To the north of the hill country in Sri Lanka, lies most of the historical and cultural sites.
Dambulla is host to 2 of the more prominent and culturally significant sites. The Dambulla Cave Temple (aka Golden Temple) and Sigiriya (aka Lion’s Rock) are both declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites and easily accessible from Dambulla. Additionally, within touching distance from Sigiriya is the lesser known and often overlooked alternative Pidurangala. It is also one of the best places to view sunrise or sunset overlooking the majestic Sigiriya.
Dambulla is a good place to explore all 3 sites within a day or two as they are all very close to each other.
Getting to Dambulla
There are no trains to Dambulla despite Sri Lanka’s extensive train network.
We made our way to Dambulla from Adam’s Peak, which meant that we had to take a grant total of 4 buses for that day! First, it was 2 buses to Hatton, before another bus to Kandy and one more from Kandy to Dambulla.
It made more sense to take a bus from Hatton to Kandy because the trains were only on a selected timings during that day. The trains and buses take around the same time, but the trains are usually slightly more scenic.
The Bus from Hatton – Kandy : 107 LKR per person.
Getting to Dambulla From Kandy by Bus
Dambulla just around 72Km north of Kandy. There are no trains in Dambulla, so the best bet is the bus.
There is the normal public bus, or the express airconditioned bus. The express air-conditioned bus is simply a mini-van. Buses from Kandy are all located at the interestingly-named-but-with-no-relevance “Goods Shed Bus Stand”. It is located just beside the Kandy Central Train station.
Kandy bus station is one big hot mess. There are massive queues of buses turning in and out. It took us awhile to get used to it.
We decided to hunt for the express bus with air-con. After asking around, we found out that it was the bus 43 stand, just outside the shops. We hopped in and waited for them to fill out.
From what I’ve read, buses to Dambulla mostly depart every half an hour. The journey time was around 90 mins to 2 hours.
The seats in the mini-bus were cramped especially with our backpacks and the prices were much higher than a normal bus, but it was worth it to pay for some air conditioning once in awhile.
The express bus cost 365 LKR (~2.3 USD) per person.
When I first read about Dambulla, I imagined it to be a small city, somewhat smaller than Kandy but bigger than Ella.
I was surprised as I looked at my phone GPS and noticed we were at Dambulla already. There was nothing to indicate it, except we were on the road through Dambulla. It was like one of those transit towns which you pass by on buses. A single straight main road passes through the city and that was it. We walked along the side of the road while huge lorries and buses honked past us.
I thought, “That was it? This is Dambulla?”
As you venture off the main road into the side streets where the accommodations were, there were many empty guesthouses too.
We walked around and explored various guesthouses before deciding to stay at Lak View Family Resort after tough negotiations. Actually, the real reason was because we were tired of walking around and it was already sunset.
You can check their place and pictures out on booking.com or google maps. Just to note, they have different tiers of accommodation, some with aircon and what not. They had a huge room with full height windows. It was spacious and cooling as compared to the other rooms. We managed to bargain down to 3,000 LKR (around 20 USD) per night. I could see that the owner was using all the various facilities and utilities to charge higher, for example air-con, or fan, or bigger room etc. Be careful when you book online because you might think you are getting a big room but you might be directed to the budget rooms. The owner has a set of budget accommodation on the same land but termed differently, it is called Sunflower Inn.
There was really nothing else to do in Dambulla at night, not even much places outside or around the area for dinner so we ended up going back for dinner. Well we did get some egg hoppers by the road side. It was time to take a long rest and have no alarm the next day because we haven’t had proper rest for a few days.
During the day, we visited the Dambulla Cave temple as well as a pasar malam/ day market just outside. The best part was the corn! We love fresh steamed corn. They even use organic “chopsticks” to hold the corn up and to stir the pot of steaming corn!
There was also a famous lunch place called Benthota Bake House.
It was a comfortable local haunt near the bus station which served pretty awesome and decent priced food. The place was big, with huge hanging fans to chase away the stifling heat and really clean. Moreover, they were quite tourist friendly as they had an English menu and are used to serving tourists even though most of the people who visited there were still locals. The food portions were massive too as in accordance in Sri Lankan standards.
They had a wide array of buns available and I saw many locals eating ordering a plate of buns. I was shocked when I first ordered it because I simply wanted an assorted range of bun to try and I assumed they would give me 1 each, but they gave me 3 per type! Wow would I be able to finish it?
I found out that I only needed to eat what I like within this “smorgasbord” of buns,and I will be charged accordingly. This is a similar concept to Nasi Padang in Indonesia I guess! Luckily for me, but not so lucky when I think about how many hands the bread has passed through.
Dambulla Cave Temple/Golden Temple
Dambulla Cave temple, or commonly referred to as the Golden Cave Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, declared in 1991. It is famous for being the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Cave Temple lies within a rock which towers 160m over the surrounding area and above the Golden Temple. The golden temple is a very visible attraction from the main road. I initially thought the golden temple was the same as the cave temple, but they are 2 different attractions but in the same area.
I saw a documentary on the Dambulla Cave Temple on my flight there via Sri Lanka airline and it looked amazing how civilizations in the past could create such a wonder. You can read up more on the UNESCO website or here which detail the specifics in each cave.
There are 2 ticket offices, one for tourists/foreigners and one for locals. From the Dambulla Golden Temple, we had to resist the temptation to walk directly up even though it seemed the most obvious. We were guided to another entrance. Luckily we bought our tickets at the correct entrance first before making our way up the stairs, if not we would have made a wasted journey.
The cost of the entrance was 1,500 LKR (~10 USD) per person.
We ascended the steps slowly, still aching from all the hikes we did in Adam’s Peak and Ella. It was a nice calm walk up the steps as the forest leaves sheltered us from the morning sun.
We soon reached the entrance. Appropriate clothing was required but not strictly enforced but one thing for sure is the need to leave our shoes outside! There was a place for us to store our shoes for 25 LKR. I could have chosen to place my faith in humanity and leave it outside with the mess of stray shoes strewn around on the ground and save the money. Unfortunately, the cynical and safe me decided to pay the 25 LKR. So much for trusting people as a traveler.
Most of the attractions are within the 5 caves, which contain the significant statues and paintings related to Buddha, or other gods. After showing our ticket, we entered the courtyard where I simply marvelled the amazing combination of man and nature. How do these caves come about within the rock? How does someone carve a temple within a rock?
The 2 main caves were larger, where there was time to marvel at the intricacies of the paintings and the sheer thought and effort put into it. However, the rest of the caves are small and claustrophobic with people trying to snap a picture of the lying Buddha statues.
The whole area isn’t very huge and can easily be seen in less than an hour. I sort of wished I had a guide, but as the caves were small, we could hear the other guides talking. Also, a guidebook and the ability to read online was good enough. There was an instance in the morning where all the caves were closed for the private ceremony or prayers. Everyone was chased out for around half an hour and had to wait. I think this happens around 10am so do take note!
We spent less than half a day in Dambulla cave temple just taking our time admiring the area. There were lots of monkeys jumping around and monkey mums cradling their kids.
If one has some time and money, I would highly recommend it as there is so much history and culture within the caves.
Sigiriya + Pidurangala
Sigiriya is referred by locals as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, or known to the rest as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is an ancient palace and fortress complex which has significant archaeological importance and attracts thousands of tourists every year. It is probably one of the most, if not the most visited tourist destination of Sri Lanka, comparable to Adam’s Peak. Boosting one of the most amazing rock outcropping, it is a sight to behold from far. The entrance is a hefty 30 USD/4200 LKR however, making it one of the most expensive attractions in Sri Lanka.
We slept in the morning and only came out of our comfortable rooms closer to noon. Tthe local buses were always our first option to Sigiriya but they only run in the early mornings. Therefore, we were forced to take a tuk-tuk from Dambulla to Sigiriya/Pidurangala, which cost 1,000 LKR for a half hour ride.
We had initially negotiated for cheaper (800 LKR) but got “scammed” into paying more for Pidurangala. I did not have the exact amount so I fell for the “Don’t have change” tactic as well as the ” I brought you to Pidurangala too” tactic. As it was already 3pm by the time we reached Sigiriya, we did not know if Pidurangala was open if we went Sigiriya first. We decided to check out Pidurangala first.
As can be seen from the picture, the whole complex encompassed a huge area. There were water points, rest benches, restaurants, souvenirs shops etc. The Tuk Tuk weaved through people along the sand road and dropped us off at Pidurangala.
Pidurangala is most known as the cheaper place to go to. The cost of entrance is just a measly 500 LKR (3+ USD) compared to the 30 USD of Sigiriya, just 10%. It also takes just 20 minutes to walk up for a view, as compared to the 2hour for Sigiriya. Pidurangala is not known so much for its temple as people go to Pidurangala just for its viewpoint at the top which overlooks Sigiriya.
The trail started with some easy steps through the forest. We met a few other Singaporeans and tourists making their way both up and down. The funny thing was how they were giving me encouragement and telling me that we would be huffing and puffing when we reached the top but it would all be worth it. I almost rolled my eyes at their exaggeration of this trek because this was just a simple 20 minute climb. Guess I was a travelling snob.
After around 10 minutes of steps, we started curing along the side of the hill.
We reached a clearing where we crossed a flat section of rocks. The sleeping Buddha lies there and it is a good place to rest. From here, it was another 10 minutes to the top. The path is clearly demarcated by the big red arrows on the ground.
Soon, we encountered a small section of rocks. This was the start of the infamous 5 minutes portion of Pidurangala which people always overhype. It is a section which requires a slight amount of bravado and guts as it involves climbing with your hands. It started with squeezing through some rocks and walking on some rocks.
There was a steep section which really required you to use your hands. The following pictures showed the way going down, but you can imagine going up.
It was a slight thrill to ascend but honestly, it was nothing compared to Pico De Loro which is similar as it is a short section. Also, even the locals ascend this in flip flops and slippers.
The view after you complete this section is something to behold and appreciate. We could see a panorama of the surroundings, an unblocked 360 degrees view. It was a massive rock outcropping, big enough to fit a concert. Anyone could walk around and find a spot to relax. We chose a quiet windy spot and enjoyed the view. It wasn’t very crowded too.
Most people come here for sunset, i could understand why. The view of Pidurangala rock and Sigiriya rock is pretty amazing in its own right, coupled with sunset and uninterrupted view, it is a frame to remember.
After chilling for half an hour, we had to make a choice. Stay another 2 hours for sunset, or try to get to Sigiriya. Sigirya was so close yet so far, as it loomed in the distance. We decided if we walked fast enough, we could still make it in time for sunset in Sigirya instead. Leaving the increasing crowd of people congregating at the top, we quickly made our way down.
We did a fast walk to Sigiriya. Surprisingly it took us quite a while to get there, almost half an hour by fast walking. We reached at around 5pm, and we found out the ticket counter just closes at that time! So serendipity or bad planning saved us that 30 USD, but we would never know what Sigiriya looked like.
We saw everyone starting to leave Sigiriya, even though it was only 5.30pm. They were actually being chased down and out of the site. That was when we knew it was really closed. It seemed that the opening hours were 7am to 5.30pm, although I have read online that some people had stayed past 5.30pm. If that was the case, how did others see sunset in Sigiriya? Perhaps they just took their time coming down from 5.30pm or pleaded (bribed) the guard when they were there.
Anyhow, the most legitimate excuse for closing at 5.30pm was perhaps because of the wild elephants roaming around in the evening.
We tried to find buses to Dambulla but found out that most of the locals from other cities or villages were on tours where they booked the whole bus just to visit Sigiriya. The bus supposedly departs before sunset too and nobody takes public transport to and out of Sigiriya! The supposed bus stop, which actually the start of the Sigiriya area (where the start of the guesthouses were) and not the Sigiriya entrance (where the ticket counter was). It was dark by the time we walked there, so we ended up taking a Tuk Tuk back to Dambulla.
Sigiriya Vs Pidurangala
So, for the perennial debate on whether to do Sigiriya or Pidurangala, I can only offer my opinion having done Pidurangala which might make me slightly bias. However, I believe that if you are a backpacker, or are hiking for the view, Pidurangala is the clear winner in that sense it offers more value.
If you have the money, wish to checklist an attraction or to appreciate more of the historical citadel of Sigirya, by all means spend that 30 USD because Pidurangala does not have much of a cultural or historical element to it. Pidurangala seems to be there purely to function as a beautiful vantage point to capture Sigiriya.
On hindsight, we shouldn’t have slept in. As we slept in, we ended up only doing Pidurangala in the afternoon, missing out on Sigiriya and doing Dambulla the next morning. This also delayed our visit to Kandy as we could have gone to Kandy earlier the next day!
We could have easily done the 3 main sights within a day. If I had all my energy or could redo the trip, I would go to Dambulla Cave Temple early in the morning, take a tuk tuk to Sigiriya, and end off with Pidurangala in the evening for sunset. The heat in the afternoon for Sigiriya might be a concern but that is easily countered with an umbrella and water. Sightseeing however is expensive in Sri Lanka but this is mitigated by the cheap accommodation in Dambulla.
This was done as part of my 1-week itinerary in Sri Lanka. where we explored other areas like Adam’s Peak, Kandy and Ella and their scenic trains. You can also read up on my guide to how to travel Sri Lanka on a budget.
Summary of Expenses
Bus from Hatton to Kandy : 107 LKR/ ~0.7 USD
Bus from Kandy to Dambulla : 365 LKR / ~ 2.5 USD
Accommodation : 1,500 LKR /~10 USD per night per person
Dinner at guesthouse : ~575 LKR / 3.75 USD per person
Dambulla Cave Temple Entrance Fee : 1,500 LKR/ ~10 USD per person
Pidurangala Entrance Fee : 500 LKR/~3.5 USD per person
Tuk-Tuk from Dambulla to Sigiriya : 1000 LKR / ~6.5 USD (Cheaper if you are travelling with someone, for me it was 500 LKR)
Tuk-Tuk back to Dambulla : 800 LKR / ~ 5 USD (Cheaper if you are travelling with someone, for me it was 400 LKR)
Lunch at Benthota Bake House : 336.5 LKR per person / ~2.5 USD
Estimated Total expenses for a 1 day itinerary : ~40 USD per person
Therefore, in order to set aside some time and money for sightseeing part of the cultural triangle in Sri Lanka, the the best itinerary for Dambulla is to do all 3 sights all within a day. It can easily be done within 40 USD.