Polonnaruwa is a quiet town set at a large water reservoir, surrounded by paddy fields. It is also a site of the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, blossoming between the 11th and 13th centuries. Although now in ruin and quite expensive to visit, it’s still very much worth a look.
Polonnaruwa on a budget
Polonnaruwa was just a 2 hours drive (past the picturesque Minneriya reservoir) from Dambulla. We stayed a short walk from the main roundabout, among paddy fields full of storks and ibises. Accommodation in Polonnaruwa is good value for money. Both of the places we stayed at were within walking distance from the bus stop. The first one was a brand new house with strong internet connection. The night cost just 1300 rupee. Later we moved to another en-suite room closer to the main road.
The owner of the first guesthouse was very pushy. Right from the moment we stepped in, he started asking if we need a meal, a tuk-tuk to see the ancient capital, or a safari trip. Even when we declined, he still called the safari guy and handed the phone to us. Then a tuk-tuk driver turned up at our doorstep! I couldn’t stand that man. Even though the accommodation was perfect, we moved the next day.
The food in the shops and restaurants in Polonnaruwa is overpriced. The most run-down eatery charged a steep 350 for a simple curry. Going far enough along the highway towards Kaduruwela would take you out of the tourist zone. On the first evening, we found a super-friendly family place with more reasonable prices. But for the best value for money, you would need to travel 7km to Kaduruwela itself, either by bus or bike. We went there by bicycle, taking picturesque roads along the canal and through paddy fields. It’s also worth catching the mobile tuk-tuk bakery plying the main street in the morning.
Getting to Polonnaruwa without a ticket: a tuk-tuk scam
At the first accommodation, the tuk-tuk driver and the house owner tried to convince us to get to Polonnaruwa archaeological complex ‘for free’. The scam goes as follows: a tuk-tuk driver has a deal with the guards at the sight who would let him in. The price quoted: 7000 rupees, which is less than two regular entrance fees of 4600. We read that those tuk-tuk drivers won’t take you to the most important monuments, that are better guarded. Indeed, tickets are being checked at least at two points within the Archaeological Park. It’s worth keeping it in mind if you’re thinking of getting through to the complex on your own. For us, it wouldn’t make sense anyways as Sayak, (as a citizen of India), had his ticket half price. The best way to explore Polonnaruwa sacred city is by bike. Some guesthouses rent them for reasonable prices.
Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, or both?
At first, we were considering visiting both Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Both are ancient capitals of Sri Lanka and both are declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, most of the blogs comparing the two state that Anuradhapura ruins are not as well preserved (they’re older) and much more scattered. On the other hand, Anuradhapura is an active place of worship, which could make it more lively. As both sites cost $25 to enter (for me, half of that for Sayak), we decided to spend that money on something that would bring us more excitement- dolphin watching in Kalpitiya. Besides, exploring Polonnaruwa sacred city was a perfectly satisfying experience. We did go to Anuradhapura, but only to visit the nearby Mihintale.
Cycling along the reservoir and ruins
We arrived a bit too late on the first day to visit the ruins without a rush, so we decided to leave it for the following morning. Instead, we rented bicycles for half a day and followed the advice to ride along the Parakrama Samudraya reservoir. This artificial lake was made in the 12th century, during the golden age of Polonnaruwa.
Our first stop was Pothgul Vihara: a group of ruins of an old Buddhist monastery, which also served as a library. A large brick stupa and some small ruins stood in the woods. However, the most attractive was the ancient standing statue cut in stone. It could represent King Parakramabahu I holding a yoke-(a symbol of power) or Pulasthi sage with a leaf manuscript. Very few tourists made it that far so we enjoyed the ruins for ourselves.
We cycled along the banks of the lake through a smooth, almost empty tarmac road. We could enjoy the view of the lake on our right and the paddy fields and coconut groves on the left. It was a great bird- watching tour: I saw plenty of peacocks, storks, ibises, cormorants and pelicans.
We were reaching the village bordering the Angammedilla National Park when we realised we would have to go back if we wanted to return before dark. We made over 20 km that day.
Pollonaruwa Archeological Park
We woke up early to be one of the first ones to arrive at the Pollonaruwa Archeological Park. The ticket counter near the clock tower was closed- it opened at 8.30 am. Following locals’ advice, we arrived at the Archeological Museum, where we bought the tickets. The price is in dollars, then converted into Sri Lankan rupees . Sayak was lucky to be an Indian citizen. The SARC countries citizens paid just half the price of the foreigner fee. We got a free but not very detailed map with a ticket. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa lies to the right of the main road (if heading towards Habarana).
We entered the city around 8 am. It was a perfect time- there were just four people on bikes ahead of us. We headed first to the ruins of the Vejayanta Pasada –Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu the Great, easily distinguished by their imposing, high walls. Back in the day, it had seven storeys! Just opposite the palace stands Council Chamber of King Parakramabahu the Great, an audience hall with beautifully carved steps, two moonstones and balustrades. Behind it, stairs lead to a rather unappealing Kumara Pokuna (Prince Pond) with an adjacent ancient changing room. We were leaving that part of the complex when the first tourist bus arrived. We were trying to be ahead of this group for the next couple of hours.
We followed the handout map and headed north to the second important and impressive cluster of sights: the Sacred Quadrangle. Vatadage is a circular structure around a stupa surrounded by columns. The one in Polonnaruwa has four seated Buddhas at each entrance at four cardinal directions.
The Vatadage stands opposite to Hetadage and Atadage. Both edifices once housed the Relic of the Sacred Tooth, now kept in Kandy. You might be also surprised by a pyramidal structure of Sat Mahai Prasadaya located in the corner of the quadrangle. Or the beautifully carved colonnade of Latha Mandayapa. Tuparamaya Gedige is the only building in Pollonaruwa with well preserved gedige roof, and the oldest image house at Polonnaruwa. We enjoyed that place a lot, leaving because a large group of tourists arrived.
We detoured from the main road to see Pabalu Vehera stupa and Shiva Devale no.2. We could hear the birds singing as we cycled on a bumpy dirt road through the woods. The Siva devale is small but fully preserved, with four beheaded bulls at each corner. This Hindu temple is the oldest building in Polonnaruwa, built during Indian Chola empire rule.
I suggested sitting on a bench facing the stupa to have breakfast, but Sayak thought it would be disrespectful. Instead, he pointed to a rock under a tree. There were a few monkeys nearby, so I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea. It wasn’t. The second Sayak took the first bun out of his bag, dozens of monkeys surrounded him screaming. Before we knew it, the monkeys tore the plastic bag into tatters and snatched all the buns. So much for our breakfast.
After returning to the main road, we passed through the northern gate (just a low ruin now). Soon, we came across Menik Vehera, another stupa on our left, located on a small hillock. Once we passed the stupa, we stopped at the second ticket checking point. Thus, we arrived at the last large cluster of sights. The first thing which caught our attention was an enormous stupa dominating the landscape – Rankoth Vihara. Sadly, the tourist buses got ahead of us -dozens of people were already there. We decided to carry on to the other sites, hoping to arrive there before the others and return to Rankoth Vihara later. It was a great choice- our strategy paid off.
The extensive ruins of the largest monastery – Alahana Vihara – were almost empty when we arrived. We went past the old bath, up the stairs of a rock platform and got stunned with the view of Lankatilaka Temple. The three remaining walls shelter a 14-meters tall standing Buddha statue (unfortunately headless). Beautiful carvings decorate the external, four meters thick walls of the temple. Directly next to the Lankatilaka stood Kiri Vihara stupa: the only one which retained lime layer dyeing it milky white. It’s the second-largest one in Polonnaruwa.
You could walk down and across the street from Kiri Vihara to Gal Vihara, but as we had our bikes, we had to go back to fetch them and cycle to the parking lot in front of the Vihara. That was another place where our tickets got checked. We wanted to take a shortcut to Gal Vihara via a lotus pond, but guards stopped us. Yet another proof that it is not so easy to sneak in without a ticket.
There were a few independent tourists around but no big groups yet when we arrived, so we could have a good look. Gal Vihara is a granite rock with four statues of Buddha hewn directly from it. One of them is a standing Buddha in a very unusual position: with his arms crossed. We refilled our bottles with drinking water at the checkpoint and carried on.
It was probably the longest distance between any given two sites. It would be quite a long walk if you decided to see Polonnaruwa by walking. We stopped first at Demala May Seya stupa, which appeared rather unimpressive to us: just a rubble round structure covered with scaffolding. Back in the day, this building was enormous. We carried on straight and had a quick look at a lovely Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond), a stone-cut pool to our left.
Finally, we arrived at Tivanka Pilimage (Tivanka Image House). It was a large brick building covered with a roof for protection. It was worth riding up, as it was the only building in Polonnaruwa with preserved (though in poor shape) murals dating to the 12th century. Furthermore, it had some carvings on the outer walls.
We retraced our steps to come back to the largest stupa. It was around noon, and the whole site looked incomparably busier than in the morning. Nevertheless, we circled the stupa with only a dozen other people.
With this, we completed the route. Sayak lost his hat somewhere on the way, so we cycled back and left through the entrance. We were the only ones going in this direction, but it wasn’t a problem to leave through the entrance gate. As we skipped breakfast, we were famished and decided to see the museum (included in the joined ticket) after lunch.
The visit to the Archeological Museum (on the other side of the road, at the lakeside) was disappointing. The exhibition was very old-fashioned – it looked like nothing changed from the 80s. Walking a bit further up the path along the lake would take you to the rather unimpressive ruins of the Palace of Nishshanka Malla king (free of charge).
How to get to Polonnaruwa?
Polonnaruwa can be reached directly by bus from Colombo (6-8h), Kandy (4h), Dambulla (2h), Anuradhapura New Town (3h).
There is a bus stop at the clock tower, near to the tourist info, where all the long-distance buses would stop. If you want to be sure to get a seat, you could start from Kaduruwela bus stand.
Polonnaruwa train station is in fact closer to Kaduruwela. You could get by train from Colombo or Trincomalee but you’d need to change in Gal Oya.
Prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]
4600 entrance to Polonnaruwa (foreigners)
2300 entrance to Polonnaruwa (SARC countries citizens)
1300 accommodation (nice double room ensuite)
1250 accommodation with breakfast (nice double room ensuite)
250 full day bike rental
150 meal at an eatery in/ towards Kudawarela
120 pineapple juice
107 bus Dambulla- Polonnaruwa
100 bicycle rental for half a day
35 a roll from a mobile bakery