Getting the train to Matale was simple enough, 3rd class was fine and comfortable and we had an hours chat with a Buddhist monk who wanted to know all about Brexit! He was well travelled and clearly not a poor monk! At Matale we tried to get a PickMe lift to the guesthouse, but the 3g signal kept failing so had to negotiate with a local tuk tuk. Fun. Then the guesthouse, which we booked through Hotels.com (and paid) had no record of our booking. Oh joy. It wasn’t a scam, he really tried to help out and eventually gave us a room and we both had to argue with Hotels.com to get a refund. It appears he has tried to remove it from Hotels.com but they keep advertising and selling tooms but not telling him! Top tip 1 : Always email hotel a few days in advance to confirm booking!!!! Top tip 2: Use booking.com not hotels.com! As the guesthouses receive payment directly (not 6mths later) they prefer it and prioritise it.
As it was he had another hotel further out and moved other guests to that, but it was a pain in the backside and wasted a few hours. The guesthouse had an 8.7 rating and we had high expectations of the place and Matale, but no idea how the place was any more than a 6 after all that! Stuffy, naff breakfast, very very noisy, and poorly located. (That said, the view from the too-noisy-to-use balcony was stunning). The idea of Matale was to chill and relax but totally ruined that so we opted to leave the next morning.
Matale isn’t the biggest or most touristy place and we were advised to avoid it – but that said – that’s why we wanted to visit as it was a genuine local town and not many other westerners there. So much so, we got very little hassle even when waving phone around trying to get a signal. Not a must see place at all but very local.
After a poor nights sleep, and crap breakfast, we got a tuk tuk to the bus station and expected a hellish crammed journey to Dambulla. There are a few bus stations in Matale, the one for Dambulla is on the corner of Vihara and Kings Street. The bus was there and a few people asked where we were going, and all pointed us to the right bus – luggage next to driver and surprisingly seats! 75LKR for the hour or so journey and got off at the Dambulla Cave Temples, but then crossed the road and walked to our newly found guesthouse.
The homestay/guesthouse was rated as 9.7 but only 15 reviews (!), didn’t appear on google maps, and had signs of going wrong. However, it said they can serve English breakfast! We booked on booking.com, followed up with email, and as it was, all good for £13/night…. (ensuite incl breakfast)
And what a pleasant surprise – spotlessly clean and fairly new; well presented; well located; and lots of little touches – and a nice balcony that’s reasonably quiet. Phew! What we needed yesterday!!
We walked to the Dambulla Caves, and it’s a bit weird, you go in then out again to get a ticket. The internet is wrong in places, it is now chargeable and you need a ticket from the bottom (just follow signs even though it feels wrong) 1500LKR + 25LKR for the shoe-keeper. You can risk not using them but there are lots of Monkeys around. The temples themselves are interesting enough, not a long visit, and only so many Buddhas you can see in one place. Worth a visit anyway. From there, we hiked into town that was a nice busy local town with a bulk cash-n-carry market – all just nice to see without any real hassle. We were advised Dambulla was a bit “meh” – and yeah, its no stunner, but its actually really nice – great views and not overly touristy. It is a good base for Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as pretty much all busses cross Dambulla.
The homestay cooked a restaurant-quality feast for us, about 3x what we could actually eat, and even drove to a shop to get some cold beer.
We left Dambulla for the Sigiriya bus, but the advice from the tuktuk driver (guest house father-in-law) was to go the northern bus-stop just north of the clock tower as busses are more frequent. Not that’s true, but he must’ve thought we were going elsewhere as the Sigiriya bus starts at the bus station! So this meant we got the bus 5 mins later and it was already full – better to start at the bus station and get on early. (For Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa the northern bus stop is correct). The bus had quite a few big-bass speakers in the luggage rack so our 50LKR fare included a disco!
Sigiriya is a big village, mainly geared for tourists visiting Lions Rock – so nothing to get excited about, but off the main road is a quiet place feeling like it is the middle of the jungle. Which it actually is!
From our homestay we could cut past a Buddhist temple to the Lion Rock and climb to the top. Again, another insulting to foreigners approach, with a 30USD (5430 LKR) charge each. Ouch. That said, the Lion Rock complex is worth visiting, the ruins and climb are interesting and the views from the top are great. In places its almost similar to some of the Cambodian Angkor complex, but not quite as wowing. But in its own right, it is impressive and the views show how much jungle there is around. Its almost as if you are totally alone in the middle of nowhere (except for the large snake of people in a queue all the way up and down!) . Worth setting off early, take lots of water.
For tea we ventured to the #2 on Trip Adviser – nice, slightly different, but not awesome.
The following day we ventured to Pidurangala Rock which is near and almost the same height as Lion Rock. The entrance is further away and costs only 500LKR to get through the Buddhist temple to the climb. As today was a Poya day (bank holiday) – it meant Lion Rock was going to be zoo – so thought it would be quieter. Which it was, till almost at the top where you need to scramble and literally climb up, use a bit of rope and the like. But, being over here, there were 100s coming down and 100s going up and only room for 1 person. Absolute chaos but eventually we got through. The climb was much more rewarding and the views equally spectacular (if not better) – and we enjoyed this climb more – felt more rustic and less controlled (and cheaper!). Of course, if you like to see relics & ruins – you MUST do Lion Rock, but if on a budget, do the other rock for the views. Both different and glad we did both – excellent.
Some people visit Dambulla and Sigiriya in a single day, which you can if you just want to see the main sites. But we’ve really enjoyed our time here so far (4 days so far) and just absorbing the views and local way of life. Lovely places (albeit not always stunning!)
For next installment click HERE