A huge white Buddha perched high on a rock overlooking buildings

Two Day Tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

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When you plan to travel Sri Lanka, knowing the best things to do before you arrive can sometimes be a little daunting.

You have the internet for your research but it doesn’t quite give you the confidence to go further.

If you have only seven days to explore Sri Lanka, you’ll want to see the best of it.

For us, Sigiriya was one of the top things to do during our stay in Sri Lanka. But the thought of going on a safari was also our motivation to see more of the country.

So when an offer from a local driver, one of our Instagram friends, offered to help, we knew we were onto a good thing.

With his help, we planned a 7-day itinerary of Sri Lanka. This way, we could see places we might return to for longer stays.

Our diver had planned a two-day tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa to get us started.

What we saw was amazing.

How Far is Negombo from Colombo Airport?

Bandaranaike International Airport, north of Colombo, is 11 km from Negombo.

Negombo is an ideal place to start your two-day Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa tour.

And if you have an evening flight like us, it won’t be long until you are tucked up warm in bed.

Especially if you have used iVisa to check whether you need a visa before you arrive; otherwise, it’s USD40 on arrival.

And don’t be surprised to see items like washing machines when you exit duty-free. Unique. 

It was great having your own personal driver there to meet you. The alternative is a taxi or a tuk-tuk.

Start your Two-Day Tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa at Negombo Fishing Village

A fishermans catch of fish laid out to dry in the sun
Fish drying in the sun on Negombo Beach

Negombo was an important city for the Dutch because of its cinnamon. The Dutch built catholic churches (a design still used today) and canals to protect Negombo.

However, the Portuguese seized Negombo until it was recaptured by the Dutch, who eventually lost it to the British in 1796.

Today, Negombo has hotels along its beaches where local fishermen still dry their fish.

As you leave Negombo, you’ll find the old industry of tile manufacture. Clay and wood from around Negombo were used to make tiles.

Traveling from Negombo to Dambulla

Two men beside a roadside stall
Our driver Nishi with Terry waiting for a snack a t a roadside stall

When you have your own personal driver to travel Sri Lanka, you get to stop at rustic roadside stalls. Whether it be for a cooked breakfast or to taste the coconut milk from golden coconuts. They are a lot sweeter than a green coconut.

A bunch of gold colored coconuts at a roadside stall
The sweet Golden Coconuts

Golden coconuts are one of the industries for the city of Kurunegala.

Samadhi Buddha (White Buddha) on Athagala, aka Elephant Rock

A huge white seated Buddha statue perched on a rock
Samadhi Buddha on Elephant Rock (Athagala), Sri Lanka

And Kurunegala is where you get your first glimpse of the Athagala, aka Elephant Rock.

Look up to see the 20-meter Samadhi Buddha (White Buddha) on Athagala that was built between 2001-2003. Underneath the Buddha is a shrine room, so the total height of the platform and the Buddha is 27 meters.

It is a prominent stopping point in Kurunegala city for people traveling from Negombo to Dambulla or Kandy.

You can either walk up the 400 stone steps or drive the 1.9kms to the top from the city of Kurunegala.



Incredible Paintings of Dambulla Rock Temple

A white temple built under overhanging rocks
Dambulla Rock Temple

The Dambulla Rock Temple was constructed during the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya (103 BC and 89-77 BC).

During a South Indian invasion, the King Vattagamini Abhaya went into hiding and frequented the caves for his safety. After regaining his kingdom, he showed his gratefulness for his safe place, by converting the caves into Buddhist Temples.

Take a look under the rock overhang to see how it spans the entire area. It’s actually a single large cave, he constructed with wall partitions.

He also had drip ledges made along the overhang to withstand rainy weather.

The three cave temples are named:

  • Devarajalena
  • Maharajalena
  • Paccimalena

Archaeologists discovered the caves were used for dwellings in prehistoric times.

Inside the caves, is the true beauty with paintings covering every inch of the cave.

Entrance fee USD10 per person at the ticket office located at the end of the road. So if visiting from the Golden Buddha below, make sure to get your ticket first before walking up to the temple caves.

Your shoes will need to be removed and a gratuity given to a helper of the temples.

Colourful paintings inside a cave
Paintings at Dambulla Temple Rock

Situated below the Dambulla Rock Temple is a new shrine of the Golden Buddha with a Buddha museum.

A gold colored Buddha statue above b uildings
Golden Buddha Dambulla Rock Temple

When you want to Eat Local Food

Lunch today was a smorgasbord of English dishes and only a few Sri Lankan dishes at Mango Mango Restaurant.

When we travel, we like to taste local dishes. So, after a discussion with Nishantha, who was concerned about our having a “funny tummy,” we requested the restaurant suggestions needed to serve Sri Lankan dishes. 

As long as you know your tolerance for spicy food and eat within those, you should keep from having a “funny tummy”.

And if you stay healthy, you will be able to see fantastic places like Sigiriya. 

Climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress

The highlight of our two-day tour was the climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Formed from the magma of an extinct volcano and rising 370m above sea level, the summit offers breathtaking views out over the jungle below.

Sigiriya Rock is referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and we can understand why.

An ancient palace and fortress complex has significant archaeological sites.

As a UNESCO heritage site, it is probably the most visited tourist destination in Sri Lanka.

Entrance Fee: USD30 per person

A large rock fortress with a path leading to it
Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Your entrance ticket includes the museum, which is a good starting point for an overview of Sigiriya’s history.

Originally, Sigiriya was a monastery, but during the 5th century, King Kasyapa built his royal residence.  The palace was fortified with canals built to harness water for gardens, ponds, and fountains.

They say Sigiriya’s gardens are among the world’s oldest landscaped gardens.

After the death of the King, Sigiriya was again a Buddhist monastery until it was abandoned in the 14th century.

Climb up to Sigiriya Fortress

A couple facing the camera with several people in the background climbing a rock staircase
A wefie on the climb up Sigiriya Rock

There are 1,250 steps to climb up to Sigiriya Fortress. Allow at least 1.5 to 3 hours to ascend and descend, plus time to enjoy the fantastic views.

The climb up to Sigiriya Fortress is via several staircases that pass by frescoes of Kasyapa’s wives and concubines.

Then, the path takes you on a walk along the Mirror Wall of polished granite so the King could see his reflection. Make sure to look for the inscriptions dating back to the 8th century.

Then, prior to the final staircase you are confronted with the form of a huge lion carved from the rock. This is the entrance to the palace.

Sigiriya originates from the word Sihagri, i.e. Lion Rock.

Only the lion’s feet have survived as the upper parts of the body were destroyed.

Take plenty of water with you because you need to hydrate when the temperature is 35 degrees Celcius.

A large pond on top of a huge rock formation
The large pool on top of Sigiriya Fortress
A couple posing with a huge rock formation in the background
After the evening climb down from Sirigiya

Stay at Sigiriya Cottage for a Two Day Tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa

Our two-night stay was at Sigiriya Cottage with cottages amongst the trees, very friendly staff, and an open-air dining room. Breakfast was included, and the staff available to cook an evening meal.

They were also able to organize an Ayurveda Massage in the village from a local herbalist which included a herbal leaf sauna.

Staying in Sigiriya you get to see old bullock carts that were used to carry rice to Colombo ports. It’s now a popular tourist excursion to take a bullock cart around local villages.

Heading away from Sigiriya Cottage, the road narrowed with 3 tier electric fences on either side. Fascinated, we learned that electric fences are used to contain wild elephants from crossing the road to the vast grassland area beyond.

A little further from Sigiriya is 21,000 hectares of yellow rice fields still worked manually with some machinery. And the reservoirs we saw were built to supply the rice fields with water.

Wander the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

An ancient inground pool, empty of water
Kumara Pokuna, Palace Complex Polonnaruwa

Heading away from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa, the road narrowed with electric fences on either side. The fences stop wild elephants from crossing the road to the large grassland area beyond.

Eyes peeled. Would we get to see an elephant?

Where to Begin Your Tour of Polonnaruwa

Start at the museum to have the best experience of Polonnaruwa. Here, you can get an overview of the ancient city’s attractions.

Your USD25 entrance fee includes both the museum and the ancient sites.

Remember to remove your shoes at the ancient temple ruins. Ladies, you need to wear clothing that covers your shoulders. Make sure your shorts are long, too.

Polonnaruwa ancient city is a UNESCO site dating back to the 10th century.

Three kings dominated the chronicles of the city and the period:

  • Raja Raja Chola I
  • Rajendra Chola I
  • Vijayabahu I

However, Vijayabahu I developed trade and agriculture in the Polonnaruwa. Irrigation systems were built for the dry season within the grounds.

Places to See in Polonnaruwa

We found Polonnaruwa was made up of three areas:

  • the Museum
  • Parakrama Samudra
  • The ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The best place to start is the museum, which offers an overview of Polonnaruwa. It certainly gives you lots of information about your visit.

Next, we suggest you explore the area known as Parakrama Samudra, which is near the museum.

Then, travel further along the road to enter the 12km rectangle city of Polonnaruwa. Look for the Lion Throne on an artificial lake called the Sea of Parakrama.

Having Nishantha (Driver Sri Lanka) take us to the various ruins within the grounds was a blessing, as temperatures reached 35 degrees.

An ancient stone open air temple
Hatadage shrine for Relic of the tooth of the Buddha
A white bell shaped ancient structure
Dagaba Kiri Vihara Stupor built in honor of the King’s queen, Polonnaruwa
A female monkey playfully tickling her young baby monkey
Grey Langur Monkeys, Polonnaruwa


Lunch at Polonnaruwa

Jaga Restaurant – an organic garden to table restaurant with the best selection of Sri Lankan dishes. We got to choose our dishes from a selection of clay pots filled with delicious curries. The aroma was amazing.

A kitchen garden surrounds the restaurant. It is a perfect setting to enjoy local Sri Lankan dishes.

Tables and chairs in an open air restaurant
Jaga Restaurant, we had a wonderful lunch here. Write a message on the walls.

We finished the meal with curd and honey. We learned the curd is discarded after four days, and the clay pot it is served from is destroyed.

We loved the restaurant and would recommend booking a table when visiting Polonnaruwa.

Final Night at Sigiriya Cottage

Arriving back at Sigiriya Cottage, we opted for an Ayurveda Massage in the village from a local herbalist for USD30 each, which is definitely not a Thai price. 

However, our massage did refresh us both, including the herbal leaf sauna, before we left.

Our evening sitting in the outdoor restaurant by candlelight was the perfect setting, as the staff provided a simple but delicious meal. 

A large squirrel eating a banana in a tree
A Grizzled giant squirrel in a tree where we stayed in Sigirya, with a banana for breakfast

We loved our time in Sigiriya Cottage and could happily stay longer in this peaceful garden.


Unforgettable Highlights: Two-Day Tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa

Our two-day tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa was an unforgettable highlight of this part of Sri Lanka.

Having a driver to set the pace meant we never felt rushed over the two-day tour.

And each restaurant chosen was sensational for its food, especially the new flavours.

So, when you start planning your Sri Lanka itinerary, make sure to include these remarkable places.

Tomorrow, we will travel to the famous city of Kandy.