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Sigiriya: Climbing Sri Lanka’s Lion Rock

Essential things-to-know about exploring the ancient fortress in the “Cultural Triangle” of Sri Lanka called Sigiriya (otherwise known as Lion Rock).

While planning our Sri Lanka trip, visiting these ruins was at the top of my list of things we had to do. Make sure to check out our comprehensive Sri Lanka travel itinerary! We knew that the ancient rock fortress would be full of many other visitors, but we weren’t going there with the intention of having the rock all to ourselves.

Sigiriya: The Legacy

You’ll find Sigiriya in the Sri Lankan Cultural Triangle (named for its concentration of cultural and historical sites), near the town of Dambulla.

In the 5th century, King Kasyapa built the royal fortess we know as Sigiriya on top of the rocky plateau previously used as a monastery. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the landmark earned its nickname, Lion Rock, due to the remains of an enormous lion statue about halfway up the rock. All that’s left today of the lion are its paws, which are still quite massive.

The Cost of Sigiriya

The entrance fee into Sigiriya is not cheap. Like many other top attractions in Sri Lanka, the price charged to foreigners is much higher than the local fee. The rate you pay as a foreign visitor to Sigiriya is $30 USD [~4400 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR)], vs. a local price of 50 LKR (.34USD)!

The Climb

After entering the park, the path takes you down a stroll through Sigiriya’s beautiful and expansive gardens, some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. The path, lined with ponds and terraces and the view of the rock square in the middle, marks a perfect spot to snap your postcard shot of the famous site—and maybe a few selfies too!

Monkey Madness

Sigiriya is full of monkeys, fully capable of beckoning a gape or two of astonishment at their rather….questionable behavior at times. Monkeys have a bad rep in Sri Lanka, and for good reason (we had been the victim of at least a few monkey food thefts). Still it’s entertaining to monkey-watch from a distance. Just be sure to keep your food tucked away, and under no circumstances should you touch them! Yes, even if it’s an adorable baby monkey.

Avoiding the Lines

The long line up the steep main entrance to the base of the rock gave us pause, and we instead decided to weave around and explore the site of Lion Rock before climbing. In doing so, we stumbled upon a shortcut on the right side that allowed us to join in near the front of the line! We made our way up some rock-hewn steps to wait in line for the metal stairs and pathway that would take us up to the rock. A short way up this path is the Mirror Wall, which is a highly polished portion of the rock that has been covered in hundreds of years of graffiti.

Making your way up the rock, the views onto the verdant jungle surrounding Sigiriya really open up. Enjoying these views can help you forget the heat and crowds a bit.

Grotto Frescoes

The frescoes, found in a grotto partway up the climb, constitute a major highlight of Sigiriya. To get to the grotto, you ascend a tightly-wound spiral staircase—if you’re scared of heights, don’t look down! Sweeping, delicately illustrated frescoes of women from over a thousand years ago cover the walls of the grotto.

Past the Paws of Lion Rock

Passing the monumental lion’s paws, the pathways hug the mountain tighter as elevation increases. The crowds had started to thin out a bit because of the rain—plus one for rainy weather! We, however, had no plans to turn back. Our arrival to the top of the rock was paired with awe. The view of the Sri Lankan landscape from the top of Lion Rock stunned us, encompassing miles and miles of forest, plains, and mountains. The expansive view, combined with the busy cloud action that day, provided a feast for the eyes.

The buildings that once covered the top of Lion Rock have long since disappeared, and all that remains of them are their foundations and walls. The rains of the season had made them into beautiful pools that day. After a hot and sticky climb to the top, the fresh breeze from on high hit the spot as we relaxed, soaking up the views. We could even see an elephant in a pond down past the bottom of the rock!

We spent about an hour on the top of the fortress. Coming down is much easier than climbing up, but we still felt hot in the heat of the day. We eagerly made our way to the parking lot at the exit where we located the tuktuk of our driver from our guesthouse, Rasta Bob, by following the sound of pulsing reggae music. Bob took us to a beautiful spot to take shots of Sigiriya from near the pond where we saw the elephant. Our Rasta friend then drove us back into Dambulla and dropped us off in front of the Golden Temple/Cave Temple complex.

Sigiriya is an amazing place in a beautiful location, truly one of the icons of Sri Lanka. Even though you probably won’t ever have it to yourself, it’s still worth your time. Our favorite part of visiting this iconic landmark was enjoying the views from the top—they really can’t be beat.

Things to Know

There isn’t really a dry season in Sigiriya.

  • We visited Sigiriya in December—and while the weather is much cooler than summer (hard to imagine since it was still hot even in the winter!), it was very rainy.
  • If it rains when climbing Sigiriya, care must be taken to avoid sliding on the slippery metal steps and pathways. Watch your step!

Sigiriya has about 1200 steps.

  • Be prepared for some exercise, and bring enough water!

It can get quite busy.

  • The earlier you go, the better! We were exhausted and got a late start when we went, and by the time we arrived, the rock was already pretty busy.

You may not be allowed to photograph the frescoes.

  • Whether or not you’ll be able to photograph the grotto frescoes or not is up to the guard—we had no trouble at all, but have heard that other people were told not to. Either way, don’t use flash!


Source: Sigiriya: Climbing Sri Lanka’s Lion Rock

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