After the disappointment of Anuradhapura we headed for the next leg in our Sri Lankan cultural triangle tour heading to see Dambulla Caves and Sigiriya and hoped for a more inspiring visit, before our planned trip to Kandy.
Getting the Bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla
You need to get to the old bus station in Anuradhapura if you want to guarantee yourself a seat for this journey, but you will add the price of the tuk tuk to the cost your journey (it will about the same price as your ticket to Dambulla). When you get there the tuk tuk drivers will try and steer you to the small AC minibuses who will want to charge you for your bag as well as a higher price for the human passengers, refuse and go and find a regular bus bound for Kandy or Colombo – they all pass through Dambulla. It will be cheaper and the open windows are more than you need to keep cool. While the bus eventually makes it to the new station near to the hotels, by the time we arrived there the bus was packed and there wasn’t even any standing room.
We are getting used to the crazy manic bus drivers here, they even outshine Vietnam night bus drivers but my alarm bells went off when a few kilometres outside the city the driver pulls over to make a prayer at a road side shrine. Lets hope Buddha was listening.
Dambulla Caves and Sigiriya
We arrived in Dambulla at around midday and used the local tuk tuk drivers to find us some cheaper lodgings. We were steered to a place on the edge of town run by a now retired tuk tuk driver. The place was clean and basic and cost us just 1500LKR per night after some swifty negotiations. No wifi, but hot water and a fan and nice garden to sit out in.
We decided to go to the Cave Temple that afternoon and hike up in the cooler afternoon sun. The temple is at the other end of town so we did the lazy thing and hopped a tuk tuk there for 100LKR. All the buses passing through town stop there so you get there for a few rupees or walk which will take you around half an hour. The entrance fee is just over 1500 LKR (US $10) and after purchasing your tickets you can admire the gaudy golden Buddah and plastic monks that were added to the site in the last decade as well as the museum at the base of the temple climb.
The walk up is not too steep and takes around ten minutes to get to the top. The pathways are lined with hawkers selling lotus flowers, tourist trinkets, and water but are all friendly and wont bother you too much.
You leave your shoes at the entrance of the temple and then literally hop for the first few metres over red hot stones till you reach the shaded corridor that leads to the entrance of the caves.
The caves have some interesting buildings attached to the front, but the real treats lie within. As you enter the first cavern you are astounded by the intricacy of the wall paintings and the array of statues that line the walls. The lighting is dimmed, to protect the relics, but with some use of the tables and donation boxes that surround the artefacts you can get some decent long exposure shots.
We made it back to town and ate in one of the many hotels (hotels are cafes/restaurants here) for another Sri Lankan meal. Instead of the usual curry and rice option we instead went for the short order snack platter. For this option you get a mountainous bowl of pastry, samosas and spring roll shaped objects to eat.
You take your pick form the bowl and when you are finished they count what is left and you get charged for what you have eaten. Each snack costs between 35 and 45 LKR, so you can fill your belly for next to nothing and they are all deliciously filled with curried vegetables, chicken, sweet potato and dried fish or eggs.
Next day were were up early for our trip to Sigiriya. We decided , again lazily, to take the trip via tuk tuk instead of getting the local bus which would have cost just 45LKR each. In hindsight we kicked ourselves as we ended up spending money we didn’t need for the luxury of our own vehicle. Admittedly it was only 2,000LKR ($15) but was a waste. We talked to other who did the trip by bus and it was easy and buses, as we are now learning, are pretty regular.
We arrived at the main site at around 8:30 beating the main bus tour crowds who tend to arrive around 9am. You get your tickets at the gate (3,100LKR) and then take a leisurely stroll through the water and rock gardens that were created by the rulers centuries ago.
The hike up was not as tiring as we thought it would be, but the advantage of doing it at this time of the day is that virtually the whole trek is done in the shade. You get a little treat half way as you ascend a set of spiral staircases to view the cave painting which are quite mesmerising. That is the painting not the stairs.
From here you make the next hike past the mirrored wall. The walls are not adorned with mirrors but consist of polished plaster which reflects light and are adorned with graffiti. both centuries old and some of it more modern.
You then reach one of the most remarkable sights of this trip to the Lions staircase which leads to to the summit. At the foot of these stairs are two huge lion claw carved paws. Sadly they have been surrounded by protective fencing which makes getting a clear shot of them in context with the stairs difficult, but they really are stunning. From here you have the final 100M ascent and you are at the top ready to explore the ruins of the fortress, palace and ponds that were constructed atop this rock in 495 AD.
When you have finished admiring the ruins you can then cast your eyes across to the stunning views of the surrounding plains and hills.
We returned to town to have a bite to eat and discovered the local market where we ended up spending a good hour wandering around. The locals were amazingly friendly, they offered us tastes of fruits and vegetables when they saw we were staring and wondering what they were. A request to take a photograph was met with instant approval and so we just wandered and soaked ourselves in the atmosphere as the Sri Lankan’s stocked up on their fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. If you are here in town pop in on your way back to your hotel you really will have a pleasant experience.
That evening we decided to add Polonuwarra back on to our list of places to visit. After our relatively disappointing visit to Anuradhapura we did not want to spend the day at another set of temples if they were as underwhelming as those, but after reading more and chatting to some people we were assured Polonuwarra was much more interesting.
To top the day off we met a wonderful Dutch couple at the guest house and we spent hours chatting (and drinking) with them that evening sipping the ridiculously strong lagers that are on sale here (8.8% proof). It was sore heads all round the next morning.
The Best Place to Stay to Visit Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle Sights
All in all a great first two days, a great guest house, interesting sites, new friends and good food, and we would complete our cultural sights with a trip to Polonuwarra tomorrow.
If you on a very limited schedule it is perfectly feasible to do these two sights in a single day if you can get to Dambulla by around 9am, with the morning spent at Sigiriya and then the afternoon at Dambulla caves before departing by bus to your next destination.