When the rains came they came with a vengeance. There were landslides and, sadly, some people lost their lives. But just when it seemed the Mayan prophecies were being realized, the clouds parted and the sun shone again… for a while anyways. We enjoyed such perfect weather for the first few weeks in Sri Lanka but the rains pushed us off course and out of the hill country. There's not a lot to do up in the high mountains in the ceaseless rain. So we went to Colombo to get an extension on our visas and waited out the rain in Lanka's second largest city, Kandy. At least there we could give our taste buds a break from rice and curry and escape the patches of inclement weather in cafes, bookshops and the like. After a couple days there we once again felt the urge to move on, so we headed north to the ancient sites and cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla. The circuit took us five days to complete.
First was Anuradhapura, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka some 2000 years ago. For the most part Anuradhapura is a city of ruins save for a few dagobas and temples which are in remarkably good condition due to their quality construction and some modern restorations- and it is home to the world's oldest tree. After visiting some of the greatest ancient sites in Asia such as Cambodia's temples of Angkor, Bagan in Myanmar, Borobudur in Indonesia, or even Sukhothai in Thailand, Anuradhapura doesn't quite measure up, but it remains a nice place to wander around for a day. We toured around the expanse of Anuradhapura by tuk-tuk complete with one despotic driver. Throughout the day we strayed away from where the driver wanted us to go and just lost ourselves in the forested areas between the major sites and obligatory tourist stops. When you get out into these areas your imagination can just go crazy visualizing how grand and massive this city once was. For us, that was the whole charm of Anuradhapura. There are overgrown foundations, statues, bathing pools, and ruins of varying conditions scattered everywhere out there. There is however a hefty, and arguably unjustified, $25 premium (per person) to visit this ancient site (free if you're Sri Lankan and half price if you're of South Asia decent).
Next we took the bus to Polonnaruwa- the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. As with Anuradhapura, most of this ancient city is also in ruins and consumed by the jungle surrounding it. There are however a few exceptions once more, especially in the areas of the Quadrangle and Gal Vihara. These two places alone make Polonnaruwa a must-visit. But again there is more to Polonnaruwa than just it's must-see stops. Following the narrow paths that meander through the jungle, we saw so much incredible bird life. But for us, the highlight was still the immaculate rock carvings at Gal Vihara- an ancient site that has been on my list for quite a few years now. It will cost you another $25 per person to see the wonders of Polonnaruwa and the same exceptions apply.
Sigiriya was just altogether awesome. This rock fortress itself dates back to the 5th century and the star of the show (if constructing a major palace/monastery complex on a prehistoric volcanic lava plug isn't cool enough) has to be awarded to the amazing frescos that survive, nearly intact, on the cliff face. The views from on top of Sigiriya (Lion's Paw Mountain) and the rock and water gardens that surround the rock make this place the complete package. At either side of the base of the upper stairway are beautifully carved lion paws (which look more like dragon claws to me). In its glory days, the complete carved lion adorned the whole side of the upper half of the mountain and passing through its open mouth led you to the palace buildings on the peak's summit. The only thing keeping your imagination from running wild here is the very real $30 entrance fee to get in.
Later that same day we returned to Dambulla where we were based out of and took in its famous cave temples. The statues and paintings in these caves date back as far as the 1st century A.D. but have gone through a series of repairs and renovations over the ages. Maybe it's because we've seen the incredible paintings in Ajanta in India, or just had witnessed the skilled artistry of the frescos in Sigiriya, or maybe it was the fact that they had gone through some more recent touch-ups, but Dambulla just didn't hold my attention the way Polonnaruwa or Sigiriya did. With that said, there are still some fine statues and paintings to be admired, and if you're not ancient-sited out, Dambulla may be well worth it's $10 admission fee for you.
All-in-all, the ancient cities delivered an awesome 5-day trip. For the most part the weather cooperated and it seemed that the worst of the monsoon rains were over. If you only had time for just a couple of the sites though, I would recommend not leaving Sri Lanka without seeing at least Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Nowhere else in Sri Lanka will the government take so much of your money and run- altogether they took a total of $180 of our precious backpacking dollars, but we are glad that we had the opportunity to see it all.