On 27th June 2018 we got the 3:45pm bus from Trincomalee and arrived into Dambulla at 6:30pm. The Buddhist festival of Poson was in full swing and we had to walk along a very busy road in grid lock traffic with everyone playing loud music and celebrating the festival. Like in Trincomalee, it was a public holiday and everyone was using it as an opportunity to party and make pilgrimages to the temples in the caves that Dambulla is known for. We had booked into a hostel called Dambulla Tourist Resort which was in a good location on the main road and the owner gave us a welcome drink and fresh papaya juice the following day which was so great!
Like Anuradhapura, Dambulla was breezy and a nice temperature in the evening which was very welcome. We had decided to base ourselves in Dambulla whilst we explored Sigiriya and the Dambulla caves before carrying on to Polonnaruwa. When exploring the ancient cities in Sri Lanka some people base themselves in one place, such as Dambulla or Habarana, the entire time and then get buses to all the different places but we had decided to stay in Polonnaruwa instead as we didn’t see the point in making long bus journeys every morning, plus we could get buses from there to our next destination.
The next day we got up early and got a bus to Sigiriya. We had planned on getting the bus at around 7.30am but the bus didn’t end up leaving until 8am and then waited two minutes down the road for around 15 minutes so we didn’t start to leave Dambulla until 8:20am, nearly an hour after we had intended to get a bus! Such is Asian travel.
Sigiriya was around 45 minutes away from Dambulla and cost us 40LKR (20p) on the bus. We arrived at 9am and each paid a 4770LKR (£21.30) entry fee to the sight. We had read a lot about people complaining about the price of entry or even opting to go to a nearby rock called Pidurangala Rock which offers similar views for a fraction of the price. Our view on this is that we always try to save money where we can but at the same time we haven’t come all the way to Sri Lanka to then not see the noteworthy attractions. The area isn’t called Pidurangala, it’s called Sigiriya and it’s not just the views from the top of the rock you’re going to see but the ancient settlement of Sigiriya with its statues, gardens and ruins – something Pidurangala Rock doesn’t have.
We had heard quite a bit about going to Sigiriya before we arrived there so we were looking forward to seeing it for ourselves. The rock itself is 660ft tall with a flat top that was built on during the reign of King Kasyapa sometime between the years 447 and 495. The structure built on the top was said to be a palace for the king but was abandoned after the King died on the battlefield. It was then used as a monastery until the 14th Century. It wasn’t rediscovered until 1898 by a British archaeologist and then was further escavated in 1907 to what we see today.
After getting off the bus, we had to take a long winded way around a large pond-like moat that encircles the complex of the gardens and the rock. Once we arrived at the site, tourists then have to go into the museum to buy their tickets which are priced considerably higher than the price for locals. I don’t mind this though as not many locals could afford the price the tourists pay and its good to encourage exploration within your own country (we saw the same policy adopted in India).
Once inside the complex, we walked through what was the Royal Garden which is full of bathing pools, ruins and was once also full of Buddhist statues. We chose not to explore this until after climbing the rock to avoid the crowds. We climbed up stone and metal steps against the rock which would eventually lead us to the top.
The first stop up the rock was to a number of beautifully preserved frescoes which are outdoor paintings. Due to the shape of the rock, the paintings are protected from the elements like the sun which would fade the colours of the paintings meaning they still have vibrant colours and clear detailing. I really liked them. The paintings are believed to either represent celestial nymph’s or the King’s concubines. No one knows the exact dates of the frescoes but it’s widely thought to date back to after King Kasyapa reigned on the rock.
We then passed the Mirror Wall which is a 3m high wall which was coated in a smooth glaze that led visitors to the frescoes and it compelled people to write their feelings upon it. It was really hard to see the original inscriptions and we mainly just saw more modern graffiti that had been added more recently which was a shame. Now, people are there to make sure no one touched the fresco and mirror wall to stop any further damage but this won’t have always been the case.
You weren’t allowed to get photos of the frescoes so these are from google.
We then headed further up to a clearing which is where the famous lions paws that start the real entrance to the palace on top of the rock. The paws are enormous and are all that reminds you of a gigantic brick lion that stood at the foot of the rock. The stairs to the palace would have gone through the lion’s mouth, down to its paws.
We climbed up the stairs that were in between the two lion paws to the top of the rock where it was very windy which cooled you down after the climb. There were a number of ruins to view which included a large swimming pool/water tank. The views were great and we spent a long time up here whilst we ate our breakfast and took in the scenery before wandering around the ruins. It was loads bigger at the top than we had expected which made a bit more sense why you’d have a palace built up there even if I can’t comprehend it fully due to the massive walk to and from the top every time you needed to get food!
We headed back down the rock and had a wander around the Royal Gardens. These were nice and there were also a few monkeys around which were quite funny to watch although we still kept our distance.
We’re really glad we went to Sigiriya as we enjoyed seeing the details of the rock as well as the great views and we were able to spend as long as we wanted up there which was nice. There are loads of wasps nests attached to the rocks and apparently they can get quite aggressive towards people during July and August but maybe the day we were there was too windy because, thankfully, we had no issues from them!
At around 1pm we headed back to Dambulla to go to five Cave Temples which is also known as the Royal Rock Temple complex. The five caves were transformed into Buddhist temples and are completely covered in paintings as well as being filled with a total of around 150 statues and paintings of the Buddha. We hadn’t really known what to expect of the cave temples and, in all honesty, we didn’t have high expectations but the cave temples were actually very impressive. We couldn’t believe that every inch of the walls were covered in paintings and the whole place had been very tastefully displayed using spotlighting which let the paintings and artwork speak for itself.
Before visiting the caves we went up some stone steps that led to a giant Buddha statue that had piles of flowers at its base that were being left by people as part of Poson. There were some monkeys here who would then come along and eat the flowers and they got defensive of them pretty quickly so lots of people had to watch themselves as the monkeys guarded their flowery territory!
Cave I – Devaraja Viharaya (Temple of the King of the Gods)
Cave II – Maharaja Viharaya (Temple of the Great King)
This cave was our favourite.
Cave III – Maha Alut Viharaya (New Great Temple)
Cave IV – Pachima Viharaya (Western Cave)
Cave V – Devana Alut Viharaya (Second New Temple)
Seeing Sigiriya and Dambulla in one day was definitely a good shout as neither take a full day to explore. We really enjoyed both places and I think we were pleasantly surprised by how much we liked them particularly as the main tourist destinations can sometimes be overhyped. After exploring the temples (and watching the cheeky monkeys that live around the caves swim in the water) we went to the bus station to get to Polonnaruwa before it got dark so that we’d be ready for another day of exploring. Although it may seem like we were rushing from place to place it didn’t seem that way to us and we were enjoying how much we were getting done.
Next stop: Polonnaruwa
Sending love x