We nearly missed the sights of Polonnaruwa, off our tour of Sri Lanka, after the disappointing trip to Anaradhapura we’d done a few days earlier. We are so glad we didn’t, this place is awash with history and wonderful relics, making it another worthy UNESCO listing.
Polonnaruwa Sights by Bus from Dambulla
No tuk tuk for our trip to Polonnaruwa, this one was going to be by bus and when we asked our Dambulla guest house owner where we catch the bus, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was right outside the driveway. So we walked the 10 metres from our room to the bus stop and waited for our ride. We missed two buses, one whizzed past as we were crossing the road, the other didn’t stop as it was packed to the rafters, the good news is the buses are frequent and pass by about every 10 minutes. We hopped on one bound for Colombo making sure with the conductor that it stops at Dambulla (we now know they all do).
The fare was 88 LKR and the journey took just one a half hours until the conductor motioned to us to get off at Polonnaruwa. We got the Kandy bus for our return leg so I think that any Kaduruwela bus to Kandy or Colombo will get you to Polonnaruwa.
Getting around Polonnaruwa Sights and Entrance Fees
As you step off the bus the local tuk tuk gangs are there to greet you. They will offer you a ridiculously high price just for driving you around the sites, which takes 3-4 hours in a rickshaw, of around 1800 rupees. On top of this you’ll still need to pay your own entrance fees. They will also offer what seems like a money saving, but not monument saving, fare of 6000 rupees to sneak you into the sites without an official ticket. Think before you do this, we did it in Anuradhapura and felt bad about depriving the conservation fund of the income. Its also possible you may not get to see all the sights that others who have bought an official ticket will see.
Ticket prices and entrance fees are very high in Sri Lanka to visit these sites when compared to India or Cambodia. The high fees do encourage the tuk tuks to by pass the system to earn a massive fare, which no doubt gets split between themselves, the security guards and other staff at the sights. We have never come across this practice so blatantly in operation at any other place before. John’s efforts at reporting this to every official he came across fell on deaf ears, obviously aware but having no interest in changing this corrupt scam.
We got rid of the annoying taxi touts, wandered a hundred yards down the road (out of their sight) and got a local tuk tuk to stop, and negotiated a rate of 500 LKR for a three hour temple hopping tour (see the difference between the 1800 quote from the mafia) . So we jumped in the back of the tuk tuk and went to purchase our official multi-entrance tickets, from the official booth opposite where the bus dropped us off. Official entrance fee prices are 3,125 LKR each and allow you a single day visit which starts from 7am until 5.30 pm every day. The tickets can only be bought at the museum so if you arrive at any of the checkpoints without your ticket you will be sent back there.
We were spotted by the original overpriced tuk tuk drivers when driving past, a couple of them jumped in their tuk tuks and gave chase, stopping our driver just before we arrived at the museum to purchase our tickets. They accosted our new driver and a heated discussion in Sinhalese ensued. They were clearly unhappy with our driver providing his services to us at normal rates. Our further refusal to purchase their ‘unofficial’ tickets which were still ridiculously priced at over 5,000 LKR for both of us, did not end on good terms. A few insults were hurled at us in Sinhalese, and a few in English for good measure, as they left and cleared the road so we could continue with our tour. Not a good impression, and not at all typical of our experiences in Sri Lanka, just local greedy gangsters being able to freely ply their trade!
Hire A Bicycle to Ride Around Polonnaruwa
Our tour took a total of three hours and while we whizzed past a few of the more ruined sites we squeezed in all the impressive ones. They are spread out across the old town along roads running north to south. The most northerly is about 6 km from the southern most site so it is easily navigable by bike, many visitors choosing to hire a bicycle. Bikes can be rented from stalls where the bus drops you off for 200 to 300 LKR for the day. As far as I could see all the major sites are well signposted in English, so you should not get lost or have to ride bumpy dirt tracks, all roads are surfaced. Maps are also available at the museum when you purchase your tickets.
Polonnuwara UNESCO Sights
The UNESCO world heritage site of Polonnuwara was the second great capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th centuries. As well as fostering an agricultural base, the rulers of this areas marvelled at engineering creating irrigation systems and a massive lake, Parakrama Samudra.
The shrines here are a mix of Buddhist and Hindu designs with many pre dating the time the place served as the capital.
Our favourite picks of the Polonnaruwa sights were
The double Buddhas at Gal Vihara – you get one lying down and one sitting all this set around a beautiful lake with local birdlife. Sadly they have constructed a corrugated roof over the statues to protect them which makes it difficult to get a clean image of them without this monstrosity in the way.
There is a huge Buddha statue at Lanka Latke in what can only be described cathedral like building itself surrounded by stupas.
The Vataduge circular building with not one but four Buddha statues symmetrically placed around the inner circumference each with their own moon stone and stairway to reach them. This is located at the site with the most buildings and you can easily spend an hour here looking for those unique angles through the stone doorways and standing pillars. Its another shoes off location so socks may be a good idea to protect you form the sharp grit or hot stone floors that greet you here.
Dambulla to Polonnaruwa Tour – In One Day
The return journey was as easy as getting here and there really is no need to get here any other way unless you are feeling lazy or flush. Its very easy to do this as a day trip from Dambulla.
We returned to the guest house that evening to a chat again with Djai and Frank sitting into the small hours discussing life the universe and everything. We also made a plan to travel as group to Kandy to try and help our negotiating power with the guest houses there. Oh and of course we were all getting on like a house on fire – or whatever the Dutch equivalent is, perhaps “krijgen op als een huis in brand”, or perhaps not – blame Google translate .
The Polonnaruwa sights are well worth a visit and have been one of the highlights of our cultural triangle tour so don’t miss them, skip Anuradhapura instead.