If you were to Google ‘Sri Lanka’ no doubt one of the first images to appear would be that of Sigiriya – a 200 metre tall rock, home to the preserved ruins of a palace built over 1500 years ago, and Sri Lanka’s most visited historic site.
Whilst the rock itself is commonly referred to as Sigiriya by most, it’s actual name is Lion Rock – a name derived from a carving of a lion that formed a gateway on the plateau on the rock which provided the final ascent to the palace on the very top. Today, all that is left is the lions paws either side of a staircase, that was thought to have been built into the lion’s mouth.
Climbing to the top of Lion Rock is part of almost everyones itinerary on their visit to Sri Lanka, and I’ve now had the opportunity to climb it not just once, but twice! Here’s what you can expect if you’d like to incorporate a climb on your visit to Sri Lanka.
As you make your way into Sigiriya and travel along Sigiriya Road, the towering Lion Rock appears through the jungle, dominating the landscape – it really is massive! You can walk into the park on foot, taking a left and walking for about a kilometre along the moat. This is where you’ll find all amenities required before commencing your climb – toilets and refreshments to your left, as well as the ticketing office, and the entrance to your right.
Beautifully preserved gardens (among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world!) are to your left and right as you make your way to the rock after having your ticket stamped. These consist of water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens. Look out for water monitor lizards, snakes, monkeys and dogs!
At the end of the gardens, the climb to the top of Lion Rock commences, with a series of short yet steep staircases. The stairs are very narrow, so be sure to tread carefully as it’s easy to slip. Every couple of levels is a plateau with an opportunity to rest and take in the views that stretch for miles.
The stairways continue to a halfway point, where man-made walkways have been built. Here, you surrender your ticket at the second checkpoint. You can take a vertical winding staircase (enclosed within a wire cage) up to view a series of frescoes that were painted as decorations by King Kasyapa during his rule (477 – 495 CE). You can’t take photos of the frescoes, but its worth the quick climb up.
After viewing the frescoes and taking the exit vertical staircase, you continue along the flat section known as the ‘Mirror Wall’. Originally the surface of this wall was so highly polished, the King was able to see his reflection. Now, it’s practically dull, with it’s writings looking more like graffiti than sacred texts of old.
With one further steep staircase at the end of the mirrored wall section, you reach the largest plateau of the rock and the famed Lion gateway. Take the opportunity to enjoy the breeze and catch your breath whilst taking in the scenery, before making the final ascent up the staircase through the lion’s paws and up the narrow yet stable aluminium staircase – this is a recent addition to Lion Rock.
The summit of Lion Rock covers 1.6 hectares – the size is pretty incredible. Today, all that remains are the foundations of the palace built over 1500 years ago. It’s hard to try and visualise what it would have looked like, but what you can appreciate nowadays is the incredible view from the terraced summit, in every direction. Whilst the summit is largely exposed, there are a number of trees around and a delightful breeze to cool you down.
The climb up took approximately 45 minutes with a few stops – and that’s for someone like me with a minimum amount of fitness! Mike was able to reach the summit in around 25 minutes. The climb up, while physically a bit taxing, is not a difficult climb. It takes around 20 minutes to reach the bottom when descending. Coupled with making your way in, purchasing tickets, exploring the gardens on the way in, spending some time on the summit and visiting the museum on the way out (we ran out of time on both occasions to visit), you should allow 2 – 3 hours to explore the site.
Was Lion Rock worth the climb? As mentioned before, ascending to the summit is kind of the ‘done thing’ on a visit to Sri Lanka. If your travel plans incorporate a visit to Sigirya or one of the nearby tourist hubs (Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura) and you have a half a day to spare, then you may as well make the trip to Sigiriya. We hate to say it but we weren’t super ‘wowed’ by the experience. A large part of that was to do with the expensive entrance fee – it definitely took the shine off the experience. It’s not a particularly spiritual or magical experience either – crowds are common at most tourist attractions, we get that, but at Sigiriya – the sheer number of people in such a small space really takes away from letting the enormity of the rock affect you. The views from the summit, whilst extensive (but only if you visit at the right time of day), aren’t exactly of incredible terrain and sights – just trees.
Climbing Lion Rock was fun, physically challenging, and it was amazing to think that over 1500 years a go, the site was a thriving, bustling palace, city and fortress – impressive by any standards. However, if you are unable to fit Sigiriya into your travel itinerary – don’t stress. You’re not missing out on too much.
- How to get to Sigiriya?
Sigiriya can be accessed by a local bus from the bustling hub of Dambulla, just 15 kilometres away. These buses run every 45 minutes throughout the day and the journey costs just 40 LKR ($0.40 AUD) per person. Despite the close proximity to Sigirya, this is not an express bus – the journey can take up to an hour as it stops frequently to pick up more passengers. Alternatively, you can take a tuk-tuk from Dambulla – this takes around 25 minutes and the going rate is around 1000 LKR ($10.00 AUD).
- Where to stay?
The township of Sigiriya is a great little base for planning a climb up Lion Rock (as well as being close to transport hubs to visit other ancient cities). With cheap guesthouses and luxury hotels, there are options for all tastes and budgets. Most accommodation have somewhere to eat on site, and there are also a number of small restaurants along the single main road that runs through the town near the entrance to the rock.
- How much does it cost?
This was the ouch part – the entrance fee per adult is $30 US ($42.00 AUD) per person. If you’re a traveling couple, add in the cost of transport, food, and possibly accommodation and an outing to visit Sigiriya and climb Lion Rock will cost you well over $100.00 AUD. If you’re on a tight budget, this may very well be the deciding factor in whether you visit or not.
- What time of day is best to climb?
I climbed Sigiriya twice – the first time at around midday, the second time, at 8.30AM in the morning. Both times of day have their pros and cons. Climbing at midday was incredibly hot, with the sun beating down on us the entire time, however the complex was very quiet with only a handful of other visitors. Climbing in the morning (recommended by everyone) might be cooler, however there were thousands of people also visiting at the time. We were also just as hot and sweaty climbing during the ‘cool’ part of the day as we were during the midday sun. Not only that, but the view from the summit was impeded by the morning fog. I would recommend climbing later in the day, for both the serenity and better views. Take plenty of water, wear a hat and sunscreen and you will be fine.