Temple Hopping Sri Lanka: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura

The last few days have been kind of a whirlwind tour of the “cultural triangle” in Sri Lanka. At this point, having seen many of the highlights of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, we are both officially “templed out.”

We started out two days ago with a day trip from Kandy to see Sigiriya rock fortress and the Dambulla cave temple. Sigiriya is about 3 hours north of Kandy, and we got there before 10 am to try and avoid the really punishing heat of the early afternoon. Sigiriya involves about an hour hike up a decent sized little mountain. The story of the place is that a prince murdered his father and took over this mountain castle. You can imagine how insane the place must have been in its prime, with a giant swimming pool and sprawling palace buildings with views in all directions. Well, the son that took over the place apparently wasn’t very smart…. His brother was none too pleased with him killing their father and when he brought an army to fight his brother, instead of defending the mountain fortress, he went down to the valley to fight his brother and was killed. I could see how people fought over the place. As long as you had somebody bringing food and supplies up to you at the top, it would be a pretty relaxing retreat. The highlight of Sigiriya is probably the cave paintings on the way up, although the views were pretty amazing as well.

Dambulla caves was our next stop… another hike up a mountain, this time for some caves that had tons of Buddha statues and reliefs. The place was worth the stop, but was definitely not as impressive as Sigiriya in terms of sightseeing.

We’ve been eating plenty of Sri Lankan food, meal after meal (not that we have much choice). When we have an opportunity to grab something a little different, we’ve taken it. So, after Dambulla, we had our driver stop at a KFC that we saw signs for. The signs started directing you to it several kilometers ahead of time. To be clear, Sri Lanka is not a place where western fast food chains have settled in. We haven’t seen a McDonalds or Subway anywhere, or really any chains except a Pizza Hut, and now, a KFC. The KFC was clearly a fine dining establishment. It’s still fast food. However, with a meal costing what you’d expect fast food to cost in the west, which in Sri Lanka is equivalent to 3-4 days salary for many, eating at a KFC might be a bit of a status symbol. When we came in, the cashiers perked up and they had this attitude like “It’s GO time! This is what we’ve trained for!” We got a box of spicy fried chicken and a chicken biryani with a side of onion sambol (like a Sri Lankan salsa, for the biryani). We got a meal for the driver as well, and the cashier made a big show of throwing a pack of French fries in the trash in front of us and yelling out “fresh fries, double up,” or something like that. I’ve never gotten fast food service like that in the U.S. They even wrapped up your drinks all fancy so you can carry them. (Drink: “Virgin mojito” which is Sprite with mint and lime, freaking delicious!)

After checking out the next morning in Kandy, we stopped by Polonnaruwa on our way up to Anuradhapura. These two cities, along with Kandy, make up the main points on the “cultural triangle” in Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura is the oldest city in Sri Lanka, with ruins dating back to the 4th century B.C., and Polonnaruwa is a bit more recent, with many of the ruins around the 12th century A.D. Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital until the 11th century, when it was overrun by invading southern Indians. At that point, the capital shifted southeast to Polonnaruwa. Starting in Polonnaruwa yesterday, we visited much more recent ruins. These ruins were pretty sprawling, and were unfortunately very picked over compared to other places like Cambodia. Most of the Buddha statues had heads and arms removed, and many of the reliefs had faces chiseled off. It’s a real tragedy when you look at these places as the cultural heritage of an entire country. Visiting all of the ruins in Polonnaruwa took maybe 4-6 hours yesterday and it was well worth the stop.

We stayed over in Anuradhapura at a small family-owned guesthouse called Villu Villa. This one was as advertised, and very nice. A family built a large house on their property that they basically run like a full service hotel. A/C, nice Internet, good meals, a private comfortable room, a reasonably priced tuktuk driver, and we’re good to go. And this place costs about the same as the mosquito den in Kandy that we made a prison break from!

Stupa #2/97
Stupa #2/97 (we are the tiny dots on the bottom)

So, today we toured the much older ruins in Anuradhapura. This tour included many, what seemed like too many, stops to see gigantic Buddhist stupas (those huge bell-shaped structures). What’s in there? Who the heck knows. Everything. Nothing. A tooth fragment. I guess you can sit outside chanting and meditating upon such things. For us though, after seeing what seemed like a dozen, we cried uncle and called it a day. Just to be clear though, they were pretty awesome stupas, and I’d recommend the place to anyone.

Now, tonight we’re gonna settle down to a home cooked meal of curry and rice and tomorrow we’re back on a train to Colombo. We managed to get 2nd class tickets for the 5 hour train ride, so it should be reasonably comfortable. After that it’s only one more night in Sri Lanka, so our time here is coming to a close. It’s been a very fun and interesting time. The movement from one region to another has really presented some remarkable contrasts in scenery. The capital Colombo is a bustling city with stark gaps in income and quality of life, spanning from luxury glass and steel high rise condominiums to small wood and scrap shacks without electricity or running water. The highlands of Nanu Oya and Nuwara Eliya presented vast expanses of lush green tea plantations, waterfalls, erosion in the moutainsides exposing cracks of the ubiquitous Sri Lankan red clay soil. Kandy is a busy and largely impoverished city, flanked by numerous historic sites, in a jungle climate famous for growing spices. Moving north to Anuradhapura, it has been much more rural, with flat rice fields, and a population that (by appearances) seems to lean more Hindu than Buddhist (or Muslim, as in parts of Kandy). Even though these places are within hours driving distances of each other, they almost feel like they could be different countries. However, there have been a couple things we’ve taken notice of that have been consistent no matter where we’ve been in Sri Lanka, one of them cute, and one of them just a little creepy.

The Dogs.

Sri Lanka wild dogs
Sri Lanka wild dogs

Ok, so, there are a lot of dogs in Sri Lanka. They are everywhere. Packs of them. They were rustling in the tea bushes in the Sri Lankan highlands. They’ve been trotting along the roadside on every drive we’ve taken here. Heck, they sleep on the roads. There were dogs barking at the monkeys on top of Sigiriya rock, and I have no idea how they got up there. Seriously, they have a lot of wild dogs. Our driver mentioned that it is against the law to euthanize them, and people (in general) do seem to take care to avoid harming them. What we found remarkable was the good condition of many of the dogs. I mean, these are wild dogs, they’re not family pets, so I wouldn’t expect fat dogs with shiny coats. Compared to some other places we’ve been where you frequently see emaciated, dead and dying dogs (I’m looking at you, Puerto Rico!!!), the Sri Lankan dogs are in pretty good shape. Another thing we found remarkable, and probably the main thing we kept commenting on, was how they all look exactly the same. The overwhelming majority of them are brown, and we decided that since there didn’t appear to be any breed variation of Sri Lankan dogs, they can only be distinguished by shades of brown. So, in usage, one might comment on the shiny coat of that “brown dog #12” or how clean that (lighter shade) “brown dog #8” looked. What struck me in their homogeneity is that we might be looking at dogs that look just exactly like the dogs looked here thousands of years ago.

Brown Dog #11
Brown Dog #11
Brown Dog #16
Brown Dog #16
Brown Dog #8 pup
Brown Dog #8 pup


Lando Calrissian’s cheerful little brother

“Who is that guy with the mustache on all the billboards?”

“He’s the president.”

Presidential banner greets you entering small town
Presidential banner greets you entering small town
Long lost brother?
Long lost brother?

Discussions about this guy mentioned that he’s been president for ten years, which was the prior term limit. He went ahead and changed that law to allow the Sri Lankan people to benefit from his leadership and benevolence a little longer. Casual conversation has referred to him as “Hitler,” but then again Americans are pretty fond of calling every president they don’t like Hitler, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt. The billboards at every corner though, with the same smiling face, as though he has a hand in every bit of progress in every community…. It reminds me just a little of North Korea. Considering that Sri Lanka just emerged from a civil war though, and that we’re currently in a town that was unreachable by train just a few years ago… maybe we’ll stick to just asking questions about the history of a couple thousand years ago rather than asking about the shops selling camo fatigues and paramilitary stuff and Che Guevara iconography finding it’s way onto vehicles and buildings much more commonly up here. If you can’t avoid religion and politics altogether, you can at least make an effort to dance around it delicately.

Taking care of the people
President Lando gets things done
Everybody loves him
He takes care of everyone

I’ll try to toss another Sri Lanka post up before we fly out to the Maldives. Thanks for all the feedback from everyone!

7 thoughts on “Temple Hopping Sri Lanka: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura”

  1. Are you still using the same trusty foldable tripod?

    Can’t wait for the ‘Gregcation” part of the trip! 🙂

    1. Greg, we are totally still using that Tamrac Zipshot. Along with MEI bags and Ex Officio clothing, we should totally be sponsors! 🙂
      Really though, we were just talking about how that thing has been around the world a few times, up and down so many mountains, in the snow, in the desert… really everywhere and it’s still kicking. It’s funny when you think about it, the other tripods that came off the factory line that day, what kind of life have they lived? If ours could talk, it’d be talking smack to the other tripods that spent the last few years getting deployed at kids birthday parties and family get togethers.

  2. Today is MLK holiday in the America of the North and I took the day off to be with the kids….. But I don’t know where the kids are….. So I am still in my pa-Jammies. So glad to see a post from u kids…. Was afraid that you had been thrown down some temple stairs, detained at the KFC or mauled by a pack of wild dogs!!!
    The wild dogs do look very healthy (thank you Baby Jesus) and I was wondering if that was you in the photo as they gathered ’round. Do people feed them right there on the street…. Is there a government worker that tends to them in general …. Did you pet them or keep your distance? My husband refuses to return to Puerto Rico b/c of the stray animals that we saw on a trip two years ago….. But that’s a whole other story.
    I loved the pics from Dambulla caves…. I do not feel “templed-out” since you do such amazing work with the stories and pictures but I sure am glad that it is not me climbing those mountains in the jungle heat…. I would have lasted about 9 minutes (no shit). I am eager for you to get to the Muldives….. It is the part of the trip that I have been waiting for!!
    I am going to assume that you two Trekkers have your sunscreen packed?? Have fun…. More pictures…. More pictures!!!

    1. Julie, as far as I know it’s just locals putting out scraps for the dogs. That’s what a driver told us, that people like them hanging around as “guard dogs.” I don’t think they’d make very good guard dogs though, they had an overall friendly or indifferent attitude towards people. It’s remarkable that so many seem to be eating ok here when even people often look a bit malnourished at times.

  3. Glad you guys are having fun and that president does look awkwardly similar…… And the dogs really do look all the same not like the ones here. I’m glad you guys are having fun and keep eating Sri Lankan good because you probably can’t get it here 🙂

    1. Tao, don’t worry, I’m sure Marthita will probably be trying to make egg hoppers and onion sambol for everyone after we get back 😉

  4. Oh no another mexico with packs of dogs. Sri lanka dogs, india cows omg too many wild animals in that part of the world. Nice pictures of the temples. Get recipes of the food. When you comeback i want to cook and try some of that food.

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