Exploring ancient cities

The key part of our Sri Lanka plan was to visit the ancient cities in the centre of the island.

Polonnaruwa was the capital in the 11-13 centuries. The ruins are now part of an archaeological park which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Our plan for the day was to see the park and then head out of town to Sigiriya. This meant another early start, both to fit everything in and to beat the forecast 36C heat.

A lot of people hire bicycles as the park is free from cars but it is only a few kilometres in length so we agreed on our guest house’s recommendation to be dropped by tuk-tuk at the far end and then we’d walk back through it.

We had breakfast at 7am and then headed out when the ticket office opened at 7:30.

It didn’t take us long to realise the advantage of being dropped at the far end was that other people hadn’t made it that far. For the first hour we had only a handful of staff, monkeys and stray dogs for company.

We started at Gal Vihara, an iconic collection of Buddhas carved into one slab of granite. The standing Buddha is 7m tall and has an unusual pose of the arms across the body, the meaning of which hasn’t been figured out. A 14m reclining Buddha lies beside. On the other side of the temple is a large seated Buddha. It was silent except for the brush strokes of the guy sweeping the sand and the banging of some young monkeys playing on its protective roof. It was so calm and peaceful.

As we wandered across country (ignoring the road), discovering ruins and spying stupas rising through the jungle, we realised a further benefit of seeing it by foot instead of bicycle was we weren’t tied to the bike and having to visit each site separately before returning to it and following the road. We felt like adventurers as we spotted Rankot Vihara dagoba (stupa) rising through the jungle – at 54m it is the fourth largest in Sri Lanka, and it shows the scale of the city that once stood – and the Lankatilaka temple, its carved 17m high walls hiding a huge standing headless Buddha. There was a slight breeze and the temperature was hot but a perfectly manageable 32C.

We found the tour buses, tourists on bicycles and sellers of elephant statues and pieces of carved stone at the centrepiece of the site called the Quadrangle. To be fair it was really quiet as far as important tourist sites go but in contrast to us it felt busy.

This part of the city is the most concentrated collection of ruins and many are in comparatively good condition. Having preferred the quiet of the earlier ruins we checked each one out but didn’t linger. We did take advantage of the cold drink sellers to take a quick respite. The Royal Palace Group was similarly ‘busy’ so we took the same approach, before finishing by heading out of the park to the Island Park Group of sites, where once again we found we had the place to ourselves.

It was late morning when we finished. We crossed the road and flagged a tuk-tuk to take us back to our digs to retrieve our bags. After a quick break the owner of our guesthouse took us by tuk-tuk to the bus station. With no direct buses our plan was to be dropped an hour down the road at the junction to Sigiriya and get a tuk-tuk the last 17km.

A bus getting ready to go departed within minutes of us getting on. The ‘bus boy’ (that’s what we call the driver’s assistant who takes payment and loads people and luggage, in this case it was a relatively old man so we use the term broadly) had nodded that he wanted us – with our rucksacks – at the back of the bus. We had prime seats near the door, Emma just opposite it and Marie in the middle of the back seat.

It was hot but there was a good airflow with the open doors and windows so we didn’t feel like we were imminently going to fry. Despite the music and the chaos both on the inside of the bus and the constant horn blowing and weaving of vehicles outside, it made us both sleepy. Because of where she was sat Marie was doing a nodding dog, she was holding her rucksack upright with her hand firmly through the loop and every time she nodded too far she woke up as her rucksack leaned forward. Until she must have fallen asleep properly and her hand let go of the loop. Both her and the man stood in the doorway got a quite a fright as it fell over. It was good timing though as literally 2 minutes later our bus boy was signalling this was our stop. We peeled off the bus suddenly fully awake.

The junction was quiet, even the main road we’d come down wasn’t that busy. It felt a little like the middle of nowhere. There was a hotel with large outdoor restaurant that was basically dead and a small shop/water seller on the other decked in signs offering a Jeep safari. We crossed the road, heading for shade in front of the hotel when one of the staff obviously drumming up some business scooped us up telling us she could help to sort out at tuk tuk. Sri Lankans had been pretty good at genuinely sorting us out so we went with it and decided to grab a cold drink while something happened. After a while we were approached by a guy who works there offering to take us by car for 2000 rupees (NZ$20) we’d been told to expect to pay around 1000 for a tuk tuk (which are cheaper anyway) after some discussion we couldn’t budge him in the price as he’d have to go there and back, so we paid for our drinks and headed out to the empty road, determined to attempt to flag anything going by. We’d pay a fair tourist price but we’re not into being ripped off, we’ve all earned our $.

We came up with a new plan and Marie was left at the side of the road with the rucksacks to flag anything that might go by and Emma crossed the road to speak to the woman at the shop. We figured Sri Lanka is a small country, and everyone always knows someone.

Sure enough a phone call and 3 minutes later we were on a tuk tuk. Ok we agreed to pay 1200 rupees but she’d started out asking 2500, and she told us no tip was necessary for our price.

The guesthouse we’d picked to head to had room for us. They know the people we stayed with in Polonnaruwa and were in the guidebook sounding ok. We didn’t waste time scoping around, it was our cheapest room yet (NZ$25 for ensuite, elsewhere we’d paid NZ$35) we had the choice of paying an extra NZ$10 for aircon but our room had 2 fans and it was a cooler 29C forecast to go down to 26C so we figured we wouldn’t need it and saved our $10.

The photo below doesn’t do it justice, it has to be up there with the weirdest room we’ve ever had. We had a lemon tree, some other big plant in a pot, cuddly toys decorating the room like a cat which was placed on a pouff and some birds. The bathroom was a good size but had some kind of complicated plumbing system going on, Emma was stoked to get hot water out the shower but had to catch it in a handily placed bucket and mix it with cold, Marie managed to suss getting the right temperature but Emma had warned her not to hold onto the tap too long as it felt like there was some electric current flowing through it. We were also warned to shut the windows when we went out because the monkeys can come in and wreck everything. It definitely had character.

We cooled off for a bit and then debated what our plan was. Sigiriya is the famous rock that has the ruins on the top, but like all the key tourist sights here it comes with a hefty entrance fee of around NZ$40 each. Just 1km from it is Pidurangula rock. This offers a view of Sigiriya as well as the surrounding area, its temples are older than Sigiriya and it is much quieter and much less formed with the path at the end involving rock climbing. Its entry fee is NZ$5. We decided that 32C was too hot to attempt sheer climbs up both in a single afternoon and reviews online over which is best are split down the middle. Since seeing a photo from Pidurangula looking across to Sigiriya we’d wanted to climb Pidurangula, it sounded more our kind of place anyway so eventually we settled on doing that.

A tuk tuk had deposited us at the temple at the bottom of Pidurangula within 5 minutes of us leaving our guesthouse.

The walk up was hot and sweaty but much shorter than we expected. The rock climbing at the end was difficult but after only 25 minutes we climbed the last boulder and out in front of us was a perfect view of Sigiriya. There was maybe a dozen of us up there. We all hung out together and soaked in the view until someone realised we could climb up behind to the large expanse of the rock’s top. Perfect 360 degree views.

The climb down was equally tough and our knees were feeling it as we got to the bottom.

The village basically seems to service tourists so for the first time we had a choice of restaurants. In need of rehydration and a sit down we picked one and sat out on the upstairs terrace watching the world go by.

For dinner we chose somewhere else that had tables and chairs set out in the open air. Early, because we’d had no lunch, we had the pick of places so opted for one next to a river where a mahout was bathing an elephant. The food didn’t blow us away but we got chatting to 2 old Australian guys who were real characters (we’d spotted them earlier in the day on scooters, we knew it was them as they had t-shirts on that said “travel before dementia” and in their group of friends had done some amazing trips. We could have happily chatted all night.

We survived the night without electrocuting ourselves and with only fans. After making the mistake of not sleeping under the mozzie net the previous night and being bothered by one that had a good feast at 4am we were straight under it this time.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through


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