Updated October 2019
When you plan to travel Sri Lanka, knowing what are 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.
And if you have only 7 days to explore Sri Lanka, you’ll want to see the best of Sri Lanka.
For us, Sigiriya was one of the top things to do during our Sri Lanka stay. But the thought going on a safari as well, was also our motivation to see more of Sri Lanka.
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 would maybe return again to stay longer.
To get us started, our diver had planned a two-day tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa.
What we saw was amazing.
How Far is Negombo from Colombo airport?
Bandaranaike International Airport, north of Colombo is 11kms from Negombo.
Negombo is an ideal place to start your two-day tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa.
And if like us, you have an evening flight, 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. Quite unique.
Having your own personal driver there to meet you was great. The alternative is a taxi or a tuk-tuk.
Start your Two-Day Tour of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa at Negombo Fishing Village
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.
But 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 in making tiles.
Traveling from Negombo to Dambulla
When you have your own personal driver to travel Sri Lanka, you get to stop at rustic roadside stalls to taste the coconut milk from golden coconuts. A lot sweeter than a green coconut.
Golden coconuts are one of the industries for the city of Kurunegala.
Samadhi Buddha (White Buddha) on Athagala, aka Elephant Rock
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.
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Incredible Paintings of 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:
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.
Situated below the Dambulla Rock Temple is a new shrine of the Golden Buddha with a Buddha museum.
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.
We were disappointed as part of our travel, Sri Lanka was to taste local dishes.
So after a discussion with Nishantha, who was concerned with us having a “funny tummy,” we requested the restaurant suggestions needed to serve Sri Lankan dishes.
When you have no food worries, it allows you to see fantastic places like Sigiriya Rock.
Climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The highlight of our two-day tour was the climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock.
Formed from magma of an extinct volcano, rising 370m above sea level, the views out and across the jungle below is breathtaking.
Sigiriya Rock is referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
An ancient palace and fortress complex has significant archaeological sites.
And as a UNESCO heritage site, it is probably the most visited tourist destination of Sri Lanka.
Entrance Fee: USD30 per person
Your entrance ticket includes the museum which is a good starting point for an overview of the history of Sigiriya.
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 the gardens of Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.
After the death of the King, Sigiriya was again a Buddhist monastery until abandoned in the 14th century.
Climb up to Sigiriya Fortress
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 on a spiral staircase is passing by frescoes of Kasyapa’s wives and concubines.
Then 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.
Finally, when you reach the top of the rock, the entrance to the palace was designed in the form of a huge stone lion.
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 when the temperature is 35 degrees Celcius, you need to hydrate.
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
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
For the best experience of Polonnaruwa, start at the museum. Here you can get an overview of the ancient city places to visit.
Your USD25 entrance fee includes both the museum and the ancient sites.
Remember to remove your shoes at the ancient temple ruins. And ladies you need to wear clothing items covering 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, it was Vijayabahu I who developed trade and agriculture of the Polonnaruwa. Within the grounds, irrigation systems were built for the dry season.
Places to See in Polonnaruwa
We found Polonnaruwa was made of up of three areas:
- the Museum
- Parakrama Samudra
- The ancient city of Polonnaruwa
The best place to start is the museum for 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 nearby the museum.
Then travel further along the road to enter into the 12km rectangle city of Polonnaruwa. Look for the Lion Throne on an artificial lake, often referred to as the Sea of Parakrama.
And having Nishantha (Driver Sri Lanka) to take us to the various ruins within the grounds, was a blessing with temperatures reaching 35 degrees.
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.
The restaurant is surrounded by the kitchen garden. A perfect setting to enjoy local Sri Lanka dishes.
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, destroyed. Unlike yogurt.
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 at USD30 each, so definitely not Thai prices.
However, our massage did refresh us both, including the herbal leaf sauna before we left.
Our evening sitting in the outdoor restaurant in candlelight was the perfect setting as staff provided a simple but delicious evening meal.
We loved our time in Sigiriya Cottage and could quite 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 flavors.
So when you start planning your own itinerary of Sri Lanka, make sure to include these remarkable places.
Tomorrow we would travel to the famous city of Kandy.