Lost in the Borneo Jungle: A Survival Story

What should have been a simple overnight excursion turned into a true battle of man vs. nature. Read his story below and learn how Seth Pevey survived three days lost in the Borneo jungle.

 

When one arrives at the dock, the only entry point into Bako National Park in Malaysian Borneo, one is generally greeted by monkeys waiting to steal cellphones, cameras, glasses, anything. Try yelling an exasperated “why?” at these wordless hoodlums and they will give a look that stands in for their obvious mantra: “This is the jungle and fuck you.” You get this message quite a lot once there, an odd refrain, though it isn’t on the brochure.

The staff does provide comfortable hostel-style cabins which are frequented by the infamous proboscis monkeys of Bako: creatures sliding around the porches with their noses hanging red and veiny and reminding one of a wine soaked uncle. The majority of guests wisely book these cabins in advance.

I booked one in advance.

But, when I arrived and saw the rows of manicured cabin lawns; witnessed the French family snapping photos of a cobweb a foot from a well maintained cement path; walked past the Chinese girls taking selfies next to the ranger station sign; I decided I wouldn’t settle for this empty simulacrum. Not me. I came to see the jungle damn it.

 

Heading Into the Borneo Jungle

The ranger looked tired and his eyes were from far away. “Take some food, and mind the tide,” he told me as he handed me a tent stuffed in a duffle bag. Maybe he was hung over, overworked, fighting with his wife, or just didn’t like the cut of my jib, whatever, I’d like to formally blame him for not stereotyping me enough.

A real Malay park ranger with his head in the game would have slapped me across the face and reminded me I wasn’t Jack London.

My destination was a secluded beach at the end of an 18 kilometer path winding though equatorial rainforest. I bought the following at the little park store: two one-gallon jugs of water, three boiled eggs, a cake of cornbread, and 2 bags of peanuts. The plan was to arrive at the beach around sundown, camp out, and return the next morning to catch a bateau back to Kuching, the nearest city. I pictured myself arriving at the beach after a leisurely five or six hours.

 

Starting the Hike

It was Borneo jungle alright, pure and green. Green and intoxicating and swallowing me up one step at a time.

The start of the path led up for an hour, up and up and clambering all the way.  At times I was climbing on all fours, finally up to a high plateau where the forest cleared, overlooking an isle studded South Asian Sea. I had not expected this kind of intensity when I started, but things seemed to be opening up and flattening out.

The plants were strange. Nepenthes lowii one rotting sign read on side of the path, referencing the pitcher plants which carpeted the ground, famous for making a living luring in flies with sweet smelling nectar until they slip and drown in digestive juices and slowly dissolve over the following days.

An hour passed, and then another. A fourth of my water was gone, and I’d only hiked about two kilometers. I braved on.

Sweat was pouring out of me, enough that the shirt I was wearing became heavy with it. I took it off and gave it a wring. It was like climbing a never ending flight of stairs inside of an enormous sauna during a Louisiana August.

The Borneo jungle loomed all around, more threatening now, like a happy bout of drinking gone sour and dark. Kilometer marker four passed, then five, and then a rest next to a waterfall. Some Germans passed and asked me if I was alright. They were going the other way, back towards civilization. When I told them my plan they smiled their wry smiles and said nothing. “Do you have any iodine pills?” a girl asked.

 

monkey in the Borneo Jungle

 

Running Out of Water

A few hours later at kilometer marker number ten I was out of water and starting to panic a bit. How have I possibly consumed so much? Two gallons gone and not even finished getting there? How will I make it back? Nervously I recalled something about three days. Is that right? Humans can live about three days without water?

I carried on; sweat pouring out of me, a garden hose left on to tinkle into the grass. Thirty minutes later I urinated something the color of Sunkist and realized my body was in trouble. What can I do? The sun was getting lower in the sky, and a troupe of boy sized monkeys seemed to be following me.

If I turned back, I’d be tromping through the deep dark Borneo jungle at night, jealous simians for company, and I’d never make it safely. I’d step on a snake or stumble into one of the many deep crevices along the path, I’d sink and be overwhelmed in quicksand.

I had to push forward.

I had to get out of the jungle and onto a pure tropical beach.

Every time I took a break, the largest alpha male monkey would swing down and look at me directly in the eyes, hanging from the canopy with a face like a disappointed gym coach. The path got rougher, and there weren’t many signs that the Germans, nor anyone else had been this far out in some time, no empty water bottles, no footprints or cigarette butts- just an endless tunnel of green that was now undulating up and down over jagged rocks and bicep-like tree roots.

What I wouldn’t have given for the reassuring sign of humanity, but there were none. I was in a part of the park that was seldom visited. Everything was sharp, jagged, piercing. A thousand thorns tore my arms and legs to shreds, and I started to bleed in places.

It was picturing the beach in my head, lovely, open and safe, that kept one foot moving in front of the other. Surely I could wave down a fisherman and ask for water at the beach. I remembered ‘air’ as the curiously contrary word for water in the Malay tongue, perhaps the only word I knew, but that wouldn’t help me unless I found Malaysians. However, they seemed to be smart enough to avoid this particular part of their otherwise lovely country.

 

Lost in the Dark

The sun went down at kilometer marker sixteen, leaving me two short. “Went down” is just an expression though. In reality it plummeted. I didn’t know it before, but at the equator, the sun has an on/off switch rather than the romantic dimmer of the temperate zones. From the time it cast its first orange hues, until total darkness, seemed to take only ten minutes. The monkeys overhead laughed at me and went to their suppers.

Two kilometers to go, and the blackest night you have ever seen. I pulled out my headlamp, happy with myself and reckoning that while I demonstratively had very little sense for being in this situation to begin with, I had enough to bring a light.

The Borneo jungle at night is scary. There are sounds of nightmares, things that howl from above and things that chortle from behind trees, long slippery things that squirm and dance against your skin and when you paw at them are incorporeal. A mental struggle ensued. I followed the blue blazes over rocks and through caves and then, in a canebrake, I lost them entirely.

I lost the path.

I darted around, at first making blind plunges in random directions. Realizing my danger, I calmed and tried to use my head. I made an ever widening circle in the suffocating cane, but no blue and friendly blaze beckoned me. Cane, in every dark direction, was blocking me in: tall, thick, and unassailable.

I was lost, lost in another country, lost in the Borneo Jungle, lost at night and without any water over ten miles from the needle in a haystack ranger station.  

This is the jungle and fuck you. You are not Jack London. He has a state park in California named after him, and you are going to be just some bones that give a couple of hikers a surprise. They will take a video on their smart phone most likely, maybe post it online (NSFW) and have a story to tell at the bar when they get back to Cape Town. That is, if anyone finds you at all.

I had a camera with me. For some reason I took a picture of myself with the flash turned on. I wanted to see what I looked like when I was scared. Then I called out for help as loud as I could in the empty and echoing blackness. Nothing. I wandered for another hour in the black sauna of the night, scared and imagining the shape of my moss covered bones.

 

Searching for the Beach

I thought about what to do, about all the camping trips I’d been on, books I’d read, Bear Grylls, things I’d heard about situations like this.

One old adage kept popping up in my head. I’m sure you have heard it too. It goes like this: when you get lost in the wilderness, the thing to do is to head down. 

If you follow a downward slope, eventually you will come to a stream or a brook; the brook will turn into a river that flows to the sea. Follow that enough and you will find people because people love water. Any major river or ocean in the world will have civilization all up and down its glorious banks, the reasoning goes.

I figured heading down would at the very least lead me to the sea, which is where I had planned on being all along. I would be out in the open and that was all I wanted at that moment.

So I did that, reckoning if I just went down a bit I was bound to find a beach. I didn’t care what beach so long as it got me out of the terrifying blackness of the nighttime jungle. I found the nearest downward slope, and let myself start sliding down it, the weight of my tent filled backpack pushing me forward.

It was a mistake that almost killed me.

While the reasoning was sound, I hadn’t taken into account the terrain. I was sliding down the slope, loose gravel and dirt giving way under me. I shone my light ahead and all at once, in a flash of approaching death, noticed there was no ground.

Suddenly, I was on a precipice.

About three feet in front of me was a hundred foot drop, a cliff that lead down to an angry sea crashing against jagged rocks. In panic I started to scramble back up, but the backpack, and my position, made it difficult. I was being edged forward to die.

I could already feel what it would be like, my body flying through the moist air, crashing down into the sea and maybe breaking a leg. I would struggle to stay afloat for a moment or two; before I inhaled a few burning lungful of water and the waves dashed my semi-conscious brains out against the cliff face. Later I would turn up on some Indonesian fisherman’s boat deck, having been emptied out of the guts of a tiger shark.

I put my arms out at my sides and grabbed at nothing, at first. My left hand grasped a rock that gave way and tumbled down to where I was surely headed. Some loose vines tore at my right and I followed them up with my fingers until I managed to finally get a hold of a root.  The other arm grasped at a sapling, and I managed to pull myself up, the pebbles I’d unsettled splashing deep below me.

I scrambled, clutching at my racing heart, and managed the top of the hill. Then, as if by freak accident, through a clearing in the branches I saw a wide beach glistening in the moonlight. I found the North Star just to the left of it.

I had to get there. It was beautiful even from a mile away, and yet so far below me.

 

Risking Everything on the Rocks

Once I started to head in that direction the real danger started.

Remember those video games where the programmer has really run out of creative ideas, and so they just go with some platforms over lava? You test your skill jumping from block to block, knowing you have three lives to make it to the end. The way leading to the beach was just like that.

There were pillars of rock and they were wide and sturdy, but separated by caves of echoing blackness that I didn’t even want to imagine what was at the bottom of.

I went slowly, knowing one false step would see me plunge down into the maw of one of these caverns. Maybe I would survive the fall. Perhaps I would get trapped down in one, surviving for two weeks on a stalactite trickle à la Injun Joe. But no school children would ever read about it and no one would ever find me there and there would be no rock formations named for me in this alien place.

I had my camera holstered in a pack on my belt (which Americans would call a fanny pack, though the traveler learns not to refer to it in such a way, as it makes the Britons blush). At a particularly tight squeeze, I had to throw my weight back suddenly against a rock face to avoid tumbling.  When I did the camera ripped off and plummeted into the darkness, never to return. If some spelunker does find it in working order, I expect they will be confused.

Finally, after several hours of clambering over jagged rock, I could see the beach stretched out in front of me. But by now the moon had grabbed up the water. At high tide, the pathway down was a raging torrent of crashing waves; it was as if most of the beach had been swallowed up.    

 

beach in the Borneo Jungle

 

Desperate for Water

I was so thirsty, waiting there on the edge for the bosom of the sea to recede, that I started to lick the moss and lichen growing from the rocks. I found leaves on the ground with trapped rainwater and drank those. I even tried once to dig down into the ground in a silted spot to see if I could release any groundwater. But it wasn’t enough, and after a day of sweating my body cried out for more.  

I rested against a rock, and several hours later the tide receded and I could see the moon shining on a solid sandy path and a long strip of beach. I threw my bag down a ten foot drop and tried to shimmy my way down. Finally, I had made it.

Still no path back, but that would have to wait for the morning.  I set up my tent and had the first break from mosquitos all day. Then, I set out to find water.

I’ve never been so thankful to litterbugs in all my life. The receding tide had left a line of drift all across the otherwise unspoiled beach. There were bottles, dozens of them. Some had their caps still screwed on. Of those, most were filled with sea water, and one with some sort of motor oil I will never forget the taste of. But, after an hour of searching among the refuge, I had 3 bottles of palatable water and a coconut.

I drank the water until my stomach roiled in joy and then I broke the coconut open on a stalagmite and drank its sweet milk. Things were going to be ok. My worry receded and for the first time I noticed the beach.

Aside from a few pieces of trash, the place was astonishing. Palm trees and white sand glowing in the moonlight. The stars were a milky strip of brilliance across the tropic sky. My breathing slowed. I slept, hearing mudskippers slap into my tent flap, and hoping no saltwater crocodiles chose that particular beach for a nightcap.

 

New Day, New Problems

The next morning I scouted around and found the path again. Someone was watching out for me. Everything was indeed fine, and I reckoned I could be back by dark. I had one gallon of water and would be home soon… but for the rain.

It started to pour the big fat drops that give the rainforest its name.

At first I was thrilled. I pulled out my tent and stretched it out wide on the forest floor, letting it collect into a full puddle of water which I happily lapped up, and washed the caked blood and dirt from my arms and shins.

I could see the monkeys flashing away from me through the trees, going into their secret cubby holes.  And before I knew it, I was cold. It was a surprise when I started to shiver in what had been a baking hell up until that point. I found shelter under a cave and spent a few hours drinking from the stalactites and reading a copy of Dracula I had foolishly toted along.

Two hours or so later, the rain stopped.  It was already noon and I had barely gone a quarter of the way.  But, at least I was hydrated and cool. A new set of problems now made themselves known.

The rain had summoned the snakes.

I came to a sort of jungle ladder, of the kind used by tribesmen in those parts. It is basically just a log leaned up against a steep point, with little notches cut into it. Unless you are a mountain goat (or a Borneo tribesman), it is a guaranteed busted ass, but often less so than the alternative.

However, when I started down one particular ladder I noticed a golden band about halfway down. A hiss froze my progress, and I was looking it in the eye. I noticed the wide jaw and elliptical pupils that always signify poison glands. Later when I was back in the glow of the internet I would find a picture of it: Pope’s pit viper.   

I threw a stick at it but it only looked at me fetchingly, willing me to come closer and try that again. I jumped down the incline, avoiding the ladder, realized how close I had been, how well the snake had blended in and how it had remained motionless until I was upon it.

Again, a fantasy of death flashed before my eyes. I was bitten by a snake here, in the ankle perhaps, a day’s walk away from aid. The faster I run towards the ranger’s hut the more the toxin quickens through my veins. My foot swells up and turns black, I felt a wave of cold weakness and nausea wash over me and a coppery taste in my mouth. I can’t keep going so I lie down on the path, telling myself I just need a short nap to regain my strength. If I ever wake up again it is only for long enough to curse myself a fool as I stare up Borneo’s blurring jungle canopy.

 

Ready for Respite

I keep going, but now progress is slow. I’m worried that every vine may have a surprise curled around it, so I pick up a hefty walking stick to brush in front of me like a blind man.  The rain has stopped but in places it has turned the path to quicksand. Deep sucking silt comes up to my knees and beckons me to stay.

After a full day I’d only made it half way. I would have to sleep in the jungle.

That second night, I found the clearest, most open spot I could at the top of a hill.  The sky was visible, showcasing infinity. I realized by now that I would be ok. I also realized that there are an infinite number of worse ways to die than expiring out here with all this nature, free and traveling and self-reliant.

I lost my fear in that moment, with the darkness of the Borneo jungle circling all around me with its strange serpentine noises. I was a part of it and I slept one of the deepest sleeps of my life.

 

path through the Borneo Jungle

 

Making It Out of the Borneo Jungle Alive

The next day I made it back.

When I emerged from the jungle I was bleeding and haggard, my face was yellow, I was dehydrated and my skin breaking out in strange rashes. I’d been in the Borneo jungle for over 50 hours and for a good ten I was lost and scared.

When I walked out into the clearing of the ranger station, there were happy Europeans sunbathing on a beach, a local had a generator going and was making pineapple smoothies, and there were South Africans playing volleyball.

I bought a beer and a monkey tried to steal it. I widened my stance, threw my pack down on the ground, and made a whooping sound in his face to assert my dominance. The sunbathers looked up at me, puzzled. Clearly I had been in the Borneo jungle too long and the Chinese girls went flittering in another direction, away from me.

It was time to go.

I hosed myself off, applied some antiseptic to my cuts and bruises, and paid a fisherman to take me to a beach resort where I ordered the surf and turf and white wine and sat in a beach chair that evening turning over my experience in my head.

Perhaps I’d been a fool. Perhaps I had almost died. But I had seen what I’d come to see.

 

Looking for more like this? Read these 4 travel horror stories by bloggers who (barely) lived to tell the tale, or our own adrenaline-pumping adventure climbing 19,000 ft. up Misti Volcano.

 

Seth Pevey is a Louisiana native. He has worked as a teacher and journalist around the world, and now writes both fiction and non-fiction from his country home outside of New Orleans. Keep up with his work at SethPevey.com

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Everything You Need to Know About Uda Walawe National Park

When I was planning my two week trip to Sri Lanka, deciding which national park to visit was a big concern. The national park you choose depends on your itinerary, the time of year you visit, and which animals you want to see.

Three of the most popular and commonly visited national parks in Sri Lanka are Uda Walawe National Park, Yala National Park, and Minneriya National Park. After careful research I chose Uda Walawe National Park for our trip, and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience. Here’s everything you need to know about the reserve…

 

 

Uda Walawe National Park

Main Attraction: Elephants
Size: Smaller & Less Crowded than Yala and Minneriya
Location: We visited between stops at Ella in the Hill Country and Hikkaduwa beach
Cost: $30 for a safari for two, and $40 for two entrance fees paid directly to the park (prices may have changed since 2016) Finally, we added another $6 to $10 tip for the guide.
Trip Time: 2.5 to 3 hours
How to Book: The tours can only be done through licensed safari guides, and you can’t just drive through the park with your hired driver. However, it is not necessary to book online and pay inflated prices. Simply show up at the gates and negotiate a price with the guides waiting outside. Don’t forget to specify how much time you want in the park as well.

The main reason why I chose to visit Uda Walawe National Park over the other two options is because I wanted to see elephants. The park is huge (over 100 square miles) and your chances of sighting an elephant or entire herd are very high. Unlike other parks where the herds migrate, the elephants are visible year round in Uda Walawe National Park.

During our 2.5 hour trip, we saw different small herds of elephants eating and drinking. We went in the early morning at 7am to have the best chance of seeing them, but if you can’t make it then the evening safari is the second best option. Our elephant sighting included families, full grown adults, and the adorably cute baby elephants as well. In addition to the elephants, we also saw peacocks (the national bird of Sri Lanka) water buffalo, crocodiles, and many different birds.

 

 

Different Choices for Different Seasons

When choosing which National Park in Sri Lanka to visit, you need to keep in mind what time of year you are visiting. Minnireya showcases huge herds of wild elephants, but you need to schedule your visit around their migration period. If you are in Sri Lanka in the summer and fall, then Minneriya is a great choice. However, in the winter and spring months (November to May/June) the elephants migrate and your chances for seeing them in the park go down significantly. Because we visited in March, Uda Walawe was our best bet.

 

How to Get to Uda Walawe National Park

If you want to see elephants in the spring season this is undoubtedly the place for you. On our detailed Sri Lanka itinerary, you can see we left Ella early in the morning, drove two hours to Uda Walawe to start the three hour hour morning safari at 7am, then continued 3.5 more hours to Hikkaduwa in the same day to hit the beach by early afternoon.

This was a perfect way to avoid the more expensive safari hotels around the park. Although, if I had had more money in the budget, I would have loved to stay to do an afternoon safari too!

If you are traveling from Colombo, the total drive time to Uda Walawe National Park will be about 4.5 hours, and from Kandy it is 5.5 hours. If you are not planning to hit the beaches or southern part of Sri Lanka at all, then Minneriya National Park may be a better choice for you because it is much closer to Sigiriya and Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. Just make sure you are visiting in the right season to spot the elephants.

 

 

Why Choose Uda Walawe National Park

We chose Uda Walawe, instead of the more popular Yala National Park, to avoid the crowds. Because it’s more off the beaten track, Uda Walawe is much less crowded with tourists and jeeps. When we were there in spring 2016, sometimes we were the only jeep watching a family of elephants. At its most crowded, there would still only be five or six other jeeps around us. The experience in Uda Walawe is therefore more relaxing, and more natural, than some of the other more popular parks.

However, one major reason to visit Yala National Park over Uda Walawe is because there are leopards in Yala. Spotting a leopard is notoriously difficult, but if it’s one of your dreams, then Yala National Park is definitely the one for you.

 

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Sri Lanka Guide: Climbing Adam’s Peak

Climbing Adam’s Peak is one of the most important destinations in Sri Lanka. After making the pilgrimage myself, I have to say that it should be your number one priority to make it here during your Sri Lanka trip. Why?

The cultural and religious symbolism of Adam’s Peak is very important to the Sri Lankan people. The Buddhist population believes there is a footprint from Buddha himself at the top of the mountain, while the Hindu people believe the footprint is from their god Shiva. Christians and Muslims believe it is from Adam, and the first step he took after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. All four religions consider climbing Adam’s Peak to be a sacred pilgrimage, and we saw many people from every generation making the strenuous hike, from small children to barefoot grandmas and everyone in between.

This hike isn’t easy, either. Climbing Adam’s Peak means struggling up 5,000 stairs. Oh, and did I mention that the walk begins at 2 am? If you’re still interested in undertaking this sacred trek (you should be, it’s amazing!) then keep reading….

 

 

Where is Adam’s Peak?

Adam’s Peak is located in the south west part of the country, and is pretty far away from most other tourist attractions. We decided to do it between our time in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and Ella in the Hill Country. We had a hired driver and stopped for one day at the destination. Check out my detailed Sri Lanka Itinerary to learn more about the best time to fit it into your trip.

 

When is Climbing Season?

The best time to climb Adam’s Peak is during the pilgrimmage season. This runs from January to May. For the rest of the year, the mountain “closes.” That means there are no open shops, no electricity and lights, and no people on the mountain save for a few tourists who are climbing Adam’s Peak out of season. This is more dangerous and should only be done with a lot of planning, packed food and water, and even a hired guide.

If you are going during the pilgrimage season, no guide is necessary, because there will be thousands of people on the mountain with you, and plenty of shops to buy water and food on the climb up. Just make sure you avoid the full moons and weekends. These are the most popular days, and the massive crowds can prevent you from even reaching the peak.

 

 

Which Route Should I Take?

There are multiple routes for climbing Adam’s Peak. The most popular, and the one that I took, was the route from the small town of Dalhousie. This route is lined with lights, shops, and is completely on stairs… there are no hiking trails here.

 

How Long is the Climb?

The 5,000 steps take about three and a half hours to ascend, and two and a half more to descend. We left our hostel in Dalhousie around 2 am and returned at 9 am. I am, however, a very slow walker… the route can be done faster or slower depending on your fitness levels.

 

What Time Should I Start The Climb?

The tradition is to start the climb at 2 or 2:30 am, and reach the top to watch the sunrise. I definitely suggest this because first, you will see all the Sri Lankan people making their pilgrimages, and second, you will miss the extreme heat and sun of the day. Finally, you’ll see the sunrise from the peak, where the view of Sri Lanka’s lush jungles,  rolling hills, and blue lakes is stunning.

 

What Should I Bring on the Climb?

Good hiking boots, and a few layers because the night starts chilly but will warm up as you climb and the sun rises. You should also bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer for the bathrooms, and small bills and coins to buy water and snacks on the way up.

 

 

How Long Should I Stay in Dalhousie?

There is really not too much to do in this town, and all the hostels have extremely high prices because it’s such a popular tourist destination. Because of this, we arrived in the town in the evening, ate dinner in our hostel (Slightly Chilled Guest House, very clean but definitely pricey) and tried to fall asleep early. Then we woke up at 2 am for the climb and finished around 9. We showered and ate breakfast at our hotel, then left immediately with our driver to head to Ella. If you have a private driver, I definitely suggest this. If not, you may be too tired to deal with public transport and want to spend a second night to recover before you move on.

 

Where Should I go after Climbing Adam’s Peak?

After climbing Adam’s Peak, my legs were DEAD. They have never ever been so sore in my life, and I doubt they ever will be again. I became a hobbling shell of my former self. Unfortunately, after climbing Adam’s peak we went to Ella, which is a town known for climbing little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock, and other beautiful hikes. I chose this as our next destination in our Sri Lanka Itinerary because it was only four hours from Adam’s Peak. I’m happy we went, but I would also suggest scheduling a few days at a beach directly after your climb to really relax and recover.

 

What else can I say about climbing Adam’s Peak? Outside of these specifics, it was honestly a truly magical experience. One of those moments where you feel completely connected and united with the people around you, as you all sit and enjoy your physical accomplishment and a beautiful but fleeting sunrise. The climb was physically challenging, but so rewarding. I 100% recommend adding Adam’s Peak to your Sri Lanka itinerary. Even if you’re a little out of shape or nervous about the climb, it’s easy to go slow and steady to the top. Give it a try and I promise you won’t regret it!

All my love,
Di

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What to See in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is a unique part of the country. It is located in the center and is definitely Sri Laka’s historical capital. The “triangle” is made up of three cities: Kandy, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura. Two of them are only ruins, but they all have historical and cultural significance, so there is a lot to see and do here. I spent ages pouring over reviews and itineraries before finally finding the cultural triangle to do list that worked for me.

We hired a private car, so we were picked up at the airport in Colombo and drove straight to Kandy. We spent two nights in the city, then two nights in Sigiriya where we visited the rest of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle destinations.

Daniel and I only spent four days in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, but without a time crunch we easily could have spent a few weeks here instead. Unfortunately we had to prioritize the top sites, and I think we made the right choices. Here are the top five must see’s in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.

 

1. Polonnaruwa

Cost: About $25 per person
Time: Half day to full day trip
Location: One hour drive from Sigiriya

 

 

This was honestly my favorite day of our whole two week trip. Polonnaruwa is amazing, there’s just no other word for it. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it’s been well preserved over the years. The city used to be a capital of Sri Lanka 1,000 years ago, and now the sprawling ruins lay abandoned, slowly being taken over by the encroaching jungle.

What makes Polonnaruwa so special? It is not a widely visited tourist destination, so it wasn’t over crowded. That meant, we were able to explore areas completely silent and away from the rest of the crowds. I think that helped a lot in feeling the eeriness and weight of the history this location holds. Beautiful carvings, designs, and even giant buddha statues surrounded us and transported us back to an ancient time. We also rented bikes at the ruins, and rode them around to see a lot of crumbling temples and statues off the main road.

 

 

Polonnaruwa is only about an hour drive from the town of Sigiriya (where the famous Lion’s Rock is located) and we did our whole trip to the ruins in a half day. I could have easily spent more time exploring, but we were hit with a rain storm and decided to leave.

There’s also a nice museum at the entrance center to learn more about the ruins before you visit the site or even hire a guide to take you on a personal tour, and a beautiful lake to chill at. Just keep in mind this is an important place, so everyone needs to have their legs and shoulders covered to enter.

 

 

 

2. Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock)

Cost: $30
Time: 3 hour trip. Try to do it in the early morning or late afternoon for the best lighting and views.
Location: Just outside the town of Sigiriya

 

 

This site has two different names. The locals call it Sigiriya, and the tourists call it Lion’s Rock. This is easily one of hte most popular destinations in the entire country and for good reason. 1,500 years ago a badass king saw this giant rock and decided to build his palace on it. The rock is over 600 ft high, but that didn’t stop this dreamer. He built a kingdom on and around the rock, even carving pools into the top. The ruins of his palace still remain there today.

Now, you can enter the beautiful park around the base, and climb staircases to the top. Oh, and beware of bees. We passed multiple signs telling us to be “still and silent in the case of a hornet attack” and to walk quietly so we wouldn’t disturb the giant hives that were EVERYWHERE. If you’re allergic to bees, you honestly might want to give this one a miss.

If you do make it to the rock unscathed, the next challenge is making it to the top. It’s more of a climb than a hike, and most of the trek up was on staircases or bridges attached to the rock face. The climb only took about 25 minutes and wasn’t too hard. Finally, we reached the top.

The ruins were ok, it was the view that was so amazing to me. Lion’s Rock lies in the middle of a pretty flat area, so we could see for miles. There were lakes, rolling hills, forests, and green as far as the eye could see. Absolutely stunning. This is definitely a can’t miss location for any visitor in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.

 

3. Dambulla Golden Cave Temple

Cost: Normally $10, we got lucky and hit it on a holiday so we got in free.
Time: We spent about 2 hours at this site
Location: Situated between Kandy and Sigirya. Best seen as a pit stop on the drive between the two towns.

 

 

The Dambulla cave temple is a really interesting site in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. It is a temple built into a maze of caves in a large rock. It’s also over 2,000 years old! These ancient caves are dark and cool, and have many large buddha statues and paintings in them. Also, on the walk up to the caves you will see plenty of monkey families hanging out on the trails and in the trees. Be careful with your belongings, because they’ve been known to snatch food and shiny things straight out of visitors hands! We spent 30 minutes just sitting and watching them all play around us.

Once in the caves, things are much more solemn. The Buddha statues and paintings are highly respected, and the caves are still an active monastery and place of worship today. Because of this, just like most other places in Sri Lanka covered knees and shoulders are required at Dambulla. We spent about an hour wandering through the caves, then returned to the base of the temple where we enjoyed a snack and the view of the largest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka.

History, monkeys, amazing views… what’s not to love about this must see site in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle?

 

 

4. Stay in a Treehouse

There are surprisingly a lot of treehouse options in the cultural triangle, and one for any budget. There were some super nice ones listed on Airbnb that were out of my price range, but luckily I stumbled upon the Inn on the Tree in Sigiriya. This “hotel” is amazing, and will make any trip to Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle go from awesome to unforgettable.

 

 

The Inn on the Tree has tree houses situated in the jungle, high up in the trees. The sides are open air, and there are balconies to relax and enjoy a drink. The beds all have nets around them to protect you from bugs, just be careful to keep them closed at all times. The Inn on the Tree also has a restaurant and provided a delicious free traditional Sri Lankan breakfast curries every morning of our stay.

If you want to relax and escape from the real world for a bit, booking a treehouse stay during your trip through Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is a MUST.

 

5. Visit Kandy

 

 

We spent two days in Kandy at the beginning of our trip to Sri Lanka’s Cultural triangle, and we had a good time. There’s a lot to see in the town, most notably the Temple of the Tooth. This temple is painted beautifully and features an important Buddhist relic… a tooth from the Buddha himself. Spend some time here wandering the ornate hallways, saying a prayer, and exploring the grounds.

 

 

Other things to do in Kandy include visiting the lake and botanical gardens, shopping at the silk, gemstone, and wood markets, checking out the giant Buddha statue with a view of the city, enjoying the night life, and going to a cultural show. The cultural show we went to was only a few dollars each to enter, and performed by locals with beautiful costumes and dances. At the end, there were even fire walkers for the finale. It was a cool way to learn more about the traditional Kandy tribe and their culture.

 

 

Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is an amazing part of the country’s history and heritage. I learned so much about the country, and was very surprised to see temples and ruins that were thousands of years old! If you visit, make sure you don’t miss my five favorite places and sites in the area.

PS Not sure how to start your Sri Lanka vacation planning? use my two week travel itinerary to learn the best way to travel through Sri Lanka.

All my love,
Di

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The Best Way to Travel Through Sri Lanka

I spent two weeks traveling in Sri Lanka in spring 2016, and it was an absolutely amazing country. I knew pretty much nothing about it when we planned our trip, but we bought the flights because they were so cheap and short from Abu Dhabi. Once I got into the nitty gritty of of planning our trip, though, I realized this wasn’t going to be the super easy beach vacation I was imagining (although we did hit up the beach and it was beautiful.)

Sri Lanka is a small country, but the main tourist attractions are not that close together. There’s the hill country, which is super green and full of tea plantations, the beautiful beaches along the coast, the iconic climb up Adam’s Peak, and finally Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. All are worth seeing, but they’re also all spread hours away from each other.

Making sure we could get to all of these throughout the two week trip was not an easy task, and I spent weeks reading itineraries, plotting the best routes and destinations, and figuring it all out. Hopefully, my work can save you some time! Below is the itinerary we took for the best way to travel through Sri Lanka and hit all of the top tourist destinations in the country along the way.

 

 

The Best Way to Travel Through Sri Lanka

My biggest tip is to hire a private driver. I know this may not be possible for some budgets, but if it is, it is definitely worth your time. There are trains that run from town to town, but they’re often extremely crowded, and won’t get you to the farther or harder to reach places (like Polonnaruwa, my absolute favorite site in Sri Lanka.)

We hired a private driver and had a good experience. Our driver spoke English and even helped us out and drove us to a clinic when we had a minor medical emergency. You can choose to do one of the many driving and tour companies’ set itineraries with hotels included in the price, or you can customize your own.

I suggest customizing your own itinerary and booking your own hotels, because I personally am an avid review reader and would never entrust those choices to a company who just wants to cut costs. So, don’t be afraid to decide exactly what you want, then negotiate a price to get it. Our itinerary is below and after our trip was all said and done, I think it was the best way to travel through Sri Lanka!

Our price for 10 days of transport with a private car and guide was $375, plus an extra $10 per day for the driver’s accommodation at the hotels. Make sure you ask the tour operator you choose if there are extra costs for your driver so you don’t get blindsided by them in the end. In total, we paid $465 for private transport for 9 days. I think this was totally worth the cost because it allowed us to easily stop at Uda Walawe National Park on the way to the beach without spending a night there, and gave us the ability to leave Adam’s peak right after our climb instead of spending a second day and night there. Plus, no crowded buses, haggling with tuk tuk drivers, dealing with trains after an overnight flight, etc. It was great choice and I definitely recommend it!

 

 

Our 9 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary

March 25th: Colombo airport pick up and drive to Kandy
March 26th: Explore Kandy
March 27th: Drive to Dambulla for day trip, continue to Sigiriya
March 28th: Hike Lion Rock, Day trip to Polonurawa, return Sigiriya
March 29th: Drive to Adams Peak
March 30th: Hike Adam’s Peak, drive to Ella
March 31st: Explore Ella
April 1st: Explore Ella

April 2nd: Early drive to Uda Walawe National Park, do morning safari, continue to Hikkaduwa

 

After spending nine days moving from place to place, ending your trip at beach is the best way to travel through Sri Lanka. We arrived in Hikkaduwa on April 2nd, we spent 5 days just relaxing on the beach. There are a lot of beach options in Sri Lanka, but Hikkaduwa is the most built up, and has the best restaurants and nightlife around it. I also chose it because it was close to Colombo for an easy drive back to the city for our flight home. Beach-hopping is popular in this country (and the eastern coast is huge for surfers) but for me the whole point of a beach vacay is to do nothing, so just chilling on one worked best for me.

 

The only change I would make to this itinerary would be to maybe spend one day in Nuwara Eliya on the way to Ella, and cut one day in Ella to make up for it. We drove through Newara Eliya and it looked really beautiful and peaceful, there are colonial houses and bike rentals to ride around the lake, as well as the famous hike to World’s End. At the end, though, I decided the dawn wake up call for World’s End didn’t quite fit into our plans, and that we were moving around enough as is. Even though we missed out on Nuwara Eliya, I was really ready to rest and relax in Ella after the tough hike up Adam’s Peak.
If you’re planning a trip to the country, use these tips for the best way to travel through Sri Lanka, and comment below if you have any more questions!

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The Top Three Things to do in Pokhara, Nepal

After our seven day Everest View Trek in Nepal, we took a private car and spent four happy and relaxing days in Pokhara.

Pokhara is billed as a resort town, and it’s built on a lake with lots of little shops, restaurants, and hiking trails to spend your days exploring. Like Lukla is the starting point for Everest treks, Pokhara is the base point for treks into the Annapurna mountain range, so the mornings boasted exceptional views of the rocky Annapurna peaks, before the smog and haze inevitably rolled in to obscure them for the day.

We spent our days rowing on the lake, hiking up to stupas and viewpoints in the surrounding hills, day drinking in beer gardens and enjoying the warm sun. Some popular choices of things to do in Pokhara include…

 

 

Top 3 Things to do in Pokhara

 

1. Paragliding. This is one of the most a popular activities in Pokhara, and if you do it on a clear day it offers stunning views of the lake, city, and Annapurna mountain range. It costs around $80 pp, unless of course you choose to upgrade to parahawking (you know, paragliding with a hawk on your arm, normal stuff.)

2. Visiting the World Peace Pagoda. This was great because we rented a boat to row across the lake for a couple dollars, then once we reached the other side, there was a dock and a trail to hike up to the World Peace Pagoda. It offered beautiful views of the city, lake, and surrounding mountains.

3. Eat, drink, and relax! Chances are you’re visiting the resort town after a grueling trek in the Everest or Anapurna ranges. When it comes to things to do in Pokhara, my favorite was to just chill. There are paths along the lake to walk in the sun, beer gardens, and plenty of restaurants and shops to explore. I personally recommend spending a day just drinking a few beers and doing… nothing 🙂

 

 

There are plenty of things to do in Pokhara, and we had a great four day stay in the city. Go paragliding, hike up to the World Peace Pagoda, and most importantly, spend a couple days just relaxing in the warm sun!

PS If you’re planning a trip to Nepal, read more about our Everest View Trek, what to do in Kathmandu, and my Nepal FAQ here!

All my love,

Di

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