Sri Lanka From Above: Climbing Sigirya

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France has the Eiffel Tower. Egypt has the pyramids. China has the Great Wall.

Three different countries, but they have something in common: there is a monument that epitomizes or even defines the country to outsiders. And even though the Eiffel Tower doesn’t represent all of France, it’s one of the first things that come to mind when you think about the country.

Sri Lanka has a monument of its own. While not as famous as the Pyramids, it’s still a sight to behold:

Sigiriya

Sigiriya.

This ancient city surrounding a rock-topped palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited historical site in Sri Lanka.

Sigiriya was founded in the fifth century by King Kassapa I. It was the regional capital and a major stronghold. In its time, Sigiriya was one of the most important urban centers in a region. The crowning jewel was the fortified palace, said to be impregnable and perched atop the giant rock, its smooth sides denying access to invaders.

The mysteries of Sigiriya reminded me of Angkor Wat. It was so important at its peak, yet we know so little about its inhabitants today, and most of the city has been destroyed. Only the stone parts, the “bones” of the city, remain in the 21st century.

Sigiriya

So what spelled Sigiriya’s doom, anyway?

From UNESCO:

Kassapa had a fortified palace built on the rock of Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. However, it was there that he was defeated after a short but cruel battle in 495, following which he cut his throat. After the death of Kassapa, Moggallana returned the site of Sigiriya to the monks, thus condemning it to progressive abandonment. During the eleven years that Kassapa resided in Sigiriya, he created a residence of exceptional splendour and founded his capital there, impressive vestiges of which are still extant.”

And I was going to climb to the top of that rock.

Sigiriya

Part of me dreaded it, though. I’ve been out of shape for a long time. The lifestyle of a travel blogger is characterized by long sedentary periods followed by mostly sedentary periods mixed with anaerobic bursts of activity. No, it’s not good, and it needs to change, but there’s always so much more that we should be doing, leading to even more hours behind the computer.

Even though I know they have the same struggles I do, I wouldn’t let my fellow bloggers see how out of shape I was. I’d push on up, pretending everything was fine, keeping a smile on my gradually reddening face as my legs ached. If it really got bad, I’d nonchalantly stop and photograph the scenery.

Peeing Monkey Sigiriya

Like this peeing monkey.

Monkeys at Sigiriya

And this mommy and baby monkey.

Views from Sigiriya

And these views over the countryside.

Dog in Sigiriya

And this puppy with a view.

Sigiriya Maidens of the Rock

Halfway up the rock is a cave filled with frescoes of 21 women. They call them “The Maidens of the Clouds.” Nobody is sure exactly who these women are, but with their carefully constructed features, it’s fair to suspect that these were modeled on actual women — perhaps Kassapa’s concubines.

It wasn’t a strenuous climb up to the rock — it was just stairs. But there were a lot of them, and the first part of the ascent took about an hour.

Once you reach the base of the rock itself, the ancient stairs disappear. Sigiriya the city emerges into a hill surrounding the rock itself, and at that point the ascent becomes nearly vertical. Modern scaffolding has since been built into the rock.

SigiriyaSigiriya Climbing Sigiriya

After a short break to catch my breath and drink some water near the base, I made the final journey up the flat side of the rock face.

Here’s what was waiting for me at the top.

Sigiriya

The view over the landscape from the top of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya

Kassapa’s ancient palace.

Sigiriya Monk

A Buddhist monk taking in the countryside.

Kate at Sigiriya

With burning lungs and sweat-drenched hair, I sat on the edge, a big grin upon my face.

Climbing Sigiriya was so worth it. And this won’t be the last thing to climb. I’ve got volcanoes on my list in Central America this winter.

Essential Info: My biggest advice for Sigiriya is to climb it as early in the morning as possible: while it will always be hot, the weather will be the coolest at this time of day, and it will also be the least crowded. We climbed at about 7:30 AM. I recommend allowing three hours to explore the grounds and climb to the top of Lion’s Rock.

Visiting Sigiriya costs $30 USD (3900 rupees). While Sri Lanka is very cheap overall, tourist sites are really expensive, especially the World Heritage Sites.

I stayed at Cinnamon Hotels’ Chaaya Lodge Habarana, which I really enjoyed and was in the perfect location: right on the train line from Colombo with easy access to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Kaudalla National Park. The pool was heavenly after this climb. Rates start at $97 USD. You can find the best rates on other accommodation here.

Make sure to get travel insurance before visiting Sri Lanka! It will protect you financially if something goes wrong, like tripping or falling during a hike. I never travel without it and use World Nomads.

I visited Sri Lanka for TBCAsia, hosted by Cinnamon Hotels. Thanks also to Sri Lankan Airlines for flying me there from London, CVisit Sri Lanka for carting me around, and Mobitel for furnishing me with a SIM card. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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46 thoughts on “Sri Lanka From Above: Climbing Sigirya”

  1. Went here in Oct 13 and did the climb. It’s pretty amazing but not for the faint of heart or those with vertigo but the view is stunning.
    What I’d love to see and could never find would be an artistic rendition of how the Lion looked, not just the feet which are all that’s left.

  2. Brilliant photos! Those monkeys provide plenty of entertainment don’t they 😉 My husband has a particularly rude photo of one with its unmentionables hanging out. We didn’t notice until we were looking through the album later on!

    The top looks stunning with all the rainwater filling the swimming pools, so lush and green.

  3. Those views are stunning! I always moan about anything strenuous but when you’re rewarded with beauty like that, it’s well worth the sweat and aching limbs!

  4. Wow, that looks amazing and so much fun! And the scenery is stunning, you really captured it beautifully. It looks really hard too. I probably would have been lagging way behind 🙂

  5. Sigiriya looks so beautiful!! As does everything you’ve posted about Sri Lanka. I’ve climbed tot he top of some of the ruins in Mexico, it’s such a great feeling to make it up and then get to take in those views. 🙂

  6. I’m sorry, did you say something about some mountains? because MONKEYS! PUPPIES!!!
    Ok, fine… the giant stone paws/claws were pretty awesome too (if a bit terrifying).

  7. Wow, incredible. Definitely worth the climb for that view! Stunning! (And let’s face it, who doesn’t love a picture of a monkey peeing.)

    I’m definitely with you on the out of shape-ness though. Need to get out from behind the laptop screen now and again! Still, I’m glad it’s not just me…

  8. Kate, thank you for the beautiful addition to my list of places to visit in Sri Lanka. I especially loved your photographs of the monkeys. Thank you, also, for reminding my why I run – the sedentary writing lifestyle can get so unhealthy so quickly – it’s snowing here, so I really need the motivation! 🙂 That said, even when I’m in the best shape, stairs are still tough.

  9. I’ve read about Sigirya before, but this is the first post that gives me a sense of what’s where, spatially. (Does that make any sense?) Anyway, it took me right there!

  10. I love this monument. So grand, especially the frescoes of 21 women. I thought that was quite interesting. I’m glad that you made it up. I know too well how at the bottom, it’s a fairly good idea until you’re halfway there and you realise “er, what am I doing?” And you can’t turn back either as you’re “almost there” even though you’re not LOL! I climbed a live volcano in Bali last summer, and it took an awful lot of me. I’m not an emotional person, but I cried. A lot.
    Nice one. 🙂

  11. Defo one of the coolest things I have ever enjoyed!

    Hopefully it remains as awesome for the next 20+ years as more and more climb Sigiraya

  12. This view is STUNNING! I can’t believe it. You need to sell postcards of these pictures! 🙂 Thanks for adding one more destination to my “someday” list.

    Also, that dog shot was pretty darn cute.

  13. Wow, that’s cool! From the first picture of just the rock in the field it didn’t look like much. I had no idea there is a hidden city behind it! I love the picture of the dog taking nap high up. I have a few pictures of cats overlooking the rocky cliffs on the island of Sao Miguel. If they only knew they were looking at a million dollar view!

  14. Wow that rock is outstanding! Something I have never seen and agree with the spurs of being active and not active. I just started working out again so I can be more in shape for upcoming trips and outdoor activities. Was supposed to try to go to Sri Lanka this month but I had other obligations so it didn’t work out. Passing this along to my friend who is traveling through the area.

  15. Hi, I just discovered your blog and I really enjoy reading it. I’m 18 year old and I always had a passion for travelling. I went to Sri Lanka this past summer and it was absolutely stunning! I really like your pictures, I’ve been there also but my pictures are not as good as yours. May I ask what kind of camera you use? Greetings,

  16. went up 3 days ago. its not that of a climb, more like an easy stair hike. but beware of the hornets. we couldn’t leave the top because there was a hornet attack. many got stung. we had to go down very slowly and the most important: quietly!

  17. Hi kate,

    I read the article.The place is so good!!! Being so near to Sri lanka ( I stay in India) I didn’t had the chance of visiting the place.After reading the blog I will definitely visit the place.

    By the way,Any Plans of visiting India?

    Cheers!!!

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