If you’re looking to explore one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, here is my guide to visiting Polonnaruwa as a day trip from Sigiriya. If you’re also hoping to travel from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa in order to explore this ruined city, read on!
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In my opinion, no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to one of its ancient cities.
Anuradhapura was the country’s first capital, established in 380 BC, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
However, because it’s older than Polonnaruwa, the ruins are reportedly not as well preserved, and the fact that it’s built on a much larger scale than Polonnaruwa means that it’s a lot more difficult to explore in a day – which is why I chose to visit Polonnaruwa.
A little bit of history about Polonnaruwa (පොළොන්නරුව)
After the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993, Polonnaruwa was established as the capital of the Chola kingdom in the latter part of the 10th century, under the name Jananathapuram. For three centuries, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa served as the capital for both the Chola and Sinhalese Kingdoms.
Granted World Heritage status in 1982, Polonnaruwa is now considered to be one of the best preserved historic cities in the world.
What’s the best way to get from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa?
To get from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa, you’ll first need to get to the Inamaluwa junction.
Prior to visiting I’d read that it is possible to catch a bus between Sigiriya and Inamaluwa, but nobody seemed to be able to give me any information about where they ran from or how frequently they ran. So for convenience and to save time, I made the 10 kilometre journey by tuk-tuk, which the owner of Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay arranged for me. Expect to pay around 500 LKR (£2.10).
Once you get to the Inamaluwa junction, you just need to jump on a bus heading in the right direction. As I quickly realised though, not all buses heading in the direction of Polonnaruwa will actually go to Polonnaruwa, and none of them seem to have their destination recorded anywhere on the front of the bus. The best thing to do is hail down every bus that goes past and ask the conductor. He’ll beckon you aboard if he’s heading that way.
I paid 94 LKR (around 40 pence) for the journey, which took around 90 minutes. Yep, bus travel in Sri Lanka is cheap!
The buses are also a lot more comfortable than many I’ve travelled on through Southeast Asia and South America (specifically Bolivia!), the windows open (mostly!) and there’s often music playing through the stereo speakers, to offer an uplifting accompaniment to your journey.
The bus will stop outside the ticket office and from there it’s approximately 500 metres back up to the entrance.
What’s the best way to explore the ruins of Polonnaruwa?
You’ve got the option of exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa either by tuk-tuk or by bicycle.
I decided to go for the latter option because it was cheaper, it gave me a lot more freedom regarding the length of time I spent at each temple, and it was a way of incorporating a bit of exercise into my sightseeing adventure.
You’ll more than likely be stopped by a push bike tout as you make your way to the entrance gates. I just went with the first guy who approached me because he was charging a decent price (400 LKR (£1.68) for the day), but then started to regret it as I got to the gate and saw lots of much newer, shinier, more colourful bikes for rent.
However, in spite of its looks, my bike turned out to be really comfortable to ride, and it looked like it had recently had new tyres fitted so it coped really well along those dusty, bumpy, rocky roads.
Good to know | It’s unlikely you’ll be given a lock for your bike (I enquired but was told, “it’s not necessary”), which did make me feel rather anxious. However, I then rationalised the situation. The owner of the bike shop had taken no details from me. If my bike were stolen, he would have no way of tracing me, should I decide to simply hop on a bus back to Sigiriya. I figured that if he had any concerns regarding bike theft in the area, he would have asked for a more hefty deposit from me in the first place.
Navigating your way around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Along with your ticket (price: 4500 LKR / $25), you’ll be given a plan of the site, which – once you figure out where you are on the map – is actually really easy to follow. There aren’t many roads inside the ancient city, so it’s quite difficult to get lost!
Visiting Polonnaruwa reminded me a little of exploring Bagan in Myanmar or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but on a much, much smaller scale. Each temple is very different to the next and, like Bagan, each temple seems to have its own temple keeper who looks after the upkeep of its interior.
Start your explorations at the Royal Palace and Council Chambers, and then work your way north from there to check off the other principal monuments.
The Sacred Quadrangle is where you’ll find the largest concentration of temples (and people!), so make sure you allow enough time to fully appreciate this compact group of fascinating ruins before hopping back on your bike and hading off to explore the rest.
A few of my favourite temples are the ones I’ve listed below.
1 | Vatadage
Vatadage is probably one of the most photographed temples in Polonnaruwa. Located in the southeast corner of the Quadrangle, this circular two-tiered relic house is part stone and part brick built. Four separate entrances on the second terrace are flanked by guardstones and lead to the central dagoba (stupa), which contains four outward-facing Buddhas, one at the top of each stairwell.
I loved the temple’s unusual circular design and how intricate all the carvings were. Can you spot the tiny little dancing Buddhas in horizontal lines along each of the staircase risers?
Take a closer look in the photo below.
2 | Nissanka Lata Mandapaya
This is another very unusual temple that can be found inside the Quadrangle. The dagoba is encircled by curved stone pillars shaped like lotus stalks and topped with unopened buds. It is said that Nissanka Malla (the King of Sri Lanka from 1187-1196) used to sit inside this temple to listen to chanted Buddhist texts.
3 | Satmahal Prasada
A square pyramid-shaped tower in six tiers (there used to be seven) that is a similar design to those found in northern Thailand. You can see Satmahal Prasada in the photograph below (on the right).
4 | Hatadage
Adjacent to Satmahal Prasada is Hatadage – the Shrine of Sixty Relics (above photo on the left). It’s in pretty poor condition today, but I love the symmetry of the pillars receding into the distance, and the way they focus your eyes on the lone standing Buddha at the back of the temple.
5 | Siva Devale No.2
This is the oldest Hindu temple in Polonnaruwa, built by King Rajaraja (985-1014 A.D). It’s located north of the Sacred Quadrangle, at the very end of a 500 metre-long track that leads off the main thoroughfare.
As a result of its hidden location (you can’t see it from the road and would only know it was there if you were reading the map), this temple felt peaceful and undiscovered.
6 | Ran Kot Vehera
Ran Kot Vehera is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa, with a circumference of 168 metres and a height of 55 metres.
Take a walk around the outside of it, remembering to peer inside all the little image houses on route, and you’ll have some idea of the immense scale of this structure.
7 | Kiri Vehera
With a name that translates as “milk white temple” (for obvious reasons), Kiri Vehera was reportedly built by King Parakramabahu in honour of his wife, Queen Subadra. It’s the best preserved of Polonnaruwa’s unrestored dagobas.
8 | Lankathilake
Lankathilake was built by Parakramabahu I and later restored by Vijayabahu IV. Back in the 12th century it was considered to be the most splendid Buddhist shrine in Asia. The brick-built walls reach an impressive height of 17 metres and are a whopping four metres thick.
Inside is a standing Buddha who was once 13 metres tall (including its base), but sadly only its torso remains today.
Practical advice for visiting Polonnaruwa
My main piece of advice for visiting Polonnaruwa is to bring socks! Ok, this may sound a bit strange but let me explain. You have to remove your shoes before you enter the grounds of each temple and those paving slabs get way too hot to walk on in bare feet. Just standing in one place to take a photo for any longer than a second or two was unbearable! I was constantly snapping photos and then promptly running as quickly as I could into the nearest shaded area I could find.
At Gal Vihara, there were no shaded areas in sight. As a result I missed out on having a closer look at what is meant to be one of the most impressive monuments in Polonnaruwa, simply because I didn’t bring socks.
My second piece of advice is to make sure you wear footwear that is easily removable as you’ll be taking your shoes/sandals/flip-flops on and off a lot!
In terms of staying hydrated throughout the day, I would recommend bringing a litre of water with you (if you invest in a Grayl water purification bottle, you can fill it up from any water source wherever you happen to be in the world), but there are also places available to buy drinks.
As you cycle around you’ll pass a few little makeshift street side cafes close to the larger, more popular temples. They generally sell king coconuts and freshly-squeezed orange juice, along with a small selection of snacks.
Good to know | There are lots of monkeys on site, especially at the northern end, close to Gal-vihara. Make sure that if you do have food on you, it’s packed away in zip-closed backpack. If the monkeys can smell it, they’ll be all over you!
Getting back to Sigiriya
The last bus back from Polonnaruwa is at 5:30 p.m and leaves from the bus stop almost opposite the ticket office. I caught a number 48 bus back to the Inamaluwa junction, but always tell the conductor your destination; don’t just jump on! (just to be on the safe side).
When you arrive at the Inamaluwa junction, they’ll be no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers willing to transport you back to Sigiriya.
Where to stay in Sigiriya
I stayed at Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay, which I would 100% recommend for the following reasons:
- Location. You’ll find Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay down a little side street off Sigiriya’s ‘main road,’ surrounded by nature and just a kilometre from the entrance to Lion Rock.
- Fantastic customer reviews. The property currently has a rating of 9.4/10 on booking.com (correct April 2020).
- The helpful owners. Pienta and his wife speak excellent English and will do whatever they can to help you with the logistics of your stay.
If Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay is fully booked, you can search alternative Sigiriya accommodation here:
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