By Lisa on Jun 12, 2016 with Comments 0
The Dambulla Cave Temples were one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, yet they still managed to exceed my expectations.
It was at Dambulla Cave Temples that I realised that every day in Sri Lanka we were living new experiences: we had stayed with a local family in Colombo, travelled by train through the lush countryside, spotted elephants in the wild, climbed the sacred Sigiriya Rock, cycled around the ruins of an ancient city, bartered for a tuk tuk, tried the local food and braved the buses.
And now we were going to visit a network of cave temples dating back to the first century BC, converted into shrines used for over 22 centuries with magnificent statues and paintings inside the caves.
Setting off to see Dambulla Caves Temples
We checked out of our guesthouse in Habarana and lugged our backpacks a good ten minutes up to the main Dambulla Road to the bus stop. Of course we bumped into Indika on the way, who popped up every time we set foot out of the door. We declined his kind offer of a tuk tuk ride to Dambulla Caves Temples (for a good price), bid him farewell for the very last time and continued up to the bus stop.
Our plan was to take the bus from Habarana to Dambulla, find somewhere to leave our huge packs, visit the cave temples at our leisure and then continue by bus to Kandy where we had booked accommodation for that night.
We had to wait about two minutes for the bus to arrive and we were dragged aboard by the conductor as it slowed just enough for us to get on. And then we were off.
About half an hour later we arrived in Dambulla; a busy, dusty, polluted place with tooting tuk tuks zipping in between the heavy smoke-belching trucks.
Important: Where to get off the bus in Dambulla
When the bus pulled up at a busy stop, half the passengers got down and there were at least double the amount waiting to board. The conductor shouted to us that this was Dambulla and that we should get off. We started to get our things together, but we knew that this didn’t look right.
“No, but we want to go to the cave temples,” we shouted to him over the heads.
“Yes, yes, this is Dambulla,” he insisted.
We tried again. “But are you passing the cave temples? You know, the big Buddha?”
“Ah yes,” he understood now. “Stay on, next stop.”
The moral of the story: the centre of Dambulla is not where you want to be for visiting the cave temples. You want to be at the other end of town and you need to really make sure that the conductor understands where you want to go otherwise you will be unceremoniously thrown off with a smile and a nod in the middle of the city.
As it happened, we were unceremoniously thrown off about five minutes later right outside the entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temples. We could see the big monstrous Buddha from the bus.
Entering the Dambulla Cave Temples
Over the past few days we had been paying out pretty hefty ‘tourist’ entrance fees to get into places where the locals paid about the same as they’d pay for a can of Coke.
For the Dambulla Cave Temples I really didn’t know how much the tickets were supposed to be for foreigners as there was so much contrasting information on blogs and forums when I’d been researching the trip: people had paid $10, others had paid $25. Someone had paid 1,200rs and someone else had paid 1,500rs. Even the Lonely Planet contradicts itself in the same paragraph, where it states first that it’s $10 and later that it’s free!
One thing I did know from all that I’d read: you had to get your tickets before climbing up the hill to the cave temples. I had lost count of the number of blogs I had read where people had waltzed straight past the ticket office and slugged up all those steps to the top where they had been asked to show their ticket. You can’t buy tickets at the top, so these intrepid yet unfortunate explorers and bloggers were getting quite a workout when they had to go all the way back down to the entrance, buy their tickets and start again.
If I knew one thing about the Dambulla Cave Temples it was that I would make damn-well sure that I would not be one of those people.
We went straight to the ticket office, which was also where we could keep our backpacks for 200rs each, only to be told that the entry was free and that we didn’t need tickets.
Surely that couldn’t be right. Couldn’t they see that we were foreigners? Foreigners pay up to 200% more than locals at these places. Surely they would want to sell us a ticket.
“No no, it’s free,” we were assured.
I figured there must be some mistake, but try as we might, they would not sell us a ticket and insisted that it was okay to go up without one.
So we set off up the steps in the baking heat. Why did it always seem to be at its hottest when we were climbing steps? Indeed, why were we always climbing steps?
As we slowly ascended, we could see that the famous (or infamous) Golden Buddha which dominates the car park was actually in the process of being painted white by lots of tiny-looking men dangling on what looked like rather precarious scaffolding.
We made our way past monkeys, souvenir sellers and small groups of monks as we climbed and sweated.
When we reached the top we had a great view out over Dambulla and beyond.
We had to pay 50rs each to leave our shoes in the racks by the door. Some tourists tried to just leave them on the floor without paying but they were warned that the monkeys would have them. A few tight buggers refused to pay and something about the smirk on the shoe-minder’s face told me that there was a 100% chance that these people would be walking back down the hill barefoot.
Having left our shoes we walked in socks (don’t forget your socks as you don’t want to burn your feet) through the entrance, past the guards and into the temple complex. We were holding our breath at this point, just waiting for someone to demand to see our tickets but no one did. It turned out that the staff at the entrance to the place had known what they were talking about after all and had been right that it was free. Bonus!
What I don’t know is if the entrance to Dambulla Cave Temples was free on this particular day or if it is now simply a free monument. From my experience in Sri Lanka as a tourist visiting monuments in the Cultural Triangle, I’m going to go with the former. But if you’ve been since and you know, please do share in the comments.
Visiting Dambulla Cave Temples
We did hope that the hard slog up the hill was worth it as we tumbled through the door to the entrance to the caves dripping with sweat.
We were not disappointed.
The caves all have separate entrances and you can visit them in any order you want. Most guide books recommend starting at the furthest one and working your way back to the beginning, but sometimes it’s better to skip the one that the group of 50 Chinese tourists have just entered and wait until later.
The Dambulla Caves Temples, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, have collectively been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991 and is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka.
Inside the caves I was astounded: rows of life-sized Buddha statues lined the edges of the caves, bright and colourful paintings covered every possible inch of rock. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Over the five caves, there are 153 Buddha statues: some seated, some standing and some reclining. And then there are a couple of statues and paintings of the Ganesha and Vishnu, so I guess even over the centuries the lines between the religions have been blurred.
When you visit the Dambulla Cave Temples yourself you will learn about what each statue and painting means, who put it there and who worshipped in front of it, but I don’t think you’ll find that particularly interesting until you’re actually there, so I’ll just leave you with some of my photos from my visit to the Dambulla Caves Temples…
You can see all my photos from Dambulla Cave Temples on my Flickr page.
I would like to remind you that all the photos used on InMyShoesTravel.com are my own unless otherwise stated.
You can see my whole collection of Travel Photos here.
About the Author: Lisa, born and grew up in England, live in Mallorca, Spain... Have visited more than 20 countries, have twice as many to yet visit, love sharing experiences....