Best Things to Do in Dambulla

by Sarah de Winne
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One of the best things to do in Dambulla Sri Lanka is to visit the ancient Rangiri cave temples.  These stunning temples date back to the first century BC and have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991.

Where is Dambulla?

Dambulla is a city located in the centre of Sri Lanka and is therefore easily accessible by car or alternatively by bus which is very cheap.  The journey from Colombo to Dambulla is a 4-hour drive north-east and from Kandy to Colombo is a 2-hour drive north.  There is no direct train route to Dambulla, but Habarana is the nearest railway station which is 30 minutes away.  From there, you can take a tuk-tuk to the city.

Things to Do in Dambulla – Dambulla Cave Temple

Geographically, Dambulla is centrally situated on a significant crossroad.  As a result, the city is the main vegetable distribution centre for the whole of Sri Lanka and has a well-known produce market on the Matale road.  However, the city’s most famous attraction for tourists and pilgrims alike is the fascinating Dambulla Cave Temple.

The Dambulla Cave Temple is comprised of 5 caves of different sizes which have been carved out of a 160 m high rock high above the surrounding plains.  The caves feature an impressive 157 statues of Buddha, Gods and Goddesses and Sri Lankan Kings.  In addition, the walls and ceilings of the caves are covered in intricately painted murals with a surface area of 2,100 m² which are a sight to behold in their own right. To see just how beautiful these caves are, watch our video.

We were taken aback by the beauty and calm spirituality of this elevated sanctuary.  For 22 centuries, the Dambulla Cave Temples have been a pilgrimage site and people continue to worship in these tranquil temples today.  It was very moving to witness men, women and children laying carpets of lotus flowers as offerings to the different representations of Buddha and to learn a little more about their beliefs and traditions.

Don’t be surprised if the temples appear closed for short periods during your visit.  At certain times of the day, the Buddhas are offered food and allowed an opportunity to rest.  Use this short break to enjoy the views from the exterior of the cave temples or sit by the lotus pool or under the sacred Bo tree (Bodhi tree).  The Bo tree is symbolic as being the tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment.


Dambulla Cave Entrance Fee

The tourist entrance to the caves is situated in a road which can be accessed from the Colombo road or Kandy road.   You need to buy a ticket at the bottom of the hill before you start your ascent up the 800 steps to the temples.  The Dambulla Cave entrance fee is 1,500 Sri Lankan Rupees.

The climb up to the temples is fairly steep but offers amazing views of the surrounding landscape.  Once you reach the top, you will need to remove your shoes before entering the temple complex.  For 25 Sri Lankan Rupees, you can leave your shoes securely with an attendant until the end of your visit.  You pay when you get your shoes back!

In addition, make sure you dress appropriately and respectfully when you visit the temples.  In order to gain entry to the complex, both men and women need to cover legs and shoulders.  Don’t worry if you forget, we noticed stalls selling loose trousers and cover-up scarves as we climbed the steps from the tourist entrance to the summit.

The Golden Temple, Dambulla

Once you’ve finished exploring the cave temples, don’t forget to pay a quick visit to the Golden Temple.  Head down the opposite side of the hill where you will pass many small stalls selling hats, mango slices and drinks to refresh you if the weather is hot.  Watch out for the mischievous monkeys because they like to steal and eat whatever they can get hold of!

As you descend, you will spot the enormous golden Buddha through the trees on the left-hand side of the path.  Once you reach the bottom of the hill, you will find the Golden Temple on your left which features the enormous golden sitting Buddha and a Buddhist museum underneath.  We climbed the short flight of stairs up to the bottom of the golden Buddha and found a terrace where worshippers continued to make their offerings.  Flanking the Buddha to the right are numerous statues of brightly coloured monks and elephants.

It is worth noting that the path you descend is actually the entrance to the cave temples for Sri Lankan tourists who are not required to pay.  However, don’t turn up here and try to enter the cave temples for free.  Tickets are checked at the top.  If you don’t have one, you will be asked to descend the hill the other side, buy a ticket and re-climb all the stairs!

Dambulla to Anuradhapura

One hour north of Dambulla by car or 1.5 hours by bus is another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the ancient city of Anuradhapura which is part of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle along with nearby Sigiriya.  Buses run from the main bus stop in Dambulla to Anuradhapura every 20 to 30 minutes.

Dambulla To Sigiriya

Dambulla is also located close to Sigiriya where you can visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the ruins of a popular and intriguing fortress and palace complex built on top of a 370 m high rock.

Many people opt to stay in Sigiriya and use the town as a base to visit Dambulla as it’s an easy 30-minute drive by tuk-tuk.  However, we decided to split our time between the two sites choosing to first spend a few days relaxing at Nilaveli beach on the north-east coast which is a 2-hour drive from Dambulla or 2.5 hours by bus.

After our visit to Nilaveli, we returned to stay in Dambulla which gave us time to visit the cave temples and to spend time relaxing in our choice of hotel before we continued with our Sri Lanka itinerary to Kandy.

Dambulla Rooms

Whilst we were in Dambulla, we stayed at the peaceful Sigiriana Resort by Thilanka on the Kandy road.  The hotel was a short tuk-tuk ride away from the Dambulla caves and had a lovely tranquil setting amongst orchards and a rice paddy field.  After our visit to the caves, we enjoyed a massage in the small spa and a late afternoon swim.  The view from the swimming pool was incredible with the mountains in the distance and the paddy within touching distance from the water!

Thilanka Resort and Spa Hotel

For more information about Sri Lanka check Sri lanka visitor centre

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