The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms
With our Sri Lankan trip coming to an end, we spared our last day before returning to Colombo to visit yet again another former Imperial Capital. The best preserved of all the ones we’ve visited in this trip so far, and perhaps one of the most impressive due to the level of conservation and big size of its constructions. This is a huge archaeological complex built in a long north-south orientation, but easy and good enough for a day trip as majority of tourists do. From our base in Anuradhapura, it was another great and easy commute here; and as I’ve been commenting in the other travel guides for Sri Lanka, having a base in either Anuradhapura, Dambulla or Kandy to visit the central region of Sri Lanka would be your best choice.
Polonnaruwa is for many a stop-over en-route towards the east coast and the beaches of Trincomalee. For us, unfortunately, time was our downside and while we could have gone for barely a day and a half to Trincomalee, we decided to instead return to Colombo and be on the secure side, have a great hotel, a beautiful pool and enjoy our time without any further sightseeing nor rush, but just having a well deserved rest (and high level of luxury too since we stayed at the Galle Face Hotel).
Visiting the site is really easy and while there are many constructions, the key ones are mostly located all along the main path heading south to north of the complex. A day trip is really the best decision you can make to come here because other than the archaeological park, there is nothing else in the “new” city of Polonnaruwa. As usual in sites like this, I strongly recommend you to follow a visit like the one we did which you can see below and where I’ve marked the sites by numbers in a perfect order.
There’s not much more to be said in this introduction so I move to the important sections of this guide. For more information about Polonnaruwa 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 fee is LKR 3550 (equivalent to $25 USD) that will get you day admission to all the sites of Polonnaruwa. 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 will 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 in 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 or route 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 to go and visit, all you need is a way to transport you from A to B, to C and so on. Well, this is merely entirely up to you what you decide. Polonnaruwa is, as opposed to Sigiriya or Anuradhapura, easy to walk through in its full since distances are not that big as in the other sites mentioned. However, if you are short in time or prefer having the comfort, then the best option would be negotiating a rickshaw driver to take you everywhere in the site. 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 strong. While I cannot really tell you about the cost you should aim for a driver within the Polonnaruwa archaeological park since we did not use this option, I can tell you instead that for LRK 5000 (if you are a very good negotiator) you can get a driver to take you here from Anuradhapura (where our base was) and be with you all day, through the site, and back to your hotel. That was over 10 hours in our case! A great deal and by all means the best choice we have done.
What to see and do in Polonnaruwa
- Southern Area We did not have any site in this area planned until our driver took us there. It turned out to be one of the landmarks from the ancient city.
1) King Parakramabahu Statue Extremely well preserved, depicting the Great King Parakramabahu I, for whom the city started construction.
2) Pothgul Vehera Not far opposite the statue is this palace complex, first example of such architecture you are about to see through the rest of the complex.
- Ancient city – Inner Area The archaeological park is composed of both the ancient city and the outer area of residences and shops.
3) Archaeological Museum Located at the southernmost point within the archaeological complex and from where you buy the ticket to access the site. Remember to get your ticket here otherwise you face denial further inside the complex should they check.
4) Palace of King Parakramabahu Almost across the road from the museum. One of the most famous constructions in the site built during the reign of King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). Originally had 7 stories and believed to have 1000 chambers. Today you can see some of its massive walls and the perimeter foundations.
-Royal Court Behind the main palace complex itself. The entire foundation and first level survive with the columns.
-Bathing Pond Near the river, also behind the main complex. You access it via the staircase heading down.
5) Palace of King Nissanka Malla Heading north along the only main road in the complex, not far from the museum and by the lake. Was built for King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), being 2 stories high. Only the foundations remain today.
-Audience Hall More important than the palace remains itself, its entire foundation and base level with 48 stone pillars are intact.
6) Siva Devale Farther north along the path. Small Hindu temple dedicated to the god Siva, built at the same time as that in Mahabalipuram, south of Madras in Chenai, India.
7) Dalada Maluwa This is a large complex within the park, one of the most sacred places with many temples.
-Vatadage The most characteristic of the buildings, in circular shape attributed to King Naissanka Malla and built around 1187-1196, and almost certainly intended to house the Tooth Relic.
-Thuparamaya The next building west of the Vatadage, to house an image to this date, unknown. It is the best preserved building in the entire archaeological park.
-Statue of Boddhisathwa At the centre of Dalada Maluwa complex.
-Nissanka Lata Mandapaya A very curious building, with the outer fences made in stone, and the pillars carved in the shape of a lotus flower at their top.
-West entrance Where you can still see part of the decorating andakada pahana.
-Reclining Buddha Near the west entrance, very weathered shape through 900 years.
-Atadage This is the house of the tooth relic of Lord Buddha built by King Vijayabahu I (1070-1110), though to be the only surviving building of this king.
-Hetadage Side by side with the Atadage at the northern side of the Dalada Maluwa, was built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) to house the tooth relic of Buddha.
-Gal Pota The “Stone Book”, next to the Hetadage, built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) which describes himself, his rule and the eligibility for being a king of Sri Lanka.
-Sat Mahal Prasadaya At the northeastern corner of this complex, an unusual shaped stupa of 7 stories made in brick, more typical of Cambodia and Siam.
8) Pabulu Vehera Stupa Outside again onto the main path heading north. There is a split in this path to the east towards this round stupa; said to have built by Rupavati, one of the queens of Parakramabah.
9) Siva Devale Another of the temples dedicated to the god Siva, considered a masterpiece of Indian architecture in Sri Lanka and incredibly well preserved. It is off the main path, farther northeast from the Pabulu Vehera.
- Northern Gate – Outer Area The northern entrance to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa between the inner city and the outer area .
10) Menik Vehera Right after the northern gate and along the main path you were following before heading north is this Aramaic complex, the oldest stupa in the complex dating from the 8th century.
11) Rankot Vehera Stupa The 4th largest stupa in Sri Lanka, built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196).
12) Alahana Pirivena The next large complex of temples and constructions towards the northern edge of the outer city built by King Parakramabahu I (1153 -1186 AD) as a monastery and university for Buddhism.
-Baddha Sima Malakaya Once a 12 stories building with 108 stone pillars, this gives you a hint of the size of constructions and achievements in this era.
-Lankatilaka Temple Perhaps the most picturesque of them all in Polonnaruwa with the massive brick walls so much photographed. An image house built during the reign of King Parakramabahu I (1153 -1186 AD).
-Kiri Vehera Stupa The next after Lankatilaka. Built by Subadra, one of King Parakramabahu’s queens (1153-1186). The second largest in Polonnaruwa, and the most complete to survive after 900 years.
13) Ancient Pond Just north from the Alahana Pirivena complex, was for bathing recreation of the monks.
14) Gal Viharaya Series of 4 statues carved from the rock built by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186), immediately east from the pond. It is one of the key landmarks in the archaeological complex.
15) Demala Maha Seya One of the northernmost sight in the complex. This incomplete stupa was built by king Parakramabahu (1153-1186). If finished it would have been over 180 meters tall, and as such, the largest man made Buddhist monument. Nowadays there is almost nothing here.
16) Lotus Fountain Gladly our rickshaw driver took us there without even having to ask him. I originally did not have it in my guide, and turned to be one great sight. Slightly north from the Demala Maha Seya.
17) Tivanka Image House Once again, thanks to our rickshaw driver that took us there without us being aware of this site. It was built by King Parakramabahu I (1153 -1186 AD). The last of the sites farther north in the complex.
Polonnaruwa is 215 kilometres northeast from Colombo, and 100 kilometres from Anuradhapura. Buses from Colombo take around 7 hours, while from Anuradhapura is 3 hours. Buses are frequent and run through the day, but remember there are no late departures in the afternoon from any of the cities therefore plan accordingly, especially if you are coming here as a day trip from any other city.
The best way to get here is getting a rickshaw driver previous negotiation of the fare of your intended time and destination from wherever you come from (ie. Anuradhapura). It is of course the most expensive option, yet the one giving you the maximum flexibility in time and comfort, plus this option will also save you the need of any further transport to/from the bus station at both cities and to/from the bus station to the archaeological park entrance. Calculate not less than LKR 6000 for the driver, generally the quotation will be higher, but aim for 6000 as a very fair price. We managed ours for 5000, but of course he got a much deserved tip plus we got him lunch and drinks as we usually do when having a driver for the day wherever in the world visiting similar sites.
Once within the ancient complex, and depending on which transport you’ve come here, you can either rent a bike if you like, otherwise it is easy and enjoyable to walk all the way through from side to side. And if you are tired on the way back, don’t worry as there are rickshaw drivers every now and then inside the park waiting. But as I mentioned before, if you are having a driver for the day, then he will take you to all the sites in the park.
We did not stay overnight at Polonnaruwa as this was a day trip from our base at Anuradhapura and as such, I cannot recommend any place here. The city while small, it does have a wide range of accommodation, from a bunch of good and luxurious hotels to the mostly orientated for backpackers. If you are travelling this way, then you are guaranteed to find a place to stay, however, if you are a hotel person with some sort of expectations or requirements, this will be much more limited over here, but there are nice hotels and resorts. The choice is not comparable with that of Colombo, Kandy or Anuradhapura, much bigger cities of course.
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.