For the first time we had some proper flexibility to determine our schedule as the plan was to catch the bus down to Dambulla, a large town 30 minutes away, and then pick up a bus to Anuradhapura. Buses are frequent and all up the journey should only take about 2 hours.
With lots to see in Anuradhapura and still wanting to avoid travelling in the heat of the day where possible we chose to catch the 7:30am bus out of Sigiriya. The bus drives slowly through the village so people can flag it, which meant we only had to go just outside our guesthouse to get it. We had barely been sat on our rucksacks for 2 minutes when it arrived.
We got prime seats behind the bus driver when all the school kids got off a short way down the road. When we reached Dambulla he turned and asked where we were going, then kicked us off at the right stop and directed us to the stop across the road. Again we waited barely 2 minutes for the bus.
It was a sedate journey on a non-packed bus this time and as we’d got on the driver had signalled we could leave our rucksacks next to him, which was heaps easier. We seemed to go a cross-country route through small villages so it took a little longer than we expected but it was far more interesting than the highway.
Anuradhapura is a big town and at each stop the bus boy signalled to us to stay put as they were heading closer to the old part, which they rightly guessed we were going to.
When they finally kicked us off we met Sassi, a tuk tuk driver. He offered us a local price to the guesthouse we’d picked to head to and was a younger knowledgeable guy with good English and an easy going attitude. With the historic sites all spread out we needed a tuk tuk driver so decided to stick with him. But first to find somewhere to sleep, in contrast to everywhere else we’ve been the first place we tried was full. The second place had expensive rooms or really dirty cheap rooms so we passed on that, the third was full, the fourth we couldn’t find anyone around. Sassi offered to call his brother in law and see if he had any rooms at his guesthouse, he did so we headed there. A quiet place on the edge of a large park reached by dirt road we got a room on the first floor with fan (no AC) and shared bathroom for NZ$25. With temperatures forecast to hit 39C we were worried about the lack of AC but in the event we left the window open all night with the fan on and it turned out to be the best night’s sleep we’ve had. The shared bathroom was no problem it was next to our room and looked to be shared with 2 others on our floor but they turned out to be empty. We did see another tourist when we came in that evening but she was possibly the only other guest.
Sassi agreed to collect us for what would be a 4 hour tour of the sites at noon, an hour after we checked in. The entrance fee for some of the main sites is NZ$40 again. Sassi offered us an alternative, turns out the ticket is only needed for a few sites and where they are big stupas we’d be able to see them just not go up to them. He showed us the sites he could take us to and which he couldn’t, essentially the deal was we paid to use his local knowledge and save money on the entrance fee and he got to make money by charging us 1/3 of what we’d otherwise have to pay.
Most of the places on his tour were on our list and we’d only have to compromise on 1 or 2. We like an entrepreneur so went with it. He also took us to the train station to pre-buy our tickets to Colombo the next morning as he advised they can be busy so better we called by today.
He had a great sense of humour and our tour with him was awesome, he took us to some places we would never have gone and ones with few tourists too.
Anuradhapura became Sri Lanka’s first capital in 380 BC under King Pandukabhaya, and became an important Buddhist complex when Buddhism first reached Sri Lanka. Now a UNESCO world heritage site it contains over a wide area huge dagobas (stupas), temples, pools and numerous other archaeological wonders. In Sassi’s tour we also visited the Ancient Royal Gardens and a huge sitting Buddha at a modern temple. We had a packed 4 hours and at times it was pretty bloody hot, but we didn’t melt.
Sassi had mentioned Mihintale to us when we were first talking. 13km out of town its temple complex is associated with the very first introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Being on a hill it is a popular sunset stop. We were knackered but keen. Sassi said if we wanted to go we had time to fit a 30 minutes rest in first. We decided bugger it, we’re not coming back anytime soon and decided to do it.
You can drive half way up the hill and the temperature had gone down a bit so we really enjoyed wandering around the ruins part way up before taking the stone staircase to the top. Bigger than we were expecting, from a flat centre circle with a stupa a big seated Buddha with naughty monkeys was off to the left, a rock that most people seemed to climb for sunset was in front (it was heaving with people balanced on it) and a massive stupa sat atop the hill to our right. We climbed up to the Buddha first and then headed up to the stupa following 3 traditional Sri Lankan performers leading something sacred to the stupa in what was probably a daily ritual. It was a perfect sunset spot.
We enjoyed the ride back in the twilight again and had Sassi drop us at a local Sri Lankan restaurant, he picked one not too far from our guesthouse. The food was fantastic, and cheap. Having not had lunch we stuffed ourselves silly before finding a shop with chocolate for dessert and catching a tuk tuk back to our digs.
Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through