Sightseeing in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Aug 30, 2012

Despite our tiring two-day journey from Phi Phi, Thailand to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, we jumped right into the sightseeing. We spent the night of August 29 at the Milano Tourist Rest House and were able to get a full night’s sleep. Milano is located near many of the sites and close to restaurants by tuk tuk, which are much cheaper than eating at Milano.  However, when you arrive at night you probably won’t want to go anywhere else and will end up paying more than double for a meal at Milano.  The room was nothing special at about USD $30/night.  They had wi-fi but it didn’t work in the room, only in the common areas.

Sights of Anuradhapura

The next morning we set out to see the sights of Anuradhapura.

There were a few options for visiting the sights. The first was by bicycle, but we are glad we did not choose that option, as we would not have been able to see as much and it would have been difficult in the heat. Our hotel was happy to arrange a tuk tuk (three wheeler) driver for the day and gave us two possible pricing structures.  We could pay the 3,200 Rupees/person  entrance fee for the sights plus 2,000 Rupees for the driver, for a total of 8,400 Rupees. Or we could just pay the driver 6,000 Rupees, and rather than pay for entrance tickets he could get us into the sights by tipping his friends.  Either way, we were going to spend a good chunk of change, as the entrance fees alone for two people would cost USD $50.

There used to be a “Round Ticket” for $40 or $50 per person that would gain you access to the sights in the cultural triangle, including Anuradhapura,  Polonuwara, and Sigiriya, but as of January 1, 2012 Round Tickets are no longer offered. So you have to pay USD $25-$30 per person for each area.  And the sights within those areas that are run by monks charge additional fees of around 200-500 Rupees/person.

We opted to also add in Mhintale in the same day, paying the tuk tuk driver an extra 1,500 Rupees.

It was already late morning by the time we left the hotel, and there was a lot to see! We had a simple map from the hotel that we used to number off sights, so we could remember later where all we had been.

Our first stop of the morning was Isurumuniya Stupa.

Isurumuniya Stupa, Sri Lanka
Isurumuniya Stupa, Sri Lanka

As you can see, the temple is built within and around rocks.  There is an associated museum that has stone carvings including the famous ‘two lovers’, among others.

Afterwards our guide took us to see the impressive ancient baths of ‘Ranmasu Uyana’ or ‘Gold Fish Park’, a  short walk from Isurumuniya.

Ancient Baths of 'Ranmasu Uyana' or 'Gold Fish Park'
Ancient Baths of 'Ranmasu Uyana' or 'Gold Fish Park'

There are lots of langur monkeys hangin’ around Anuradhapura!  I suggest you stay away from them as they are known to bite!

Langur Monkeys in the Bodhi Tree
Langur Monkeys in the Bodhi Tree

Next stop was Mirisaweti Stupa.

Mirisawetiya Vihara

Mirisawetiya Vihara was the first stupa that we had encountered that was painted white and dome shaped.  Like many of the stupas built in this region, it contains significant Buddha relics that are said to have been placed in a scepter and could not be moved from this location and thus a stupa was erected in its location.

Heidi blending into Mirisawetiya

Oh, and I should mention that despite the temperature of over 40 degrees Celsius, you are not allowed to wear shoes or socks around the temples.  Yes, it is very hot and you may not get to enjoy it as much as you would if the temperature was cooler!

About midday, we stopped in the sweltering heat for the main attraction, which included the Sacred Bodhi Tree, Brazen Place, and Ruwanwell Stupa all within walking distance of each other.

To get to Sri Maha Bodhi you have to walk down a long path with hundreds of other pilgrims, then when you get near the entrance you are required to remove your shoes and walk the rest of the way.  This area is a maze of sorts and I recommend that you use to get an understanding of the area before wandering around.

Sri Maha Bodhi, the great ancient bodhi tree protected behind a wall

The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is said to be a cutting from the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment that was located in Bhod Gaya, India. That makes this tree thousands of years old!  While there are no people in this photo, there were hundreds of pilgrims around it praying, chanting and singing songs.

Ruwanweliseya Stupa

On our way back to the tuk tuk we stopped at Ruwanweliseya, which was one of the most impressive and beautifully restored of all the stupas we had seen in Sri Lanka.  In the photo above you can see the relief elephant sculptures that are on the wall that surrounds the stupa.

Dome of Ruwanweliseya
Broken Elephant sculptures line a wall at Ruwanweliseya

Then we were on to Thuparama Stupa.  This stupa is considered to be the oldest in Sri Lanka that is related to Buddhism.

 Thuparama Stupa
Thuparama Stupa

Notice the pillars that surround the dome.  This is the only stupa that we encountered that had them around the structure.  If you did a search for Thuparama, you might find images showing that there was a vatadage – a structure built around the stupa to protect it.

Next was the Elephant Pond (named for its large size, not any elephants in the area), near Lankarama.

Elephant Pond near Lankarama

This was one of our favorite structures in Anuradhapura because it was designed with a series of underground canals that link it to the Periyamkulama Tank.  So there is always some water in this tank as the canals still function to this day.

Our guide showing us one of the conduits to the pond

The colossal Elephant Pond which was believed to be used by monks is six times the size of an olympic size swimming pool.

From the pond we walked over to the Sandakada pahana, aka Moon stone.  The moon stones which were placed at the entrances of Buddhist temples were originally from Anuradhapura, before spreading to other places like Polonnaruwa.

Well Preserved Moon Stone in Anuradhapura
Well Preserved Moon Stone in Anuradhapura

It’s surprising that this stone and the entrance steps survive to this day, yet the rest of the structure is lost.  Only parts of the foundation remain as well.  When you visit the Moon stone it’s best to have a guide explain the significance in order to really appreciate it.  While our guide did his best to explain it, a man selling wooden lock boxes designed like the moon stone gave a much better and animated story about its history.  Of course, we also ended up buying the wooden box from him too … after some haggling 😉

A short drive later through the dirt roads of Anuradhapura we arrived at the under reconstruction Abhayagiri Vihara.

Abhayagiri Vihara

I wish we could have seen this ruin while it was still a ‘ruin’. Abhayagiri remains one of the most important and sacred pilgrimages for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Despite the condition, it’s still impressive and massive in size and you can see it from miles away.

Then a quick stop at Twin Ponds, Kuttam Pokuna.  Similar to the Elephant Pond, these ponds are fed by underground conduits and were also used by monks for bathing.

Twin Ponds - Kuttam Pokuna


Kuttam Pokuna large pond in front and small in the back, but you cant see it
Kuttam Pokuna - explanation

Followed by Temple of Tooth Relic below.  The tooth relic is now housed in Kandy but it was transferred to several other places after leaving Anuradhapura.

Temple of the Tooth Relic

Around the corner from the Temple of the Tooth Relic lies the trough below.

Heidi next to the rice container. Now that's a large trough, for humans!
Heidi next to the rice container. Now that's a large trough, for humans!

Our guide told us that the trough above was a container that was filled with cooked rice and served by monks who would scoop a bowl full of rice for other monks.

And finally, our last stop within the Anuradhapura area was the Royal Palace.

Entrance to the Royal Palace

There isn’t much left of the Royal Palace and it is one of those places where you need a guide who really understands the historical significance, otherwise you probably won’t be impressed.  Our guide didn’t seem to know anything about it so we just walked around and admired the giant mango trees in the back before we left.

After exiting the old area, we stopped in town for lunch at around 3pm. Our driver dropped us at a restaurant that offered rice and curry. We had a tasty meal for about USD $4. After our short meal break we were back on the road headed to Mihintale.


Sights of Mihintale

At Mihintale we decided to hire a guide for a little under $10. We climbed up the hill and he explained the sights as we went. Instead of going to the main Dagoba, we climbed an even higher hill to get a good view of the area. We still had to pay the 500 Rupees/ per person entrance fee, as two monks climbed part way up the hill to sell us our tickets. The view from the top of the hill was worth the climb and our guide was very knowledgeable and worth the price.

First we had to try a wood apple.  They look more like a kiwi but have a hard shell that needs to be cracked open like an egg.  It does have a wood taste to it and is only mildly sweet.  Our guide recommended that you eat it with your thumb to dig out the paste like meat of the fruit.  We only wanted one but the lady selling them insisted that we buy a whole bag so we did for about $1 usd.

Pile of wood apples for sale
Heidi holding a cracked open wood apple ready to eat

Then we started our ascent to the top of the hill.  We had no idea how long or how high we had to climb and it was a moderate trek, but there were many sites to see along the way to help break up the trek and it made it mostly easy.

Front view of Kantaka Chethiya

The most impressive site here was Kantaka Chethiya, which sits on the top of a hill. What you see in the images is a reconstruction done in the 1930s but was originally constructed about 100 BC.

Kantaka Chethiya

About an hour later we reached the top of a different hill of Eth Vehera Dagaba, to get a view of Mihinthale Maha Seya

Heidi and George at our final destination of the day, sweat and all
view of Maha Seya from a higher vantage point, Eth Vehera Dagaba

You can’t see them in the photo above, but there were many people climbing the rock to the lower right of the Stupa.  We were glad that we got a better vantage point with no other tourists!  So remember, Eth Vehera Dagaba, a little farther up a different hill is the place to see the stupa for sunset.

Mihinthale Maha Seya at sundown

By the time we made our way back down it was already getting dark. We were dropped back at our Milano guest house around 8:30 PM, and since there are no restaurants nearby (at least to be able to find in the dark), we had to eat at the hotel restaurant again, which is way over-priced. At least it is convenient!

We didn’t spend much time in Anuradhapura because there was so much to see in our limited time in Sir Lanka.  If you are into ancient temples then you should allot at least two full days here and when the temperature is much more forgiving.

After dinner we asked lots of questions at the reception. In order to forgo two bus rides and an extra day worth of traveling, we decided to take a taxi the next day to Sigiriya and then on to Kandy.

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