Archaeological treasures, mischievous monkeys and crazy bus rides are all part of the fun cycling around Polonnaruwa. Here's what we saw.


Polonnaruwa – one of the ancient capitals of the central plains – is a Sri Lankan archaeological gem. Once a ruling playground for ancient kingdoms; now exquisite ruins, atmospheric temples, and picturesque grounds.

This well-organised park is a delight to explore on bike. With a huge number of tombs, temples, monuments and stupas within easy proximity, cycling between them is a breeze. There’s also plenty of shady spots, good roads between the sites and refreshing drinks on sale from smiling locals. In addition to the archaeological big-ticket items, it’s also close to scenic rice paddies, an ancient man-made lake, and a very local Sri Lankan town. All this makes for a great day exploring one of Sri Lanka’s ancient treasures.

SRI LANKAN BUS EXPERIENCE TO POLONNARUWA

One of the benefits of staying in Habarana is to explore the ancient cities of Sri Lanka is the transport options. While Habarana may lack some of the tourist comforts of other nearby centres, it does have one major drawcard – local busses. You haven’t really experienced Sri Lanka until you’ve experienced a local bus. These crazy, frenetic people movers will have you smiling the whole way. Forget about the lack of air conditioning, forget about the cramped conditions. The neon lights, dancing Buddhas, pumping music and energetic driving will keep you entertained. It’s about one hour from Habarana to Polonnaruwa, and at Rs100 per person, it’s a song. It’s an experience we highly recommend.

Each bus has a conductor and a driver. The main role of the conductor appears to be issuing moral support – giving the driver encouraging cheers as he overtakes speeding vehicles. But they are also good at telling confused tourists where to get off the bus. There’s no guesswork. There’s also no stopping. Our conductor kindly had the driver slow down enough for us to be gently pushed out the slow-moving vehicle. In a flash, we were 100 yards from the ticket office without the bus losing a second.

As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were met by a friendly chap offering us bikes to hire for the day. There are a couple of bicycle rental places near the bus stop, but at Rs400 per day, it’s hardly worth shopping around too much. After a quick tyre check, he gave us some helpful instructions for how best to see Polonnaruwa. With nothing better to go on, we took off in the direction he sent us in.

CYCLING THE ANCIENT RUINS OF POLONNARUWA

Polonnaruwa is organised in 5 main groups; their close proximity makes navigating the park on a bike the best way to see it. As per our instructions, we went first to the Southern Group. From the town, this takes you along the side of the lake where you’ll pass local cows before making your way to the ruins. It’s a fantastic, easy journey and a great spot to snap some cool photos across the lake.

The entrance of the park is easy to spot by the local vendors selling their wares at the entrance. There’s only a couple of sites here, the most notable being Portgul Vihara, a storage location for sacred books. The other main attraction is the hundreds of monkeys causing mischief around the park. Like a scheming group of naughty school kids, they roam around in groups, looking like they’re up to something. They add great atmosphere to the park and the one detail that continued to tickle our fancy on our 10-day Sri Lankan Itinerary.

After the Southern Group, we took our cycling tour to the Royal Palace group, where you can buy the tickets for the entire sight (Rs3,600 each). After a pacey walk around the rather average museum, we next headed to the baths and the old Royal Palace. This amazing site is believed to have been a 7-story building in its day. Next stop was the Quadrangle, which has the most concentrated collection of ruins in any of the groups. There are some fascinating buildings to explore here. We particularly liked the Vatadage, an 18m circular building housing 4 Buddha; and the Atadage – a shrine which once housed the tooth of Buddha. The tooth in question now permanently resides in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy.

The amazing archaeological sites, monkeys and local vendors all add to the atmosphere of Polonnaruwa. The snake charmer with a huge python draped over his cute little daughter was a bit hard to watch. However, seeing a cobra rise up from his flute playing was, I’ll admit it, hard to look away from.

MAGNIFICENT ROCK CARVINGS AT POLONNARUWA

The tourist number start to deplete a little as you head towards the northern group of ruins at Polonnaruwa. This is no indication of their impressiveness, far from it. It’s also no indication of the cycling distance, being only 1.5 kilometres from the old town. Whatever the reason, the lack of tourists makes for a very relaxing and enjoyable afternoon. You can collect your desired shots of the sights, free from a stray head popping in your perfectly framed image.

A particular standout in the Northern Group was Lankatilaka. This ancient, cathedral-like structure is awe-worthy and evocative. Although the roof has collapsed, the 17m high walls create an arresting visual presentation. The surrounding trees, incense billowing in the air and intricate bas-relief, all create a very enticing scene. To one side of Lankatilaka is the huge white stupa of Kiri Vihara and on the other, an interesting stepped pool.

The next and final site in the Northern Group was Gal Vihara, an incredibly impressive collection of 4 massive Buddha carved into the rock. Of all the statues, the reclining Buddha, in particular, drew proud smiles from the local clergymen – on hand to answer any questions. In order to get close enough to see the detail of the carvings, shoes must be removed. So, a mad dash across scorched gravel is required.

PADDIES, OLD SCHOOL LUNCHING AND WHITE-KNUCKLE BUS TRIP

We spent about 4 hours cycling around the Southern, Royal Palace, Quadrangle, and Northern groups. This allowed plenty of time to see all the major buildings, temples and monuments and included a quick stop for some delicious mango by the lake.

After seeing all the sites, we cycled back into Polonnaruwa Old Town for some lunch. This was a casual, old-school affair. Due to the very limited options in the town, we found a local cafe that seemed to be the busiest place around. There was a steady stream of local workers coming in to collect their take away – good enough for us. We had a very basic meal of parata and poori (two different types of Sri Lankan flatbread) served with a very delicious dahl, all for the fantastic price Rs320 (just under £2). It was a great way to round out an excellent morning checking out some fascinating local attractions.

After lunch and with a bit of time to spare we cycled around the local rice paddies. If you have 20 minutes up your sleeve, it’s a nice way to see a bit more of the area and its beautiful countryside. With no great plan, we headed south from the centre of the old town and ventured down the occasional side road. These old battered roads were busy with local farmers going about their day; framed by the lushness of the rice fields in various stages of green.

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Time now to head back to Habarana. The relaxing mood of the gentle cycling, ancient monuments and calming green rice fields was undone the second we climbed on the bus. Our driver home was in no mood for delays. With knuckles clenched firmly on the seat in front of us, and locals giving us reassuring smiles, we made it back to Habarana in record time.



MORE READING | For more inspiration about Sri Lanka, read our review of their fantastic old train service. For more impressive archaeological sites, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is sure to impress. Our detailed Sri Lanka itinerary can be found here.



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