Largest and best preserved cave temple of Sri Lanka
Our next destination after such a fascinating day before at the archaeological complexes of Anuradhapura came to be another unforgettable day in beautiful and unique Sri Lanka. With so much to see in every corner on this rather small country, and with a tight agenda with unfortunately limited days, my original research for this trip was going to be visiting all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which in turn are the must-do’s when in Sri Lanka. So with both the Cave Temple Complex of Dambulla and the ancient Citadel of Sigiriya this would be a perfect day, easy to manage in the same day since the sites are small and nearby each others, with Dambulla taking you around 2 hours to visit no more.
Sigiriya Citadel itself, although way bigger place, it does not take too much time either. The biggest “hassle” are the stairs to reach the top of the rock which if you do when the sun is at its highest (anytime between 10.00am through 16.00pm) that could be really a difficult experience. Of course this depends on the time of the year you are visiting, if in dry or monsoon season, or the seasons in between them. For us, and to anyone if I can suggest, the best planification you could do is visiting Dambulla the first in the morning, have lunch, and then continuing with Sigiriya in the afternoon towards the end of the day.
Be very cautious about the wasp nests! Yes, believe it or not there are many cases of wasp attacks in Sigiriya. Their nests are in the rock, towards the upper part and near the staircase leading to the top, you will see them hanging, near the wasp warning messages around the dangerous areas. You have to be quiet as you ascend and not going off the main path, yet many careless tourists do not follow this and can potentially trigger an attack. There are specially conceived cages you can take shelter if this happens, however, not at the top nor by the staircase which is the worst place you can be should this happen. Take plenty of repellent with you in any case, not just to protect from the wasps, but to prevent from the mosquitoes, noticeable by the gardens down below.
Both sites are the most visited in Sri Lanka and are part of the Golden Triangle, coupled with Kandy and Anuradhapura, therefore you know you will not be alone, but depending on the time of the year you are visiting, with hordes of tourists. Groups on tour usually come around 9.00am and leave by 15.00pm latest, any other time outside these boundaries is much quieter and enjoyable, or if visiting towards the end of September then you are almost alone since it is lower season as it is “supposed” to be the last weeks of the monsoon. Note I make a remark in supposed, because for us this worked incredibly great! 0 chances of rain, but sun through the 13 days we were in Sri Lanka.
For more information about Dambulla check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites, for Sigiriya, these are the 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.
Entrance costs and tips on how to visit these places
Like pretty much for every important sight in the country, entrance fees are some of the highest within Asia, Sigiriya the most expensive of them all (what a coincidence, the most visited sight in the country). Please note that it is only possible to pay in cash, and it is very important you get your ticket before proceeding inside the sites or you face denial and having to return in search of the ticket office which is at the museum of each site. The Cave Temple of Dambulla as of September 2016 is free (this used to be LKR 1500), and the Citadel of Sigiriya LKR 4260 (which used to be 3500).
A good note to remember is that you get water before entering the sites. There are no vendors inside, and with Sigiriya especially, this could be an issue. It is very hot, you need to climb quite a lot, and it will take a long time until you leave and find the next vendor having water. Do not fall foul, you can dehydrate without realising and this almost happened to us as our water finished at the entrance of Sigiriya.
Also, very very important, the rickshaw drivers especially located around Dambulla or Sigiriya bus stations and entrances to the places are more a mafia than a transport facility. First of all, understand that both sites are not big, and rickshaws cannot enter them either. In Dambulla, you will need to get a rickshaw from the bus station to the entrance of the site and back, nothing more. Do not get a driver for a certain amount of time, you are better off in negotiating one to get there and the one to return. And if you are coming from Anuradhapura by bus, this can stop right at the entrance of the Caves! Save yourself time and money :).
In Sigiriya they try to offer you a tour taking you there, wait and taking you back for X amount, without paying “entrance ticket”. What they will do is taking you through the back doors and to minor not important sites within the complexes where no ticket inspectors are, but you will face troubles when wanting to get into the truly important sites. Of course, many of the fool backpackers have not even an idea on what to see and do in these sites, so they just simply do not care, (and yes I am talking from real experience as I get to see such people in every of our trips); but once you make your little own research, it is when you will realise what is there to really visit. You do not need a tour at all, only the transport to/from the entrance of the archaeological site that’s all.
In any case what I strongly recommend you is negotiating a rickshaw driver to take you from Dambulla to Sigiriya and back. Be very patient, it requires challenging negotiating skills or otherwise you end up over-paying. We got our deal at LKR 1600, but be aware it could be almost impossible to get again, but never accept anything over LKR 2000.
What to see and do in Dambulla
- The Cave Temple There are over 80 documented caves in total, making it the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, although the main ones to the visitor are 5. The caves were burial place of prehistoric Sri Lankan before the arrival of Buddhism 2700 years ago, and the complex itself as we know it now was built during the Anuradhapura period (1st century BC to 993 AD) and Polonnaruwa times (1073 to 1250). There are incredibly well preserved painting everywhere on the rock and ceilings and hundreds of Buddha statues. Listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to see and do in Sigiriya
- Sigiriya Citadel Rewarded as one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning, is the most visited historic site in the whole of Sri Lanka. The Lion Rock as it is commonly known, is 200 meters high and was were King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) made his new capital until his defeat in 495 CE by King Mugalan, who transferred the capital back to Anuradhapura, with Sigiriya becoming a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. This is not only about the archaeological remains at the top of the rock, but about all the surrounding extensive area at the base too, with many sites to see, but be aware that the best times for climbing it are either before 10.00am of after 15.00pm, anytime in the middle could potentially be a danger due to the intense heat.
-The Lion Rock As explained before, this is the key landmark. At the top, King Kasyapa built his palace. Very little remains today bearing few centimeters or the perimeter walls. You access through a stairway all the way up.
-The Mirror Wall Believed to be so perfectly polished that when the King passed by he could see his reflection on it. I became place for writing of any king through the centuries, and you can see “graffiti” from the 8th century.
-Gardens They are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, and located at the base of the rock. Of few kinds and shapes, are perfectly visible from the top of the rock.
Dambulla is little over 70 km south of Anuradhapura, our base for some days and from where we came here on a day trip. If you are coming from the south, Colombo is 170 km, and Kandy 80 km. Sigiriya can be consider the same area as Dambulla, one to each other is only around 15 km.
Buses from Anuradhapura old bus station depart to Dambulla twice hourly, with normal and air-conditioned buses. For best comfort get on the AC bus definitely, do not even hesitate on this. For easy orientation, all the buses on the route Anuradhapura-Kandy do pass through Dambulla. The fare is just LKR 190 per way on the AC bus and takes approximately 1.15h. In the other hand it costs 130 for the regular non-AC bus taking around 2 hours since it does stop everywhere on the way. Take note that the last buses on the opposite direction back to Anuradhapura are no later than 18.00pm.
The good news on taking the bus is that you do not need to get off at Dambulla bus station as it does continue along the same road where the entrance to the Caves is. Let the driver know you want to get off there and this will save you a rickshaw trip and time. From the Cave Temple back to Dambulla bus station, get a rickshaw but do not accept any higher than LKR 200.
Sigiriya is connected to Dambulla by a very frequent bus service. These buses run between 6.30AM to 18.00PM every 30 minutes or so and cost just LKR 45. A rickshaw to Sigirya one way is between 800 to 1000, but you can negotiate to be your driver to take you right to the entrance of the Sigiriya Citadel and back to Dambulla bus station for a better deal, saving you loads of time than depending on public buses especially knowing you have a limited time where you must be in Dambulla for getting your bus back to Anuradhapura (if this is the base you came from), or Kandy. We paid LKR 1800 for the driver, around 4h in total and was the best choice we could do as this gave us lots of extra time without rush.
Dambulla has a very small yet decent selection of hotels, mostly modest rather than high-class and luxurious. The choice is not comparable with that of Colombo, Kandy or Anuradhapura, much bigger cities of course, however good enough for anyone’s need. Our base was in Anuradhapura from where we came to visit these two places on a day trip, and unless you prefer being on the move almost daily, I would recommend to have a base from where to commute to day excursions since distances are generally short in Sri Lanka and will save you hassle than constantly move with your luggage, not to mention the amount of more resting time this allows you.
Although I cannot recommend any hotel at either Dambulla or Sigiriya, or nearby, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
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 Anuradhapura’s 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.