Last weekend we had an opportunity: the next Tuesday was a Poya day (a monthly Buddhist holiday for the full moon), which meant we had the day off… So three of us, all WUSC Sri Lanka volunteers, took Monday off and decided to make ourselves a long weekend. After giving ourselves four full days of time to do something, the question was: What should we do with our time? Initially, we decided to take the famously beautiful train journey to visit Ella and hike in the hill country. But apparently everyone else also had these plans because we couldn’t book even a single train ticket in third class! With a smirk at our last minute planning, the ticket settler told me that every ticket had been sold out for days.
Instead of trekking in hill country for the weekend, we decided to visit an important part of Sri Lanka’s history and bus to Dambulla and Sigiriya for the weekend. Dambulla is about a five-hour bus journey from Colombo, depending on the bus of course. We were not-so-secretly hoping for an air conditioned luxury bus but the stars did not align to make this happen and instead we ended up on a hot and overcrowded private bus. It was uncomfortable but I settled in quickly by opening the window and listening to an audiobook on the phone (side-note: my Audible.com subscription has made traveling to various destinations around the island so much better!).
We arrived in Dambulla about midday on Saturday. Our AirBNB host had told me to call her when we reached the “bus station” near Food City, a grocery store chain here in Sri Lanka. The bus station was actually just a bus stop that I nearly missed but thankfully my travel companions were on the lookout for the Food City. We hopped off the bus, squeezing ourselves through the crush of people occupying not only the seats but also the bus aisles, and then got a chance to stretch our legs. Our AirBNB host arrived soon after to pick us up (awesome perk!) and drove us to our home for the next few nights.
After some lunch, it was time to get down to the business of sightseeing. We invested a few thousand rupees in a ‘tour package’ of the area from our AirBNB hosts so that we didn’t have to worry about finding tuk-tuks here and there. It was probably the pricier decision but it was also so much more comfortable so I think it was worth it. The first step of our tour of the region was the Golden Temple in Dambulla.
The Golden Temple is a famous Buddhist temple at the base of a large hill. The temple itself is lovely and there is also a museum but the main attraction is a massive Buddha statue painted gold. The statue looks out calmly beyond all the tourists snapping photos, as if to encourage everyone to look around at the region’s beautiful natural scenery as well. Beyond the typical tourist attractions, visitors to Dambulla are greeted with lush forests and layers of hills on the horizon. In every direction there is something to point out, something to photograph.
Just next to the stairs up to see the golden Buddha, we found a path leading up a large rock hill. We started to climb, curious but not knowing where it would lead. We were still barefoot from exploring the temple grounds (it is respectful to remove your shoes in Buddhist temples). As we climbed the steep hill, though, we noticed we were the only foreigners with bare feet. Only Sri Lankans were barefoot, too, we noticed after a large family pointed at our naked feet and laughed. We just smiled and shrugged at them and kept climbing. I said a quiet prayer that no one would steal my sandals from the temple entrance. (People wouldn’t steal from a temple, would they?)
We climbed and climbed and I realized some shoes would be helpful. We kept pushing forward, honestly wondering where we were going but eager to figure out what was at the top. Then, the hill evened out and a panoramic view of the surrounding forests and hills could be seen from every direction. There were also many monkeys hanging around and, just a bit in the distance, a temple entrance. That’s when I finally figured out where we were and what we had climbed to: we were at the entrance of Dambulla’s ancient cave temple! I knew they were in the area but I honestly didn’t know that they were connected to the Golden Temple.
The cave temples are ancient holy places for Buddhists, where the caves are filled with paintings on the walls and ceilings as well as Buddha statues in many poses. Walking into the first cave temple was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The lights were off, since they are on a cycle to preserve the space, so it was quiet and dark inside. The light from the door illuminated a large Buddha statue and I was almost emotional thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people who have worshipped here over the centuries and how lucky I was to be in this same space as all of them.
Then the lights slowly flickered back on and my fellow tourists flooded in. My little moment of emotion over, I took some photos then walked on to the next cave. There were several cave rooms filled with Buddhist art. It was breathtaking and a very special experience seeing all this beauty hidden inside a rock hill. The view was also outstanding. We spent quite a while just hanging out high up on the rock, taking in the hills and enjoying the serenity of being in a sacred space. The only disruption was the occasional cry from a tourist being accosted by the resident monkeys.
We climbed back down and headed back to our room for the night. We needed to rest up because the alarm clock was waking us up at four thirty the next morning. On Sunday morning, when the alarm went off, we hurried into our hiking clothes, rushed into the jeep, and drove to Pidurangala. We were off to hike this rock called Pidurangala early in the morning so that we could watch the sunrise from the top. The hike itself was short and mostly rocky stairs. It was challenging but only because I was rushing up as fast as possible, worried that I would miss the sunrise.
When I got to the top, I realized I would miss the sunrise anyways because of the clouds but watching the view lighten with daybreak was nonetheless incredibly beautiful. The most spectacular part of the view is Sigiriya, which means Lion Rock. It is another huge rock opposite Pidurangala and it is the more famous of the two because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Sri Lankans call it the eighth wonder of the world. After some celebratory “we made it to the top!” photos, we scrambled back down the rock and back to our room for some well-earned napping.
On our last full day of touring in the area, we climbed Sigiriya. At first, we were hesitant because, frankly, it’s pricey to get into but I decided that I would regret not going so I should just suck it up and shell out the cash. I’m very grateful I did because it was a very worthwhile experience! Before we climbed the rock, we explored the grounds, which are filled with water gardens and caves that used to be filled with paintings that have since eroded away. Our small group got separated in the excitement but we managed to find each other about halfway up the rock at the mirror wall. The mirror wall is named because it used to be so shiny you could see yourself in it but after centuries of tourists visiting Sigiriya, ancient graffiti now covers the wall. It is fascinating to think that Sigiriya has been a tourist destination for so many, many years.
Before making our final ascent at the Lion’s Paw statue near the top, we had to wait a while. Why? Because there are terrifying aggressive wasps that sometimes like to attack tourists so their activity is monitored by tourist police and if its decided they need to calm down a bit then the tourists wait to walk up the last few stairs to get to Sigiriya’s summit. I was honestly so scared of the seemingly-rickety-but-surely-safe staircase we were climbing to get to the top that I didn’t have enough space in my heart to also be scared of wasps. We were lucky enough to avoid any scary wasp attack or awful staircase collapse (a scenario I kept replaying in my head), making it to the top safe and sound!
Yet again we were surrounded by centuries of history and incredible views. Sigiriya was once a fortress that protected a king so there are ruins of the palace at the top and even the remnants of a throne you can perch on. The views of the hills and valleys and forests and rivers most caught my attention, though. Everything looked like the cover of a storybook, as if an artist had drawn the most beautiful landscape they could think of and I was lucky enough to be looking at it. I was so enthralled that I bounded around the top of the rock like an excitable toddler. Like at the top of the Dambulla cave temple and Pidurangala, we took our time to enjoy the view before finally deciding to head back down.
The next day was reserved for travel back to Colombo. Again, we were hoping to grab a seat on an air conditioned bus but we were told that one “might” be coming “sometime in the afternoon” and that wasn’t too hopeful so we crammed ourselves onto a private bus, standing for the first hour of our journey home. We were quite the spectacle, standing in the aisle squeezed together like sardines. We just laughed and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation and everyone around us just laughed too, which was for the best since I kept crashing into anyone and everyone around me anytime the bus lurched to and fro. Eventually, as the bus cleared out, we each got a seat, meaning I was finally able to tune out the traffic and chatter with an audiobook.
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