Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities

Sri Lanka has some incredible ancient city sites that are amongst some of the most impressive you’ll ever see, and will make you wonder why Angkor Wat gets all the attention. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, amongst others, are located in the cultural triangle in the center of the country, north of the highlands.

Anuradhapura is the largest site, being a city region anchored by three monasteries that are identified by their own dagobas (the Sinhalese term for a stupa). You could spend an entire day and not be done.

Palace entrance, Anuradhapura

Polonnaruwa is a more recently developed city, with more intact buildings, on a smaller site, which is mainly visitable in half a day.

Sigiriya is a palace/monastery site built on Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Ayers’ Rock, around 480 AD, almost 200 meters high – a very defendable position. Unfortunately, the king who built this, King Kasyapa, then chose to descend to the plain below to engage an advancing enemy, and through a miscommunication his troops retreated and stranded him and his battle elephant amongst the enemy. Suicide was the only option. Sigiriya is best approached early in the day, to avoid the heat (beating down on a rock…) and the other visitors who will be huffing and steaming up the steps alongside you.

One logistics point to the ancient city sites is that the entrance tickets are for a single calendar day – foreigners are charged about US$30 (Rs 4,500) which unless you are willing to splurge means you need to plan the visit for a single day. Optimally you’d want to arrive the evening before to get a full day – that applies more to Anuradhapura which is huge, although my 3-hour visit to Polonnaruwa was about right but needed a tuktuk. Sigiriya is a more discrete site that can be covered thoroughly in 3 hours or so.

My take is you could cover all three sites over four days should you wish, noting that it’s at least 3-4 hours between each site using public transportation. I’d keep a whole day for Anuradhapura, certainly half a day for Sigiriya and between half and a whole day for Polonnaruwa.


I caught a minibus from Kandy’s Goods Bus Station (which covers intercity services) for the 3-hour journey to Anuradhapura. Buses are very regular although this was the only time a smaller air-conditioned bus was available, beyond the larger turbo-diesel Lanka Ashok Leyland buses, which are quite comfortable to ride in, even in early afternoon heat. Anuradhapura is a large regional center with the old city mainly lying to the west and north of main downtown strip. It is understood to have first been a capital city from about the 4th Century BC with the major development that we see today developed in the 1st Century BC and which remained the capital until the 11th Century AD, after which it was largely abandoned. The old city is huge and is structured around three monasteries oriented south to north – the Mahaviraha, the Jetavana and the Abhayagiriya .

Kandy Commute Hour

The monasteries are anchored by their respective dagobas, large bell-shaped towers. A logical place to buy your ticket and start from is the main museum located just south of the Jetavana monastery’s dagoba. Given the site size, you may want to consider getting a bike from a hotel/guesthouse – since none of the attractions, apart from the pretty limited museum, have indoor areas, you can keep them with you. The only exception is if you enter the Dagobas, where there is an entrance area where you have to drop your shoes and remove your hat. Alternatively, you can hire a tuktuk to take you round. I needed the exercise and so walked into the park and then from the Jetavana up through the former palace area and then on to the Abitsaya monastery.

First the Jetavana, which has an impressive dagoba, more so because part of the top has come off, giving a slightly post-apocalyptic feel.

These are important religious sites for Buddhists – while you can walk around the city area freely, the dagobas and at the Bo Tree are very much active religious sites. The dagoba is surrounded by a set of monastery buildings, which show a stone/brick base and first floor level stone posts – in the day, they would have had wooden walls and upper floors.

Further north, the palace citadel has the remains of a small palace and nearby, a previous version of the Temple of the Tooth, as well as water tanks and a trough to distribute rice. Many of the temple and palace entrances have guards at each gatepost:

Water Tank

Rice Trough

Finally, I reached the Abhayagiri monastery area, whose dagoba originates from the 1st Century BC. This has the most extensive and atmospheric collection of monastery buildings, scattered through a forested area and complemented by a major pool.

The massive water tank in this monastery site is called the Elephant Pond although at the time was used for storage and not bathing.

There seemed to be uniformity in early medieval toilet design, with footrests and aiming points clearly set out. For some reason the latrines have held up very well over the millenia.

Anuradhapura has a wide range of other dagobas and buildings and is a full day to get round.

Thuparamaya Dagoba

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

I finally visited the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, or Bo Tree, believed to be grown from around 288 BC using seedlings from the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment, and tended for over two thousand years. It has a temple within its compound and these rather cool golden tree limb supports reaching up into the tree.

Temple Musicians

Pilgrims taking a break

Accommodation-wise, there are plenty of guesthouses in Anuradhapura and some smaller hotels. The Milano Hotel is a good place to get dinner with a nice outdoor garden area.


The following day, I caught a late morning bus to Polonnaruwa, which was another 3 ½ hour journey from Anuradhapura’s New Bus Station. Polonnaruwa is a smaller town and I was able to book a guesthouse about 5 minutes from the bus drop-off. This time, as I was starting around 3:30pm, I rented a tuktuk and took about 3 hours to see the smaller but still very striking site. Polonnaruwa is a later and more intact creation, built around 1050-1250 and abandoned in the 1300’s. There is relatively greater presence of walled buildings, including palaces and temples and a lesser number of dagobas. There is a major man-made lake to the west of the city, the Parakrama Samudra, created by King Parakramabahu I. The kings of Sri Lanka were major water engineers and to this day the lake is a major water resource in a country that has little rain for much of the year.

The lake palace sits to the south of the site adjacent to the lake and some waterways that lead off the lake. There is a large audience hall, again with the platform and stone posts intact, along with the statue of a lion.

Audience Hall

Audience Hall Lion

Statue of King Parakramabaru I

The audience chamber’s side panels with elephants are still there.

Further north, this temple building, the Thivanka Image House, has an 8-meter Buddha statue and some wonderful frescoes whose Photography Forbidden rule is carefully enforced. Enter and see!

The Gal Vihara (Rock Monastery) has three standing, seated and reclining Buddha images carved out from a granite rockface and protected by an incongruous awning.

The Lankatilaka Image House is a partially intact walled temple with a large standing Buddha at the far end.

The citadel complex hosts a range of buildings, including this amazing circular shrine, the Vadatage, containing seated buddhas in each doorway and an elaborate semi-circular moonstone at the base of the entrance.



The treasury building is covered in Sinhalese text.

Citadel Complex View from Vadatage

Finally, the Royal Palace itself.


From Polonnaruwa the plan was to reach Trincomalee by evening, with a side trip to Sigiriya, a fortress/palace complex constructed around and on top of a massive standing rock. Since the most reliable and fastest way to Trinco from Polonnaruwa is via Habarana, it worked best to to leave the bus near there and then get a tuktuk to the Sigiriya site. Specifically, you board the 41 or 48 bus heading westbound through the downtown bus stop at Polonnaruwa tell the conductor “Sigiriya” and after passing about 10 km south after Habarana you alight at the Amanaluwa junction (findable on google maps in fact). The tuktuk drivers waiting there will offer to drive you to Sigiriya for Rs 400-500. They’ll offer to look after your bag but a better bet is at the tourist police office who can look after it for a while – although won’t promise to secure any valuables.

Tuk Tuk

Sigiriya is best visited at the start or end of day, to avoid the heat, get some mellow photographic light, and minimize the crowds. Because I had come from Polonnaruwa, I got going around 11am.

Pathway and gardens to Sigiriya Rock

Rather like the ancient cities, there is too little awareness of these incredible constructions in the popular mind.  There are extensive gardens on either side of the approach path which date from the original construction and which were linked by underground pipes fed from water tanks in the rock, leading to pools and fountains pumped by natural water pressure, at least during rainy season. The first main thing to see once you have gone through the gardens and up past the rock gardens at the base of the rock are the Sigiriya Damsels, frescoes that are in a rock gallery about a third of the way up, accessed by what appear to be a Victorian-era and a more recent circular staircase.

After descending from the gallery, you then go through a cut-out open passageway containing medieval graffiti (the Mirror Wall), before arriving at the last base area before the top, set off by the Lion Gate, of which only the huge and well-manicured front paws remain. You pass through a stairway and up to the top.

The Lion’s Paw

View Above the Lion’s Paw

The views once at the upper palace at the top are quite spectacular and the platforms and base structures for a range of palace buildings, water tanks and terraces are still clearly evident.



A Day Jaunt Up Etna, Wherein Not Much Happened Except for Cold Weather

I hiked up and down Mount Etna on March 15 (the day before it popped its top in front of the BBC) from the Rifugio Sapienza point, which is the main trail approaching from the south. At first the visibility was quite clear, and the snow and ice provided a splash of (white) color against what is otherwise an almost entirely black volcanic surface. In the interests of getting some exercise in, I avoided the cable car option which gets you up to about 2,500m. Etna’s white plume was visible at a distance, although a narrower black plume and ejected rocks were also visible the closer you got (presaging). There were periodic crumps that sounded like distant artillery, although it didn’t deter some small groups from heading up. The trail starts just east of the cable car station but then contours up west of the cable car run.

View up trail starting out from Rifugio Sapienza.

Then it Started to Cloud Up

I made it as far as this warning sign below the crater area, although by this point the visibility started to decrease and since the snow covered up any further trails I decided to call it a day. To get to this point there is a snow-covered dirt track with a high degree of wind chill, and the terrain is treeless, so it’s not the most idyllic of trails.

Prescient Warning Sign Regarding Volcanic Activity

Me Wondering How Much Colder Sicilian Volcanoes Can Get

That decision may have been wise as the visibility continued to clag in.  I was curious as to how recently the black rocks strewn around the snowfield had landed. It was quite windy and a full winter gear set is needed to be comfortable – Etna peaks out at 3,329m so it is quite brisk even in March.

As I returned I managed to get something of a view below the cloud base.

All in all a good 5-hour round trip hike on a well marked out track – the weather is still pretty bleak so an early summer attempt might be optimal.

Colombo to Kandy by Train

Sri Lanka relies heavily on its rail system and many cities can be reached within 8 hours so islandwide. It’s a good way to get around given most roads – apart from some of the highways in and out of Colombo – are a single lane each way. We rode the train from Colombo Fort Station to Kandy, which left at 09:00 and arrived at about 12:30.

Colombo is worth some time for a couple of days.

National Museum and Large Tree, Colombo

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Statue, 1897

A curry buffet is a common food offering – rice, some veggie options and then chicken or seafood. The curries tend to be on the hotter side compared to say Northern Indian. This was in the basement food court of the Creskat Center in the Galle area of town and was mighty fine.

Victorian-era memorial in Colombo’s Anglican church shows the hazards of life in Sri Lanka.

Memorial, St Peter’s Church, Colombo

St Peter’s Church, Colombo

Modern hazards include tuk-tuk rides, although traffic keeps speed levels down.

Abandoned Victorian-era department store, Fort District.

Serious pipe-smoking 1920s/30s gentlemen and actor staring at floating flame, in the National Art Gallery.

National Art Gallery, Colombo

National Art Gallery, Colombo.

The train is efficient although in a well used condition – you can open the windows and stand in the open door. Colombo Fort Station works well enough but hasn’t had much of an upgrade.

Outside Colombo it gets rural and you find intensive agriculture.

The landscape picks up some hills a you leave paddy country.

Great views from the open door…

End of the line at Kandy.

Kandy sits in a valley by a lake created from rice paddies by the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, who ruled the last independent kingdom pre-colonization.

The other main attraction is the mostly 18th-century Temple of the Tooth, which is the resting place of a tooth reclaimed from the Buddha’s funeral pyre, and is also located on the site of various palaces.

If you visit, don’t be wearing shorts unless you have a sarong to cover up with.

You head up to the offering area where the throng doing the offering squeeze by the throng seated praying on the floor. You have to squeeze by and be somewhat quick about your offering as the folks behind are keen to do the same.

Pilgrims and daytrippers to Kandy.

Kandy is a pleasant town to walk around in a low-key way. In addition to the temple and the original palace complex, you can absorb the colonial vibe at the Queen’s Hotel, which is in pretty similar shape to around 1902.

Grand staircase and less grand elevator.

The “Mountbatten Bar” that fails to mention Admiral Mountbatten had his headquarters at the Hotel Suisse – up the west side of the lake and full of tour groups from countries the Admiral would have interned if he had the chance. A nice place for a cool bottle of Lion.

Kandy has a great central market.

Snacks are freely available.

Legal advertising is direct and local.

I stayed one night each at the Anna Shanthi Villa and McLeod’s Guesthouse and went through on both occasions. Both were very comfortable and walkable to the city (McLeod’s being slightly closer), although the ring road round the lake is very busy – the east side of the lake is less busy.

Foodwise there are plenty of options. The Sharon Inn has a Sri Lankan curry buffet that’s good and worth it if you need a discovery session – call to book for the 7:30 evening sitting.

Kandy’s a great jumping off point to the highlands to the south and east, or northwards to the ancient cities.