Exploring the ancient treasures of Dambulla and Sigiriya (with subtitles)

Our brief visit to Kandy ended with our host organising for his mate to give us a lift to the bus station on the cheap. Said friend dropped us in an alleyway, pointed at what appeared to be a far distant bus, said “short cut” and gestured down a set of steps. We were unconvinced and a bit grumpy by this turn of events until we emerged approximately 45 seconds later in the bus station and realised that the man, whose name we never learned, was a genius.

Caro has become a big fan of podcasts and settled back in the bus with her eyes closed and listened in peace for the next two hours. James’s kindle had died so he was left with the television at the front of the bus. This was showing a spectacularly crap Sri Lankan drama with English subtitles, the reason for which we could not fathom, given that buses are 99% utilised by locals who have no need for English subtitles and likely don’t understand them anyway. James actually got quite invested in the movie and was slightly disappointed when we arrived at Dambulla before it had finished.

Our guesthouse, Lak View Family Resort, had moved location and this blew our tuk tuk driver’s mind but we did get there eventually. We’d definitely recommend staying there if you visit Dambulla; the rooms are large and comfortable with a balcony, the food was good and the host generously drove us to the temples and the bus station free of charge. There were a couple of powercuts throughout the afternoon but this is commonplace in Sri Lanka and you get used to it pretty quickly.

We waited until late afternoon to visit the temples in order to avoid the worst of the heat. Our host dropped us at the base of the cave temples so that we could walk straight through and back to the homestay in one go. This is a tip for anyone visiting; as most accommodation is closer to the new temple, get dropped at the caves and work your way forward. It was a steep climb and especially warm for James who was wearing a sarong over his shorts so that he was appropriately attired for the temple.01From the top we could see for miles, which didn’t translate well to photographs but it really is quite a view. Before you enter the temples you have to surrender your shoes to a man sitting in a shack, he places them on a shelf and when you return you give him 20 rupees and point out your shoes. This is the “secure shoe storage”, we could have pointed at any single pair of shoes and he would have given them to us. The real benefit is it stops any of the many monkeys laying their paws on them.

Barefoot and beskirted we stepped through to the entrance of the temples, which are tucked away under an overhang in the rock.01a

It was very busy but it was lovely to see that a majority of the visitors were Sri Lankans who had come to pray.

02The caves are really quite extraordinary. Given that the oldest is over 2000 years old and they have all been through periods of neglect in their long history, they are in a fabulous state of repair. The five caves all vary in size, some housing a single reclined Buddha, others playing host to tens of statues. In all cases the undulating ceilings have also been painted and remain in beautiful condition.03Given that it was quite dark, it was difficult to capture the beautiful colours in photographs. We were also very aware that people were there to worship and we did not want to intrude by constantly snapping photographs or having the flash go off. There was also the issue that you aren’t supposed to turn your back on Buddha in photographs, which can be quite challenging when in a room with three walls of them. So, we took a few photographs but otherwise just wandered around and soaked it all in.0405

Once we were re-united with our flip flops we walked around the top of the hill, where a very welcome breeze blew across and through the tree lined pathways.

06The new Golden Temple is at the bottom of the hill near the road and we made our way down past the inevitable tables of soapstone statues for sale and hoardes of schoolchildren making their way up in the opposite direction. As we passed them we were accosted by a wave of “Hi!” and “Bye!” and enormous grins. We smiled and said hi back which set everyone off and it was like a never-ending echo until we were out of earshot, they all looked so happy.

The Golden Temple, we felt, looked more like it should be on the Vegas strip. It is an enormous gold Bhudda, with lots of other gaudy decorations. It was capped off by two pigeons living in Buddas nose and two monkeys shagging on the large gold sign. Granted they probably couldn’t help these things but it did add to the feel of the ridiculous.07In the morning James attempted to go for a run but this seemed to enrage the local dogs, who had been largely peaceable up until this point. Some locals rushed to his aid by throwing stones at the dogs and James returned to the homestay a little bedraggled and very sweaty. Curiously, the word seems to have gotten around and street dogs everywhere have since taken umbrage, James cannot walk down a street without being barked at now. Caro finds this quite amusing.

We were in Dambulla for all of 20 hours before we were back on the road again. We boarded the slowest bus in the universe which took an hour and thirty minutes to complete a 20km journey to Sigiriya. The only upside to this glacial pace was that we were in the terrifying seats up front next to the driver and were unlikely to get catapulted through the windscreen at such a speed.09Our homestay was only a kilometre down the road from the bus stop so we decided to be real backpackers and walk there rather than get a tuk tuk, it was nice to have a reminder of just how heavy our backpacks are.11

Not surprising, given that Caro had to do this to get hers closed that morning.

12This walk included our first and only experience of seeing elephants being ridden and it upset us hugely. Of course, we know that the practice goes on but we hadn’t yet seen it up close and personal. We couldn’t even tell you if the elephants looked healthy or not, but we do know that they were chained up and that was enough for us to abhor it. Wild animals belong in the wild, not marching back and forth up a road in Sigiriya with a procession of white people sitting on their backs. It is very possible that these animals are very well cared for and that their handlers love them, nonetheless it isn’t where elephants belong. We didn’t take any pictures because they would have asked that we pay for them, which was the opposite of what we wanted to do. Please do not ride elephants. End of rant.

Our homestay was another good one with every member of the family keen to come and have a chat with us, although English was slightly limited. Water was the problem service here, we think the family were switching it off every so often to water the garden and forgetting to turn it back on. The garden was home to monkeys and an enormous monitor lizard.13In the afternoon we slathered on suncream and walked to Lion Rock, which was back through town and another couple of hundred metres out the other side. It is quite popular to rent bikes and cycle to the rock; the walk isn’t long but once you get in to the park you do have to trek a fair way around the outer moat to get to the ticket office, so bikes would cut down this time considerably. That being said, we didn’t see any bikes locked up anywhere so lord knows where you are actually supposed to leave them. 14The park is immaculately maintained, perhaps the cleanest place that we have been in Sri Lanka. For some reason, the ticket office for tourists is not in the empty cabin next to the ticket office for locals but hidden in the back of the museum, so you get a little bit more of a walk.

We made our way in to the gardens, skirting around the “guides” offering their services and handing our tickets to the man whose job it was to stick all of the ticket stubs on to a large wooden board in numerical order (why?!). Following the Lonely Planet’s advice, we made straight for the rock to get the climbing part out of the way however you cannot fail to notice the gardens with their excavated ruins as you walk through and the sprawling but meticulous ruins were awesome.15It really is a climb up Lion Rock, they aren’t messing around, but it is totally doable by anyone who is capable of climbing stairs. James had a couple of moments where the height got to him, particularly on a spiral staircase that takes you on a short detour up to the frescoes.16

At least we didn’t have to walk along this.

17You aren’t allowed to take pictures of the frescoes but they are really very beautiful, definitely take the detour. When you are up there, consider that these paintings are over 1600 years old and the colour is still so vivid. Also consider that the wall behind you didn’t exist thus turning painting in to an adventure sport. The chaps from the archaeological service looked fairly bored but livened up considerably when we asked questions, it would appear that most people just look and leave. Next up is the mirror wall, which is just a remarkable feat of engineering.18This is a wall built on the side of vertical rock 1600 years ago and there isn’t a crack in it. The graffiti is less impressive, simply because you cannot see the ancient graffiti under the moronic scrawls of “Dave was ‘ere” over the top of it. Another short climb takes you to the plateau at the bottom of the main staircase and the only remaining part of the Lion structure for which the rock is named, two enormous paws either side of the staircase.19Time to start climbing again and this time it’s up a fire-escape style set of stairs, which are another trial on the nerves. Do not think about how much weight they can bear as two steady streams of people in each direction stomp up and down, just look straight ahead and keep climbing, it’s worse on the way down.2021

The views from the top are glorious. Lonely Planet describes the ruins as “visually unimpressive”, we were inclined to disagree, we thought that they were amazing.

22232425The climb down is a bit hair raising but certainly quicker than the way up and we soon found ourselves back in the gardens. There are signs everywhere pointing to the foreigner or tourist car park and we thought it was bizarre that they were so desperate to direct foreigners to the car park until we realised that this particular route took you past every single hawker of every single bit of tat going. We veered off and wandered around the ruins which, in some sections, we had entirely to ourselves.2627It’s not always immediately clear where you are allowed to walk and not, the best advice we can give is to avoid walking along the tops of the walls. We ventured in to the museum but genuinely could not work out how to get inside as arrows pointed in all sorts of different directions, so we gave up and went in search of food which we found in a small café. Having made our purchases, we went outside intending to eat on the way back to the homestay. Unfortunately James, who wasn’t having much luck with animals that day, was bullied by a monkey which followed him and started growling at him and so his samosa was sacrificed to the very good cause of avoiding contracting rabies.28


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