Around the Dambulla area you can explore enchanting temples, meet nature’s giants (elephants), visit a secret paradise island and more. However, you have to get to Dambulla first! The Sri Lankan transport system can be mind boggling at times. But here’s a simple and cheap way to get from Kandy to Dambulla and back again. I will also share with you some little-known gems to visit in the Dambulla area.
How to get to Dambulla from Kandy
You need to head to the Good Shed bus station in Kandy. From the Good Shed bus station you can jump on a local bus to Dambulla. The local buses are hot, often jam packed and don’t have much room for baggage but are the cheapest option. The white or blue buses are better than the red ones.
We took the aircon bus from the Good Shed (bay 43). It’s a mini van and is less crammed than the local buses. For luggage it is standard to just pay for an extra seat. One way it cost us LKR 250 ($1.41 USD) per person, and LKR 250 ($1.41) for all of our bags for 3 people. So, it’s as cheap as chips!
The journey took us around 2.5 hours on the aircon mini van, I can imagine the bigger buses would take slightly longer.
And how to get from Dambulla to Kandy
Head to the bus station along Kandy road where you can catch local buses and the aircon bus (van) number 43.
You can also pick up the bus more centrally in Dambulla along the A9 road outside Bentota Bake House (the big road that goes through Dambulla). Picking it up earlier means you will have more space before people pile on in Dambulla.
To note, on the aircon bus back to Kandy they might try and charge you extra – they tried to charge us LKR 400 each plus LKR 400 for the bags. We flagged it up and ended up paying the same as our first journey (LKR 250 – $1.41 USD).
The bus dropped us off near the train station in Kandy rather than round the corner, back at the Good Shed but this wasn’t a problem.
Did I like Dambulla?
It’s a big yes from me on Dambulla, but also a small no. Some of the things I did in Dambulla I really enjoyed. I did an elephant safari in Eco Park and it was amazing. The Dambulla Cave Temple was cool. Dambulu Oya Reservoir and Pleasure Island were beautiful.
However, Dambulla is a dusty town. Decent mid range eating options are limited. The major tourist attractions such as Sigiriya Rock with the Lion Fortress and the Dambulla Cave Temple are a little pricey (Sigiriya particularly), aren’t well maintained and are often very busy. Outside and inside these tourist spots there are a lot of touts and very little actual information on the attractions, significance or history.
We often went for less touristy and more obscure options in Dambulla and were absolutely rewarded with some amazing experiences.
Awesome things to do in Dambulla (including some you won’t have read about elsewhere)
1. See the elephants in Eco Park, near Dambulla
I am allowed to recommend one super touristy thing, right? I was a bit worried as the reviews said the park was busy and full of tens of jeeps jostling to see the elephants. We visited in early March, on a weekday, around 3pm and on the whole there were only 4 or 5 jeeps near us at a time, and they were respectful of the elephants.
And we saw loads of elephants. Big ones, small ones and tiny little babies. We got blessed with a beautiful purple sunset with shed loads of elephants trundling past, including one who decided to trumpet salute the sun as it set. My heart melted.
Our tour cost us $35 each, and we arranged it through our guest house. Despite this being out of our usual backpacker budget, it was so worth it.
2. Visit Oya Reservoir And Pleasure Island
No other travel blogs I read mentioned this place, but it blew my mind. We went to the reservoir twice. The first time we walked along the lake at sunset and climbed up to the brand new Buddha which is perched on a little hill looking out over the lake. Locals were fishing and washing in the reservoir. Music and prayers were blasting out across the lake. It was magical.
The second time, we went in the afternoon and got on a boat to Pleasure Island in the middle of Oya Reservoir. Thankfully it wasn’t a brothel, like the name would suggest. Instead it’s a lovely little island which is full of locals frolicking in the water. It has huts, hammocks and a tree house.
We made friends with a load of locals who played “another brick in the wall” by Pink Floyd to us on the drums (yes they had drums) and insisted we took lots of selfies with them. Bring your swimming stuff as there is a lovely spot to take a dip.
WARNING SCAM ALERT
Pleasure Island is lovely but when we checked beforehand, the price was Rs 150 ($0.85 USD) per person for the boat each way. However, once on the island the guy tried to charge us Rs 1500 ($8.50 USD) each. We were told the extra charge was the tourist price and because we had a boat to ourselves. Before the boat left the dock, we had insisted the locals join us on the boat multiple times. Those in charge would not let them so we had the boat to ourselves. It put us in a difficult and uncomfortable position.
After much discussion, we finally paid Rs 1000 ($5.70USD) for all 3 of us in the end, and would have happily paid more if we were told the correct amount in advance rather than when we were stuck on the island with a guy trying his luck. If you visit, make sure you agree a price up front and get them to write it down.
How to get to Oya Reservoir
We stayed pretty close to Oya Reservoir so walked there, but a tuk tuk from Dambulla town should cost around Rs 300-350 ($1.70-$2 USD) I’d say.
3. Climb up Pidurangala rock, the cheap alternative to Sigiriya rock
Controversial opinion alert! We didn’t climb Sigiriya Rock. And it was largely to do with the price. It costs $30 USD (Rs 5400 as of Jan 2019). That’s $90 for the three of us.
Not in our budget
To put that in perspective, the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok costs $6 and is amazing and beautifully maintained. The Tower of London is around the same price as Sigiriya and again is incredible with loads of information and you can spend all day there.
From what we read, Sigiriya is expensive, isn’t maintained that well, there isn’t a lot of information and there is a queue to the top. In my view, if attractions are gunna charge European prices, they need to be of European quality. Also I’m British and used to queuing but f**k waiting in big lines to get up the rock.
Pidurangala Rock was a great alternative
Instead, we did Pidurangala Rock. And it was Rs 500 ($2.80) each and was fabulous. You get amazing views across the region, less people and you even get to see all the queues of people going up the Sigiriya rock from a nice peaceful spot. Perfect! From people that have done both there seems to be a consensus that seeing Sigiriya is better than going up Sigiriya. Pidurangala allows you to do this!
How to get to Pidurangala rock
We hired a tuk tuk to take us there, wait for us and bring us back, which cost us Rs 2500 ($14 USD) between the 3 of us (we splashed out as we love tuk tuks in Sri Lanka and our tuk tuk driver was awesome!). Our accommodation was quite far out of Dambulla so it should be cheaper if you are staying in town.
There is also a bus from Dambulla which runs every 30 mins between 6:30am and 6:30pm which costs 45 rupees ($0/25).
Top Sri Lanka Travel Tip: If you find a decent tuk tuk driver in a town, take his/her number! They are usually more than happy to get longer bookings like this.
4. The Dambulla Cave Temple, the Golden Temple Dambulla and the Buddhist Museum
Unpopular opinion number 2. I liked the Dambulla Cave Temples, they were pretty BUT again I feel Sri Lanka needs to work on maintaining their attractions. We paid Rs 1500 ($8.50USD) entrance but I have no idea what the entrance fee is going towards.
There is zero information on the Dambulla Cave Temples. Nothing on why the caves were there and who designed them.
The caves were beautiful and enchanting, but were not very well maintained. Wooden benches were put in front of the buddhas rather than ropes to keep people at a distance, and the courtyard is falling into disrepair. Touts try and sell you stuff all over the place. There is no cafe, no gift shop. It can also get very busy with tour groups. It’s worth a visit, but some honesty is needed about the whole experience.
Don’t miss the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is also part of this attraction, although we almost missed it as there were no signs to it and we entered the attraction via Colombo road whereas the Golden Temple is along Kandy road.
The Golden Temple is beautiful and shiny with a big Buddha on top. It had the coolest staircase!
The toilets in the temple ground cost Rs 100 (almost $0.60 USD), which is the most I’ve ever spent on a wee and I lived in London for 6 years. And there were two people working at the toilet. One to sell you tickets, one to collect your tickets 2 seconds later…
The Museum of Buddhism
Inside the Golden Temple is the Museum of Buddhism. It was Rs 100 (almost £0.60 USD) each (as much as my wee in the temple toilets!). The museum itself has some interesting pieces, but no information. It also had some dusty pots, random buddhas and an out of date world map.
How to get to the Dambulla Cave Temple, the Golden Temple Dambulla and the Buddhist Museum
A tuk tuk from town should cost around 150 – 200 rupees. Or jump on the Kandy bus from town and it will take you to the Golden Temple. You will see it on your right hand side.
5. Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs Dambulla (called Megalithic Cemetery Ibbankatuwa on Google maps)
These tombs were really nice and are often missed by tourists. The Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs tombs are very well preserved Iron Age tombs, with the pots in which people were cremated. Germany helped excavate the place and set up the attraction. It was very pleasant to walk around, had useful information and was beautifully maintained. And it’s not just for nerds into prehistoric stuff!
A bit more information would be useful. Perhaps detailing the lives of the people who lived in the area during the Iron Age and how modern researchers found the tombs. Sadly also all of the cool jewelry found in the tombs is elsewhere. But all in all it was a nice attraction and one of the best maintained attractions we visited in Sri Lanka.
The entrance fee is a randomly priced 362 rupees ($2) per person.
How to get to the Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs Dambulla / Megalithic Cemetery Ibbankatuwa
Do not go to the tripadvisor location, I repeat do not go to the tripadvisor location! Google maps is correct on the location for this.
We ended up in the wrong place thanks to tripadvisor and then asked where the tombs were in the Centre for Sustainable Development. We were 4km away.
The Centre for Sustainable Development then insisted we were driven there by their receptionist. I love Sri Lankans. Most tuk tuk drivers won’t know where it is, but show them maps and say it’s just along the Colombo road.
Where To Eat In Dambulla
Sambole restaurant opened up whilst we were in Dambulla. The restaurant is decorated like a mud hut. They serve delicious and a bit more unique curries compared to the others we have had in Sri Lanka.
The service is very haphazard as they are newly opened and they can’t really work the coffee machine but bear with them, they’ll learn. They have loads of veggie options and it is basically a very tasty rice and curry buffet.
Location: Next to Pizza Hut, Colombo Road, Dambulla
This place is an eatery popular with locals. It does a good rice and curry. In the evenings it does hoppers (egg pancakes traditional to Sri Lanka) and Kottu (a traditional roti vegetable dish).
You can also order a whole platter of pastries and pick and choose the ones you want, like the locals do!
Location: A9 Dambulla 22100
Dambulla has lots of ATMs including Bank of Ceylon, along the Kandy Road, which does not charge for ATM withdrawals. Find out more about how you can stop wasting money at ATMs whilst travelling.
Sri Lanka travel
Want a ridiculously honest guide to travelling in Sri Lanka? Well, here’s where to go in Sri Lanka (and where you should probably avoid).
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