Cycling the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa (pronounced pol-oh-nah-roo-wa) is one of Sri Lanka’ cultural treasures, located in the central part of the country along with other commonly visited cities like Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Dambulla. For over three centuries, Polonnaruwa was a royal capital and thriving commercial centre before being abandoned in the early 13th century. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa became a UNESCO World Heritage listed site in 1982.

Most tourists to Sri Lanka visit Polonnaruwa as a day trip, and that’s exactly what we did, being based in nearby Sigiriya. We took the fastest tuk-tuk of our lives to the nearby transport hub of Habarana, where we flagged down a local bus that as per usual, was full to the brim – so we stood for the 45 minute journey to Polonnaruwa.

The archaeological sites are conveniently located just off the main road in the city centre, and spread out over a distance of several kilometres. Renting a bicycle and cycling around the ancient city is the most common way to see the sights. The moment we jumped off the bus we were overwhelmed with offers to rent bicycles – varying in quality of course! We made our way to the museum first where we purchased our (somewhat overpriced) entrance tickets to the site. The museum is a great starting point to prepare you for what you are about to explore throughout the ancient city, with informative plaques in English for all exhibits.

Approached by yet another salesman upon exiting, we took up his offer to rent his bikes which we could pick up and drop off just opposite the main entrance to the ruins. The bikes were pretty old and rather rusty, but for 250 LKR hire for the day ($2.50 AUD) we couldn’t expect much more than that, so we paid our money and took off on our bikes – the wind in our hair, the sun in our faces… momentarily anyway.

Cycling around Polonnaruwa on our trusty (read - rusty) bikes!
Cycling around Polonnaruwa on our trusty (read – rusty) bikes!

Polonnaruwa, like most other places in Sri Lanka, was extremely humid. Cycling between the different areas and catching the breeze provided the only relief; the sweat was dripping off the moment we put the bikes aside to explore the ruins up close. The stalls selling cold water and drinks and ice-cream were sure making a killing here!

Just like most other attractions here, Polonnaruwa was crazy busy with tourists and vehicles, transporting groups from site to site. Having the bikes gave us a bit more freedom, as we were able to pedal away from the busier areas and visit the northernmost sites first before backtracking to the other areas.

Exploring some of the quieter ruins of Polonnaruwa.
Exploring some of the quieter ruins of Polonnaruwa.

Without a doubt the star of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is Gal Vihara, a group of stunning Buddha images carved into a single slab of granite. It features a standing Buddha at 7m tall, a reclining Buddha at 14.12m long and two seated Buddha’s. Many monks visited this particular site and it was quite special to see them make their offerings and prayers to the Buddha statues.

The stunning standing Buddha and reclining Buddha - all carved from one slab of granite.
The stunning standing Buddha and reclining Buddha – all carved from one slab of granite.
The reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara, 14.12 metres.
The reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara, 14.12 metres.
The seated Buddha of Gal Vihara.
The seated Buddha of Gal Vihara.

Kiri Vihara, just nearby the Gal Vihara is a milky white towering dagoba in almost pristine condition. Next door, Lankatalika is a temple, its walls standing 17m high though the roof has collapsed. Housing a headless standing Buddha, this was a striking sight.

Kiri Vahara Dagoba, Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka, Ceylon
Kiri Vihara Dagoba
Lankatalika, with the headless Buddha shown here.
Lankatalika, with the headless Buddha shown here.

The Quadrangle, likely the first group of ruins you’ll encounter on arriving at Polonnaruwa, has the highest concentration of ruins. Our favourite was the Vatadge – a circular relic house 18m in diameter, the central dagoba surrounded by four Buddha statues flanked by ornate guardstones. It was such a beautiful building.

Found in the quadrangle, this circular relic house was our favourite ruin.
Found in the quadrangle, this circular relic house was our favourite ruin.

Unfortunately the day escaped from us too quickly, as we had to ensure we got a bus back to Habarana by 4PM as they run less frequently after that time. There were several sites we never made it to as we’d spent longer at others – plus pushing our rusty bikes uphill took its time! Cycling around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, being wowed by its ruins and spotting water monitor lizards and monkeys being intimate made it one of our more interesting day trips in Sri Lanka!

Polonnaruwa - totally photogenic!
Polonnaruwa – totally photogenic!


  • How to get to Polonnaruwa?
    Many visitors visit Polonnaruwa as a day trip – we visited from Sigirya, which involved a tuk-tuk to Habarana (750 LKR/$7.50 AUD, 25 minutes) and then a bus to Polonnaruwa (50 LKR/$0.50 AUD, 45 minutes) – which stopped right opposite the road to the museum, making it nice and easy. Polonnaruwa can also be accessed by train, its station on the Colombo – Batticaloa line but the services are not very frequent.
  • How much does it cost?
    As is becoming a trend in Sri Lanka, the entrance fee was not cheap – a day’s pass costing $25 US ($35.00 AUD) per person. Add in bike hire (200 – 300 LKR per person), transport to Polonnaruwa (for us, approx 1600 LKR/$16.00 AUD) and drinks and snacks within the ancient city (two to three times the price as items outside the area), for two people it’s about a $100.00 AUD day trip.
  • Any tips for visiting?
    Try and arrive as early in the day as possible to ensure you visit all the sites and get your money’s worth. The museum is open from 9AM where you can purchase your tickets.
    Purchase drinks and snacks for the day outside of the ancient city walls, as they are much more expensive once you’re inside.
    A bike is definitely worth the hire, as rickety as they are – they get you around fast if you’re running short on time and the breeze whilst riding is a life saver. Pick one up outside the ancient city entrance.
    Wear shoes that you can slip on and off – one of our biggest bug bears of the day was the fact that the majority of the ruins are considered ‘sacred’ monuments and they asked for shoes to be removed. We got so over taking our sneakers on and off and our feet getting sandy/cut on gravel that the last few sites we just didn’t bother going in if it asked for our shoes to be removed.

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Cycling the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

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