Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka – If you’re traveling to Sri Lanka, I encourage you to visit the country’s former capital, Polonnaruwa. It is part of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, and famous for its beautiful ruins that date back to the 11th century AD.
Visiting Polonnaruwa was a real treat for the senses! It is a charming and quiet town with a unique historical site. Despite being there during the high tourist season, I didn’t meet crowds of tourists and was able to fully enjoy the old temples of the site.
Before telling you about Polonnaruwa’s major attractions, here are a few things to know as far as transportation and accommodation are concerned.
How To Get To Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
You may have read in my other blog posts on Sri Lanka that I toured the island on a motorcycle. So that’s how I made the 60 km trip from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa. It took me about an hour and a half to get there. If you don’t have that option, here’s how to get there using public transportation.
How to get to Polonnaruwa from Dambulla
To get to Polonnaruwa from Dambulla, your best option is to take a local bus. Go to Dambulla’s bus station and ask about the bus to Kaduruwela. That’s where you need to stop if you’re going to Polonnaruwa. Kaduruwela Station is about 5 km east of the town of Polonnaruwa. Regular bus departures are scheduled every half hour. The trip lasts about 2 hours and the first bus leaves at 7 AM from Dambulla.
Where To Stay In Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
I recommend you book a charming chalet in Hiru Tourist Rest. It’s not a luxurious place to stay but it is comfortable and has everything you need at very reasonable prices. Its location is also great and the whole setting is really nice.
If you want better accommodation and a great view of Lake Parakrama Samudra, go for The Lake Hotel. Many wild animals, different bird species and even elephants sometimes pass by so look out for them!
The rooms are spacious and very neat. Choose one with a view of the lake for a total immersion in nature.
The Entry Ticket To The Historic Site of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
The main attraction in Polonnaruwa is its ancient city which is a real open-air museum! Speaking of museums, you will need to buy your ticket before you head to the town’s historic site. Just like in Sigiriya or Anuradhapura, you can’t buy your ticket on the spot. You’ll need to get it at the museum of the city. Polonnaruwa’s museum is located here.
The ticket costs $25 or about 4500 rupees. Once you get your ticket, head to the entrance of the historical site near this temple. You can visit the site on foot but if the weather is really hot, I recommend you use a bike instead. You can ask at your hotel’s reception desk about bike rentals. It’s usually around 400 rupees a day (about $2). You’ll need at least half a day to explore the whole site.
The Best Things To Do In Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Here is a map of the site so you can locate the places you want to visit. The entrance is in the south (in green on the map), so you will visit the site from south to north until you reach the exit (in red on the map):
The Old Royal Palace
As I mentioned previously, Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka for nearly 200 years after Anuradhapura. The Sinhalese center of power had been moved further south for protection against the Indian Chola invasions.
The royal palace that you can see in the photo above belonged to King Parakumba who ruled Sri Lanka from 1153 to 1186. The building used to be 7 floors high but a large part of it was destroyed and only 3 floors remain today. You can also visit the council room or the king’s bath!
Dalada Maluwa (The Sacred Quadrangle)
Dalada Maluwa, or the Sacred Quadrangle, was my absolute favorite spot and I recommend you spend as much time as you want there. On your right, there’s the Satmahal Prasada tower (pictured above). This is what’s called a rectangular ziggurat. It used to be 7 floors high but only 6 can be seen today.
Then there’s the Hatadage Temple, which was built by King Nissankamalla in the 12th century. The story goes that the temple was built in 60 (hata) hours, hence its name. Do you think they had 3D printers at the time? 😀
The highlight of the trip was the beautiful Vatadage, right in front of the Hatadage temple. The Vatadage is actually a typical Sri Lankan temple and there are only 10 of them today, including one in Mihintale that I also visited. But the most famous one of them is undoubtedly that of Polonnaruwa.
As you can see, it is a circular construction that is usually covered by a dome but this one has collapsed over time. It is a Buddhist building that is home to 4 well-preserved Buddha statues. It is also said that Vatadage used to be home to the famous Buddha tooth relic, which is now in another temple in Kandy.
There are other great temples in this area so make sure to explore as much of it as you can.
The Pabalu Vehera Stupa
The Pabalu Vehera stupa is not so much visited; I think it’s because it is located behind a small forest and therefore is a bit difficult to find. All the more reason to take a look at this beautiful brick structure built by Queen Rupawathi, if you ask me!
You may notice the presence of small stone vats at the entrance of many temples in Sri Lanka, including the Pabalu Vehera. These vats were filled with water and used by visitors to wash their feet before entering a sacred site (a bit like ablutions).
The Rankoth Vehera Stupa
If you head north, the Rankoth Vehera stupa is another must-visit attraction. Like the Hatadage and the Vatadage, it was built by King Nissanka Malla in 1190. This stupa is larger than the previous one, it is 170 meters in diameter and 33 meters high.
I also met this huge lizard; it’s actually an Asian water monitor, not to be confused with the Komodo dragon. I’m sure you’ll see some during your trip to Sri Lanka so rest assured, these lizards may look intimidating but they are harmless. 🙂
The Lankatilaka Viharaya Temple
The Lankatilaka Viharaya Temple The Lankatilaka Viharaya temple is also one of the most remarkable places in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and I really recommend you visit it. Its structure consists of two enormous walls, 4 meters wide and 17 meters high each, forming a corridor leading to a magnificent 14-meter high Buddha statue. As you can see, the head of the statue has collapsed and only the body remains today.
There’s also this beautiful stupa which is right next to the temple.
This is our last (but not least) stop on this tour of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s the Gal Viharaya site which is home to astounding Buddha statues, carved out of granite rock. The different layers of granite are the colorful evidence of that.
There are 4 statues in total that have been carved on the same rock and they all date back to the 12th century.
When leaving Gal Viharaya, have a look at the lake in front of the statues, it’s filled with water lilies!
I’ll leave you on these beautiful flowers and hope you will visit Polonnaruwa soon! It was definitely one of my favorite spots in Sri Lanka and it reminded me of places like Ayutthaya in Thailand or the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. These are the kind of cities where the total change of scenery makes you feel like you’re traveling back in time.
If you enjoyed this blog post, please let me know in the comments below! It’s always nice to know that my advice is helpful to you. 😉
I hope you have a great trip to Sri Lanka!
See you around for more breathtaking adventures in Asia.