Sigiriya was the first place Mum and I visited in Sri Lanka. Straight off the back of our India trip, the intensity levels couldn’t have been more different. We were staying at Sigiriya Riverside Home Stay and it was one of the best places we stayed on our entire trip. We were picked up from the airport by Indika (the Home Stay owner and father to the most delightful family we were about to meet) who drove us 3 – 4 hours back to the Home Stay (for 9500R), and stopping at the Danbulla Rock Temples on the way.
I was about to learn just how expensive Sri Lankan tourist attractions were going to be. It cost 1500R to enter (NZ$15) and involved climbing a rather steep hill to a series of cave structures. There were 5 caves containing temples; the second one is by far the most impressive. There are loads of monkeys clambering around the rocks – some people choose to go closer and get photos, I tend to take a very wide berth! The Danbulla Cave Temples are a World Heritage Site located 72 km north of Kandy and about 20 minutes from Sigiriya. You have to take your shoes off when you arrive, so wearing slip-ons is ideal.
After arriving at our accommodation, enjoying our ‘welcome drink’ (usually a fruit smoothie, welcome drinks seem to be a common custom at many Sri Lankan homestays) and grabbing a quick snack, we were picked up to do our elephant safari. This experience costs $NZ50/person and was very speedily arranged by Indika (who proved to be super organised, efficient and an absolute wealth of knowledge of Sigiriya). There were six people in our jeep and after picking up some fresh coconut juice for the journey, we started the drive out to Kandalla National Park. It took over an hour, but probably less than two, and we saw some pretty spectacular scenery on the way.
Upon entering the park, we came to realise just how many jeeps were also partaking in the safari. Fortunately, as we would come to see later, there were plenty of elephants to go round. There was a huge variety of wildlife; we saw an eagle, giant lizards, peacocks, monkeys and… ELEPHANTS. My favourite animal since forever, I was so excited. There were a few major elephant spots, as well as the occasional group that we would stumble across as we drove from place to place. How it works is that there are a few man-made lake/reservoirs dotted about the park. As the natural water sources dry up over the hot summer, the elephants all start migrating to those reservoirs at dusk to get water. This allows masses of tourists to see masses of elephants, in their natural environment. It is hard to get close enough to take a good photo, but the experience itself is absolutely unreal.
The next morning, we had arranged to be picked up by a tuk-tuk driver and taken 1.5 hours (4500R) to Polonnaruwa – a world heritage site which was a massive grounds with a bunch of different temples and old city sites. Our driver took us to the museum to buy our tickets (3850R) and then to the main entrance so that we could hire bikes. We bartered (rather unsuccessfully) and got a day’s hire for 400R (you should be able to get it for 300R). Biking around the inside of the complex was awesome, for me, it was certainly a highlight of the trip. Don’t let tuk-tuk drivers tell you it will be too hot; they just want the extra dosh to drive you themselves.
Some tips for your day at Polonnarua:
- go early; the heat is definitely pretty exhausting, but certainly less of an impediment if you can start early on (you really only need 2 – 3 hours).
- wear jandals (/flip-flops): you are constantly taking your shoes off for the different temples and tying laces certainly gets tedious.
- the entrance is not the same as the exit, and you will not be allowed to leave out of the entrance! I suggest that you don’t do as we did, which was just to ‘stick to our left’, because it meant we did a loop where we were back at the entrance and then weren’t allowed out.
- never take a photo with your back to Buddha, it is considered highly offensive.
- you can buy food and water inside, but if you want to save money I would definitely recommend taking your own. We had a picnic in the shade near one of the temples and it was really beautiful.
There are two famous rocks to climb in Sigiriya. I would recommend doing them at sunrise/sunset – it is too hot otherwise. We started with Pidurangala Cave and Rock Temple, at sunset. It is known to be more difficult than Lion Rock – there was certainly more clambering involved. If you are up for the challenge though, the 500R and sweat is so worth it – the views looking across at Lion Rock are pretty spectacular. We left just before sunset (although we still caught the lighting of the sky caused by the sun dropping) as we didn’t fancy climbing down in the dark.
The next morning (another early start) saw us catch a tuk-tuk to Lion Rock. Thankfully the early start (7am) meant we escaped the heat and most of the crowds too! Entrance tickets were so expensive, and be careful that the ticket sellers don’t try to scam you – they tried with me, and were successful with mum. It was easier to climb than Pidurangala; it was just a series of steep stairs. The top was very cool too; not only were there panoramic views, but also the remains of the old fortress to explore. There is a massive lions paw carved into stone about halfway up (giving the rock it’s name). There are also extremely extensive gardens (water gardens, cave gardens, terrace gardens). If you want a tour guide, there are too many loitering around the entrance, willing to help!
Sigiriya is somewhere that I think many people would leave off their itineraries, just because it is slightly out of the way and a little less known about than some of the major cities. It was in fact, one of my favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was definitely the most expensive place we visited though – entry fees into the sites definitely add up, and were easily comparable to what you’d pay somewhere like Europe.