Sigiriya, the giant, palace-topped column of striking orange stone, jutting out from Sri Lanka’s jungle, was always on my Sri Lanka hit-list. It’s the island’s most famous UNESCO sight – how could it not be?
It was just never right at the top the way an enchanting train ride to Ella, or the Esala Perahara festival was. I guessed it would just be super similar to Mount Popa, a fairy-tale fantasy-scape that I fell head over heels in love with when I was in Myanmar back in 2014. Never a bad thing, of course!
Sigiriya’s location makes it a no-brainer destination for those travelling around Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle: north of Kandy and slap bang in the middle of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, just half an hour from transport hub Dambulla, it’s easy to get to from any destination. Despite being a little touristy, the village of Sigiriya makes a good overnight stop-off point, with gorgeous local restaurants, cafes and amenities on the main road.
The most off-putting thing about Sigiriya is the entrance free foreigners must pay: $30 US, compared to the peanuts that locals are asked for. $30 is the same price as ticket to Angkor Wat, and nearly three times as much as a ticket for the Taj Mahal! Despite the gigantic monument being pretty impressive, it probably isn’t worth that kind of money.
But would I really be so tight as to fly all the way to Sri Lanka and not go and take in its most iconic piece of heritage? Of course not!
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Sigiriya is found halfway up the steep, vertiginous climb to the top. Legend has it at at one point, these two gnarly paws belonged to a gigantic lion, whose mouth you entered on your climb to the top. Although we have to rely on our imagination for this one, there’s no doubt it would be a sight to behold.
Nobody is quite sure what the top of Sigiriya used to be: some say it was a monastery, others, a royal palace built by an ancient king who loved the views. But since there’s no evidence of a plumbing system, some believe it was a fortress, from which an ancient dynasty guarded their land, warding off invaders from high up. Whatever it was, it’s mostly crumbling ruins now, which are perfect for sitting and sunning yourself on while you take in the spectacular views of the timeless, tropical Sri Lankan landscape. When I say timeless, I really mean it – for the time being at least. There’s no marks left by the modern word: no pylons, no concrete buildings, no proper roads, as far as you can see in all directions. Just jungle that glows such a fluorescent green in the sunlight that you have to squint, and mountains that reflect the blue of the sky, If you’re lucky, you’ll spot wild elephants basking far below. It’s honestly heavenly.
Now, remember the ‘Jordan’ episode of An Idiot Abroad Season 1, when Karl Pilkington stands in a cave facing Petra and proclaims, ‘I’d rather live in a shithole, and with views of a palace, than live in a palace, with views of a shithole’?
Well. Traveller folklore passed throughout the hostels stated Pidurangala, a giant rock a few kilometres north of Sigiriya, trumps the palace itself tenfold for the free views it offers. So, if you’re worried about Sigiriya’s $30 entrance fee, skip it, avoid the crowds, and climb Pidurangala instead, to simply observe it from a distance.
The twenty-minute climb to the top is precarious if you’re wearing Birkenstocks like I was, but there are arrows painted on the boulders you have to scale, so we survived without a guide. But, make sure you follow those arrows – if you don’t, if could get very precarious, very quickly!
The views that met me when I poked my head over the final boulder knocked the air out of my chest and left me on a high for hours, if not days. I had no idea they would be that breathtaking!
If you’re climbing Pidurangala Rock for sunset, which I wholeheartedly recommend, bring a torch for the way down.
It would be possible to walk or cycle from Sigiriya village to Pidurangala, however locals warned us of dangerous wildlife that lurked in the jungle surrounding the road, so regardless of whether or not they were only saying that so we’d pay for a tuktuk, we took one. Don’t make the mistake we did and forget to organise for the driver to return and pick you up. We got stranded in the dark for an hour!
The Elephant Gathering
I’m starting to think I should make a blog post solely listing ‘All the times I was lucky during my time in Sri Lanka’. There was the time a kind man drove my friend and I from Arugam Bay to our destination further South so we didn’t have to wait two hours for a bus when we’d been up literally all night drinking. And the fact that I landed in Sri Lanka three days before the annual Esala Perahera festival began… and still managed to get a seat on the morning train from Colombo to Kandy for it. And my day in Ella, when every star aligned.
Another stroke of terrific luck: I was on the island during September, when over 300 wild elephants gather on the plains of the Minneriya National Park, 10 km Northeast of Sigirya, so they can munch on the grass which becomes exposed when the lake there recedes.
Since Yala National Park, famous for leopards, is now closed for the foreseeable future due to a drought, and the other safari parks in the South have elicited mixed reviews, the elephant gathering seemed like the best bet to see the best of Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Despite it being somewhat overwhelmed with truckloads of other tourists all competing for the best viewing spots, it didn’t disappoint.
Sri Lanka marked my eighth month in Asia. During this time, I’d seen a lot of elephants. Yet the Gathering was the first opportunity I’d had to see happy ones, roaming wild and free. They had miles upon miles of tasty green goodness to roam and scran on at their will, and their cute little tails didn’t stop wagging. If you’re visiting Sigiriya between the months of July and November, taking a trip to visit these incredible creatures in their natural habitat is a must.
Entrance into Minneriya costs R3000 ($15 USD or £25). Jeeps cost upwards of another R3000, depending on the level of luxury you want (but you’ll be standing up most of the time anyway, so don’t bother paying too much extra for leather seats), so try to go as a group so you can split the cost. They can be organised from your hotel or guesthouse.
Dambulla’s cave temples
Dambulla, the transport hub connecting Sigiriya, Kandy and the rest of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, is a short bus journey down the main road. You can pretty much flag any bus heading north and ask them if they’re heading there, visit for a few hours to take in the interesting cave temples, which the bus will no doubt stop outside, and be back for tea.
We, however, decided to stay the night in Dambulla, in a guesthouse facing the big golden buddha flanking the entrance to the caves, and learned that asides from the big draw, Dambulla itself is pretty uninspiring, which not even much around in the way of food or drinking.
Where to stay in Sigiriya
There’s no shortage of hotels in Sigirya, most complete with swimming pools, continental breakfast buffets and balconies with views of the rock itself, but since we were on a budget, Amy and I stayed in the ever-so lovely Wipula Homestay: the cheapest accommodation you’ll find in the village, coming in at about a £2.50 each per night. The rooms, despite being basic and prone to visits from insects the size of cats (we were joined one evening by a supersize but super cute praying mantis), have a gorgeous seating area you could spend hours on, and the family of lovely ladies – the youngest one being about seven – who run it look after you well.
Big love to Amy who took some of these photos on her camera, and who I can’t believe is still floating around in Asia, six months on!