We arrived to Sri Lanka at 11:00 pm after a particularly turbulent plane trip due to the rain and wind. We cleared customs, grabbed our bag, and headed outside for our first tuktuk bartering session in the country. As with every airport, there are drivers waiting to prey on arriving passengers naivety, offering preposterous rates on the off chance they will accept. After two outrageous offers we found a very young driver who was reasonable and we settled on an agreeable price. We made it to our guesthouse shortly before midnight and immediately crashed after our outlandish last day in India.
The following day we woke early after getting a good nights rest and discussed our itinerary for Sri Lanka. We decided on spending the first part of our trip in the Cultural Triangle, a compilation of 5 cultural sites located within the centre of the country. We opted to head straight to the city of Anuradhapura, the city located furthest North in the triangle. It meant a long bus day for our first day in the country, but very short bus trips on the subsequent days. (Side note: do you know how to pronounce Anuradhapura? We certainly didn’t, and still don’t. Most place names in Sri Lanka are incredibly difficult owing to the number of syllables and interesting blend of consonants).
We inquired with our guesthouse about the best way to get to Anuradhapura and were delighted to hear buses leave every 30 minutes from the main station. The owners of the guesthouse were even kind enough to drop us on the main road to catch the local bus to the bus station! We had read about the local buses and their need for speed in several blogs, but that still didn’t quite prepare us for our first ride.
We identified the bus we needed by the number on the front and flagged it down. The bus slowed just enough for us to run and attempt to leap on, a monumental effort with all of our bags and a narrow opening due to people standing in the doorway. These people were ultimately our saviours as they pushed and pulled us onto the prehistoric beast that threatened to send us straight back out the door as it took off again at breakneck speed. We staggered down the aisle, the centrifugal force of the bus rounding a corner slamming us into our seats, knocking the wind out of us in the process. We have been on thousands of buses at this point, all having varying aspects of pandemonium, but that took the cake.
Once at the bus station we easily found our way to the correct platform for the bus we needed with the help of a very kind man. Chris grabbed us a few snacks from a vendor to hold us over until we made it to Anuradhapura, and we hopped on. What a joy to be able to not worry about reserving tickets in advance or missing one of the only buses of the day! This was how we traveled all throughout South America and it is by far our favorite way to get around, for obvious reasons.
We were happy to be boarding the bus at the station to avoid another running leap of faith as in our first experience. Despite being a ‘long-distance’ bus there was a noticable lack of luggage storage. The seats were also very small and packed tightly to fit the most number of people possible on the bus. This meant cramming ourselves and small bags in a ‘two-seater,’ while leaving our large bag at the front by the driver. The bus left the station at precisely the time we were told it would depart, a welcomed change from India. Our mounting enthusiasm for the buses in Sri Lanka took a major blow over the course of the five hour journey; the bus driver drove at a suicide speed, overtaking all vehicles on the road with complete disregard of oncoming traffic or blind corners. This was juxtaposed with slamming on the breaks to slow to pick other passengers with such force you were thrust into the seat ahead of you in a position not unlike the ‘brace’ position found on the airplane safety cards for emergency landings. All the while there was Sri Lankan hip-hop songs blaring at ear-splitting volumes over a state of the art speaker system, complete with a flat screen tv displaying the music video. There was no air-conditioning, only the ability to open the windows. Half-way through the journey it began to torrential downpour, necessitating the closure of said windows with the effect of a newfound sauna. The ride ended with both Chris and I dehydrated, migrainous, and feeling as if we had been in a car wreck several times over.
We haggled half heartedly with a tuktuk driver and arrived to our guesthouse, Shanketha Palace Hotel, deflated. Luckily, we were staying with the worlds sweetest couple and they welcomed us as if we were their own children. A welcome drink and several litres of water later, we were feeling much better. Things continued to improve upon seeing our room, one of the nicest we have had in our nearly 11 months of travel. The owner mentioned if we stayed two nights he had several promotions to offer and it was a no-brainer for us to accept; we would need more than a day to work up the courage to get back onto a bus. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and getting caught up on the ultra fast wifi connection. We opted for the buffet dinner that evening as it was the best bang for our buck and were treated to one of the best meals of our travels. Buffets generally conjure images of lukewarm, tasteless dishes, but this buffet was all homemade Sri Lankan dishes freshly prepared by the owners wife. All the dishes were made with such fresh and tasty ingredients, our tastebuds were in heaven.
The following day we woke up to the prospect of rain and made a gut-check decision to opt out of visiting the ruins of the ancient city. While they are the oldest of the cultural triangle, many bloggers wrote of their disappointment after visiting the ruins considering the entrance fee of $30 USD. We spent the day instead finalizing our license details as well as updating our resumes. We were very productive all day and overall very happy with our decision to not visit the ruins. We ordered the chicken curry for a late lunch/dinner and received the most delectable meal. It came with not only the curry and rice, but also 3 side dishes, unlimited papad, 2 incredible homemade sauces AND dessert. It was a feast that we thoroughly enjoyed.
The next day we said farewell to our amazing hosts, who dropped us at the bus station, for our next jaw clenching journey to our next unpronounceable city of Polonnaruwa. The ride was seemingly more tolerable than our first, or it could have been we were armed with a measuring stick. We arranged a tuktuk to bring us to our accommodation, Ruins Villa, and were met by the very welcoming owner who immediately went out of his way to help organize our day. We made sure to arrive early so we could visit the ruins the same day. He had bikes we could rent for the day (groan) as the ruins were spread quite far apart throught the town. We arranged to have dinner at the guesthouse after visiting the ruins, and set off on our biking adventure. The bike ride into the town where you purchase your ticket at the museum was a breathtaking ride (even on a bike). We biked along a small road that ran adjacent to the canal where locals bathe and wash their clothes, the children excitedly calling ‘Hello, Hello!’ as we passed. There were rice fields on the opposite side of the road, farmers busy preparing them for the season which starts in a few weeks. Before we knew it we had gone the 4kms to the main road and reached the museum. We bought our tickets, walked briskly around the museum, and hopped back on our bikes to head to the different ruin sites.
The first site listed was on the hill above the museum and when we biked to the top we discovered a lovely lake. Abandoning the archeological site visit, we decided to bike along the road that went around the perimeter of the lake. After 20 minutes of riding we came to several ruins that we had originally not intended on visiting as they were far from the others, but our joy ride brought us there anyway. We then continued to bike down the lake road until the road turned inland. As we were turning around on our bikes we heard a very loud rustling beside us in the ditch, and when Chris saw what had caused the noise he let out a yelp and jumped off his bike, beckoning me to do the same. He couldn’t even articulate what it was that he saw, he just kept saying, ‘Holy shit it was big!’ He finally settled down enough to describe a komodo dragon like creature. He spotted another one a bit further down and when we got closer I was shocked to see the size of the creature. It was absolutely massive and very intimidating. We have since learned they are Asian Water Monitors, the second heaviest lizard after the komodo dragons. Google image to see what they look like, and then picture having no idea they run amuck in the country you are in until you almost run one over!
We continued our bike ride to the main ruin site without any further animal scares. We made our way slowly through the massive complex, engrossed with the beauty of the ruins and surrounding area. It was well worth the hefty entrance fee of $25 USD as we spent 5 hours biking and exploring the sites. Check out the pics below!
As we were leaving one of the sites two guys stopped and began chatting with us, and it turns out one of them holds the world record for having had the most number of tractors driven over his abdomen. He excitedly showed us videos of the record, explaining he has very strong abdominal muscles. The beauty of traveling- random encounters!
Finishing our visit of the ruins around 4pm, we headed into town to pick up snacks and more water before relaxing at the guesthouse. Another couple from France had checked in while we were out, and we spent the evening chatting and sharing beer over dinner. Alcohol is very expensive in Sri Lanka, for one beer it is around $3-4 CAD depending where you are. After the few shared over dinner we decided that was it for us for Sri Lanka, far too expensive to indulge in!
The next morning we headed to the train station to book our train ticket from Kandy to Ella, a famous train ride that notoriously sells out days in advance. Tickets in hand for three days time, we hopped on a bus to the next town in the cultural triangle, Sigiriya.
We arrived early to our homestay and the owners mother was the only one home. She spoke zero english, but handed us a handwritten note from her daughter explaining what time she finished work for the day, and how to occupy ourselves in the meantime. The mother made us a pot of tea, and we utilized the wi-fi until her daughter showed up from work. As there was still time to do something, but not enough to climb lions rock, she suggested we climb another rock, called Pidurangala Rock. The entrance fee for this rock was only 500 rupees ($4.60 CAD), versus the fee for Sigiriya Lion Rock which is 4200 rupees ($39 CAD)! She arranged a tuktuk to pick us up and drop us back off as it was over 6 kms to the start of the climb.
The clouds looked threatening as we made our way to the start of the climb, and we prayed we would make it without getting absolutely dumped on. Our tuktuk driver stopped briefly at a temple, where I snapped a beautiful picture of the Buddha before we continued on to our destination.
We began our climb to the top of the rock, meeting several very sweaty tourists on their way down. I tried to mentally prepare myself for a tough climb based on the sweat level of these tourists, but it never arrived. It was an easy, gentle uphill ascent, with a bit of scrambling over boulders at the end. I am still confused how the other tourists worked up such a lather, but I was thankful to avoid ending up in the same state.
The view from the top was beautiful, it gave a wonderful perspective to Lion Rock and the surrounding area. Lion Rock looms 200 meters above the lowlands, the remnants of an eroded volcano ontop of which are the archeological ruins of an ancient city and palace. We spent an hour at the top of Pidurangala enjoying the view from all angles.
We finished our visit and headed back to our homestay, where our host prepared us a lovely dinner before we passed out early for the evening.
The next morning had us rising at 6 am, enjoying a breakfast of sweet coconut pancakes at 6:30, and heading to Lions Rock at 7. We wanted to make sure we had ample time at the top before the clouds rolled in. It was a lovely walk to the entrance of the park, meeting a very sweet older lady along the way who spoke perfect english and wanted to have my address so she could write me a letter. This is just another example of how friendly and welcoming the people of Sri Lanka are, we have been overwhelmed with kindess since we have arrived. She was so adorable, check out the picture of her and Chris below!
We made it to Lions Rock a half hour later, begrudgingly paying the insane entrance fee before making our way through the gardens to the start of the climb. We had a beautiful sunny morning, affording some fantastic pictures.
The first part of the climb led us to a winding staircase with perfectly preserved paintings on the walls of the cave at the top. Chris remarked they must not have been ‘butt-men’ in their society.
We then went down the otherside of the staircase and continued our ascent. Soon after the paintings we arrived at the entrance to the mountain kingdom, a staircase flanked by two humongous lion feet. Apparently, the stairs used to be inside a massive lions head, but that no longer remains.
A 10 minute climb later had us on the summit of the rock amongst the archeological ruins. I couldn’t help notice the parallels between this experience and our experience at Machu Picchu, minus the massive numbers of people at Machu Picchu. I was equally, if not more, impressed with our experience with Lion Rock and would highly recommend visiting (despite the massive pricetag). We sat for a long time at the top, chatting and taking in the stunning 360° views.
We then began out descent and headed back to our homestay where we grabbed our bags and headed to the main road to catch a bus to our next stop, Dambulla. While we were waiting for the bus a tuktuk driver approached us stating he was heading back to Dambulla and rather than go empty, he was willing to take us for a very reasonable price. We happily hopped in, saving both time and energy by avoiding the bus.
The tuktuk driver dropped us at our next guesthouse and we checked-in quickly before grabbing a bite for lunch and heading to the Golden Temple and Rock Temples. We were yet again working against the weather clock, as dark clouds were rolling in as we began our climb to the rock temples. We had a lovely visit of the temples, I snapped loads of pictures with varying rates of success with the lighting. It is remarkable to me the immaculate state of the ancient temples, in terms of both the wall paintings and statues.
Our visit to Dambulla and the Rock Temples and The Golden Temple was the last major archeological site in the cultural triangle. We enjoyed the sites we visited in the triangle, but the entrance fees to all were much higher than we anticipated. This is something you should account for in your budget if you are planning a visit to Sri Lanka!
Even more than the sites we visited, we relished in the surrounding beauty of Sri Lanka. It is one of the most visually stunning countries we have been too. More than that, the people are some of the kindest we have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. The food continues to be a major highlight, eating most of our meals at our guesthouses/homestays as there is not a major restaurant culture in Sri Lanka. At its closest it is a mere 35 kms from India, but it has felt a world apart, in the best way possible.