Ever since the 1950s glory days of the silver screen, film producers and directors such as Don Boyd (Elephant Rock, 1977) have raved about how the beauty, light and variety of the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka make it a perfect outdoor film set.
It was acclaimed author Arthur C Clarke who said the island was a “small universe” and contained “as many variations of culture, scenery, and climate as some countries a dozen times its size.”
Visit these Sri Lanka film locations and you’ll understand what they mean.
Search for the sacred stones of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second film in the swashbuckling adventure series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Harrison Ford as “Indy”, an archaeologist/explorer/saviour of the world.
Released in 1984, Temple of Doom was originally supposed to be filmed in Rajasthan in northern India, but permission was eventually denied because Indian authorities deemed the script offensive. Instead, Spielberg relocated to Sri Lanka’s second city, Kandy.
Today, the city is the gateway to the glorious Hill Country, and is home of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which houses a tooth of the Buddha and is Sri Lanka’s holiest spot.
Go white water rafting past The Bridge over the River Kwai
Perhaps the classic Sri Lanka-based film, the 1957 David Lean directed World War II epic featuring Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden, tells the story of a group of Japanese prisoner of war captors forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai that once completed will help the Japanese connect Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).
Much of the film, which won seven Academy Awards, was filmed in Kitulgala on the western edge of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. It’s said that during a break from filming, Lean nearly drowned in the fast-flowing river that flows through Kitulgala.
Today, visitors come to Kitulgala less for the big screen memories (though a trail leads through the forest to the site of filming) and more for the white water rafting, jungle trekking and bird-watching.
Kelani River near Kitulgala © Vasas Andras/Shutterstock
Explore the far north along The Road From Elephant Pass
Perhaps the finest home-grown Sri Lankan film of recent years, The Road From Elephant Pass recounts the civil war years and the battle for the Elephant Pass, a narrow strip of land that links the Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka.
The 2008 film, which was Sri Lanka’s Academy Award entry under foreign films, was based on the novel by Nihal de Silva.
Learn about the bare necessities in The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo
The Second Jungle Book is a 1997 film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s literary masterpiece, The Jungle Book. If you’ve never heard of the film then you’re in good company – it only took around $350,000 at the box office.
Much of the filming took place in Kandy’s Udawattakele Sanctuary, a forest park just beyond the city centre that has lots of monkeys but not so many (in fact, zero) tigers.
Swing like Tarzan The Ape Man
Released in 1981, Tarzan The Ape Man, is a remake of the legendary 1932 film of the same name. The 1981 version was largely filmed in different parts of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country but a visit to the Sinharaja reserve should provide plenty of chances to swing, Tarzan style, on vines.
Go gardening with the stars of Elephant Walk
Elizabeth Taylor takes on the role of a Memsahib at a tea plantation terrorised by elephants in a classic example of the kind of human-wildlife conflict that is still common in Sri Lanka today. Liz Taylor wasn’t director William Dieterle’s first choice as lead lady, but she replaced Vivien Leigh who had to pull out after illness. Prior to this, though, Leigh spent a good deal of her time in Sri Lanka, staying at the home of Bevis Bower (brother of famous architect Geoffrey). Today the house and the surrounding, stunningly landscaped Brief Gardens are open to the public.
© Ranjana Perera/Shutterstock
Hang with Hollywood greats at the Galle Face Hotel
Not actually a Hollywood movie location, but definitely the Sri Lankan hotel of choice for a string of royals, diplomats and Hollywood and Bollywood A-listers, the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo is one of the classic colonial-style hotels of the sub-continent.
Roger Moore and Carrie Fisher count among past guests and today’s visitors can learn all about them and other stars of the silver screen on a short tour with the hotels very own in-house historian.
Stuart flew to Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan Airlines who operate daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Colombo. Explore more of Sri Lanka with the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.