The remainder of our whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka was split between the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya and the cultural sights in Dambulla and Anuradhapura.
90 degree days with near 100 percent humidity definitely took a toll on us Denverites, so a few days in the mountains going on hikes, visiting waterfalls and tea plantations, and enjoying the cool night air was a great change of pace.
On our way to Dambulla to see the ancient cave temples we decided to check out one of the main attractions in Kandy, a city where we had to transfer buses.
Backpacking Rule #1 (well, we haven’t established rules yet, but this is sure to be near the top when we do): Do not go sightseeing with a full backpack in 90-degree heat. It was HOT and Kandy is a busy, noisy city full of touts and far too many annoying tuk-tuk drivers.
We made a beeline toward the Temple of the Tooth. The holiest site in all of Sri Lanka, this temple is supposed to hold one of Buddha’s teeth that was stolen as he was being cremated a couple thousand years ago. They don’t display the tooth very often anymore so I can’t give my first-hand opinion, but rumor has it the tooth is some three inches long and looks like it came from a buffalo (that’s one scary Buddha)…so in short we didn’t pay the entrance fee to get into the temple and just snapped a couple of shots from outside the fence.
A short walk back to the bus station and we were on our way to Dambulla. We arrived only to find it a ghost town. Apparently every full moon in Sri Lanka is a holy day for Buddhists so everything was shut down. We were able to find a hotel, but questions about where we could find a beer (much needed at this point in the day) were met with unexpected shock and horror. Apparently it is illegal to sell alcohol on the day of the full moon (it sure seems backwards not to allow alcohol on holidays!).
Eventually our host made a deal with the hotel next-door so we could buy a beer from them. This was only on the condition that we hide it inside a bag and drink it in our room. It felt a bit like a drug deal but we were successful in getting our beer! Oh, forbidden beer tastes good!
A set of ancient cave temples and a very tall golden Buddha statue are really the only reasons to visit Dambulla. They claim the golden Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world, but in actuality he’s not even the tallest in Sri Lanka. He is magnificent, though.
The cave temples are situated on top of a large hill with very nice views and more than a few monkeys. Seriously, I felt at one point that if I didn’t watch where I was going I might accidentally step on one!
The five cave temples at the top are quite impressive. The temples (along with many of the statues and murals within) date to around 100 BCE. Many of the statues were carved from large slabs of stone using only rudimentary tools.
Overall they’re very cool, however, it’s ALL Buddhas! Countless Buddhas. Plain ones, ornate ones, painted ones, sitting and laying down ones, but all Buddhas. There’s even Buddha wallpaper!
After a couple caves we’d seen more than enough and it was off to Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura is an ancient city and former capital of Sri Lanka. As such, there are numerous religious sights, tons of ancient ruins, and…you guessed it! More Buddhas. It’s good to note that there is a surprisingly high ($25) entrance fee to get into the main sights, but you only have to have a ticket to get into the museums so 90% of the sights are completely free. This was not well noted in our guide books.
We saw some very large Buddhist stupas including a brick stupa called Jetavana that is the largest single brick structure on earth consisting of some 90 million bricks. At the time of its creation it was the tallest man-made structure save the great pyramids in Egypt.
The majority of the archeological site is open to pedestrian traffic only which makes it a pleasure to walk though. Ruins littered the whole area, with monkeys now the only residents.
Our all-too short time allotted for Sri Lanka had run out, and in many ways we were disappointed we couldn’t explore the rest of the island. However, as Sri Lanka was added onto the trip at the last minute we’re very happy to have been able to visit what we could. We certainly would come back, but for now it’s off to India!