Sigiriya, eponymous to the rock which has become the hallmark of Sri Lanka, is also known for its elephants, and for the nearby Dambulla Cave Temple.
Aliya Resort and Spa
Aliya Resort and Spa features a stunning, spacious minimalistic white design, and an infinity pool facing the Sigiriya Rock. The rooms are constructed around a vast garden, and are equally spacious. The pathways are lit in a way that gives the whole garden a magical allure after dark.
The resort has three restaurants, with the traditional Sri Lankan one offering an outstanding local experience. The Chinese restaurant lies hidden under the pool area. It is merely ok, and not very crowded. The international restaurant is the default option, and a pretty good one for that. The staff are excellent in every way, and more than anything else, they are the ones making Aliya such a memorable experience.
Climbing the Sigiriya Rock is not for the faint-hearted. This almost 2 billion year-old rock, formed by a magma plume inside a volcano whose surrounding rock has since eroded, stands out as one of the key landmarks of Sri Lanka.
The 1200 mostly vertical steps to the top of of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are guaranteed to make you sweat. The sun gets scorching during the day, so it is a good idea to go early in the morning. Some water won’t hurt either.
The challenge deterred neither my youngest daughter (three years old), nor my parents (both 71). Eventually, all three generations proudly reached the top!
The sight on top is one to behold. The view, and the ruins of the 5th century palace will take away any breath you go left after the climb! This massive structure was built as the royal palace and fortress of king Kashyapa, and was later used as a monastery.
Dambulla Rock Cave
The steep climb to the Dambulla Rock Cave offers some quick and intense exercise before you get to the temple on top. It is a mind-blowing experience. Even the most seasoned traveler is likely to be wowed here! The 153 Buddhas in the five caves, were built over more than two millennia, from 100 BCE. The statues are as beautiful as they are impressive, the heat is scorching, and there is obviously no a/c. Sweating is part of the experience! The temple is an intensely holy site. In other words: be ready to walk barefooted on some very hot stone tiles. Shoes have to be left behind at the entrance, so drop the idea of showing off your new Gucci sneakers! Monkeys crowd the hill, so watch out for your belongings, and enjoy the beautiful view from the top!
Dambulla Golden Temple
The Dambulla Golden Temple, situated right below the Cave Temple, is a much more recent attraction. The strange, eye-catching exterior stands out from the road, and has become another hallmark of the area.
A massive, white standing Buddha stands out in the Sigiriya landscape. It is a distinctively eye-catching feature in the jungle surrounding the rock, easily visible from any slightly elevated place. While noone can fail to notice it, this attraction seems to draw few visitors. Our driver looked almost surprised when we asked him to stop over to have a look. When we got there, we found ourselves alone on the site.
Just like in the other holy places, we had to leave our shoes behind at the entrance. What a thrill it was to walk in that glowing hot sand!
Once we entered the site, we discovered something perhaps even more eye-catching. A small battalion of life-size guardian monk statues surrounds the Standing Buddha. While not be as visible from a distance as the Standing Buddha, they are an equally interesting feature.
Sigiriya doesn’t have a great number of international quality restaurants to show for, beyond those in the hotels.
One remarkable phenomenon in Sri Lanka, is the extent to which even the smallest hotels and restaurants have learnt to harness the power of internet marketing. This is how a small, ultra-local low-cost restaurant like Athula manages to be #3 on Tripadvisor for the whole of Sigiriya. “The Shed”, my father commented as we sat down.
Athula does offer a typical Sri Lankan buffet out of clay pots, costing next to nothing. The setting is as simple as it can be. The food is nice and tasty, so there is some good cooking going on there, for sure. The owners are nice and entertaining, making the place a worthwhile experience if a local, authentic lunch experience is part of the itinerary.
Road to Rock Restaurant
Road to Rock restaurant is a contemporary restaurant + an upmarket and slightly overpriced souvenir shop along the main road, not far from the Sigiriya Rock. This place seems to cater mainly to tourists, and to the upscale local audience. The price level is the same as in most four- and five star hotel restaurants in Sri Lanka.
They have a nice variety of fresh fruit juices, and a short but good food menu. Their bedeviled chicken is something I can definitely recommend.
The service, however, could improve. We found ourselves struggling to get the attention of the waiters, even though there was only us, and one other group of guests.
“Where are you from, sir?”
Most first-time interactions lasting more than minute were inevitably accompanied by a question about my country of origin.
As I quickly realised, my Norwegian passport was not a badge of honour in Sri Lanka.
Until a decade ago, the country fought a brutal civil war. During that conflict, Erik Solheim, a Norwegian compatriot of mine, had an unsuccessful stint at being an international peace negotiator. Sri Lankan still remember him, and not in a positive sense.
After the mere mention of Norway had triggered a few nervous laughters, followed by “Oh, Erik Solheim!”, I decided to adapt my wife’s nationality instead, and say I was Kenyan. That resulted in some bemused remarks about my ethnicity, and some curiosity about how many people in Kenya looked like me. A much better conversation starter than being from the same country as the reviled former peace negotiator!
Our three days in Sigiriya were intense and action-packed. In hindsight, we should have given ourselves another day, but for this time, we were on for Kandy.