Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of Sri Lanka and was the seat of power here between 380BC and 1100BC. As a result this area and the other points of the cultural triangle, Dambulla, Sigiria and Pollonawura are rich in historical monuments and temples.
The town of Anuradhapura is split in two, the new town in the east houses the new town centre and all the hotels and guest houses while the old city in the west is dotted with small villages and the historical sites.
Sleeping in Anuradhapura
Accommodation at the budget end of the market was hard to find here so we stayed at the French Garden Guest House which is owned by the same people who run the Milano in town. The place is immaculately clean and a room for two with air conditioning, hot water and a good breakfast included cost us 3700 LKR. Not cheap, but probably the best we could do here after having looked other places. The place also had fantastic wifi, the fastest we have seen so far in Sri Lanka.
The problem is that while the management remain friendly, if you are not taking their tours with them they won’t answer in much detail your requests for local information. On arrival we asked for a map of the main sights “no” he said that “he didn’t have one”, only to produce one later that day when he wanted to prove to us that our self arranged tour missed out some important sights, annoying.
Arriving in Anuradhapura
At the bus station the rickshaw drivers will besiege you offering you hotels and cheap trips to your pre booked accommodation while they try and sell you one of their tours of the historical sights without the need for you to pay the $15 official entrance fee. They start the negotiations at 8,000LKR and if you are persistent you can get it nearer to the 5000. mark, or you can be good and pay the official fee and try and negotiate the tuk tuk separately, although they will try and make as much from you as possible seeing as they lost their big fee from the inclusive tour.
We did it the dodgy way and got to see almost all of the things we wanted. Apparently our driver missed out a couple of the key elements (one of the Buddhas and the ponds) which I guess is where they cannot get you past the guards or where he didn’t want to pay off the security guards as we had reduced the deal down to 4,500 LKR.
I have been feeling guilty really, the fees we avoided go to with the drivers benefited them and the paid off security guards, but deprived the maintenance and restoration fund of our cash, so we wont be doing that again. We will be good tourists and pay the fees. The fees are high here and even higher at the other sights by Asian standards and create this black market trade so maybe the Sri Lankan authorities may want to rethink that one.
Our Favourite Anuradhapura sights
The Rock Temple or Isurumuni Stupa, to give it its official title, with its fascinating multicoloured Buddha room. The main attraction here is a sleeping Buddha at around 30ft in length in vibrant colours with other statues looking on including a blue faced Buddha image the likes of which I have never seen before. Nearby the temple you will find the Kings Gardens and palace which was no more than a pile of stone and some carved ponds and water channels in the indigenous rocks.
All that remains of the Brazen palace are the pillars that used to support the multi storey building so there is little to look at here unless your imagination can work like a 3D modelling programme and rebuilt the structure from the bare frame of what is left.
The Sacred Bodhi tree is probably the most revered of sights here. While it may have huge significance religiously there is very little of it that you can see as the main trunks are surrounded by walls and the temple buildings that lie underneath. The tree is said to be over 2000 years old and therefore the oldest living tree in the world.
The Ruwanwelli Stupa is the final sight in this close cluster of three (the Brazen Palace and the Bodhi Tree its neighbours and is immense. It takes you a good while to walk around it and marvel at its size .
You access these three sights via some pathways which surround grasslands and gardens. We had a bonus sight here as we stood and watched a dog attacking a snake and living to fight another day. The dog was clearly not scared of the snake and the snake, while taking a few lunges didn’t seem too bothered either. Perhaps they put this show on every day for the tourists?
The Royal Palace ruins were interesting and while not a lot remains of the modest size historical home it was interesting to see the layout of the buildings and the tuk tuk driver did a good tour guide impression pointing out the most interesting bits, including 1,000 year old air conditioning systems.
There were other less impressive stupas on the tour ranging in age and size, the man made lake (or tank as they call it here) that sits in the heart of the old city was impressive in scale and with wildlife. The driver took us on a nice detour around the other side of the lake so that we could get some good views of the lake with three of the main stupas in the background.
Cheap Snacks in Anuradhapura
We found some cheap buffet places just across from the new bus station, all offer similar menus, lunchtime veg or non-veg buffets for about 150 LKR. We had one between us which was more than enough when we added a side order of chilli fried chicken livers (delicious). We passed on the devilled version, they looked way too spicy.
The whole meal was great value and really tasty and staff in there looked after us wonderfully and got a healthy tip. We passed by here later the same evening and they were busy with the kothu clanging but we had already eaten so passed on what is already one of our favourite Sri Lankan dishes.
Is Anuradhapura worth the trip?
I can’t say I was bowled over by the sights but they are interesting considering they have been here for 1500 years. The restoration work is very much in its infancy by the look of things, with many sights still littered with unconnected slabs of the buildings whose foundations lay nearby. I would say unless you are really interested in the historical or religious significance of this place I would concentrate instead on the much more interesting places on Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle Tour.
Personally, we think the cost of staying here, and the entrance fees to this site were not worth the money. There are much more interesting places to visit in Sri Lanka for tomb raider types, which we’ll talk about in a later post. We visited many of Sri Lanka’s archaeological gems, and historical places of interest, this is one we felt we could save money by not visiting, especially if you plan to visit the likes of Dambulla and Sigiriya. However, if you are desperate to visit Anuradhapura don’t stay here, get the bus from Dambulla you’ll easy do it all in a day. This is just one cost those on a low budget trip or backpacking could easily do without and doesn’t represent value for money.