress in the changing morning light.
King of the jungle
At the top of this 200m rock column are the ruins of an ancient palace. To reach them, you must pass through a dramatic gate flanked by rocks fashioned into clawed paws. The 'Lion's Gate' gave 'Sigiriya' (or 'Lion's Rock') its name.Book flights
Sri Lankan elephants are their own special sub-species, and Sri Lanka is estimated to have the densest population of elephants in Asia. These sympathetic creatures are a popular tourist draw – which has lead, unfortunately, to animal right problems in some so-called elephant ‘orphanages’. There’s no greater way to encounter the elephant than as equals in the wild; so head to Udawalawe National Park, where the open grassland, marsh and forest provide the perfect habitat for these gentle creatures. The Elephant Transit Home within the park is an orphanage for up to 40 juvenile elephants. The elephant calves are free to roam in their area, and wild elephants can visit the premises, too. Though the rehabilitating residents are kept at a safe distance from visitors, they can still be seen at feeding times from a viewing platform.
Don’t just keep your eyes peeled for pachyderms: the park is also home to eagles, civet cats, deer and the Indian hare.
Shy, lone predators with a skill for subterfuge and a perfect pelt – leopards live in Yala National Park in the hundreds. In fact, here is the highest concentration of leopards in the world. But despite their telltale markings, these big cats are not all that easy to spot. Go on a three-hour safari tour, or rent a jeep of your own at the entrance to the park and look up at the trees, or in the thick brush, where leopards typically rest in daylight hours. There's a chance you'll also spot wild boar and peacock, elephants and the rare sloth bear as well. You might recognise the shy sloth bear – Baloo from The Jungle Book has given it a special celebrity status.
The wildlife is more active at first light and after 4pm, and January to July is leopard-spotting season.