Sigiriya and the amazing cave temples at Dambulla

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March 5th 2019
Published: March 17th 2019
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Our short visit to Jaffna over, we headed back down south. Saman relaxed immediately, but continued to stay well under the speed limit. We stopped for a buffet lunch at a resort hotel. It was relatively cheap, with a great range of food, and a pleasant break beside the resort pool. We were to spend the next three nights in the area around Sigiriya, one of the prime tourism destinations in Sri Lanka.

After lunch we stopped in Habarana and booked a safari into one of the parks, hoping to see some elephants in the wild. We enjoyed the safari but wouldn’t do it again as there were too many jeeps. We did see elephants, four or five groups of them, including cute baby elephants. The jeeps must stress the animals and one elephant did charge at one of the jeeps near us. We didn’t see it but heard the elephants trumpeting as he charged. We only had about twenty jeeps maximum around us - we’ve since heard that at Yala (the most popular safari park)on the half day safaris that there are hundreds of jeeps.

After we left the park we saw wild elephants beside the road. Must be a novelty to the local people as well because trucks and a local bus had stopped so their passengers could see them.

I had booked, via the phone, a guesthouse In Sigiriya (a village which evolved from tourism only) but when we eventually found it they had no record of the booking. Thankfully Samand took us to a couple he knew about - the first we rejected as it was very musty. The second (Goddess Gardens) was fabulous, albeit quite isolated from the main town with cafes and shops. He negotiated a good price for us and we had a wonderful three night stay there. It was in a tiny village, with a miniature shop, and was beside a lake and surrounded by rice paddies.

The young men running it were lovely and they cooked some tasty meals for us every night. It will be even better when they build the swimming pool - the next project, after just extending the guest house by eight rooms. It was obviously popular with the drivers as all the rooms were full each night ensuring we had plenty of company as we ate dinner.

People come to Sigiriya to climb Sigiriya (commonly known as Lion Rock), which is a large rocky outcrop rising dramatically out of the surrounding plains. Near vertical walls rise to a flat topped summit that contains ruins of an ancient civilisation.

We hoped to climb it but planned on climbing Pidurangula (Little Lion Rock) first. It is about one kilometre from the ‘big’ rock and from it’s summit you get a fabulous view of the of Sigiriya. It was only a half hour climb. We passed first by a cave temple (shoes off) at it’s base before thankfully we were able to put shoes on for the climb up very uneven stone steps. A short climb but quite difficult as every step was at a different height, lots of tree roots to climb over and the last few minutes involved scrambling over boulders and finally sliding between two to come out at the summit. It was even more difficult coming down! Quite a few people younger than us were dropping out before they reached the top, due mainly to the intense heat, and it was only 9am in the morning. Halfway up was an amazing reclining Buddha, once covered in mud plaster, but now showing the beautiful red bricks from which it was constructed from. The Buddha predates the archeological sites on the larger rock, which were built from 477AD.

The 360° view from the summit was incredible, and we spent a long time admiring it. Probably because it was shady and cool on the main viewing platform.. We could see the zig zag of the metal staircase on the sides of Lion Rock, early identified by the white clothes many people were wearing. The surrounding countryside was dotted with lakes - there are so many in Sri Lanka.

Saman came up with us, to help us over the rocks. We managed the rocks but the path was not well marked so it was good to have him with us. Once we were back on the ground Saman asked if we would like to visit a woodcarving factory and a jewellery workshop. Because of the hard sell you usually get at the end of these tours we tend not to go on them but we had plenty of time and I knew there would be clean toilets there at least.

I didn’t think much of the wood carving place but really enjoyed the jewellery workshop, despite the workmen not being there as it was Sunday. However they had sparkling toilets, and a very interesting display on mining the gemstones that Sri Lanka is famous for. Such dangerous work, mostly still done by hand in deep narrow pits dug deep into the earth. The shop was full of stunning jewellery and unset stones. We saw the a similar sapphire to the one that Princess Diana chose for her engagement ring. It was the most expensive stone on display in the shop. I bought two tiny rainbow moonstones - they were beautifully wrapped and presented with an authenticity certificate.

That afternoon we visited the stunning Dambulla cave temples. At the base of the temple complex is a golden Buddha sitting atop a rather odd temple, all teeth, strange flower petals and neon lights. Not realising that we were meant to go back to the car after looking at the golden Buddha we ventured behind it to find the entrance to Dambulla Cave. There was no sign of a ticket booth and we were not prepared to climb all those steps without a ticket in our hand. One thing we’ve learnt here is that illogically ticket booths for many sites are not at the entrance of the site itself but much further away. This time it was a kilometre down the road so I stayed in the shade whilst poor Jerry slogged down to buy them. Meanwhile Saman was trying to phone to see where we were but my phone had no reception there.

Tickets in hand we climbed the stairs, deposited our shoes, and hopped across the burning cement. Burning, despite us wearing socks. The locals must have soles like leather as the heat never seems to bother them. There are five separate caves, with over 150 Buddha images of various sizes, and some really stunning wall art in every cave. The cave art was first created over 2000 years ago and is still glowing with colour today. For me one of the highlights of our trip here.

Great views of the surrounding countryside from the site as well.

Next day we were to tackle Lion Rock but upon wakening were told that the weather bureau had put a warning out for dangerous conditions, with very high temperatures. We decided to postpone our morning climb to the late afternoon and asked to be driven to a hotel with a swimming pool instead. We spent a few hours in and out of the pool before lunching at a tiny roadside cafe, opened only the week before and with great espresso coffee.

Another site in the area that we had contemplated visiting was another ancient city, Polonnaruwa, but decided not to for a few reasons. The heat, it’s similarity to Anuradhapura and it’s ticket price. All the tourist sites are very expensive to visit here - ranging from US $25 to $30 each. In fact Sri Lanka is expensive, guest houses and the meals they prepare, entrance fees and alcohol. Supermarket prices don’t seem much cheaper than Australia - I just bought a miniature bottle (80mls) of Garnier Fructus hair conditioner from a big supermarket and paid AUD $2.60 for it. Certainly more than I would pay in Australia.

It was incredibly hot and when Saman collected us to drive to Lion Rock he told us it was 39°. That was enough for us to decide we did not need to be on metal steps, on the side of a lump of granite for an hour climb up and another hour done.... I was disappointed not to see the amazing frescos on the rock - interesting as they are bare breasted women, unlike any we had seen elsewhere in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is called Lion Rocket one stage an enormous lion statue stood guard on top of the summit. Today only two paws are visible of the original 5th century statue. Saman drove us to a viewpoint so we could photograph the rock. You could get no where close to it as the road in was manned by security gaurds on ticket duty and they were being very thorough.

We didn’t climb Sigiriya but thoroughly enjoyed our few days there. Particularly Dambulla caves, our lovely guest house and the colouful display put on by a peacock right outside our window every morning.

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