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Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Make for a “Stupa-endous” Day!

Paradise Found in the Indian Ocean: Day 2
Visiting Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, passing through Mihintale, and ending the day in Sigiriya!

I awoke at 7 am to a tropical bird cacophony, my morning alarm. I marveled at the variety and number of birds that I saw and heard.

With an uncomfortable car ride, a 2 hour sleep, and a stuffy mosquito filled night, we were not in the best shape to tackle the day. We stepped out of the car to stretch and get started with a very old tree.

Anuradhapura

The capital of Sri Lanka in the 4th century BC, the city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well known for its ancient ruins. Our driver would guide us through the main sites to see.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

Walking into the religious grounds, we had to leave our shoes out front and take off our hats. This was common throughout the religious sites in Sri Lanka. Inside there were ceremonies taking place to pay respect to the Bodhi Tree, a fig tree supposedly propogated from the right branch of the original Bodhi tree from India. It was planted in 288BC making it the oldest specimen of flowering plants (angiosperms).

Photographing the Bodhi tree while Sri Lankans pray around me.

Photographing the Bodhi tree while Sri Lankans pray around me.

Preparing rice and bananas as an offering to Buddha.

Preparing rice and bananas as an offering to Buddha.

We tried to buy tickets for the park after, but the office was still closed, so we headed for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, EGB. We couldn’t speak to the waitstaff so we just pointed at some breads behind the counter and repeated coffee until they brought it out. They also brought a whole plate of different breads and it seemed the custom is to pay for what you eat and the rest goes back behind the counter.

Our local mixed bag of carbs for breakfast and coffee.

Our local mixed bag of carbs for breakfast and coffee.

The ticket office opened and we bought our entrance tickets (US$25) and headed to the first stupa.

Ruwanmalisaya

We parked and walked around the first and most impressive of the stupa of the day. Built c. 140BC, this is one of the world’s tallest monuments at 300 ft high.

Monkeys paying their respects to Buddha.

Monkeys paying their respects to Buddha.

Prayers sent by candle.

Prayers sent by candle.

Magnificent view.

Magnificent view.

Abhayagiri Vihara

This ancient monestary was over a large area consisting of many ruins and structures. We made several stops where they had ruins, signs with some background information, and each with a small section of stalls to sell souvenirs. A few park officials checked our tickets.

The moonstone is unique to Sri Lanka and symbolizes samsara, rebirth, and the way to nirvana. Each animal represents a man’s progressive path through samsara.

The moonstone is unique to Sri Lanka and symbolizes samsara, rebirth, and the way to nirvana. Each animal represents a man’s progressive path through samsara.

The Abhayagiri dagoba was still under construction. Our guide said that they have made several attempts at restoring it and even with modern construction techniques it always falls apart... haunted?

The Abhayagiri dagoba was still under construction. Our guide said that they have made several attempts at restoring it and even with modern construction techniques it always falls apart… haunted?

Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools) was one of the stops. The area was so well preserved you could almost picture an ancient civilization bathing here on a warm summer afternoon.

Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools) was one of the stops. The area was so well preserved you could almost picture an ancient civilization bathing here on a warm summer afternoon.

Jetavanaramaya

King Mahasena built this ancient stupa which was a few minutes drive from the last one. The stupa had a red ribbon around it representing the sash tied by Buddha.

Plenty of Buddhists in white robes praying.

Plenty of Buddhists in white robes praying.

Mihintale

We then took a short drive to the base of the mountain and climbed the many steps as many pilgrims have done in the past. It’s a bit of a hike up to the peak, but definitely worth it. After leaving your shoes at the entrance with a rather unpleasant caretaker and paying the 500 rupees entrance fee, you were free to walk around and explore the area. There’s a stupa and Buddha statue on the hill.

View from the ticket office. The hill in the background is Aradhana Gala.

View from the ticket office. The hill in the background is Aradhana Gala.

On the opposite side is Aradhana Gala, the rock that according to legend is where Mahinda landed to spread Buddhism, when he flew to from India. As we made our ascent a tropical rainshower started, making the footing extremely slippery. Our toes dug into the carved out steps while pulling ourselves up with the railings to make it up to the top.

 The view was amazing from the peak of Aradhana Gala was spectacular, especially with the fog rolling through the hills.

The view was amazing from the peak of Aradhana Gala was spectacular, especially with the fog rolling through the hills.

Both soaked thoroughly, we waited for the rain to stop and took some pictures before descending and heading up the opposite peak to the larger Maha Stupa.

The Maha Stupa sits at the top of the Mihintale. At this angle it looks a bit like one of those turrets from Star Wars.

The Maha Stupa sits at the top of the Mihintale. At this angle it looks a bit like one of those turrets from Star Wars.

There were plenty of monkeys and a view over the other side of the mountain. From there, we headed back down taking cover along the way from the flash showers. Finding our driver, we changed into some dry clothes on the way to our next destination.

Then we drove a few hours to the next destination.

Polonnaruwa

The 2nd most ancient capital of Sri Lanka is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Again, there is a vast collection of similar ruins to travel to and explore.

Arriving at the town we stopped at a few ATMs for cash, but they didn’t accept our bankcards, so our driver took us to a gold store that had a black-market currency exchange operation. It was a bit shady with three Sri Lankan guys who brought out wades of cash but we bargained on the rate and then changed some RMBs and USDs into LKR.

When parked, a man came up and was chatting in a furious pace with our driver. Eventually he told us that the man was offering a reduced entrance and tour of the sites through some back way. Apparently the park guards were in on the deal. So the deal was, get a tour by tuk tuk for 5000 rupees instead of 6500. Our driver said it was up to us.

Hmm… Time for some adventure I say!

The tuk tuk driver was bald stern looking man who took us by back roads to the sites. At the first stop he told us in broken English that this was the place to sleep. Christina understood that he wanted us to sleep at the place. We discussed at some length to explain that we were not staying in Polonnaruwa, until eventually understanding that this was the first point of interest to visit. We all had a good laugh, except the obviously frustrated driver.

The King Nissankamalla's Lion Throne wouldn’t be too comfortable to sit on, but it’s very regal in a cute lion sort of way.

The King Nissankamalla’s Lion Throne wouldn’t be too comfortable to sit on, but it’s very regal in a cute lion sort of way.

Next the driver took us to the side of the park and walked us in over a downed wire fence to continue the tour. Again this was a no hat or shoes section. There were quite a few important structures including Polonnaruwa Vatadage, Thuparama and the Royal Palace. Everything was in walking distance, including walking along a monkey overrun section of road that was being paved.

Polonnaruwa Vatadage in the background was where the tooth relic was kept when the city was the capital. I thought it was a colleseum of death for the King’s entertainment.

Polonnaruwa Vatadage in the background was where the tooth relic was kept when the city was the capital. I thought it was a colleseum of death for the King’s entertainment.

Thuparama was under restoration. You can enter the ancient structure and see the pyramid shaped roof from the inside, which is a rectangle from the outside.

Thuparama was under restoration. You can enter the ancient structure and see the pyramid shaped roof from the inside, which is a rectangle from the outside.

The Royal Palace still stood high and proud after all those years.

The Royal Palace still stood high and proud after all those years.

After an intensive tour on foot, we purchased a fresh mango snack before finding our tuk tuk for the next few stupas and ruins.

Rankot Vihara

The second largest stupa in Sri Lanka was the largest during the Polonnaruwa period. There were many shrine rooms around the relatively deserted stupa.

The fully brick stupa was built 1187 AD to 1196 AD.

The fully brick stupa was built 1187 AD to 1196 AD.

Lankatilaka Temple featured a large headless buddha carving. You have to face all Buddha statues while taking pictures.

Lankatilaka Temple featured a large headless buddha carving. You have to face all Buddha statues while taking pictures.

One of many pools that was used for bathing.

One of many pools that was used for bathing.

Our final stop was Gal Viharaya, famous for its four images of Buddha carved into a single slab of granite.

Our final stop was Gal Viharaya, famous for its four images of Buddha carved into a single slab of granite.

At this point it was quite dark and everyone was leaving the park. We were dropped off at our pick up point where we reconvened with our driver. We paid the tuk tuk organizer as agreed while sharing some fresh mango slices. He gave us a souvenir ticket for the park. They seem to do this on a regular basis.

We then had an hour or so drive to Sigiriya where we would spend the night. We had quite an awesome surprise of seeing three wild elephants just foraging on the side of the road. I asked the driver to put his high beams on, but he didn’t want to scare the elephant which could result in it attacking our car… Apparently they often get hit by cars and sometimes killed by trains.

We arrived at our hotel, the Lion’s Rock Hotel, around 9 pm. We checked in and had a dinner sitting right next to a cow laying in the garden. The tasty and filling Sri Lankan food was the perfect conclusion for the day.

Traditional fish and chicken curry rice with sides of potato, cucumber, spicy string beans, and mango chutney, washed down with a cold Lion beer.

Traditional fish and chicken curry rice with sides of potato, cucumber, spicy string beans, and mango chutney, washed down with a cold Lion beer.

Sigiriya to Colombo tomorrow!

David De Clercq

About David De Clercq

Founder and writer at World-Adventurer.com. David is on a mission to travel to every country in the world and recently surpassed 100 countries! As an adventurer, he craves new experiences while documenting them on multiple medias.

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