Dambulla and Sigiriya

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January 13th 2010
Published: January 19th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

We decided to do the approximately 200km round trip to Sigiriya and Dambulla as a day trip from Kandy…in a tuk-tuk. The three hour drive to Dambulla was actually quite enjoyable, there is a certain charm about driving through the countryside in a tuk tuk, somehow you seem closer to the people in the town and the scenery than you do in a car. As with the drive to Kandy the scenery was absolutely gorgeous, a combination of rice paddies, rolling hills, tea plantations and jungle broken up by busy towns.

Dambulla is about 10km’s closer to Kandy than Sigiriya, and is home to the Royal Rock Temples - basically a bunch of Buddhas in caves. The caves are about 150m above the town, which means you have to climb up stairs to reach them (what is it with temples being built on the highest bit of land in the area?). By the time we arrived it was probably about 12pm and hot which made the climb a lot less enjoyable than it could have been. As it’s a Buddhist temple you have to take your shoes off. Our feet, after months cooped up inside shoes in cold northern Indian and Nepal, weren’t quite ready for the scorching hot rocks you have to walk (run) across to get to the caves! The caves were packed with Buddha’s in all positions; however the view from the temples was probably more interesting than the caves themselves. From the top you could see Sigiriya in the distance so as we were recovering from our first climb up stairs for the day we could look over towards the much larger climb still to come.

We headed straight from the Rock Caves to Sigiriya, the main attraction for the day. Sigiriya rock is the plug from an ancient volcano which has completely eroded away. There are heaps of archeological ruins around the rock, at various stages up the rock and on the summit. It was initially thought that the ruins were the remnants of a palace built by a paranoid king who wanted the perfect vantage point to spot enemy’s who were planning to attack however it now seems more likely that it was a monastery (a slightly less intriguing story).

You approach the rock by walking along a path through ancient water gardens, which leads on through rock temples and finally a terrace garden. During this walk to the base of the rock you get plenty of time to think about the impending climb up, it seems as if the rock grows as you get closer to it. The first part of the climb leads up to a slight rocky overhang sheltering ancient wall paintings of concubines (if you believe it was a palace) or apsaras (if the monastery story takes your fancy). The paintings have been particularly well preserved as they aren’t in direct sunlight and are sheltered from rain so their colours are still really bright and the images are very clear.

After admiring the paintings you walk back down a spiral staircase and then climb up again along the original rock staircase which is lined by a high ‘mirror’ wall. Apparently the wall used to be covered with a reflective glaze but it was destroyed by graffiti artists 1000 years ago. There isn’t much left to see on the wall now, but it does provide a nice amount of shade while completely blocking the view unless you are over 3m tall!

At the top of the mirror wall staircase you reach the Lion’s Paws which are all that remains of a massive lions body that guards the final climb to the summit. It was really nice to reach this point of the climb as it was slightly shaded and you could see that you were almost at the top! From here you also had a really amazing view over the countryside, which was just a taste of what was to come when you reached the top.

The final climb was...interesting. The stairway leading up to the summit is made from rickety metal treads winding their way along the very edge of the almost vertical rock. The treads, which are a maximum of about 30cm in width (though the 5 - 10cm range was more common) are occasionally secured into the rock face but more often than not just cantilevering off a suspicious looking handrail. If you are scared of heights this is definitely not the right climb for you - it is a shear drop down to the ground below.

Sigiriya was the most expensive site of the trip - a whopping 25USD each, but when we reached the summit it was clear that the money (and the exhausting climb up in the afternoon heat) was 100% worth it. The 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside were spectacular; Sigiriya is the highest point for as far as you can see. The ruins on the top of the rock weren’t particularly inspiring as basically only the foundations remain but when we reached the top we were the only people there so we had them all to ourselves.

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