When any Sri Lankan greets you the conversation will immediately turn to what you are doing as you travel around the country. Alongside a visit to his cousins business (“You MUST sample the food! Best in Sri Lanka!“), many locals will ask if you are visiting Sigiriya.
Located at the heart of the country, this monolithic rock is the most visited site in the country. Locals refer to the place as the Eighth Wonder of the World, UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Site, and you’ll understand why when you see what lies at the top Sigiriya.
Built in the fifth century by King Kassapa I, Sigiriya was the regional capital and a major stronghold.
The King, fearing his brother would seek revenge for killing their father and attempting to dispossess his brother, build a fortified palace a top Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. It wasn’t.
After Kassapa’s death, the site was given to Monks, and even today you will see monks making the pilgrimage to the peak.
If the queues at the ticket office were anything to go, I was lucky to get away from the car, bus and tuktuk loads of people who were descending on the ancient city. Passing quickly through the turnstile – tickets are needed – and crossing the moat, the landscape opens up to reveal crumbling walls and thick green carpeted garden.
Ladies sat on the walls enjoying a break and glanced at the noisy crowd that were flowing into the space. They both quickly packed up and moved well away from the crowds to resume their duties in maintaining the space.
The massive column of rock nearly 200 metres high seemed to grow more daunting with each step closer I took. Tired and a little grumpy – let’s be honest, I am not a morning person – my mind was laughing at me and saying “yeah, right! You’re not going to be climbing that today.” So I split from the group and began walking around the grounds at the base of the rock.
Banking right, where most people would begin climbing the hundreds of stairs that would eventually lead them to the top, I continued away from the crowds and vendors spruiking wooden boxes and trinkets or unofficial guides seeking to entertain and assist visitors in return for payment.
I thought I’d stumbled upon my own people-free zone, but it turns out I was simply walking along what is usually the exit route.
What remains of the fortress, that is over 1,000 years old, may look like ruins to some, but it’s brimming with a new lease on life.
Among the rocks were neon green mosses guiding visitors on their way along paths and up stairs, tiny mushrooms sprung up from crumbling walls. Climbing onto one rock in particular, which offered a view across the countryside I stumbled upon another tourist.
“Watch out for him,” he said.
“Who?” I asked.
He pointed at my feet. Less than 30cm away from me was a very large lizard, his beady eyes watching our every move. I spent half an hour lounging on the rock, cautiously glancing at the lizard every few minutes for fear he’d move, appreciating the view across the gardens and land.
In the back of my mind, I was still determined not to climb Sigiriya. The rock still towered above me and I had already managed to get away from my friends, lest they realise how unfit I was.
I reasoned with myself that I could, at the very least, walk up and down a few of the staircases since I had three hours til I was to meet up with everyone back at the bus.
One set of stairs led to another. It was slow. Taking time to recover from each set by taking photos of cute sleeping puppies, the view or just sitting and admiring how beautiful the landscape was.
Halfway up the rock is a cave filled with the ornate frescos of 21 women. Called “The Maidens of the Clouds”, nobody is sure exactly who these women are, though some question if they were Kassapa’s concubines.
Just outside the cave where the fresco’s are housed a women’s cry went out as a Japanese gentleman fainted. The ladies gathered around him to fan him and I passed my spare water bottle through the fence to the frantic tour group. Beautiful to visit, the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka often creeps up on visitors who aren’t used to this type of weather. I was glad that some of the Sri Lankan guards (guarding the Fresco’s from tourists who disobeyed the rule about no flash photography in the room) assisted the man.
Before I began to think much about where I was, I noticed a big paw protruding from the wall – I’d made it to the Lion’s Landing and Sigiriya’s peak was only one (nearly verticle) ascent away!
I saw my friends milling around the paws but instead of joining them I decided to give it a shot because how many times would I have this oppourtunity? – I was going to climb to the top of Sigiriya!
The guy who told me to watch out for the lizard saw me as I was working up the guts to begin the climb and began talking to me again. We agreed to climb together. Slowly and steadily we climbed, both stopping continually to take photos (or in my case, huff and puff while pretending I was just taking photos!) and admiring the view.
As you reach the summit the ancient palace begins to emerge.
And the view… well, I’ll let you form your own decision on the view.
It wasn’t so much a strenuous climb, but it’s the number of stairs. Hundreds of stairs that leave your calves burning.
It is the second part, the ascent to the top of the rock, that is most difficult where modern scaffolding takes the place of the ancient stairs and the climb becomes near verticle.
To reach the top and see what lies there, the surrounding views, the palace gardens or monks taking selfies – it’s totally worth the burn.
I learnt a lesson myself – if you think you can’t do it, just keep moving.
Each small staircase I climbed to see the sleeping dog or discover what was up on the next level (“because it will make a better photo”) all added up and I reached the top of Sigiriya, and what I saw was worth the sweat, calf pain and burning chest!
Cost: USD$30.00 (approx. LKR4,010)
The closest city to Sigiriya is Dambulla – around 25km away – and connected by regular bus services running between 6:30am and 6:00pm. Tickets cost LKR40.
For a speedier mode of transport, tuktuks will bring you to Sigiriya for around LKR800-1000.
I chose to stay in Habarana at the comfortable and stylish Chayaa Village Habarana. While there are no direct bus connections, but the hotel will arrange transfers for you to and from Sigirya.
Tips for climbing Sigirya:
My essential tip for climbing Sigiriya is to climb as early in the morning as possible (gates open at 6:30am). Sri Lanka is a hot and humid country, there’s no avoiding that, but the weather is coolest in the morning.
I began climbing at 7:30am and crowds began showing up around 8:30am.
I recommend leaving a minimum of three hours to comfortable climb and explore the grounds.
Be sure to bring plenty of water. There is a market stall and the exit but there are no facilities during the climb.