Exploring Sri Lanka's Machu Picchu
06/27/2017 - 06/27/2017 86 °F
Enjoying the wonderful view from Sigiriya Rock's summit
In my mind, today's exploration of Sigiriya Rock was to be the highlight of the trip. The combination fortress and palace is built on a massive rock rising two football fields above the landscape below. It is the Machu Picchu of Sri Lanka — dramatic, historic, and sure to incite superlatives among those who climb it.
Approaching Sigiriya Rock, after passing the Outer Moat
Unlike its Peruvian counterpart, there is no bus option. All visitors climb more than 5,000 stairs to reach the lofty hideaway constructed by King Kasyapa In 485 A.D. Because of the heat, it is recommended that you begin your ascent early, by 10:30 am at the very latest (preferably at 7 am when it opens). However, I have found that when someplace advertises a starting time like that, it is often better to show up slightly later and miss that initial rush. That, and the fact my hotel’s breakfast started at 7 am, meant I showed up around 7:45. Fortified by a massive meal (including strawberry pancakes!), I was ready for the ascent. My hotel was only a 20 minute walk from the ticket booth, most of it along the outer moat which guarded the lower fortifications.
King Kasyapa's Water Gardens
I waved off several prospective guides along the way. Another thing I've found is that a number of guides are interested in “turning as many tricks” as they can. They will rush you through your visit in the hopes of getting another (and another, and another?) client. Me, I like to take my time when visiting an ancient site like this. In fact, the less chatter from others I have to listen to the more I can immerse myself in a place. I brought along two guidebooks, and found that when combined with the good signage, I really didn't need a guide. I heard other guides talking to tourists and they were saying the things I'd read in my research.
Inner walls to the fortifications and temples
Many tourists walk straight down the main pathway and begin their ascent immediately. Instead, I ranged to the left and right of the path, exploring the water gardens, pools, monastic caves, and temples. During the time of King Kasyapa, I am sure the running water and bathing facilities wowed visitors to the court. As I slowly ascended, I passed through the unusual boulder gardens. The king took the massive gneiss rock outcroppings and turned them into an aesthetic addition to the approach to his court.
the Lion Staircase, about halfway up the summit - with obligatory tourist getting their photo taken in front of it
After zig-zagging my way through the ruins, I eventually came to the beginning of the climb. By no means did I have Sigiriya to myself, but the crowds were thin, at best. I sped up from time to time to outpace particularly annoying visitors — such as the Sri Lankan couple with the whiney youth who went so slow his dad eventually picked him up and carried him. I remembered to keep looking back and checking out the view as we ascended. Of particular concern were the signs advising silence to avoid an attack of wasps or bumblebees. The staff who were talking in normal tones convinced me it wasn't a real threat I should be concerned about — at least today. The monkeys who I'd read perched themselves along the stairs to shake down visitors for sweets never showed either.
Looking down from the dizzying heights at the Lion Staircase
The first stop on the climb was the walled gallery known as the Sigiriya Frescoes. During Kasyapa’s time, the rock face was painted with more than 500 soft-core porn pictures of celestial nymphs known as apsaras. Only 21 of these topless, well-endowed paintings survive today. Oh, and sorry male readers of this blog: a strict no photo policy was enforced by eagle-eyed attendants. Proving the king’s court had contacts worldwide, one aspara is obviously African in origin. Even one of Captain Kirk’s green skinned beauties showed up…make of that what you will! I have to hand it to the Sri Lanka on this site — separate ascending and descending staircases made traffic flow smoothly.
Looking out over the wonderful view as you climb
The next stop on the ascent is the Lion terrace. Although all that remains of the colossal carved, stone lion that guarded the staircase are its two front paws, their size gives a good idea of how impressive it must have been. The national symbol of Sri Lanka is the lion, so ancient visitors would ascend the stair to the king’s palace literally by entering the mouth of the lion. No doubt there are psychological things at play that the clever Kasyapa fully intended. My visit had gone smoothly so far, so the slight backup of everyone wanting a selfie on the stairs or next to the paws was only a minor annoyance. Yeah, I got someone to take my pic in front of it, too. I don't know if I am succumbing to the pressures of social media or what, but I never used to take pics of myself much on my travels. What went from one obligatory “I’ve been there” pic to several, I don't know the reason. I'll blame it on my mom…I am sure she enjoys seeing them, and I am just humoring her….right?
Foundations of King Kasyapa's palace atop Sigiriya Rock
A final, steep metal stairway led to the summit and the rock’s plateau like surface. I felt happy that, at 54, I wasn't huffing and puffing too badly when I reached the top. The sweating was also held down by the gusting winds which had been cooling me off. They rose to a roar on the exposed face of the rock, whipping well into the 30 mph range, I imagine. It was once I was at the top that the Machu Picchu parallel first struck me. Looking all around as the gorgeous 360 view, I could help but be reminded of my hiking the Inca Trail a decade or so ago. The foundations of the buildings here were mostly brick unlike stone in Peru, but the sloped surface of the summit reminded me of it intensely.
The Royal Baths atop the Rock
I did a slow circuit of the fortifications and palace, most of which is simply brick foundations. Therefore pools, though, as well as audience chambers and other recognizable ruins. Most visitors couldn't take their eye off the view, though. We had a perfectly sunny day for the ascent, but once atop, I saw some darker clouds rolling in. Sure enough, about a half hour later, drops of rain could be felt. However, the wind drove the clouds away as quickly as it brought them, and no elevated drenching occurred. After exploring nearly every foot of the top, it was time to head down. The crowds were still relatively light, and I hit no backups on my way down.
The "Machu Picchu" of Sri Lanka
After a refreshing, cold Fanta at the cafeteria, I soldiered my weary bones towards the Sigiriya museum. The first level is underwhelming, consisting of photographs of Sigiriya Rock since excavation and restoration began. The short video taught nothing new, but it was offered in English, Sinahala, and Tamil. The next level up had more archeological displays and talked about the early inhabitants of the area, as well as monastic occupation of the area, my favorite part was the film with the CGI reconstruction of what Sigiriya would have looked like in Kayapa’s days. There were some good statues, but disappointingly, this was a “no photographs” museum. It became all the more frustrating in the gallery where the had recreated a rock face and repainted the Frescoes of the apsaras. So. really? No pictures of the modern repaintings either? Sometimes, I think museums get in the rut of saying No and lose sight of common sense. Yes, protest objects from wear and colored ones from flash photography. But allow it where the object can't possibly be damaged by people taking pictures. Please.
King Kasyapa's throne
Nevertheless, it had been an amazing day. I often get nervous before I visit what I think will be the highlight of a trip. Will the weather ruin it, I wonder? Will it disappoint? Today, in Sigiriya, there was no downside. I left the site, walking along the moat, feeling physically drained but spiritually refreshed. The Sri Lankan tourism ads like to tout Sigiriya as the “8th Wonder of the Worlds.” I am not sure that title is appropriate, but it certainly is a wonderfully uplifting place to visit.