Feb 20-21, 2017
We deliberated for quite some time regarding our stay for the Dambulla-Sigiriya portion of our Sri Lankan trip.
Dambulla was a transport hub and more convenient, whereas Sigiriya was more rural and would provide a nice relaxing atmosphere coupled with ancient monuments.
We went with our gut and decided to do a quick stop at Dambulla’s famed cave temples and then head straight to Sigiriya.
A word of warning, if you take a smaller bus in Sri Lanka and have heavy and space-consuming backpacks, they will charge you as if you were with another person due to their lack of cargo space. This is not the case with normal, government run buses.
We got off the bus in busy, dusty Dambulla and were immediately offered a tuk tuk to the caves. The driver said we could leave our packs at a place nearby and then he would drive us back to the bus station for our onward journey to Sigiriya.
Things were a little off when he refused to drive us all the way to the site’s entrance and even though he overcharged us, he didn’t have change and made a stink when I came up short with my change. We exchanged dirty looks at each other and he sped off.
As luck would have it, we weren’t the first people to think of bringing our packs to the caves and there was a designated spot at the ticket office to leave our bags as well as a sign-in book to ensure we left and picked up the same baggage. Sweet!
We hiked up the stairs in extreme heat, passing many monkeys along the way, and were treated to beautiful views before reaching the famed cave temples.
Dambulla’s cave temples date back over 2000 years and subsequent rulers have added to the elaborate and impressive artwork over the years.
There are five separate caves and they contain a total of around 150 Buddha statues and paintings.
Since Sri Lanka is always ridiculously hot; and you always have to be barefoot in these holy places; and these ancient peoples decided that having dark coloured stone walkways is cool, we had to play it cool while suffering from the 3rd degree burns on the soles of our feet while walking to the white exterior of this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site.
The second cave was Maharaja Viharaya or temple of the Great King. This temple is probably the most impressive cave temple I have ever seen. This is the one that makes all other cave temples look merely like regular caves.
This cave has a carousel of Buddhas that is visually stunning and the room itself is quite large measuring 52m by 23m.
The cave also contains two impressive statues of kings, hence its name.
The third cave was Maha Alut Viharaya, which is the more modern of the five, having been built in the 18th century.
The fourth cave, Pachima Viharaya, was quite small but has a beautiful Buddha statue as its centrepiece.
The fifth and final cave was Devana Alut Viharaya, and it is also a newer cave like cave three, but even more recent.
Thankfully, all of our bags were still intact when we returned to the ticket office. We found a tuk tuk who brought us to the bus station for the correct price and we hopped on a crowded and sweaty bus for the final ride towards Sigiriya.
I had spoken to the homestay owner the day before and he told me where to get off the bus.
As we got off at the proper junction, an old man in a tuk tuk told us his daughter was the owner of the homestay and he gave us a free lift.
We were then led to our room at Jaana Guest, our homestay for the next two days.
We had our own little patio, a large bed and a warm shower! Their house itself was nothing to write home about, but their rooms for rent were nestled in their yard, surrounded by bright, lush and tropical jungle, as well as huge lizards and monkeys. Later, we would see wild peacocks nearby and were told to be careful due to the many wild elephants in the area.
That evening we walked to the main road and had a delicious home cooked meal before calling it a night.
Sigiriya itself is the national image of Sri Lanka. It is a huge rock jutting out of an otherwise flat jungle.
This rock’s upper surface was flat and atop it was an ancient fortress or monastery (scholars are still debating this) constructed by the Kingdom of Kassapa after the King killed his father and fled Anuradhapura.
We got a tuk tuk ride with our homestay owner’s son and made our way to the ticket office.
The sheer amount of tour groups and foreigners was staggering. It was like nothing we had seen thus far in Sri Lanka. More like an amusement park than a monument.
We decided to visit the smaller sites after we visited the summit to beat the heat and the groups.
We started climbing up the stairs but within a few minutes we were already waiting in a single-file queue waiting to walk up a spiral staircase.
Once up there we passed a series of frescos painted from possibly the 5th century of large-breasted women with tiny waists. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but it’s clear the king enjoyed objectifying his ladies.
We then climbed back down a spiral staircase and were led to what looked like a blank wall.
Upon closer inspection, ancient graffiti could be seen etched into the wall, known as the mirror wall. (I’m assuming for its once reflective surface)
We continued to climb until we reached a plateau and a central staircase. On each side of this staircase were massive and impressive lion paws.
There was one final staircase and we walked single-file surrounded by Chinese and Japanese tour groups until we reached the top of the rock.
Once on top, most of the ancient palace/monastery laid in ruins but the surrounding view was absolutely beautiful.
We took our time looking out over the countryside, admiring the forests, lakes, and distant mountains.
We took a brief break in the shade and then started our descent.
Now that we had seen the summit before the sun was at its absolute worst, we got to tour the grounds in relative solitude and admire the many ponds and ancient ruins.
Since most whities and tour groups head up early, we could finally get a good picture in front of the rock, now that the entrance was less busy.
Then we walked through the surprisingly interesting Sigiriya museum, which enlightened us regarding the site’s long history.
Afterwards we sauntered through a little garden with a semi-rabid dog and some langurs chilling by a small river.
We followed a path that we were told brings us to the “city centre” and we followed it until we reached a tall standing Buddha that we had seen from the top of Sigiriya.
After paying the exorbitant entrance fee for Sigiriya (30USD, hey UNESCOs ain’t cheap!), we decided to forgo this temple.
In the alley, we saw a poor puppy, his stomach distended from probable parasites. Someone gave him some water in an empty coconut shell and he wagged his little tail in gratitude. It’s pretty sad that the little guy probably won’t make it past the next few days.
Regaining our composure, we started walking towards town but ended up getting lost and had to hire a tuk tuk to bring us back to the main road, but he brought us to a strip we had not seen before. One with backpacker-type cafes with reggae and giant hammocks. We didn’t think this type of thing existed in Sri Lanka, but it did, and we took full advantage.
We took the long walk back to our guesthouse and relaxed for a few hours before getting the hostel owner’s underage son to drive us to Pidurangala rock.
Pidurangala is another out-of-this world rock in this otherwise flat jungle landscape. It looks as though some giant deity just smashed it into the plains.
The ascent started near a small temple and a series of stairs eventually led us higher and higher.
We soon reached a reclining Buddha and then the stairs ended and we had to climb up some treacherous boulders before finally reaching the rock itself.
That challenging rock climbing was well worth the view we had: not only could you see Sigiriya in all its splendour, but the 360 degree views were unparalleled.
In our opinion, this view kills that of Sigiriya and for one ninth the price, we would recommend it over Sigiriya. For those that don’t mind splurging, doing both is definitely the best option.
We found out that Jaana, the owner of the homestay, is also the chef at a local hotel and on our last night he made us a delicious rice and curry feast with chicken and 7 different and delicious curries.
Even though Sigiriya was far more touristy than we could have ever imagined, we still found a secluded little paradise in the jungle; far from the tour buses and chaos from nearby Lankaland, just a few kilometres away.