This month we chat to Kaylie from Happiness Travels Here about her best holiday destination in Asia for family travel – Dambulla, SRI LANKA. Have you considered Dambulla with kids?
Our regular readers will know that we are huge fans of Sri Lanka. It’s one of our favourite destinations we’ve travelled with the boys and such an accessible destination for intrepid families. However, our Sri Lanka adventures focused on the South and East of Sri Lanka (including Colombo, Udawalawe National Park and Arugam Bay) and we didn’t make it further north than the central highlands. So I was very excited when Kaylie agreed to chat about Dambulla, a place we have not yet visited.
1. Tell us a bit about yourselves. Where are you from and how often do you travel as a family? How old are your children?
In 2014 with a 3 year old and newborn baby we were offered a fantastic opportunity to move from our home in New Zealand to Dresden in Germany. Prior to having children we had both been keen travellers and we knew being based in Europe would open up so many experiences, learning about another culture, a new language and the chance to travel as a family. We have now been in Germany for almost 4 years and the kids are now 4 and 7 years old. We have travelled to almost 30 countries during that time.
2. How many times have you travelled to Asia and why do you love travelling there?
I have always loved travelling to Asia. Asian destinations have this buzz about them, an orderly chaos that you can’t find elsewhere. The people are warm and the food is diverse and delicious. Prior to having children I travelled extensively through Asia, spending part of my medical internship in a paediatric hospital in Bangkok and also visiting my parents in the Philippines where they lived for 4 years.
As a family we have taken trips to Japan and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was the perfect half-ways point to meet my parents for an epic Christmas holiday, they travelled from New Zealand to meet us there. We fell in love with the Dambulla area in Sri Lanka.
3. Why is Dambulla your favourite destination?
You’ll find Dambulla in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. The landscape is breathtaking. Lush green jungle, impressive rocky spires, lakes and pristine national parks full of wildlife. Amongst all these vistas you will also find significant cultural sights. Dambulla sits within Sri Lanka’s “cultural triangle”. Inhabited as early as the 7th century BC the area is rich in history. The mix of awe inspiring nature and a rich cultural heritage made our stay in Dambulla our favourite during our 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary.
4. What were your top 3 things to do in Dambulla with kids?
1. Jeep Safari in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park
We visited Dambulla with a 3 year old and a 6 year old. By far the favourite excursion for the kids was seeing dozens of elephants in Minneriya National Park. We took a private jeep safari through the park. This is easy to arrange when you arrive. It took about an hour to reach the grasslands and watering hole where the herd was gathered. There was plenty to see on the way, peacocks, deer, crocodiles and mongoose. Coming around the corner to see the herd in the distance, goosebumps rolled over my arms, as we got closer we could smell the organic grassy smell of the elephants and even hear the crunch as they chewed clumps of grass.
We sat and watched the elephants interact with each other. Juveniles chasing and playing in the watering hole, a group of females huddling around a newborn calf and the dominant male wandering amongst the herd giving each female a reassuring tap with an outstretched trunk. An unforgettable experience.
2. Hiking Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya is a large column shaped rock and home to an ancient fortress. Also known as “Lion rock” the final stairway sits between the paws on a giant lion carved into the rock. Ascending a 200m rock may seem like a strange activity for a family holiday but we seem to gravitate towards these activities. While the climbs can sometimes be a challenge for little legs, we thoroughly enjoy the challenge and often talk about our achievement for weeks to come. We arrived at the entrance just before the 7am opening, since we were travelling during Christmas, a popular time for domestic and international travellers, we wanted to avoid crowds. We skipped the museum and headed straight through the gardens to the base of the rock. The path is very well organised, one way up and one way down, the stairs are in good condition, steep in places, though always with handrails. Our 6 year old had no trouble with the climb, 3 year old Ella needed to be carried some of the way. I am sometimes uncomfortable with heights and there was a short section of stairs bolted onto the side of the rock where I felt my heart quicken a little but I felt safe and my even more height phobic mother was also fine. At the top we were greeted by expansive views over the jungle and a wide open plateau to explore.
3. Visiting Dambulla Caves
Dambulla caves are a significant heritage site not only because of the extensive cave paintings and 153 Buddha statues but also because the caves were used by ancient civilisations. 160 metres up, a Buddhist temple has been built into the side of the mountain, protecting the caves and the intricate and brightly coloured paintings within. The kids delighted in seeing some monkeys along the path up to the temple.
Our driver took us to collect our tickets at the main entrance, we then headed back out the road to use an alternative entrance which cuts a significant portion off the climb. Be sure to get your tickets first though as they will be checked only at the top.
5. Where did you stay and do you recommend it?
We stayed at the Heritance Kandalama. When I was researching our trip to Sri Lanka and talking to friends that had already been, I heard over and over how wonderful the Heritance Kandalama was. While it might not be in everyone’s budget we love mixing budget accommodation with a few nights of luxury.
The Heritance Kandalama is built into the side of the rock surrounded by jungle and overlooking the beautiful Lake Kandalama. The view is dramatic and Sigiriya rock can even be seen in the distance. The hotel is the masterpiece of a world famous architect and built to blend into the environment with minimal ecological impact. The hotel has a reputation for having one of the best dinner buffets and we were not disappointed. Extensive seafood, freshly BBQed meats, a large selection of local curries, fresh, healthy vegetable dishes and desserts that would rival those in Paris.
Three pools one with a natural rock bottom, another an infinity pool which in the right light seamlessly fades into the blue of the lake below. Changing levels and low rails mean toddlers need to be actively supervised when moving about the complex.
Tip: Book direct with the hotel for the best price.
6. What Sri Lankan food did the kids eat?
In our family we have one adventurous eater and one fussy eater. For more adventurous kids mild chicken, prawn or vegetable curries are delicious served with rice. There were plenty of fresh tropical fruits. The hotel also had typical kids menu food available nuggets, chips, pizza, burgers pasta and more. Our favourite dish was served at breakfast, Sri Lankan Egg Hoppers, a crispy crepe like basket made with rice flour and coconut milk, holding a seamed egg. I enjoyed mine with a dahl and spicy sambols.
7. How did you get around?
We hired a driver and van. The roads in Sri Lanka are narrow and windy. What looks like a short distance on a map often takes much longer than expected. The drivers are quite aggressive. I would not recommend self driving. An alternative would be to travel the island with a combination of public transport and private transfers which can be organised by your accommodation.
8. What is your top tip for travelling to Dambulla with kids?
Legs and shoulders need to be covered to visit religious sites so take a sarong to wrap over shorts or light long pants. Everyone needs to remove their shoes, on sunny days the ground can get hot so take along socks for the children to wear.
Please do not take part in elephant rides or visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, these are not ethical experiences, the elephants are often poorly treated and it encourages traders to illegally remove elephants from the wild. There are plenty of opportunities to see elephants in their natural habitat.
Dengue has become more of a problem in Sri Lanka in recent years. Rates vary a lot depending on the time of year and the area of Sri Lanka so take this into account when planning a trip and avoid high risk areas.
9. What item could you not have done without in Sri Lanka?
We picked up sim cards at the airport on our arrival. The cost was around $10 USD and this included data, texts and calling. This was great to be able to research where we were going, stay in touch with each other, our hosts and our driver.
10. Where are you off to next?
Our next trip is to Tbilisi in Georgia. We have friends that live there and it looks like a beautiful historic city to visit.
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