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The Mulkirigala Rock Temple

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Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka’s two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.

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It was the sleepy Sunday following the Sri Lankan New Year festivities, and public transport was impossible, so we hired a tuk-tuk to reach the temple. After a flat landscape of fields, forests and ponds, the sudden appearance of Mulkirigala Rock, sticking 200 meters into the air, came as a surprise. We paid our entrance fees, removed our shoes and steeled ourselves for what looked like a long hike to the top. But a lot of Sinhalese families were there, taking advantage of the holiday, and where 70-year-old barefoot grannies can go, so can we!

Mercifully, there were a few interludes during the climb — terraces which held small temples, sleeping Buddhas, pools of water, and sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. On the biggest terrace was a set of caves which included the Raja Mahavihara, notable for its Dutch tiles and antique wooden chest. It was here that a British archaeologist discovered the ancient manuscripts of the Mahavamsa: the great chronicle of ancient Sri Lanka.

At the top of the hill, our otherwise pleasant day trip was ruined by two kids who were determined to pester us. We were the only foreigners on the rock, and they would not leave us alone, tugging at our arms and following us everywhere, despite (perhaps because of) our increasing frustration. I am slow to anger, but eventually lost my cool and yelled at them. It didn’t help. “Money? Rupee? Ten Rupee! Bon-Bon!” They continued to follow, grabbing us and pleading for things. When we gave up and decided to leave, they followed us down the stairs! I scolded them, like you would a stubborn dog following you home. “No! Go away! Bad! Bad children!” Nothing worked, not even appealing to other Sri Lankans who were bemusedly watching the drama.

Even though it was a tough ending, we had a good time at Mulkirigala. The site isn’t nearly as impressive as either Sigiriya or Dambulla, but that’s unfair. We don’t compare every movie against Citizen Kane and say, “Not as good, so not gonna watch it!” Mulkirigala is no Sigiriya, but it’s still worth a visit.

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April 23, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)

Little Adam’s Peak at Ella

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A hike up the conical Adam’s Peak is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Legions of people complete the hike daily, both pilgrims and travelers. Jürgen and I are always primed for an adventure… as long as it’s convenient. After learning that you must embark for the the summit at 2am, we immediately, instantly scratched Adam’s Peak from our list. Call us lame if you want, I won’t protest. But no way. Besides, we had just read about another hike called Little Adam’s Peak, near Ella. “Close enough!”

Ella Gap

For our ascent up Little Adam’s Peak, we left at 8am. It was a blissfully easy hike — simple directions led outside of Ella, and up through the Newbourg Tea Plantation to a dirt track with signs clearly pointing the way. The path was only slightly uphill, almost as if designed to be as effortless as possible. The other hikers we passed, on their way back down, all had big smiles on their faces. Light exercise in gorgeous nature: it’d be hard to imagine a better way to begin the day.

Little Adam’s Peak lays on the eastern edge of the Ella Gap, straight across from the (much higher) summit at Ella Rock, which we had climbed two mornings prior. The views are similar, but from Little Adam’s Peak you can see the Ruwana Falls, which border the highway headed south.

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April 19, 2012 at 8:43 am Comments (6)

The Train to Haputale and Lipton’s Seat

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On the second of our three days in Ella, we hopped onto the morning train, having decided that we couldn’t pass up a visit to nearby Haputale (ha-POOT-a-lay): a town on the southern extreme of Sri Lanka’s hill country celebrated for its beautiful surroundings and tea plantations.

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Everyone knows that “getting there is half the fun”, but the train ride to Haputale accounted for at least 80% of this day’s fun. The rusty old machine rumbled slowly through lovely mountain scenery which, after the recent days of rain, was even more lush than usual, and we spent most of the journey hanging out of the open doors.

We didn’t spend much time in Haputale, a busy town with an abnormally large number of liquor shops, and instead immediately sought out a tuk-tuk to take us to Lipton’s Seat: a viewpoint said to be as stunning as World’s End. We had been warned that a late arrival at Lipton’s Seat could mean the mountain would be covered in clouds.

Despite our hurry, we were too late; a thick layer of clouds had arrived by the time we reached the summit, completely obscuring the view. Suck. We ordered tea and lemon puffs from a shop perched on the hilltop, then sat down and, with vibrant imaginations, colorfully described to each other what the view might look like. Or… that’s what we would have done, if we were annoyingly whimsical people who see magic in everything. But really it was us just sitting there, staring dumbly at the fog and stuffing our faces with cookies. Whining about our crappy luck.

At least the walk back down the hill was enjoyable. We cut through the enormous Dambatenne Tea Plantation, founded by Thomas Lipton (oh fine: Sir Thomas Lipton). Around us, small women with red-stained teeth packed bags full of tea leaves, and posed for pictures. Near a tea-pickers’ village, a prominent sign reminded us to “Be Respectful of Others!” Thanks for the tip, Mister Plantation Owner! Meanwhile, in the ramshackle village that can only be described as a slum, your tea pickers live in squalor. But yeah, I’ll remember to respect others.

We attempted to visit the Dambatenne Factory but after fifteen minutes of waiting for someone to attend us, gave up and hopped on a bus back to Haputale. Despite our inability to see the viewpoint or tour the factory, it had been a decent day out in some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful country.

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April 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm Comment (1)

Ella and Its Rock

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With an unbeatable setting high in the hills, tiny Ella has earned a reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful villages. With its views over the Ella Gap and some incredible nature walks, the town has become one of the most popular destinations in the southern hill country. We spent a few days here, and had a wonderful time.

Ella Gap

The town itself is far more tourist-oriented than most of our other destinations have been. A variety of restaurants offer both Sri Lankan and western cuisine, free and speedy wi-fi (manna!) and cool, comfortable patios you could spend hours at. For a place which caters to foreigners, the accommodation was surprisingly cheap. We stayed at Ambiente, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a room with a more incredible view. Found near the town’s highest point, the hotel looks straight out over the amazing Ella Gap, a steep valley stretching out for miles between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak.

Ella Rock was the destination of our first hike. We set out early, at 7am, in order to reach the summit before clouds settled in. As is the case across the hill country, afternoons are almost invariably cloudy. Indeed, we had rain every afternoon we were in Ella, and always tried to get our sight-seeing done in the morning.

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The hike was rough (see below for details of our route). After walking along railroad tracks, we found a path which leads up to a tea plantation and then onto the rock. Along the way, we encountered five locals who wanted to guide us up. It’s part of the system here: almost every tourist that goes up Ella Rock will have a local guide attached, who expects a tip at the summit.

They all employ the same trick. During your walk, if a Sri Lankan runs up to you and claims you’re on “the wrong path”, you are almost certainly on the right one. He’ll lead you backwards and then up a different path, and you’ll think, “Oh wow, this guy saved me! I owe him big time!” The truth is, there are about fifteen paths which all lead the same way. As long as you’re headed toward the mountain, you’re fine. We knew this in advance (plus, had one of Ambiente’s house dogs leading us), and were able to avoid the locals. Three separate times, we were told that we were “on the wrong path!” Guess what: we weren’t!

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide, of course, or contributing to the local economy. But we felt like being alone. After the tea plantation, the remaining path was well-defined and steep. The final 500 meters is extremely taxing and, even allowing for frequent breaks, we were drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top. The view, though, was worth the effort.

Our Route: Follow the train tracks away from the city for about 1.5 kilometers, until you’ve almost reached a small waterfall. Just before an old bridge, there’s a steep path which leads down to the left. Follow that under the bridge, and walk along a canal until you come to a small footbridge which leads past the waterfall. Now, it becomes confusing — a variety of paths lead upwards. Immediately after the bridge ends, the path forks: continue to the right. As you climb, the path enters the brush, and splits over and over again. You’ll want to tend left, but continue upwards when possible. Hopefully, you’ll emerge on the left-hand side of the tea plantation, where you’ll be able to spot the main path which cuts up through the woods. From here, you’re golden: just go up.

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April 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm Comments (3)

Delft Island

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The large, windswept island of Delft sits twenty miles off the mainland; about as far away from a city as you can get in densely-packed Sri Lanka. After an 80-minute bus ride to Kurikadduwan, we took a ferry to the island, and almost immediately upon disembarking from the ship, Jürgen realized with a cry that his camera battery was out of juice. I instinctively started backing away from him. A Jürgen who can’t take pictures at a wild, remote island is a dangerous, unpredictable Jürgen.

Pigeon House Delft Island
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What could we do, but push forward with our day?! The next ferry home didn’t leave for four hours, so we hired a tuk-tuk to take us on a tour of the island’s highlights. Jürgen was forced to make peace with the only backup camera we had: a four-year-old iPhone. The rest of the day, I’d be listening to sarcastic gripes like, “I’m going to win Photographer of the Year with this photo! National Geographic, here I come!”

Anyway. Delft was gorgeous despite our inability to properly photograph it. The dry, windswept landscape is home to a group of wild ponies, a strong military presence, and a human population of about 5000. Our tour started at the Old Portuguese Fort, built entirely from corals fished out of the ocean. To get there, we followed our driver into the back yard of the island’s hospital, and were free to climb to the top of the ancient ruins.

Next up was an old, ruined stupa. Not too exciting, but the long drive required to reach it impressed upon us the size of the island. Then, we visited the Pigeon House which… was a pigeon house, built by the Portuguese; pigeons were apparently the main method of communication back then. Luckily, the next stop on our tour was more interesting. An immense baobab tree in the middle of the island. Delft is the only spot in Sri Lanka where you can find these trees, which the Portuguese brought over from Africa. Amazing, and probably the highlight of our tour.

No, the highlight was the beach. We spent about an hour on a lonely patch of sand, taking in the sun and bathing in the lukewarm water of the Indian Ocean. It was so relaxing that Jürgen even forgot about the empty battery. Refreshed, we headed back to the ferry (which was free, by the way) and made our way home. Delft Island is one of the more difficult spots in Sri Lanka to reach, but there are plenty of reasons to make the trip. Just please, charge your camera battery.

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April 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm Comments (6)

Casuarina Beach on Karaitivu Island

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You’d think that, for a long, narrow strip of land which juts out into the Indian Ocean, finding a beach on the Jaffna Peninsula wouldn’t be a big hassle. But reaching the two beaches we visited during our time in the north required a degree of planning and force of will normally required for tasks like composing a symphony, or cooking a seven-course meal. To arrive at Chatty Beach, we had to rent bikes, ask seventy guards for directions and battle through an unbelievable headwind for miles. And getting to Casuarina Beach was no easier.

Darmatic Beach

Karaitivu was the second of three western islands we visited during our stay in Jaffna (the others being Kayts and Delft). We arrived at the bus station equipped with a map, and freshly educated in pronunciation by the owner of our guesthouse. “Ka-rye-tee-vah! Faster! No accents! Like it were one crazy syllable!” Alas, the guys working at the bus station still had no idea what I was saying. Giving up, I just pointed at the map. “Ah, Karaitivu!”

The two attendants helping us were soon joined by a curious cadre of four other bystanders, all discussing which bus we should take, and where we should really be going. One guy was convinced that we’d do better to visit Nanaitivu — another island which he considered more interesting. And amid all the discussion and confusion, we nearly followed him onto the wrong bus.

The twenty-kilometer ride took over an hour to complete, and we were dropped off in a dusty town with one store and three people. Now, just an easy mile-long hike separated us from the crystal blue water and white sand of Casuarina Beach. On arriving, we were overjoyed — exactly as we had hoped for! A gorgeous stretch of sand extending for kilometers along the northern coast of the island, bordered by the shrubby Casuarina trees which lend the beach its name. We decided to escape local bathers, and walk towards the lighthouse on the northwestern tip of the island before sitting down: a plan that would be our undoing.

A few minutes before reaching the spot we’d chosen to set up our towels, the skies suddenly darkened. This had been a sunny day! After the stressful journey to even arrive at the beach, the rain began almost the instant we sat down. Having fun, Jaffna?! We think you’re hilarious, too!

We swam for a bit under the rain, but soon packed it up and started back home. Sigh. It wasn’t the most successful of our day trips, but despite the trouble, it was nice to see such a pristine bit of nature. With a bit better luck and (especially) our own transport, it would have been a great day out.

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March 30, 2012 at 10:18 am Comment (1)

Pidurangala Rock – Sigiriya’s Overlooked Brother

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After our tiring ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock, we deserved to spend the rest of the day lounging around the hotel. But too many people had recommended a climb up Pidurangala Rock. “Sigh, I don’t know. Well, it’s right next to our hotel. But I’m so tired.” We debated, deciding to skip it, then deciding to go, and then giving up on the idea again. Eventually, our better natures won out and, grumbling, we set off on our second uphill trek of the day. And we’re happy we did.

Magical-Sigiriya

Pidurangala is where King Kassapa relocated the Buddhist monks who had previously occupied the area around Sigiriya. Just beyond an old temple which sits at the base of the hill, we found the path leading upwards. It was a blessedly easy hike, with a well-marked trail and manageable stairs, and it didn’t take us more than a half-hour to reach a giant Buddha reclining in a shallow cave.

The path disappeared beyond the Buddha, but we had been told to carry on through the forest. It was perhaps the only time I’ve been thankful for litterbugs; without the messy trail of plastic bottles and bags, we’d have been lost. Soon, we reached a collection of boulders and, after scaling up and through these, we emerged onto the top of Pidurangala.

Although it’s almost the same altitude as Sigiriya, Pidurangala’s summit couldn’t be further away in feeling. An expansive, flat field of rock, completely bare of anything save a small patch of cacti and trees in the center. No ruins, and no people. We had an amazing view of nearby Sigiriya, which looked even more impressive from this height.

During the whole excursion, we were completely alone, which was a real treat after the morning at busy Sigiriya. It’s unbelievable that Pidurangala should be so neglected. The hike through the woods was gorgeous and atmospheric, the Buddha was impressive and emerging atop the rocky summit was unforgettable. Apparently, you’re supposed to pay $2.50 at the temple, but there was nobody there when we entered or left, and so it was free — another relief, after having blown $30 apiece at Sigiriya. If you have time left over when in Sigiriya, Pidurangala is worth the effort.

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March 24, 2012 at 4:08 am Comments (4)

The Summit of Sigiriya

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We had reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.

Sigiriya

During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago. It would be impressive now.

The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is not for those who suffer from vertigo. My mind kept flitting back into the past. If I, on these stable steps of modern steel, was so close to vomiting, how terrifying must they have been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed, and the thought of climbing them, with the wind whipping about me, and likely burdened under another load of bricks for the usurper king’s palace, three words kept repeating in my mind: “Oh, hell no!”

Sigiriya Fort

My mantra changed, though, once we gained the summit. Suddenly, the ascent made perfect sense, as I imagined myself in Kassapa’s shoes, surveying the grounds for my new home. “Oh, hell yes!” The view is unobstructed for miles around. From the top of Sigiriya, you truly feel at the top of the world. Unassailable. It is the perfect place for a paranoid pretender.

Over the course of the centuries, the palace has been reduced to mere rubble, but it must have been an amazing building. We wandered about the foundations for awhile and eventually found a set of caves facing the south, originally used as protective cells for soldiers on the look-out, where we hid from the wind and enjoyed the view.

You’ll want to spend a long time at the summit of Sigiriya. The sense of history is palpable, and the panoramas over the jungle and gardens below couldn’t be better. Besides, you just spent an hour getting there, and the descent promises to be no less dizzying.

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March 22, 2012 at 10:57 am Comments (3)

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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Nature’s awesome beauty and the ingenuity of mankind come together majestically at Sigiriya Rock. A massive 320-meter granite stone set incomprehensibly in the jungle, the “Lion Rock” was attracting admiration long before King Kassapa built his castle on top of it, and continues dropping jaws today.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is probably the top touristic sight in all Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount to see here, the history is fascinating, the ascent to the summit is an attraction in itself, and from the top, among the ruins of an ancient palace, the view over the surrounding jungle is unimpeded and breathtaking. A visit to Sigiriya is truly unforgettable.

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And Sri Lanka knows it. The government charges $30 a head to enter the site. Unless, of course you’re Sri Lankan, in which case you’ll pay $0.40. We almost balked at the price. I understand charging locals less than tourists, but the scale of the difference is outrageous. Yes, foreigners might have more disposable income than Sri Lankans, but 75 times the price? The biggest slap in the face comes when you learn that Sigiriya is mostly funded by UNESCO and other foreign entities. So guess what? Foreigners are already paying for the maintenance and running of the site, and then they’re charged 75 times the normal entry fee. It’s insulting.

But Sri Lanka has a monopoly on the world’s supply of “Sigiriya Rocks”, so we swallowed our pride and bought tickets. I’m glad we did. Once we got done grumbling about the unfairness of it all, we had an incredible day.

Garden of Sigiriya

After crossing the moat to enter the grounds, you’re greeted by the marvelously restored 5th century pleasure gardens of King Kassapa. First, a Water Garden with an expansive and complicated set of pools and ponds, and further ahead the King’s Boulder Garden. Here, we saw the Cobra-Hooded Cave and talked with an archaeologist at work on a dig. His team was unearthing a cave temple, and he was more than happy to take a break to chat. Long before Kassapa’s arrival, Buddhist monks had considered Sigiriya a sacred place, and built temples around the base of the rock. Kassapa relocated the monks to nearby Pidurungala Rock, where they remain to this day.

We started our ascent up the Lion Rock at 7am in the morning, well before the sun was at full strength. This was a wise decision; we avoided both heat stroke and the eventual onslaught of tourists. We were able to climb unhurried and took our time admiring the scenery. By noon, bus after bus had pulled up to the gate. Already on our way back down, we watched a never-ending single-file line of sweaty, sun-beaten tourists with amazement and despondency. To be caught in the middle of that would have been a nightmare! I estimated about 200 people ascending the stairs at one time. I have no idea how many people visit Sigiriya daily but the government must be raking it in. So a word to the wise: go as early as you can. The gates open at 7, and you’ll have the rock largely to yourself.

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Midway up, we encountered the Mirror Wall and the Hall of Maidens. The rock at the Mirror Wall had been polished smooth and flat and coated with a shiny plaster, so that the King could admire his reflection during his ascent. Facing the west, the wall must have shone brilliantly during sunset, and was perhaps meant as a sort of beacon, announcing the palace and the eminence of its king. Today, though, the luster is gone and it looks basically like a stone wall. Maybe a little flatter than normal. Much more impressive is the fresco gallery, found just above the Mirror Wall. The Damsels of Sigiriya are some of the most famous ancient paintings in the world, in a miraculous state of conservation.

After the Mirror Wall and damsel gallery, we emerged at a large terrace. We were exhausted and stunned to see that we had only completed about half our journey. Before us, two immense lion paws carved out of the rock indicated the beginning of the ascent’s second half. Under the pretense of admiring the lion, we took take a break before climbing up to the summit.

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March 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Comments (7)

The Mysterious Forest Monastery of Ritigala

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The enigmatic remains of the Ritigala Monastery are tucked away on a mountain in the middle of a strict nature reserve. Difficult to reach and largely skipped by tourists, the archaeological site is the kind of place in which it’s easy to imagine Indiana Jones hunting for a fabled, lost treasure.

Indiana Jones Temple

The long and easy path through the monastery starts at the ancient steps of an enormous bath, which was probably used by the monks to cleanse themselves before entering. At least, that’s the best guess: nothing concrete is known about the ruins of Ritigala. This was a secluded mountain sanctuary for monks who wanted to escape the everyday world, and their lives remain cloaked in mystery. There are no ruins that could have been used as shelters, for example, so did they sleep in caves? None of the usual Buddhist icons are found, no temples, Buddha images or Bodhi trees. What were these monks doing?

The ruins that we saw were fascinating, made even more intriguing by their secretness of their purpose. Our path led through three large “double-platform” pavilions. These structures were aligned exactly east-west, with one empty platform, and the other filled with columns. What might these have been used for? Meditation? Sermons? “Sacrifices“, Jürgen whispered into my ear.

Toward the top of the official route, we spotted another, smaller path cutting through the jungle. I checked my whip, adjusted my fedora, gave Jürgen the nickname “Short Round”, and we set off together on another adventure. Pushing through the woods, we passed innumerable ruins: baths, rock faces with indecipherable notches cut into them, chairs, and other remains we couldn’t identify. I sat down to rest in one of the stone chairs and, suddenly, it swiveled to the left, revealing a cache of gems hidden underneath. Fortune and glory, kid.

Dotted Stone

“Watch out, Indy!” cried Short Round. I ducked, and a lichen-covered scythe brushed over my head, perilously close. “Thanks, little buddy”. The forest darkened around us and, from it, we began to hear the low, ominous tones of a unholy chant. After stashing as many jewels as we could, me in my satchel, Shorty in his ball cap, we hurried down the path. Behind us, the mummified corpses of Buddhist monks had risen from the ground, and were in slow pursuit…

Okay, okay, sorry about that. But these were my thoughts as we explored the forest path. We continued along it for a long time, almost convinced that we should turn around, but we kept discovering more and more ruins, and it was too exciting. Soon enough, we emerged at a giant stone structure atop the hill that might have been a fort. From the top of it, we had an amazing view of the valley, and on the other side we found a flight of steps leading back to the main path.

We had an amazing time at Ritigala. If you’re in the mood for an exciting, atmospheric experience, you almost couldn’t do better. Don’t forget your whip.

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March 18, 2012 at 6:41 am Comments (2)

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The Mulkirigala Rock Temple Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka's two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.
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