Third capital of the Kingdom of Rajarata
On our next move in this trip through Sri Lanka, we change the base from Colombo to the central/north province of the country at Anuradhapura where we will spend the remaining days of our tour visiting the beautiful ancient city itself, and the nearby other major important destinations Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa: all of which, the Golden Triangle as it is known. Very busy days ahead of us, however, not that fully loaded and saturating in visiting sight after sight non-stop, but instead quite chill and relaxing, enjoying the mix of nature with ancient capital cities, palaces and temples. Each of the ancient cities we would visit make up for around half of the day touring, giving you the rest of the day some free time except for when visiting both Dambulla and Sirigiya which you do in the same day.
In my original plans before gathering proper information about Sri Lanka and the places I wanted to include in this tour, I though flying between cities would be the easiest way (as is for example, in neighboring India). I was wrong. From Colombo, the only city we could have flown was Sigiriya from where you can make the perfect base and visit all of the other cities I’ve mentioned before. A very convenient flight? Yes, at just 30 minutes, but the cost? £175 for a one way ticket per person! That is actually insane and nonsense; so the options, pretty much as is for the entire country, are moving by train or bus. Super reliable and in truth, trains were the best way to travel and enjoy the country.
Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of many different kingdoms, and is really overwhelming. There are so many archaeological remains, some of these over 2000 years old that no wonder this is one of the key places in the country in what relates to history and culture. The entire “Old Town” which is the archaeological park itself has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Among the city’s treasuries you will find the highest stupa ever built from antiquity at 120 meters; the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planted date, from 249 BC, or the first stupa to be built in the country after the introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This and countless more in a vast area that can easily take you 2 days to fully explore, unless you get it well planned ahead of you and have a rickshaw driver to take you everywhere that is noteworthy. Farther down below you can check the section about transportation and what to see and do in any case to make things easier.
As for the “New Town”, it does have really nothing worth to the point of view of a tourist, bearing that majority of the large hotels are located here and in the nearby area. It is also a difficult city in the sense of finding a proper restaurant at decent prices. Not only is extremely rare to find a nice place, the very few are horribly overpriced. Unfortunately Anuradhapura is catering a large majority of backpacker tourists, quality has nothing to compare to how was back in Colombo or Kandy, and everything is at least double the price. Hotels are also falling under the same circumstances; while there is a wide selection of backpacker places, good hotels are quite limited, tend to book quickly and prices rise dramatically the busier they get.
But hey! this all is not a downside. There is choice for everyone of course, and near the bus stations (both the new and old) are great small local restaurants serving fresh food from the wok, and some of the best kotu we’ve ever had done for you as you order it. Easy to spot this places because you will hear the noise of the chef chopping the ingredients and special bread on the grill plate with the iron chops, mind that can get very noisy. A vegetarian kotu dish costs between LRK 200/250, never more, but increases when adding chicken or meat. Aside from street local food, the best restaurant in town is Seedevi, a traditional Indian cuisine with very fair prices. Located outside of the city towards the south, you will need a rickshaw to get there and back, but it’s well worth it at least for a visit on one of your days spending in the city.
For more information about Anuradhapura check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Sri Lanka’s currency is the Rupee (LKR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to visit the site and entrance fees
The entrance as of September 2016 is LKR 3550, the equivalent to $25 USD that will get you day admission to all the sites of Anuradhapura. This is payable at the archaeological museum only. Do not fall into the hilarious experiences I have read over internet about the backpackers trying to dodge the entrance without paying but then being asked for a ticket at random locations inside the park and having to make all the way back to the museum; nor fall into the rickshaw scam where they claim they take you inside without paying the admission ticket and they will give you a tour. Indeed they will, but of course not through the important sites that you really have to visit. I am truly sorry but I cannot understand that low “backpacker behaviour”, but they deserve it. I strongly advice you to get your ticket sorted the earlier the better to avoid disappointments. Bear in mind tickets are dated and are valid only for just that day, impossible to use it on a second day since they stamp it everywhere and remove pieces on the checkpoints.
Be really well prepared beforehand. Check which are the temples, stupas and monuments you wish to visit and aim for creating a logical route to follow them on a consecutive order. Of course in between them you will be passing many other minor sites and piles or fallen and disrepair ones. Anywhere in the internet you can find a list and description of the best temples to visit as is for example in Wikipedia, Wikitravel and Tripadvisor; but in any of these you will not find any order whatsoever nor an appropriate easy way to navigate, hence why the list I provide below in the section on what to see and do will be your piece of cake “ready to be eaten” without a need for moving a finger.
Now, knowing and having in hand the list of places you would like visit, all you need is a way to go from A to B, to C and so on. Well, this is merely entirely up to you on what you chose and decide. You could walk anywhere you wish to, that is out of question, but distances are huge, and if time is your limitation I’m sure you won’t like to spend most of the day walking to reach few places under extreme heat and sun while you could rent, for example a bike or an e-bike to speed up your visit.
The best option, however, is negotiating a rickshaw driver to be with you for the whole day. They can access all the areas and it is the most pleasant way to move around especially because of the heat that can be really unbearable. While it is NOWHERE in any blog I have come across in internet, nor TripAdvisor or anywhere, the price you should expect to pay for a full day rickshaw (generally 8 hours) is LRK 3000. Never accept a driver quoting any higher than LKR 3500, giving you a margin of 500 for negotiation. We managed ours for 2500! And he was so good and nice that of course he got a very generous tip. What they don’t know is that if they are fair from the beginning, without ripping you off, they will get at the end of the day their very deserved tip. At least that’s how we are, we get them also drinks and sometimes enjoy to invite for lunch together and have a nice friendly chat. We don’t like to make them feel they are just our driver, but instead someone who is part of our day, are and joy.
What to see and do in Anuradhapura
- Archaeological Park Located northwest from the new town, with Anuradhapura’s train station nearby at its southeastern-most side. It is a very large complex with many buildings and monuments that will take an entire day (if no mote) to visit them all, but be prepared it is impossible to walk all the way everywhere since distances are very big. In the most reasonable order following a route, the following are a must do:
-1) Jethawana Monastery Complex One of the largest of any structures from the ancient city, located at the easternmost part of the archaeological area.
-Jethawanaramaya The gigantic stupa, at 120 meters high is the largest from antiquity ever built, and the 3rd highest structure from the ancient world after the Great Pyramids of Giza. Construction was initiated by Mahasena of Anuradhapura (273–301), with his son, Maghavanna, completing it.
-Jethawana Museum At the south side of the stupa, by the southern entrance to the archaeological park.
-Manimekala Prasadhaya By the western side of the stupa, is this nice ruined temple where the big entrance columns have survived.
-2) Chathus Salawa (Maha Vihara Alms Hall) This square shaped hall built by King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 B.C.) was used by the monks for having their meals. Continuing west from the Jethawana, near the buildings of the Buddhsravaka Bhiksu University.
-3) Ruwanweliseya Across the road from the Chathus Salawa, is the oldest and most voluminous stupa at Anuradhapura, built by the great King Dutugamunu who reigned from 137 BC to 119 BC.
-4) Lovamahapaya Also known as the Brazen Palace or Lohaprasadaya because the roof was covered in bronze tiles. It had 9 floors in height, supported by hundreds of pillars, of which, a total of 1600 are there in place today and was home to a thousand monks. It remained as the tallest building in the island from 155 BC to 993 AD. Few meters south from the Ruwanweliseya.
-5) Sri Maha Bodhiya This sacred fig tree, just across from the Lovamahapaya is said to be the right-wing branch from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India, under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. Planted in 249 BC is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. It is the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka after the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
-6) Dakkhina Stupa Continuing south along the main road in the park, is this 2nd century BC unfinished stupa, thought to be for many centuries the tomb of King Elara.
-7) Isurumuniya Further south and west, near Tisawewa (Tisa Tank). It requires a separate ticket (200LKR). This temple, built by King Devanampiya Tissa, houses four carvings of special interest, the Isurumuniya Lovers, Elephant Pond and the Royal Family.
-8) Vessagiriya The ruins of this ancient Buddhist forest monastery, farther south from Isurumuniya, begun construction in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (3rd century BC) among boulder rocks.
-9) Mirisavetiya Stupa Heading all the way north again. King Dutugamunu built the stupa after defeating King Elara.
-10) Abhaya Wewa One of the oldest tanks in Sri Lanka, built by King Pandukabhaya (437-367 BC). There are nice views of the lake and nature as you pass by heading north.
-11) Thuparamaya Right after the Abhaya Wewa heading north. Is the first stupa to be built in the country after the introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devamnampiyatissa (250BC – 210BC). Today the stupa is new but 31 of 136 original pillars still stand around it.
-12) The Ancient Citadel This area of actually dense jungle still retain part of the original fortifications partly excavated and lies between both Jethawana Monastery complex and the huge Abhayagiri Dagaba complex. While there is not much here to see, you will cross it while heading north to the Abhayagiri Dagaba.
-Royal Palace of King Vijayabahu I Who ascended the throne 1055. Few remains are there today, like the lower part of the walls and entrances. Is off the main path crossing this area, west if heading north.
-13) Abhayagiriya Monastery Complex At the northernmost side of the archaeological park is this massive area full of temples and monuments. It is best if you use one of the many separate maps you can find anywhere at information points or over internet to know what is what at any time. I will list below the main structures not to be missed continuing the sightseeing circuit order.
-Kuttam Pokuna The Twin Pools built during the reign of King Aggabodhi I (575-608) are some of the hydrologic engineering marvels of ancient Sri Lanka. Easternmost side of the complex, almost at the intersection of the path heading north from the Ancient Citadel area and that going directly west through Abhayagiriya complex.
-Samadhi Statue West from the Kuttam Pokuna along the path leading inside the complex. It is considered one of the best sculptures in the Anuradhapura era, thought to have been done during the 3rd/4th century.
-Abhayagiriya Stupa Impossible to miss, the centrepiece in the complex and meters west from the Samadhi Statue where it is perfectly visible. Built during the rule of King Valagambahu in the 1st century BC, stands today at 75 meters from 120 that was believed to be in origin; still making it the second largest stupa in the island.
-Sannipatha Salawa The Assembly Hall, right by the south face of the Abhayagiriya Stupa. Where the Bhikkhus of the monastery met to discuss matters of common interest.
-Second Samadhi Statue and Bodhighara The statue believed to have been made in the 6th century lies next to the sacred Bo Tree Shrine. West along the south face road of the Abhayagiriya Stupa.
-Main Refectory of Abayagiri Monastery Next door few meters west of the Second Samadhi Statue. Construction dates back to the 1st century. The “Bath Oruwa” or Rice Canoe, carved out of stone at 19 meters long, could serve rice to the 5000-7000 monks estimated to be here.
-Ratna Prasada From the Main Refectory, before continuing west or south, head a little bit north to reach this place, and also Mahasen Maligaya few more meters north. The guard stone at the inner entrance to the building is one of the best examples of such carvings in the Anuradhapura Era.
-Mahasen Maligaya Very important for the moonstone found at the main flight of stairs on the centre building. It is considered one of the best preserved moonstone from the 7th/8th centuries.
–Dighapashana Cave Along the western path from Mahasen Maligaya you will find this cave monastery often overlooked by tourists who do not know its existence.
-Eth Pokuna Heading back southward from where you came (and just west of the Main Refectory of Abayagiri), is this large 2000 years old pool made of stone, capable to hold 75000 cubic meters of water.
-Ancient Tooth Relic Shrine Located at the centre inside the Uttara Mula Aramic Complex (south of the Abhayagiriya Stupa). The building on a higher stone, retains most of the pillars beautifully sculpted.
-Lankaraamaya The last of the important places at the southernmost part of the Abhayagiriya Monastery Complex. Built in the 1st century BC by King Vattagamini Abaya.
The chances that you are getting to Anuradhapura from Colombo in the southwest, Sigiriya and Dambulla not far south or Kandy in the central province farther south, are almost 100% guaranteed. After all, this is one of the top destinations in the country, included in the Golden Triangle and often a must do for anyone travelling to Sri Lanka either on their own or as part of an organised tour. It is 200 kilometres from Colombo, 150 from Kandy and 80 from both Sigiriya and Dambulla.
We came from Colombo, hence I can describe our experience this way. However, as we made Anuradhapura our base for visiting the other cities of Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa, you can check in the respective travel guides for these places the section of transports where I describe the choices you have and the most optimal way including the costs.
Buses take approximately 5 hours, and depart from the CBT bus station in Colombo for a cost of LKR 130, non-air con buses. A more scenic way is by train (with travel times between 4 to 6 hours) departing Colombo Fort Station. A 1st class ticket on an intercity express costs 1000 Rupee (that’s just barely £5) and guarantees you a nice seat. Of course there are 2nd and 3rd class tickets at much lower price, and slower trains the cheapest but you will be in an unreserved seat risking travel standing until a seat becomes available. The 11.50am train is the one we took because of the great departure and arriving time in Anuradhapura at 15.30pm. This train does not have 1st class, but 2nd and 3rd, with reserved seats on the 2nd class. The cost was just 450 Rupee (£2.5) per way, and although there are 2 trains stations in Anuradhapura, the train will only stop at the New Town. The bus station is also at the New Town, not far from each other. For great information about trains check seat61 website, while for times and fares check the official website here. Please make sure you book your tickets well in advance, as trains sell out fast. We were lucky in getting seats when buying the tickets in Colombo Fort 6 days before the intended travel date. That was not the same luck on our trip to Kandy, read here!
Transportation in the city is best on rickshaw, previous negotiation of the fare to avoid any surprises or being ripped-off. There seems to be a good network of public buses, but you will need to ask for proper directions constantly, and to be honest, it will be rare you will be using them since coming to Anuradhapura is basically for the archaeological park as there is nothing else otherwise.
Anuradhapura has a decent selection of hotels of any kind, from top luxurious to more modest and everything in between. The choice, although not as large as Colombo of course, is good enough for anyone’s need. Also knowing this was going to be our second base in Sri Lanka after that in Colombo, we knew we wanted to chose something good, with as many facilities as possible, especially a pool. With the sometimes unbearable heat and the tiredness of sightseeing and walking, and walking and more walking through the day, this sort of facilities come great to us to enjoy a nice rest too.
We stayed at the Rajarata Hotel, in 77 Rowing Club Road. Located towards the east of the city, by the Nuwara Wewa Lake. Unfortunately the better hotels like this one are not directly near the city centre, but there were shops and few restaurants nearby easy to walk to. A short rickshaw ride to the train and bus stations, and the archaeological park itself, 3.5km to the northwest. It was a modest hotel bearing in mind the selection available on our dates was very reduced on top of an already limited choice on good properties. The staff was very polite and friendly, however at the moment of needing something as simple as making a phone call to a local number, they did refuse. Quite silly, knowing we are foreigners and do not have a local SIM with us to use in our mobiles. The breakfast was limited in choice, every day the same, and they seemed not to care that much that the table cloths were clean or not, so the 4 days we had breakfast, the tables were dirty from the dinner service the night before. Coming to the pool, all OK until the very few towels they have are running out. It took in one occasion 25 minutes for them to bring us towels! Also a pity they close the pool at 19.00pm and not later. They could care a bit more around the communal areas and this facts mentioned, because it’s in the other hand a contradiction to see how very clean the rooms are. Room size and care was good, a nice terrace too, however at nights its was impossible to sleep because of the unbearable heat! Switching on the air-con unit would lower the temperature until the point you set, then it switches off and never comes back on unless you change the settings again or force it on, then again switches off and so on in a circle! There is no automatic sensor for reactivation when the room reaches higher temps again. So the 4 nights were a horrible sleeping experience. It could be a great hotel, but these facts mean I will never recommend to anyone, sorry.