By far, my favorite place to visit in Sri Lanka as a tourist was Dambulla. A lot of people come to this area for two reasons, the Dambulla Cave Temple and the ancient ruins of the rock fortress of Sigiriya. A lot of itineraries make this a pit stop, sometimes combining both things in one day. However, staying overnight in Dambulla was actually one of the most relaxing times we had on the trip, and this is why I would recommend it.
What to do in Dambulla
The Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla is known for the Dambulla Cave Temple, which we put on our itinerary mostly because of its importance, though pictures absolutely do not do it justice. It’s also more than just a temple, because you have to hike up and down to reach it. I suggest you do what we did, which is go up to Dambulla Cave Temple and come down via King’s Way to the Golden Temple, with the giant Buddha. The walk up starting at the cave temple is on stone steps with the view of the surrounding mountains getting better and better as you ascend.
One you get to the top, even before you enter the temple complex, you’ll want to spend some time just admiring the scenery below and watching the monkeys that are up there run around and play. Be careful with your belongings as these monkeys aren’t afraid to approach you and snatch things they think might be food.
The Dambulla Cave Temple itself is made up of several brightly painted halls that are built right into the cave. For maximum impact, I suggest you visit the first one which will be the one with a reclining Buddha. This will be packed, because it’s everyone’s first stop. After you’ve squeezed in and out, make your way to the end of the white outdoor hallway and check out all the smaller halls, working backwards until you get to the main temple hall, which is massive. The Dambulla Cave Temple is extraordinary in its detail and its usage of the natural rock formation.
The Golden Temple
When you finish there, you can continue down Kong’s Way instead of doubling back. The descending ramps are lined with pretty trees and golden lamps and it’s also full of monkeys, so it’s an entertaining walk all the way. The area between the two temples is one of the few places in all of Sri Lanka where we saw legitimate souvenirs being sold. They also sell food and drink, and a mango snack along your way really hits the spot.
The Golden Temple on the other side does leave a bit to be desired. It looks like a putt putt golf version of a temple. Around the grounds, you’ll see colorful fake rocks, trees and animals along with a whole row of monks walking toward the temple. Nonetheless there’s a giant Buddha statue which is pretty impressive. It’s been turned into a Buddhist museum.
The whole excursion including the two temples and the walk to each of them will take up to 2 hours, though you can take your time and just sit up there and enjoy the views for a while. I suggest doing this either the day you arrive in the evening or the day you leave in the morning.
The archeological site of Sigiriya is more than just the famed Lion Rock. It’s a whole complex of the former capital and fortress of Sigiriya. This is one of those places that deserves to be just as well-known as Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, and its far better maintained. Like everything in Sri Lanka, the site was covered with landscapers making sure it was clean and pretty.
When you buy your ticket, which is fairly expensive for Sri Lanka standards, you can get a map and guide yourself through different parts of the Sigiriya complex. Tour guides also make themselves available if you want to learn more in-depth information. As you make your way through gardens, ancient amphitheaters and rocky archways, you will end up at Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion Rock because of the two lion paws that flank the entrance to the highest part of the rock. This used to be King Kasyapa’s palace until his death, and then it was used as a Buddhist monastery.
The rock is massive and it’s a one-way route, so if it’s busy, this will take a while. But along the way, you’ll be treated to spectacular sweeping views around the rock. After all, you are climbing 600 feet in the air. There’s a small terrace where the lion paw entranceway is located which is also crawling with monkeys. These guys are extra feisty, and we saw them steal bananas, chips and bottles of water from tourists who let their guard down.
At the top of Lion Rock, which you can reach by sturdy metal steps that have been installed into the side of the rock, you’ll find the remains of what used to be the palace complex. It’s a very wide area, and you’ll likely spend quite a bit of time taking it all in. Unlike similar sites around the world, these areas were mostly empty, so it made for a really nice time and good pictures.
On your way down and out of Sigiriya, you’ll also encounter some souvenir stands where you can take home clothes, Sri Lankan masks and wood figurines, and all the standard bullshit like keychains.
Our hotel arranged for us to be taken there by a tuk tuk driver, who waited in the parking lot until we were finished so it was nice and convenient. He even took us into the city to have lunch afterwards.
This and the Dambulla temples can be interchangeable with regards to when you visit them. I wouldn’t want to cram both in one day, though you can. Whatever you don’t do the previous evening, you can do the next morning. One thing I will note is that the sun rises behind Sigiriya rock so in the morning, it looks a little hazy. If you go in the afternoon, it might be hotter but you’ll probably get better pictures of the rock itself.
Explore the countryside
We met an older couple at the hotel where we stayed that caught a sighting of a family of wild elephants around Sigiriya. They were on bikes just going around the area. So renting a bike can be another relaxing afternoon activity. We actually stayed two nights instead of one with the aim of visiting Minneriya National Park to do an elephant safari one of the days. We decided this kind of animal attraction wasn’t really for us, but the two days we spent there were still very enjoyable. Evidently elephant sightings in the wild are possible without visiting the park.
Relax at the hotel
Since the city of Dambulla really has nothing to do, this is a good place to splurge on a nice hotel with a pool so you can spend all your time unwinding after a long day of hiking around the area attractions. Bring a book or some other activity you enjoy and just take the time in Dambulla to have a breather from the hectic transportation to and from other cities.
Where to stay in Dambulla
The trick is to stay somewhere nice where you can spend a lot of time. Dambulla itself is made up of two or three intersecting streets and there’s nothing to do there. Sigiriya is a similar town with slightly nicer more Western-style restaurants, but ultimately still not a major city worth exploring. When you search for hotels, you’ll find that the two cities are basically interchangeable. They’re about 20-30 minutes away from each other by tuk tuk, and you’re going to be seeing the exact same sites regardless. In your spare time, your time will be best spent enjoying the amenities of your hotel.
We stayed at Hotel Freedom Village, a small family-owned resort with great dinner options and a refreshing pool, perfect for having a few beers in the afternoon. One of the most popular places to stay in the area is Hotel Sigiriya, which actually has a view of Sigiriya Lion Rock from the pool area. Another big resort there is Jetwing Lake. You’ll find Jetwing hotels located in different cities around the country. They also sponsor a lot of beautifying projects at the city’s main attractions so it’s not a bad place to support.
Most of the other places to stay are guest houses which are definitely cheaper but might not be as comfortable.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Dambulla guides on GPSmyCity here.