Sigiriya: The reason I booked my trip to Sri Lanka.
I knew so little about the country when I first found a discounted plane ticket last July. I had once interviewed someone who lived there, and I knew another person who had visited and spent time at an elephant orphanage. Aside from that, Sri Lanka was about as familiar to me as Timbuktu.
So I did what anyone would do when faced with researching something from scratch: I turned to Google.
If you search for “Sri Lanka,” one of the first images that shows up in the image tab is Sigiriya. Or “that big rock,” as I was calling it at the time.
When I came across the image, I knew I wanted to find out everything I could about it. I had to see this place with my own eyes. A Unesco World Heritage Site. A massive rock plateau towering over the forest with ruins of an ancient fortress at the top. A civil engineering masterpiece. My kind of place.
It was significant, too, because I was turning 30 on this trip. I decided that I wanted to spend the day of my birthday climbing “that big rock.” What better way to mark a milestone than to fly yourself to a foreign land, scale a big granite boulder, and declare yourself queen of the mountain? I couldn’t pass up the symbolism.
The Day is Here!
After dreaming about it for so long, I awoke on the morning of my birthday filled with eager anticipation. Ajith, the owner of the Lion Lodge guest house where I was staying, was confused when I emerged from my room at 6:00 a.m. ready to eat breakfast.
“Where are you going so early, madam?”
“I was going to ask you when breakfast is served, so I can leave for Sigiriya at 6:3o.”
“Breakfast at 6:30, and is only ten minutes walk. You no worry,” he said with a smile.
I was desperately hoping to see Sigiriya in the morning light. The gates don’t open until 7:00, just after sunrise, and it takes a while to walk to the top. I wanted to be the first person on the steps to enjoy as much of the morning as possible.
After some gentle pleading, Ajith agreed to serve me breakfast early.
6:25 rolled around and I was tapping my foot impatiently at the breakfast table outside of my room, looking around to see if anyone would come by. Finally, one of the staff offered me tea and eventually brought out a plate of food. It would have been one of the best breakfasts I ate in Sri Lanka if I hadn’t wolfed it down with the urgency of a child who couldn’t go play with friends until she finished dinner. #FOMO.
I swept up my backpack and walked briskly toward the entrance down the long road paved with rose quartz. Up until this point I still had not laid eyes on Sigiriya. For its scale, the dense forest does a good job of hiding it.
Finally, I arrived at the entrance and set my eyes upon the giant granite peak. At 370 meters high (1,214 feet), it would be a long walk to the top.
Let me preface this by clarifying that “climbing” Sigiriya does not require ropes and carabiners. It requires comfortable shoes and strong quads. It’s the extended stairs workout that you never wanted but are glad you did in the end.
The entire climb is stairs. (I know what you’re thinking. “As opposed to what, Marissa? A giant rock elevator?”) There are stairs cut out of rock. Spiral staircases. Rickety metal stairs bolted straight into the sheer rock face that give a little under your weight. 30 minutes of straight stairs that will set your quads on fire and sculpt your glutes to glorious perfection.
Of course, there are plenty of places to rest. The first stopping point is at the sign warning you that hordes of wasps are waiting in the tree branches to sting you to death if you’re too loud. It’s ok to freeze in fear for a minute. I certainly did.
Next, you’ll have to pause after inadvertently sticking your hand into the feces of some unidentified animal, perfectly rust-colored to match the tint of the stair rail. Or maybe you’ll pay more attention to the hand rails than I did. (Thankfully I had a pack of disinfecting wipes on hand to take care of this crappy situation.)
Back on course, you’ll climb some stairs that will begin to take you straight up the side of Sigiriya. About halfway up, you’ll arrive in a sheltered area that houses 1,600-year-old painted frescoes. Incredibly, these frescoes used to span one entire side of the rock about 100 meters (328 feet) above the ground. Over time they’ve been washed away by rain and other environmental factors. Only nineteen frescoes have survived to this day, protected by the natural overhang, remarkably well preserved.
A brief walk and some more stairs will take you to the entrance to the fortress marked by two giant lion claws. The claws are all that remain of the great lion that once marked the entrance. From there, it’s just one more heart-dropping climb up the exposed rock face on the aforementioned death stairs before you reach the top.
Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but I’m a tiny person and the stairs definitely bent under my weight. So, good luck getting up the rock if you’re a big burly guy.
At the Top
Quads burning, I scrambled up the final flight of stairs and onto Sigiriya’s expansive terraced roof. The landscape stretched out before me, damp and misty-white.
I was alone but for a handful of early risers who had walked up with me. It had taken me about 30 minutes to reach the top, including the brief stops for wasps and the poop crisis and photography.
And now, I was standing in King Kasyapa’s old palace (and also a former monastery), a wonder of the ancient world, a shining example of urban planning, an architectural and engineering marvel, and a tourist destination back before tourism was a thing. (Inscriptions from the eighth century indicate that people have been visiting Sigiriya for at least 1,300 years.)
I walked among the grassy ruins, following the walls and stairs leading ever-farther down the sloped summit. I gazed at the forest below, the lily pads blanketing a large water tank at ground level. I imagined what this fortress might have looked like when King Kasyapa reigned, after his betrayal of his father, ascension to the throne, and construction of a grand sky palace in the middle of an inhospitable forest.
I sat and stared out toward the nearby mountains, fog lifting, revealing more of the landscape. How could I not be in awe of this place, of the engineering and the ingenuity and the glory that it represents?
If You Visit
If you plan to visit Sigiriya, here’s what you should know:
- Sigiriya is located in central Sri Lanka, in what’s known as the Cultural Triangle. It’s about three hours by bus from Kandy.
- Go as early as possible. By the time I was finished with my visit, the place was crawling with people. The number one complaint I’ve heard about Sigiriya is people saying it feels like a tourist attraction (as much as anything in Sri Lanka can feel like a tourist attraction). I can tell you with certainty that if you arrive at 7:00 when the gates open, you will have the place to yourself.
- Despite the number of stairs, Sigiriya is not a rigorous climb. There are plenty of places to stop and rest, and you can take it slow.
- In that same vein – I was moving quickly when I climbed. If you’re with others or aren’t on a furious chase to catch the morning light like I was, plan for a 45-minute to one-hour climb.
- WATCH OUT FOR POOP ON HAND RAILS.
- Bring water and snacks. There’s nowhere to get food or water once you begin the climb.
- Use the restroom before you climb. There are no restroom facilities at the top.
- The entrance fee is steep for foreigners – about $30 USD or Rs 4260.
- There is no temple on the grounds, so you can expose your knees and shoulders.
- If you want a great view of Sigiriya itself, and are eager for a true rock scramble, climb nearby Pidurangala Rock (where I took the cover photo for this article). I found it to be more difficult than Sigiriya, with a challenging rock scramble at the end that is doable as a solo hiker but safer to navigate with others.
- If you spend the night in Sigiriya, check out Sigiri Lion Lodge. Ajith’s guest house has nice, simple rooms with and without a/c, a delicious breakfast is included, and every room has a patio.