Ranking Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Sri Lanka has been blessed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation with eight World Heritage Site nominations; six cultural and two natural, and I was lucky enough to go to seven of them. In this blog I attempt to rank them – not definitively of course, but according to the impression they left on me during my visit.
7) Golden Temple of Dambulla
The Golden Temple and wider cave temple complex lie in an idyllic hilltop location 160 metres above the surrounding plains. The 80 caves containing 153 Buddha statues are highly evocative, but the rampant commercialisation of the site removes much of its Buddhist splendour.
6) Sacred City of Kandy
The city’s nomination owes much to The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, housing the (claimed) original tooth relic of the Buddha. As fascinating as the temple and its morning ceremony were, the building suffers from severe overcrowding as tourists and local pilgrims alike jostle for a good view of the tiny golden-clad room the tooth is kept in.
5) Old Town of Galle and its fortifications
Old Town Galle is undeniably the urban highlight of the country, with its part-Portuguese-part-Dutch fort enclosing a wide assortment of imperial architecture on the country’s south-west coast. The Old Town as a whole is modest in scale and spectacle, but strolling the fort at sunset – potentially after a full day sunning it up on the nearby beaches – is a rewarding experience.
4) Central Highlands
The Central Highlands – added to the list only in 2010 as a result of their valuable biodiversity – are composed of Knuckles Conservation Forest and Horton Plains National Park. Whilst I only visited the latter, it was a terrain unlike any other in the country, so high in altitude that the grass was white with morning frost upon my arrival. The Plains were rich in sights, sounds and smells, and the views from World’s End were extraordinary.
3) Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The World Biosphere Reserve, a hidden gem in Sri Lanka’s lowland forest ecoregion, is only around 150km2 in size, but is rich in biodiversity; in particular endemic species of tree, reptile, bird and mammal. Touring the Reserve alone with local guide Danushka, the howl of the endemic Purple-faced Langur followed my every footstep into the wilderness, and cobras darted under rocks by the waterfall as I lapped up my first taste of rainforest life.
2) Ancient City of Sigiriya
Whilst I only experienced Sigiriya from a distance – atop neighbouring rock Pidurangala - the image of the rock emerging from the darkness is undoubtedly one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic scenes. Get up there nice and early, then sit back and relax as a 360-degree jungle panorama unfurls below you.
1) Sacred City of Anuradhapura
The Sacred City of Anuradhapura was the capital of the country for over a thousand years, and was once one of the greatest civilisations in Asia. Today, its steep stupas and dagobas of over 100m, its surrounding monasteries, and of course the Ancient Bodhi Tree (the oldest historical tree in the world) make up some of the world’s major archaeological sites. Whilst I didn’t visit the eighth and final UNESCO site – the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa – Ancient Anuradhapura more than sufficed, and is far more than just a cultural spectacle. Walking amongst chanting monks during the night-time ceremony was a spiritual encounter I will never forget.