My first stop in Sri Lanka was the city of Anuradhapura. I wanted to start with the ancient city and made the drive straight from the airport. It’s a small enough site that you can do it all in a day but you’ll definitely want to have a tuk tuk or a car to get you from site to site.
The site is large but manageable. By having a car, renting a bike, or renting a tuk tuk for the day, you’ll be able to easily get to all the sites as well as spend a lot of time exploring the different ruins. Although you’ll be approached by tuk tuk drivers to get to the sites without buying a ticket, I was checked at multiple checkpoints and asked for my ticket and these checkpoints are at the main attractions.
You’ll need to start by buying your ticket at the tourist office. This is easier said than done since they don’t have the ticket offices clearly marked or easy to find. The thing is, you can ask all the police officers there and they’ll point in a general direction or down a road to go but since they’re locals, they’re used to taking back roads and dirt roads that you may not think to take. That said, I eventually found the ticket office at the Jethawanaramaya Museum/stupa area.
The museum might be difficult to find but you’ll see the huge stupa for a good distance around. You can’t miss it. Now there are a number of stupas in the area and all are religious and actively used so you’ll probably see a number of worshipers there dressed in all white.
Ticket prices are $25 USD and they accept the rupee equivalent or dollars. However, they do not accept credit cards so make sure you have cash. On the ticket, you’ll have 3 pull off tabs that the check point guards are supposed to rip off. The first will be at the Jethawanaramaya stupa, the second will be at the Twin Ponds site, and the third was near the Anuradhapura moonstone site. To drive through, the guard will ask you to produce your ticket and rip off one of the tabs. I don’t know if the checkpoints are consistent all the time but that’s where I was checked.
So you’ll be given a map and you can basically follow it all around the Old Town of Anuradhapura. However, even in the Old Town, there is a “newer” part and the sacred city. Although you can visit all the sites you want, you’ll want to start with the sacred sites first since those are obviously where the tourists are going to be headed.
If you follow the map, you’ll be able to figure out that the bulk of sites are fairly close together. However, I was in a car so I know I wouldn’t have the same feeling if I were walking. I would recommend at least hiring a tuk tuk for the day if you don’t have a car. I guess a bike would be better than nothing but that’s going to be a long day.
There are a lot of stupas here and to be honest, I didn’t go to all of them. After you’ve seen a few, it’s pretty much the same thing and I didn’t feel like walking around in the humidity over and over again. The stupas aren’t structures you can enter so there’s nothing to see “in” them. Now the size of the different stupas is amazing but in my opinion, they all look the same regardless of the angle so after seeing a few, I didn’t stop at all of them.
To “enter” the stupa complex, you’ll need to remove your shoes and socks so I’d recommend wearing flip flops. You won’t want to be putting on your shoes and socks every time you want to see a stupa. Since the stupas are religious and holy sites, you’ll see a sign asking you to remove your footwear and leave them before you enter the area. You don’t need to worry about theft since everyone is going to be removing and placing their footwear at the base of the complex.
The same rule goes for any religious site that has a Buddah statue. You’ll need to remove your shoes there as well. Also, know that it’s considered rude to take a picture of yourself with your back turned to the Buddah statue so for all you selfie lovers out there, don’t do it. I imagine it’ ok if you’re standing next to the statue but not in front of it with your back to it.
Although the monkeys are cute, beware that they are also really smart so you won’t want to have anything the resembles food around them or they’ll more than likely take it from you. They’re also pretty fearless since they’re used to people so don’t expect them to scare off easily.
Finally, due to the price of the ticket, you’ll probably want to get through the site in one day. Start early in the day when the ticket office opens (I think it’s 7am) and you’ll be able to finish the site that day. If you start later in the day, it doesn’t really make too much sense since the ticket expires at the end of the day.