Dambulla, Sri Lanka

If you’ve been following this Sri Lanka series from the beginning, you’ll have read that we re-arranged our trip in order to stay at the Heritance Kandalama Lake, a hotel designed by the famed Sri Lankan Architect, Geoffrey Bawa

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The drive from Nuwara Eliya to Kandalama Lake took longer than we expected. The Google Maps did not seem to account for the traffic in the more urban areas we passed through. It took us about an hour longer than the estimated 4.5 hours.

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Heritance Kandalama Lake Hotel

Upon arriving at the hotel, our initial feeling was good and we let out a sigh of relief about our decision to rearrange the trip. The entrance to the hotel is unique in that it’s literally outdoors where the car drops you off.

The monkeys would become a common sight at certain times of the day and great fun to have around.

To make it even more unique, we had a row of monkeys waiting to greet us along a railing outside. The monkeys would become a common sight at certain times of the day and great fun to have around.

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The Heritance Kandalama Lake is not an inexpensive hotel, and it’s also not what one would consider to be “luxury” in the way that a Bulgari hotel is. You don’t stay at this hotel to be pampered, you stay at this hotel because you love architecture, the seamless interplay between indoors and outdoors, and the confident and effortless use of timeless materials and shapes. You also stay at this hotel for its genuine and sincere staff, who know exactly how to make you feel comfortable.

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To say that we fell in love with this hotel would be an understatement. It’s a stunningly beautiful property that is perched on a hillside, on a water reservoir, in the middle of the jungle. Nature plays as much a part in this building as the man-made structure does; it’s integration is Geoffrey Bawa’s genius. The hallways are carved into the hillside stones, and there’s even a private dining experience in a cave if that suits your fancy.

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Nothing in this hotel is excessive; everything is balanced in a way that is hard to describe. Stunning scenery is framed perfectly by the structure at the end of hallways, as if you’re looking at a super high-resolution 400” screen.

Nothing in this hotel is excessive; everything is balanced in a way that is hard to describe.

To make the intent clear, two stark and perfectly proportioned seats are positioned in front of the framed scene, tempting you to take a few moments to relax and enjoy the serenity of it all.

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The property encourages you to discover it by walking around the various levels that open up to different viewpoints throughout the property. There is no one view that is better than the other; they all have something unique, up to and including a dock the architect built just to enjoy the sunset. I’ll use the word effortless again as the greatest compliment, because anyone that has designed anything before knows, the greatest effort required in design comes from making something effortless.

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Sigiriya Lion Rock

If you’ve read the travel guides for Sri Lanka, you’ll know that Sigiriya Rock is a must-see destination in the country. Based on the number of people we encountered on our visit to Sigiriya Rock, it may very well be the most visited tourist site in the country! Before you go to visit this site, I think you should know a few things that will make your visit more enjoyable.

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The history of the rock is very important and makes the whole day much more meaningful; if you don’t take the time to learn about why this rock is so important, you’ll be underwhelmed and disappointed in the experience.

The history of the rock is very important and makes the whole day much more meaningful.

One of the most astounding engineering achievements of the Sri Lankan people in the 5th century was how they managed to pump water up to that high elevation. Imagine getting water from the ground level to 400 meters without modern pumps but rather through pure ingenuity!

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The entrance fee is very expensive at USD$30 per person. Interestingly, this attraction is priced in USD rather than LKR. The price for locals is less than USD$1. As has been noted several times in this series, the pricing for foreigners is an order of magnitude higher than for locals. This results in tourists paying sky-high prices, while entering completely jammed tourist sites.

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The lineup to buy tickets is atrocious and appalling. Tourists have their own entrance and their own lineup, however the area for the lineups is very small and chaotic. To make matters worse, the flow of people is such that it practically forces people to jump the queue, further enraging the whole experience. There were local touts openly selling quicker access to the front of the queue and many tourists taking them up on the offer. It took us a little more than an hour to get our tickets.

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You’ll soon however forget about the ticket lineup because the lineup to get up to the top of the rock will make the ticket buying experience seem like a breeze. I don’t know how to put this into words, but it’s either the worst experience you’ll have in Sri Lanka, or it will be the one thing that makes the trip memorable because I’m confident you’ll never forget this experience. 

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Imagine standing on an open grate bottom stairs, where you can see all the way down to the ground under your feet; you’re perched on the side of a giant rock, high up in the air, with people so compressed that you can feel the genitals of the man behind you, who is PRESSED up against your body and using you as a crutch.

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Add onto that queue jumpers who try to force their way past, and you have an idea of what it’s like. This experience wasn’t a short one, it took three hours to get to the top and it was like this the whole way up. 

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The longest wait is to go up a narrow spiral staircase to see the paintings in the cave temple; we later found out that there is a bypass which avoids that traffic jam and could have reduced the three hours down to less than one hour. If we were to visit Sigiriya Rock again, we would definitely take the bypass.

An alternative to Sigiriya

The Pidurangala Rock, which is located within a few minutes drive from Sigiriya, is one of the protector rocks to Sigiriya, and is perhaps more fun and far less expensive. A common schedule is to arrive at Pidurangala Rock before sunrise, climb to the top, and in complete tranquility, watch the sun rise with Sigiriya Rock as the foreground. With sunrise completed, you can then head over to Sigiriya Rock and climb it while the staircase is still in the shade.

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The final last few minutes of the hike up Pidurangala Rock is why this location is not as busy as it should be. It requires a small amount of bouldering capability. While we were waiting for the sun to rise, we heard a tour group struggling for 45 minutes to get over the last set of boulders. The view of Sigiriya Rock is well worth the early rise and the challenging climb at the end.

The Pidurangala Rock, which is located within a few minutes drive from Sigiriya, is perhaps more fun and far less expensive.

The route up this rock is not obvious in the pitch dark, but there were a number of dogs that helped guide us to where we needed to go. The dogs are amazing; they will bark and whine to let you know when you’re heading down the wrong path.

Common courtesy isn’t so common

On a side note, we experienced a common occurrence on this rock that we’ve experienced in a number of countries. The common denominator is tourists that lack basic courtesy. When we arrived on the rock at 5am, we noticed people had setup cameras to take time lapses of the sunrise, or had taken courteous positions for their compositions, in preparation for the sunrise. Fast forward another hour and a large group of tourists arrived, and without any courtesy or care, setup a line of tripods and cameras in front of the already established positions. 

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What’s particularly aggravating about this behaviour is that their composition would have been the same if they had setup their tripods on the same line as the others that had arrived earlier. They ruined people’s time lapses, and forced the entire line to move to new positions right when they should have been taking images. As guests of other countries, and as citizens of a global community, we can and need to do better.

Conclusion

Staying at the Heritance Kandalama Lake hotel was a highlight of our trip and we intend on coming back here again in the future. We’d love to spend a week there to relax and enjoy the excellent service and the unique ambiance.

The Sigiriya Rock was perhaps not the best experience, but it’s still worth going if you can find a way to avoid the masses of crowds. It may have been a local public holiday (it was a weekend) that caused the mad rush, so check your schedule and try and go when there are less people.

Pidurangala Rock is a must visit that is still inexpensive and less travelled. Go early and soak in the sun rise amongst the calm. Please make sure that you setup your tripod in a courteous and respectful way.

Next up in the series is the beach town of Negombo. It will be our last stop on the journey and a final chance to take in the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka.

Other articles from the Sri Lanka series:

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Comments (4)

Very interesting read, as always and very nice pictures. The one of Sigiriya Lion Rock is fantastic! Looking forward to the next chapter!

Thanks Chris! The next and final Sri Lanka article should be up this weekend.

Hi, found your site via your post about Sri Lanka (on dpreview). Browsed through your blog and enjoyed the content a lot.
Greets from a fellow traveller (or more precisely a traveling family of 4). /Anders (http://poly-cola.blogspot.com/)

Hi there, thanks for sharing the link to your site. I think I’ll be spending a lot of time looking at those great images! There are some places that you’ve been that are on my target list so I’m going to enjoy indulging in your images to get a sense of what to expect when I visit there. Thanks again for writing in!

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