As we were travelling with my parents, we hired a mini van to take us and our plentiful luggage to Dambulla, our base for exploring the nearby historic sites. It had been a last minute decision to move our accommodation from south of Kandy to Dambulla, since it placed us much closer to Sigiriya, Pollonaruwa and Dambulla Cave Temple: generally considered highlights of Sri Lanka. It was a good decision. We visited Dambulla Cave Temple upon arrival and on day 2 travelled to Sigiriya and Pollonaruwa. Day 3 we left early to travel to Kandy.
Would I recommend it
I was very impressed with Dambulla Cave Temple: my jaw actually dropped when I walked into the largest cave. Sigiriya, however, did not meet expectations: when the guide books say it gets busy, believe it! See notes in What you might want to know.
Pollonaruwa was interesting in an ancient ruins way, but I’m not a big history fan so gleaned more pleasure from the walk around than specifically from the history.
If you have time, and it fits with travel plans, I think it’s worth a couple of nights. Especially if you’re interested in ancient history of course. It would also be possible to do two of the sights in a long day trip from Kandy, but it’s a few hours’ drive each way, plus the drive between sites.
What you might want to know
Dambulla Cave Temple is up a lot of steps. Go early or towards the end of the day and avoid if you have health issues. Don’t be scared of the monkeys – they’re not as aggressive as those we’ve come across in Thailand and Bali.
Do not underestimate the potential crowds at Sigiriya. We arrived at around 9am and it seems we hit peak hour. Rather than the brisk walk we had expected – being competitive souls and keen to beat the 2 hour return that most sources estimate – we found ourselves in a line of visitors, slowly crawling up and along. Despite the crowds, it was worth the view, but was it worth the $30 entry?
We chose to walk around Pollonaruwa, but there’s a lot of distance to cover. Consider taking a bicycle.
Where we stayed
We made a last minute change to accommodation as we’d originally planned to stay somewhere south of Kandy, but fortunately there was still plenty of availability in Dambulla and we booked into the newly built Freedom Village.
It was a good choice. Rooms were spacious with modern bathrooms and big balconies looking over the pool, which we didn’t have time to use. Breakfast was included, tasty and plentiful and staff was very good. The manager was particularly chatty. It was a short walk into Dambulla town along a country road, but in our view Dambulla wasn’t up to much. I’d stay at Freedom Village again but you’d be just as well off staying in the middle of nowhere if you have a driver.
Where we ate
It was a challenge to find somewhere that was open early enough on our first night, as we went direct from the cave temple. Also, our driver seemed reluctant to take us anywhere too “local”. We ended up at Gimanhala Hotel and Restaurant for our first rice and curry of the trip, despite poor TripAdvisor reviews (which I was unable to check until afterwards). However, it was nice enough, with a pleasant hotel garden environment, so-so staff and tasty enough food – actually one of the hottest chicken curries of our trip. Oh, and they served beer.
Lunch en route to Pollonaruwa was in a non-descript, otherwise empty cafe of which I neither remember nor want to remember the name.
We ate at Freedom Village in the evening. The food had been raved about in reviews and was well cooked and presented, but not the mind-blowing experience we’d perhaps expected.
What I’d do differently
Eat at different places.