There’s this unfair stereotype that while India is crazy and frenetic, just emerging on the developed world, Sri Lanka always would remain one step behind. I have friends who enjoy (playfully, nothing too serious) stereotyping Sri Lanka’s “tagalong”, “little brother” status when compared to India’s greatness.
However, one hour in Colombo will put that stereotype to shame.
One hour in Kandy will obliterate it entirely.
- At time of posting in Dhaka, it was 31 °C -
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: cloudy
I have a 3 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur today. If all goes well, I’ll be able to
1. get my traveller’s cheques changed into american dollars (which is the only currency Myanmar accepts)
2. get my second flight changed to the next day and get to spend time with Annah Kim in KL!
Fingers are crossed.
Simply put, Anuradhapura is slightly more impressive than Polonnaruwa, but that’s not saying much if I’m using the word “slightly.” The dagobas are undeniably awesome and the ruins are less maddening (probably because there’s less of them to see), but otherwise Anuradhapura feels like a more spread out and slightly more polished version of Polonnaruwa.
The significance of some of these sites, however, is indubitable. There’s the oldest “historically recorded” (whatever that means) tree in the world, which has been a popular pilgrimage site for over 2,000 years (and it still is):
There’s also the dagoba that was once the third largest structure in the world (after the 2 Great Pyramids of Egypt) when it was built:
And of course, the grand daddies of all dagobas:
Reminded me of the 2nd Death Star.
This is pretty much a good picture of Anuradhapura, which requires at least a day’s worth of exploring (if not, two) if you’re going at a leisurely pace. If you’re pressed for time, however, hiring a rickshaw for 1500 rupees can allow you to see everything within 3-4 hours. Just don’t count on getting a life-changing experience while you’re here. Save that for Angkor Wat or Bagan.
- At time of posting in Katunayake, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: broken clouds
If this is your first time exploring ruins, Polonnaruwa is a great introduction. But if you’ve already have had your fair share of ruin-rompin’, Polonnaruwa can feel exhausting. Unlike the grandeur of Angkor Wat or the immaculately preserved nature of Borobudur and Prambanan, Polonnaruwa’s ruins might as well be headed towards extinction. The most you’ll get are foundations of once great buildings (I’m sure they looked great! I…just…don’t…see…it…now), and maybe a nicely preserved Buddha statue here and there.
One of 2 exceptions is Galvihara, which is way up north of the Polonnaruwa old city. Unfortunately, however, dreaded park authorities have put up an ugly steel roof that towers over the statues, which prevents any natural light getting to it and thus forces you to appreciate these awesomely carved Buddhas under something awfully tacky and cheap.
Why, roof, why?!
On the bright side, there’s a lot of nature mulling about this area:
And the other exception to the park’s lackluster offerings is the headless Buddha, which I admit, was pretty epic to come upon:
But in an entire park of many many other ruins, those 2 exceptions stand out as maybe the only 2 reasons why you should come to Polonnaruwa…unless of course, you’re a history buff already fascinated with ancient Sri Lankan civilizations. But then again, you’d probably be spending more time at the nearby Archaeological Museum than in the park itself.
That’s because the excellent Archeological Museum is not only air-conditioned (whew!), but it’s also extremely organized, detailing what the ruins used to look like before Polonnaruwa’s downfall. I believe I was more fascinated by the exhibits in the museum than by being at the ruins themselves.
Nevertheless, here are some other highlights from Polonnaruwa:
The 4th largest dagoba in Sri Lanka
What remains of the Royal Palace.
Currently hanging out in Anuradhapura right now, which is the last of the ancient cities on our Sri Lankan circuit.
We’re due to bike around Anuradhapura’s more spread out ruins tomorrow, but the embarrassing thing is that I haven’t rode a bike in about 5-6 years. Therefore, I’m kind of worried about getting blindsided by a rickshaw in the middle of crazy South Asian traffic. Fingers crossed!
- At time of posting in Anuradhapura, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy
No, not quite I meant!
This is more like it: Sigiriya just got served.
Today we attempted to hit 3 out of 4 of the cultural triangle “greats”:
- Dambulla – for its cave temples
- Sigiriya – for its foreboding magma rock from an extinct volcano.
- Polonnaruwa – for its archaelogical ruins of a former royal city
…leaving Anaradhapura (also famous for its ruins) for the next day. We almost succeeded. Had we woken up earlier and lingered less ontop of Sigiriya, we would’ve managed to hit all 3.
Instead we had arrived in Polonnaruwa with its sites about to close at 6pm, so we decided to save them for the next morning. Before then, however, we did some heavy spelunkin’, exploring Dambulla’s mysterious cave temples and climbing enigmatic Sigiriya, which is listed in many of the world’s “100 most beautiful” lists.
As for entry fees, there is a “round ticket” to see all of those sites with one convenient ticket for $50 USD. It’s either that or pay $25 USD per site. The downside is that when you use the round ticket on any one of those sites, entry is only valid for one day or else you’ll have to pay the full day’s amount for the next day. So you gotta be fast, and make sure you don’t arrive too soon before the sites close.
Nevertheless, Dambulla and Sigiriya was worth it, in my opinion. Just take a look for yourself:
Dambulla cave temples
Sexy, mysterious, and just the perfect atmosphere to make us feel like tomb raiders. Unfortunately, because it says “cave temples” doesn’t mean it’s on sea level or underground. Instead it’s quite a climb up to get to the caves; think of it as a warm up for something like Sigiriya. On the top of Dambulla, however, you can faintly see the outlines of Sigiriya in the distance (its the rock on the right):
Although guides list the 30min rickshaw ride from Dambulla to Sigiriya as somewhere around 700 SL rupees (as opposed to a 50 rupee bus ride), we were able to bargain one down to 500 rupees (equivalent to only $4 USD!). So travelers, take note! For about $1-2USD more, you can save 1 hour waiting time for a public bus!
"NOISE MAY PROVOKE HORNET ATTACKS" is another way of saying "BE QUIET."
Go ahead. Start your climb.
It's a very very long climb up.
After a bit of climbing and fresco-spotting (some of which are incredibly well preserved), you’ll hit a break in the middle known as “Lion’s Paws.” Back in the day you could walk up these stairs into a lion’s mouth in order to begin your ascent to Sigiriya, but over time much of the lion wore away and all that’s left are these enigmatic paws straddling the entrance.
2 years ago I saw a picture of this on a "world's most beautiful" list and that was whe I knew I had to go to Sigiriya.
After another 15 minute ascent, you’ll eventually reach the top of Sigiriya. It had beren assumed that at the top there was a palace complex, but now the theory is that the top of Sigiriya merely housed temples, the reason being that excavation of the site discovered no infrastructure that could make long-term habitation possible (i.e. no evidence of crude lavatories). Nevertheless, I could see why devout pilgrims would ascend Sigiriya, not only for its religious significance at the time, but also for its spectacular views of Sri Lanka.
I wonder what's for dinner.
The top of Sigiriya just got served.
Like a scene out of Myst
Views like these kind of makes me feel I'm in East Africa instead of South Asia.
I recommend staying out on the top of Sigiriya for awhile so you can enjoy the heat-breaking gusty breezes (they were strong enough to knock some guys off their feet!). Afterwards, you can begin your quick descent to sea level. Just be careful of unevenly placed stairs.
Cobra Hood cave.
Sigiriya from another angle.
After Sigiriya, we were lucky to find a rickshaw driver heading back to his home in Polonnaruwa, so we hopped on for a very low price of 900 rupees (otherwise any normal rickshaw would’ve cost around 2000 rupees). The other option would’ve been waiting for an hour two separate times for two separate buses to get to Polonnaruwa. So our fortunate rickshaw deal isn’t something that happens often to every backpacker, but if you stick out your nose far enough, you might be just as lucky.
And randomly along the way, we were treated to a free safari:
The first elephants I've ever seen in the wild (i.e. not domesticated for tourists to ride on or get blessed by).
We’re now in Anaradhapura, chilling out after a so-so day wandering around Polonnaruwa earlier this morning. More on Polonnaruwa next.
- At time of posting in Anaradhapura, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: cloudy
…is really pretty. That’s all. Please look at Calvin’s photos below for proof.
Okay I need to expound a little. The landscape here looks untouched. The greens and yellows are vibrant. The red clay provides a great contrast. The skies are just the most perfect blue. Even the clouds have this soft muted look to them.
I also finally had one of those “wow. religion.” moments last night when we visited Natha Devale (after so many mosques and temples, Steph? really? yes call me a cynic). The temple in Kandy consists of a large multilevel white terrace that surrounds a Bodhi tree. And as I walked around it, bare feet in the dirt, there was a nice harmony with the beautiful sunset and melodic chanting going on around me. Now I realize this is may be more about the environment than the religion itself, but it really felt wonderful. It was more than its collection of parts.
Today’s sights have only added to the beauty I’ve found in Sri Lanka. We saw some (less awe-inspiring, but nevertheless quite pretty) cave temples and Sigiriya. Sigiriya is mindblowng in its construction. Its a monestary/palace/fort built on top of a giant rock (which I’d rate a 5.12 climb with about 3 pitches). It was constructed by some really crazy/creative people and has things like a moat with crocodiles, giant carved lion paws, and cisterns that still collect rainwater. There’s even some ancient graffiti hundreds of feet off the ground. Just wikipedia it.
Afterwards on the way to Polonnaruwa, we had the best tuk tuk driver. He started the drive with “OBAMA!” and pulled over to the side of the road to let me try King Coconut juice, have corn on the cob from a highway vendor, climb a tree house, take some pictures of a temple, and get some photos of ELEPHANTS IN THE WILD. Between his enthusiasm, speed (almost twice as fast as the bus), and his knowledge of the area, he was just the best. I am totally going to try and find him again tomorrow.