From Kandy we hired a car and driver to take us to the southern edge of the so-called "Cultural Triangle" which includes the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, cave temples of Dambulla, and the rock fortress of Sigiriya. For a fee of $50, you can purchase a Cultural Triangle ticket which gives you access to seven major sites valid for 14 days from the date of purchase, but the single entry ticket for Sigiriya alone is $30, which is steep but worth it.
We arrived to the impressive rock fortress of Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just after 10am to start our morning climb before the afternoon heat sets in. Admittedly, Sigiriya Rock, rising 200 metres above the surrounding forest, looks more intimidating than it really is. In fact, the ascend wasn't too difficult, just insanely busy due to the narrow staircases and crowds of people.
The entrance to Sigiriya complex is through the Water Gardens with elaborate moats for both defense and water-retaining purposes. Passing the Audience Hall, to the right is the Cobra Hood Cave, a natural rock formation that resembles the head of the cobra snake, which then takes you the main path up to the beautifully preserved frescoes collectively known as the Sigiriya Damsels. The 21 surviving damsels painted in bright hues depicts celestial beauties, or "cloud maidens" of King Kasyapa's court.
Further afield, or rather above, is a flight of limestone steps flanked by two gigantic lion's paws carved from rock leading up to the Lion Platform and King Kasyapa's Royal Palace. The path is steep but nothing overly strenuous. The views from above overlooking Sri Lanka's beautiful countryside is simply breathtaking. Far in the distance, you can see a freestanding Buddha statue, lovely lakes, and miles and miles of forest. Gorgeous, gorgeous scenery.
After three hours of exploring Sigiriya, we drove 20 minutes to the cave temples of Dambulla and the Golden Temple (entrance fee $10, not covered by the Cultural Triangle ticket). Built into a huge granite outcrop which rises above 160m, Dambulla consists of five dimly lit grottos containing numerous statues of Buddha sitting in various positions.
All the guidebooks suggest that you visit the caves in reserve order starting from humble Cave #5 and working your way to the spectacular Cave #2 known as Maharaja Vihara (Temple of the Great Kings). This cave is lined wall-to-wall with statues of Buddha of various size, including a large reclining Buddha and the ceilings were covered with intricate murals, and by far, my favorite of the five caves.
The advantages of arranging your own transportation is not only the ability to visit the attractions on your own pace without worrying about bus schedules, but you can also visit the lesser known sights as well as several spice gardens. On the way back to Kandy, we visited the monastery of Aluvihara, which holds the most important set of Theravada Buddhist scriptures. Aluivhara also consists of cave temples but these are less impressive than Dambulla, but still worth a quick visit if times permits. We also stopped to marvel at small Hindu temple just off the main Kandy-Dambulla Highway before returning to Kandy just in time for dinner.
The next day, we were off for a real adventure: a midnight hike to Adam's Peak, Sri Pada or Sacred Footprint. Stay tuned.