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Rocking Out In Central Sri Lanka

This post discusses the differences between climbing Sigiriya Rock and Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Hopefully this post will help you decide which sight is best for your personality and budget! Plus we threw in an additional “must see” sight in Dambulla – the Rock Cave Temple and Golden Buddha Temple!

Written By Marlie Long and Rid Hollands Last Updated February 2020

When you think of Sri Lanka, do picturesque beaches come to mind? Or maybe the faint hint of delicious seafood curries swirl past your nostrils? Or are you sitting there scratching your head wondering if Sri Lanka is that large island off of India? (If you are in the last category, you go Glenn Coco as you got that right!) Sri Lanka, once a Portuguese/Dutch/British Colony previously called Ceylon, is an island nation that has pristine beaches, hill countrysides teeming with tea plantations, countless hiking opportunities, warm and friendly locals, and some of the best curry we’ve had thus far. While the island doesn’t really boast any extraordinary architectural sights, what they lack in the concrete jungle it makes up for tenfold with its real jungles.

The “iconic” shot of Sigiriya Rock

Arguably the most famous sight in Sri Lanka is Sigiriya Rock in Sigiriya, approximately 10.5 miles or 17 km from Dambulla. But how best to experience this strange rock in the middle of a flat valley – from afar or up close? Before we hash out that conundrum, let’s first get you to Sigiriya. All international travelers will touch down in Sri Lanka at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, roughly 19miles/30 km north of Colombo. You’ll probably be feeling some sort of jet lag (fingers crossed you didn’t experience a 16-hour time difference like we did) and thus spend the obligatory few days in Colombo. In order to not burst your hopes that Sri Lanka is a kickass country, don’t hold Colombo against it as it is a very underwhelming and nondescript city. After you’ve seen the “sights”, which will probably take a few hours if walking, then rest up as your adventures will start to ramp up as soon as you leave the city.

Since there are no direct trains to Sigiriya, the bus is the best option while also being the cheapest! From the Bastian Mawatha Bus Station (across the street from Pettah Market) you’ll have a few route options all getting off at Dambulla or Habarana (just up the road from Dambulla): 1. Route No. 15 to Anuradhapura 2. Route No. 48 to Kaduruwela 3. Route No. 49 to Trincomalee. You will then need to either take a local bus (~40 Rupees per person) or hire a tuktuk (~1000 to 1500 Rupees depending on negotiations) to get to Sigiriya. One funny thing about Sri Lankan buses, is the price and comfort is determined by the color of the bus route sign (NOT the color of the bus itself).

Aquarium-themed interior of our blue bus from Colombo to Dambulla

The bus hierarchy starts with Yellow/red as the lowest price and most basic, Blue is 1.5x the price of yellow/red and is semi luxury (don’t expect much), Green is 2x the price of yellow/red and is luxury (actually are A/C minibuses but are more rare), Purple is 3x the price of yellow/red and is super luxury (large tourist charter buses with A/C – we only saw 3 of these ‘unicorns’ on our month long trip). We took a blue bus from Colombo to Dambulla, we think on an express bus, and it was a long wild ride! If you’re tall or not a small Sri Lankan person, the seats will be tight and not with a lot of leg room but for only for a few bucks it’s worth it. The driving is intense as they swerve through traffic on both sides of the street but not so dangerous to consider not taking them.

Yay! Now you’ve gotten to Dambulla or Sigiriya, both of which have plenty of places to stay and eat in both locations but Sigiriya in our opinion was nicer due to the accommodations being nestled more in nature then the dusty town. We’ve finally got to the point of the blog post: to do Sigiriya Rock or Pidurangala Rock? The answer is entirely dependent on what you’re looking for. 

Sigiriya Rock is an archaeological site with ruins of an ancient fortress at the top and associated structures/geological forms surrounding the rock on various levels as you ascend. The grounds at the base are really beautiful with a moat, manicured lawns, ruins of a long-lost time, and a natural geological formation that looks like a cobra head! As you ascend the stairs up to the top of the rock, you past along different sights like cave paintings (fair warning the circular staircase up to the cave paintings were terrifying for my fear of heights and rickety, rusty AF stairs so if scared of heights you can choose to bypass this option), the Mirror Wall (we didn’t really see how it could be considered smooth enough to be a mirror), giant lion paws, and other ruins. Once at the top, the view of the old fortress is cool to see, especially set against the lush rice fields below and distant mountains. If you’re into archaeological/history or want the iconic picture with Sigiriya Rock this option is definitely for you! 

The whole walk to the top takes between 20-45 minutes depending on how much you stop to look at and how busy the stairs are. The walk to the top is not challenging and just requires sensible shoes for walking up stairs. Ladies, it can be very windy as you get to the top so keep that in mind while deciding on your outfits and how much you want the people below you to see! The only setback for this option is that the price of entry is $30 (5,500 Rupees) per person, which we felt was greatly inflated for what the attraction offered. 

The view of Pidurangala Rock from the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Just to the north of Sigiriya Rock is Pidurangala Rock, which includes various Buddhist temples and sculptures all cared for by Buddhist monks. While Pidurangala Rock doesn’t boast as equally intriguing man-made features, the advantage of this hike is that you get great views of Sigiriya Rock from the top. We went for sunrise, which we don’t necessarily think was the best as the sunrise was so far away from Sirigiya Rock you couldn’t get a picture that included both (at least in February). Also, call us spoiled by our travels and living in Hawaii, but the sunrise was totally average and nothing worth getting up at 4:45am for – but that’s just us! 

The hike up is fairly easy with some steep stairs and a scramble up to the top over some boulders but very doable for all fitness and age levels. There were A LOT of people for sunrise so if you do decide to be a morning warrior factor in extra time as lines get long to get up to the top. There isn’t much to see on Pidurangala Rock except for the view of Sigiriya Rock and the surrounding landscape, which offer great spots for some awesome pictures! The real bonus of this option is that price of entry is only $2.75 (500 Rupees). If you’re on a tighter budget and/or love sweeping views, Pidurangala Rock is for you! 

The verdict for us was that we ended up split in which one we liked better as Marlie liked Sigiriya while Rid preferred Pidurangala! We did like that we did both options but did feel that the difference in price should really be more equal as Sigiriya was way more expensive than it’s worth. We also recommend only staying in Sirigiya or Dambulla for a 1-2 nights as we stayed 3 nights and found that there wasn’t a ton to do fill the days – luckily our place had a pool! 

Also, since you’ve taken that crazy bus ride to get this far, you should check out the Dambulla Rock Temple and Golden Pavillion in Dambulla – worth the 30 minutes or so it takes to look around!

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