About 1.5 hours from Dambulla is the site of Polonnaruwa. This ancient site is really interesting and fun to visit if you’re into ancient ruins like I am. The site is large with so many places to check out and see. I can easily say this was my favorite site to visit during my time in Sri Lanka.
Polonnaruwa is an old royal city a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I thought the ticket price of $25 USD was well worth the price of admission since the site was so large with so many interesting places to see. Although it’s a fairly long drive from Dambulla, it’s worth the drive to see.
Look. It’s not a quick drive to get there. However, since it’s so far from Dambulla, I don’t think it fits into the itinerary for most tour groups. When I was there, there was only 1 tour group there. I arrived around 7:30am and it was quiet with only a few people around. It actually turned out to be a good thing since it wasn’t too hot when I started (even though it quickly got hot and humid within an hour).
The ticket office is actually down the road about a long block from the main entrance to the site. It’s kind of hidden but luckily there was a tuk tuk driver who was hoping to get my business who guided me to the booth. It’s a little difficult to explain but if you follow the road past where the main entrance is, you’ll come to the Clock Tower roundabout. Now before you get to the roundabout, you’ll see a big dirt parking lot on the left (same side as the main entrance) and you’ll enter there. Park and the foreigner’s ticket booth is right there. You’ll be inundated with tuk tuk drivers so you’ll know you’re in the right spot.
Tickets were $25 USD and you can pay either in rupees or dollars but you can’t pay with a credit card. For what it’s worth, I thought the entrance fee was well worth it for the size of the site and for how many interesting things there were to see.
If you don’t have a car, you’ll definitely want to hire a tuk tuk or at the very least a bicycle to get around the site. If you have a car, you can go to the various parking lots and then walk. I’d say it took me a good 5 hours to walk around the whole site but it could have been faster had I known where to park. Although it isn’t necessary, I’d strongly recommend getting some time of transporation especially if it’s hot and humid.
I didn’t realize this until the end but if you have a car, you can actually drive it as you go. I had asked a few of the park rangers there but they didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. When you first arrive, you’ll see the first parking lot on the right. As you move toward the next site, you’ll again, see another parking lot there. From there, just follow the paved road until the next parking lot. The lots are located where the major sites are so it makes for a much easier time. However, you are not allowed to park on the side of the road and walk around so it’s a little confusing if you’re like me and want to walk around. There is a sizable drive between the 2nd and 3rd parking lots but just keep driving and park at the lot.
Remember that this is mainly a religious site so you’ll have to remove your shoes multiple times here. Although it might be more comfortable to wear walking shoes, I’d recommend wearing flip flops or slip ons so that you can easily remove your shoes as needed.
The entire site basically works in a straight line but there are a few offshoots from the main path you can take to some smaller sites. That all depends on your energy level and if you’re willing to go down dirt paths.
If you’re walking or on a bike, it’ll be a long walk but there are 2 sites you shouldn’t miss. The first is basically the 2nd to last site which is where there are 3 Buddha images carved into the side of a hill.
The last site is a temple just past the locus fountain. It’s a temple that has drawings that are amazingly clear and vibrant. You aren’t allow to take photos and it is a bito a walk to get there but I think it’s well worth it. It’s just before you get to the exit to leave the park so you’ll probably be spent at this point but if you’ve made it this far, you might as well go a bit further.
The site is massive so give yourself enough time to roam around and explore. This isn’t a type of place you’re going to go on a whim (if you’re staying in Dambulla) so you might as well make the most of it. I was lucky enough to not see too many tourists but I would recommend going early just because it can be get really hot and humid.
Definitely hire a tuk tuk driver for the day or at least get bicycles if you don’t have a car. It’s going to be a lot of walking and in the heat and humidity, it’s going to feel worse. You might as well save yourself some energy and pay for a tuk tuk. I don’t know how much they are for the day but if you’re coming from the US, the cost really shouldn’t be prohibitive.
Finally, remember that there are many religious sites here so you’ll be required to take off your shoes. Although you may want to wear a good pair of hiking boots for all the walking that you’ll be doing, just remember that taking off and putting on socks and shoes multiple times throughout the day gets old fast.