Day 2: From Negombo to Anuradhapura
We reached the ancient holy city of Anuradhapura after a 3-hour drive from Negombo. We stopped for tender coconuts; they reminded us of Dr. Who’s Tardis – small on the outside, but gallons of water inside.
We checked into The Heritage – an aesthetically designed hotel. The air-conditioned triple room was also pleasing to the eye and had all basic amenities including a mini bar, clean toilet with running hot and cold water. After a shower, we left to explore Anuradhapura.
The main attraction in the city are the 4 dagobas (brick stupas). The stupas are towering structures and are visible to the naked eye even from a distance of 3 to 4 km. The fact that this is a protected area where there are building restrictions also helps. We visited 4 stupas viz., Mirisawetiya, Abayagiri, Jetavanaramaya, and Ruwanwelisaya in that order . Foreign visitors have to pay USD 25 per person (USD 12.5 for children aged 6 to 12) to visit the Abhayagiri Monastery and other sites within it including the Ratnaprasada , elephant pond, moon stone, and the twin ponds. Note: If you are a SAARC passport holder, the entry fee per person is USD 12.5. You will not find any board mentioning this fact. Before, you pay at the ticket counter, show your passport and save 50% on the tickets. You could pay for the entrance tickets either in USD or in LKR – but only in cash. They do not accept cards.
The Samadhi statue of Buddha at the Abhayagiri monastery shows 3 different expressions when looked from 3 sides. A smiling face when at looked from the right, a sad face when looked at from the left and a neutral one when looked at from the front. The carvings on the guard stones on the inner stone stand testimony to art and architecture of that era.
We then visited the sacred Jaya Maha Bodhi. It is believed to be planted in 3rd century BC. According to legend, it was brought to Sri Lanka by princess Sangamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka of India. It was planted by the king Devanampiya Tissa. Prayers are offered even today at both the Jaya Maha Bodhi and Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba.
It took us over 4 hours to visit all these places on a hot sultry April afternoon and we were dog tired by the end of it all. We were thrilled when there was a downpour as we drove down from Ruwanwelisaya back to the hotel. Settled for the buffet dinner at the hotel. The hotel offered a decent spread and most of the items on the menu tasted good.
Day 3: From Anuradhapura to Sigiriya
Woke up next morning and had breakfast at the hotel, checked out of the hotel and started the day visiting Isurumuniya at Anuradhapura. Foreign tourists are charged an entry free of LKR 200 per person. One fact that stood out like a sore thumb in most places of importance that we visited Sri Lanka is the amount you spend on entry tickets.
Isurumuniya houses a museum. Noteworthy at Isurumuniya is the stone carving of a couple that was supposedly found in the royal pleasure garden. The vihara is built on a rock and at its entrance is a large pond. Above the pond is the carving of bathing elephants. Of interest to the kids was a niche in the rockface where you flip coins to fulfill your wishes. We had a nice time trying to land coins. Only Roshan managed to land his coins every single time. The stupa and Buddha image are of recent origin. It will take you about 15 to 20 minutes to visit the place and proceed further. Very skippable.
After a short hour and a half drive we reached Habarana and proceeded further to the famous Sigiriya fort. The fort is dominated by a massive rock column that is about 650 ft high and was built by King Kasyapa as his new capital. Entrance tickets for foreign nationals is USD 30. Again you could avail a 50% discount if you hold a SAARC nation passport. You have to produce your original passport and can pay for it either in USD or in LKR. They do not accept cards and you have pay only in cash. However, ATMs are available in the complex from which you can withdraw LKR, should you run short of cash. The fort is UNESCO world heritage site.
Despite the steep ticket price, it definitely is a place worth visiting for
- The frescoes located above the mirrored walls. You will not be allowed to take photos of the frescoes. These are paintings made using natural colors and believed to be over 1600 years old. Many caves en route the mirror wall also seem to have had frescoes, but these are hidden by a coat of plaster. It is believed that Buddhist monks who occupied the caves at a later date covered the frescoes in the caves as all of the frescoes depicted semi-clad women.
- The remains of the lion gate. What remains today is only the paws of the lion at the entrance which is mid way to the plateau at the top where the royal palace was located. The lion must have been magnificent. Apparently, one could climb into the open mouth of the lion and climb through a secret passage and come out of the top of its head.
- The view from the remains of the palace at the plateau is spectacular. We skipped climbing above the lion’s paw as it was too hot and we were very tired. Our 11-year-old son was the only one of us who climbed to the top.
Only tourist guides authorized by Sigirya establishment are allowed in the fort premises. Our tour operator has a tie-up with a few tourist guides and we were accompanied by a guide who helped us navigate the place. You will need between an hour and a half to two to complete the visit. If you travel during summer months, plan an early morning climb as it gets too hot later on. Carry plenty of water.
We had lunch on the way at a roadside hotel at Habarana and headed to our hotel – Kasapa Lions Rock. One of the best places we have stayed in SL. We had a triple bedroom cottage. A couple of things stood out in the resort – Firstly, there were two swimming pools where the water temperature was always just right irrespective of when you visited the pool. We spent a good 3 hours in the pool over 3 visits during the two days we stayed there. Secondly, the bathroom was a large, well-appointed one with a bathtub and a rain shower. Food at the restaurant was decent. But service was poor. We would like to give the benefit of doubt as the place was quite crowded owing to the Buddhist festival, Vesak (Buddha Purnima).
Day 4: Jeep safari to Kaudulla National Park, Habarana
Had leisurely buffet breakfast at the hotel. Decent spread. We wanted to relax after two hectic days of travel and sightseeing. We asked Roshan what should not be missed at Sigirya / Habarana and he highly recommended the jeep safari to Kaudulla National Park. We decided to spend the first half at the hotel swimming pool.
Left the hotel just past noon and had lunch at a restaurant at Habarana. While we were at lunch, Roshan had gone to make arrangements with one of the local jeep safari operators. The list price quoted by the operator was USD 50 per person above age of 12. Roshan did a bit of bargaining and brought it to USD 130. One interesting thing about the entire trip is that without exception all places of tourist attraction that we visited (except supermarkets and restaurants) we were given the option to pay either in USD or LKR or a combination. For the jeep safari, we paid USD 120 and the equivalent of USD 10 in LKR. We got a Mahindra Bolero to ourselves. The price includes tickets that have to bought to enter the national park. The guy who manages the operation informed that the trip would last 3 to 4 hours and we could see about 200 elephants.
I think we had an aspiring rally driver driving our jeep. It was a 15 km drive from Habarana town to Kaudulla National Park. We reached the gate at a quarter past two. There were at least another 50 jeeps waiting to complete the entry formalities. It took about 15 minutes for our driver to get the go ahead to enter the park. Once in, we were in true jungle territory. Dirt tracks took the place of paved roads. We drove for about 15 minutes with a stream flowing to our left and thick trees lining our right. We caught sight of monkeys and langurs on the way. True city-slickers that we are, we grew quite bored at the end of the 10th minute and were wondering whether the park had any elephants at all.
In a few minutes, we entered a clearing and sighted a large water body and caught sight of the first elephant – a magnificent male tusker. A few hundred metres drive to the water body, we spotted 3 to 4 herds of elephants each with 30 to 50 elephants of all ages and size. The elephants in this park should be so used to seeing humans in jeeps every day that they indulged us all by allowing us to get to about 5 m distance from them. This is the closest we have ever seen elephants in the wild.
As if seeing so many elephants that close was not entertainment enough, we were treated to a family drama. Watch the video to catch a baby elephant throw a tantrum.
The guy who sold us the tour was definitely not exaggerating when he said we will spot 200 elephants. We were overwhelmed seeing so many of them. We spent close to an hour in all. It was also heartening to see that all visitors – about 50 jeeps carrying around 200 people were silent all through – no one made any noise, no one tried to get out of the jeep, none of the drivers honked, no one threw bottles or tried to feed the elephants. A welcome change from the bad experiences we have had in safaris in India.
When we have had more than our fair share of watching elephants in the wild, we drove back. Stopped at a clearing to step into the water body, spotted storks, herons, pelicans, mighty eagles and peacocks on the way back. For the most part there was hardly any track. There were times the jeep was negotiating a 50-degree climb up from a ditch and at others we were in 3-feet of water! These are a different breed of off-roaders. I fell in love with Mahindra Bolero 4WD. We returned to the hotel, had dinner and spent the evening discussing our jeep safari experience, which turned out to be the high point in the whole trip.
If there is one thing that you should not miss during your Sigiriya visit, it is the jeep safari.
Day 5: Part 1: Dambulla Caves & Matale Muthumariamman Temple
After buffet breakfast at the hotel, we left for Dambulla Caves en route Kandy. We reached Dambulla after a 45-minute drive. Foreign tourists that we were, we paid an entry free of LKR 1500 per head. A 15-minute, 500 ft climb on stairs took us to the Dambulla Caves – that date to 3rd and 2nd century BC. At the entry to the complex, you will see shrines of Indian Gods Vishnu and Ganesha. To date, prayers are offered at these shrines. The 5 caves located in the complex house 153 Buddha statues. The sheer number of Buddha statues of different size and in various poses in these caves is awe inspiring. The murals on the walls and the ceiling were intricate and surprisingly well preserved. We spent a good three quarters of an hour at Dambulla. A must see Buddhist place if traveling to this part of Sri Lanka.
After a brief stopover for coconuts (yet again) on the way, we reached Sri Muthumariamman Temple at Matale after a 75-minute drive. We reached the temple at a quarter to one. As the shrine closes at noon, we spent 15 minutes seeing the temple from the outside. The key attraction is the main tower (Raja Gopuram). The temple was originally built in 1874 and was subsequently renovated after it was severely damaged during the civil war in the 1980s. Roshan informed us that it the highest Indian temple anywhere in Sri Lanka.
After another hour of driving, we reached the outskirts of Kandy. Roshan suggested that we have lunch at a road-side eatery on the highway. After lunch, we headed into Kandy. Details of the last leg of our trip that includes Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Colombo and the return journey are featured in the next post.