Sri Lanka

The Best Way to Explore Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities

The tourist hotspot of Sri Lanka has given way to holiday-makers in recent years; most head to the south coast for the beaches and resorts. Many travellers, however, explore further afield to experience a bit more than just sand between their toes. Sri Lanka is less well-known for a part of the island that is historically significant.

At the very centre of this island nation lie the three ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Close to Anuradhapura is Mihintale, a worthwhile day trip, and about 15 kilometers from Sigiriya is Dambulla, easily accessible by cycling.

Here, I’d like to share with you the best way to explore these cities, how to see the best of them and how you can do it affordably.

Anuradhapura and Mihintale

The World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura, which was made the island’s capital by King Pandukabhaya in around 380BC, was the greatest monastic city of the ancient world. Now, almost all in ruin apart from a handful of sights, the structures are still impressive and worthy of exploration, the area being steeped in history.

Like any World Heritage Site, there is a hefty admission fee of $25 per person. However, it is possible to see up to 80% of the site without paying! How? The ancient city is spread across a large area; by walking, you can enter into most areas as there are few ticket checking booths.

Avoid the main thoroughfares and you should be able to get around without a problem. This is what we did, managing to see all but one small cluster of sights, which we had been forewarned would be next-to impossible to access without tickets.

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Mahaseya Dagoba from Et Vihara

Mihintale

Making Anuradhapura our base, we decided to visit the sights further way in Mihintale first. Mihintale lies 10km to the east of Anuradhapura and is littered with many wonders, some less impressive than others but all fascinating in their own way. From the ruins of the Old Hospital to the Monks Refectory and the Kantaka Chetiya, there is plenty to see here.

Notable sights that are definitely worth a visit are the Ambasthale Dagoba, small yet glistening white and surrounded by pillars, and the big white Buddha statue, sitting proud and looking over proceedings.

On the other side of the small complex is Aradhana Gala, a rock said to have been sat on by Mahinda as he meditated (his cave dwelling is also nearby). From the Mahaseya Dagoba there is the possibility of wonderful views. Large and white-washed, it is difficult to miss!

Heading up to Et Vihara, a small crumbling dagoba, offers sweeping views over the land, including a good view of Mahaseya Dagoba. It is well worth the climb! A short walk away, you’ll find Kaludiya Pokuna, a large pond, and the Indikatu Seya complex, a peaceful area with small yet nice ruins that are worth exploring!

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Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Vihara

Sights in Anuradhapura

The main sights in Anuradhapura are rather spread out, though options to get around are available; tuk tuk drivers, for example, will likely give you their best pitch for a tour. However if, like us, you like to do things totally independently, walking around is, though tiring, not impossible.

Key sights not to be missed include:

  • Isurumuniya Vihara contains many Buddha statues including a reclining one; there are also carvings of special interest including the Elephant Pond and the Royal Family.
  • Royal Pleasure Gardens, with ruined tanks, are nice to walk around; they are on the edge of Tissa Wewa (wewa meaning reservoir).
  • Sandahiru Seya was under construction at the time of our visit but may well be completed by now!
  • Mirisavatiya Dagoba, beautifully kept, large and white, can be seen from afar but is just as impressive up close.
  • Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, planted from a cutting of the original under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, can also be seen in the area. The sapling was brought to Sri Lanka by Buddhist nun Sanagamitta, as a gift from her father, Ashoka, in the 3rd Century BC. Since being planted, it has been guarded by an uninterrupted series of guardian monks and is the oldest known tree in the world.
  • Lowamahapaya (Brazen Palace) is the ruins of a vast building, near the sacred tree. It was once home to a community of 1000 monks; today all that remains of the nine-storey monastery are 1600 pillars.
  • Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, the most venerated among the great ancient dagobas of Sri Lanka, is also the most beautiful; it is a large white fully-restored structure surrounded by numerous shrines. Nearby is the Thuparama Dagoba, smaller than its neighbor but fully intact, and a good addition to the sightseeing list!
  • Jetavanarama Dagoba, originally 120m high, was the third tallest structure in the ancient world after the Great Pyramids of Egypt. It took 27 years to build and consists of over 90 million bricks! Thanks to restoration work most of the structure is intact; the spire, however, is still missing a large chunk and looks as though somebody has taken a knife and diagonally sliced off the top. This dagoba is part of the Jetavanarama Monastery, which would once have housed around 3000 monks.
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Jetavanarama Dagoba

Given the large area and sheer number of sights, it is no wonder that Anuradhapura was once a sprawling ancient capital in days gone by. Today, it still offers a stunning array of ruins and architecture that make you feel like you are walking through historic times. Indeed, many of the dagobas are still active places of worship.

Getting to Anuradhapura

From Colombo:

Convenient trains starting from Colombo Fort train station link the capital to Anuradhapura. They start at around 5:45am until 8:30pm and take 4-5 hours.

  • 1st class: LKR 520.00
  • 2nd class: LKR 290.00
  • 3rd class: LKR 160.00

There are also many daily buses taking approximately 5 hours; the cost generally starts at around LKR 350 for a non-air-conditioned public bus.

From Jaffna:

If you’re coming from Jaffna, there are 4 daily trains starting at 06:10; the last one departs at 7pm. Again it takes 3-4 hours and prices range depending on seat class.

  • 1st class: LKR 500.00
  • 2nd class: LKR 280.00
  • 3rd class: LKR 150.00

Buses from Jaffna are also available.

Sigiriya

Designated a World Heritage since 1982, the village of Sigiriya was rediscovered during British rule in 1831 by Major H. Forbes. It is dominated by an ancient rock fortress, atop a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high, that offers stunning vistas of the surrounding area.

King Kashyapa (477 – 495 CE) selected this site for his new capital, building his palace on top of this rock and decorating its sides with colourful frescoes. About halfway up, on a small plateau, he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion, which gives the place its name – Sinhagiri means Lion Rock. After the king’s death, his palace and capital were abandoned; it was then used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th Century.

Surrounding the rock are the water, cave and terraced gardens, making them among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. Sigiriya, however, comes with a hefty price tag, costing $30 per person! There are also the eager swarms of tourists that go with any well-known sight.

Pidurangala

A far cheaper and quieter alternative is to climb the opposite and slightly smaller rock known as Pidurangala. The entrance fee is LKR 500 (GBP 2.50). Although it is still visited by a lot of tourists, the number is far less than its bigger brother. The walk/climb up isn’t too challenging; along the way you’ll see numerous Buddhist shrines, including a lovely brick reclining Buddha beneath a rock-overhang.

Pidurangala is a much better bet, especially if you’re wanting to save money! From its amazing viewpoint, you can see Sigiriya opposite and the ant-like trail of people climbing up to the summit.

For a full guide to Pidurangala check out: Pidurangala Rock Hike – Best Sunrise in Sri Lanka!

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View of Sigiriya from Pidurangala

Sigiriya Accommodation

We stayed at Lal Homestay, owned by the very friendly Lal and his wife; the room was spacious and clean in a lovely garden setting. Dinner and breakfast is also available for an extra cost; the spread that you are presented with is hearty, home cooked and delicious! Definitely worth it in my book.

It’s also possible to rent bicycles from the homestay and take an enjoyable ride through peaceful country lanes, surrounded by glistening green rice paddies, to the town of Dambulla.

Dambulla

A small and bustling town, Dambulla has one major attraction – the Dambulla Cave Temple, which is another of the country’s World Heritage Sites. Head to the southern end of town where the entrance is marked by a lavish temple entrance gate. There is an unavoidable $10 entrance fee with a ticket here that does get checked.

Within the complex, situated 160m above the surrounding plains, you’ll find five separate caves with over 150 Buddha statues. The stunning cave paintings are considered some of Sri Lanka’s most evocative art. Downhill from the cave temple, you’ll find a large golden Buddha statue that sits above the Golden Temple.

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At Dambulla Cave Temple

Anuradhapura to Sigiriya

The best way to get between Anuradhapura and Sigiriya is by local bus or taxi. Ask at your guesthouse or hotel for on-the-ground information and advice. But be sure to ask for the local price and don’t settle for the first figure that you are quoted! If you stay at Lal Homestay, you can ask the bus driver to stop directly opposite.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, was a thriving commercial and religious centre when kings ruled the country from this hub in the central plains over 800 years ago. The city was established as the capital in the 10th Century; today it is another of the island’s World Heritage Sites.

Exploring Polonnaruwa

Situated within one main area, unfortunately, there is no escaping the $25 per person admission fee. Without it, you can’t enter. But, in this case, it’s worth it! These ruins are well maintained and largely intact. The beautiful stone carvings are fantastic and offer a great glimpse into the island’s history.

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The Vatadage within the Sacred Quadrangle

The centerpiece of the collection is the Quadrangle, an enclosed cluster of ruins a short walk north of the Royal Palace. Surrounding the Quadrangle, within peaceful forest, are literally hundreds of temples and stupas.

Key sights not to be missed include:

  • Royal Palace – The Royal Palace group dates from the time of King Parakramabahu (1153 – 1186). The huge palace itself once contained 50 rooms, supported by 30 columns; it is also thought to have had seven floors and 3m thick walls. Today the structure lies in ruin with only some of the walls remaining.
  • Audience Hall – One of the best preserved structures in the Royal Palace group. There are intricately carved elephants on the stone walls, each in a different position.
  • King’s Swimming Pool – In one corner of the palace grounds; crocodile-mouth spouts used to bring water to the pool.
  • Sacred Quadrangle – The highlight within this compact group of ruins is the Vatadage, a circular relic house with four stepped entrances, all flanked by large guard stones. At the center lies a central dagoba with four Buddha images at the cardinal points.
  • Shiva Devale No. 2 – The oldest structure at Polonnaruwa and one of the few Hindu temples. It dates back to around 1070, during the Chola dynasty, when South Indian invaders established the city.
  • Rankot Vihara – The largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest in Sri Lanka; it dates back to King Nissanka Malla and is 54m tall.
  • Kiri Vihara Dagoba – This white dagoba is the best preserved unrestored dagoba in Polonnaruwa; when it was first discovered, archaeologists found the original lime plaster still in perfect condition after 700 years.
  • Lankatilaka – Enclosed by 17m high walls, this huge standing headless Buddha is a sight to behold.
  • Gal Vihara – A collection of four stunning Buddha images, cut from one long granite slab. The standing figure, at 7m tall, is said to be the finest of the group; it has unusual crossed arms and a sad facial expression. Some sources say that it may, in fact, not be the Buddha but his most loyal disciple Ananda, in sorrow at Buddha’s passing. The reclining figure is 14m long and is an intricate work of craftsmanship; it shows the Buddha entering nirvana.
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Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara

Most people hire bicycles to get around, though walking is also a possibility. If you’re willing to take a walk, it’s possible to visit quieter areas of the site where there are smaller ruins. These less visited structures are unique and serene, offering a chance to escape the crowds.

For those that are interested, there is also a museum with further details about the site, how it was excavated and the stages of how it came to be presented to the masses.

Polonnaruwa to Batticaloa

Moving on from Polonnaruwa, we headed to Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast. If you plan to do the same, there are four possible trains departing at rather odd times; the first is at 01:40 am and the last is at 12:30 pm. Taking 3-4 hours, prices depend on seat class:

  • 1st class: LKR 280.00
  • 2nd class: LKR 150.00
  • 3rd class: LKR 85.00

Moving on by local bus or taxi? Like I said before, ask at your guesthouse or hotel for on-the-ground information and advice. But be sure to ask for the local price and don’t settle for the first figure that you are quoted!

It is definitely worthwhile to pay a visit to this part of Sri Lanka, where the simplicity and relative peace and quiet is bliss. The ancient cities also reward visitors with a stunning journey through time; walking around these incredible sites gives an evocative glimpse into the country’s magnificent past. You’ll still find eating options and decent places to stay but for now, this region is less touristy than other parts of the country.

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka and are heading to the east coast, check out our post: All you need to know about Batticaloa and Arugam Bay!

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