Polonnaruwa is one of Sri Lanka’s top cultural and historical destinations. I actually had not heard of it all until some hostel friends brought it up to me. I was lazily lounging around when a couple of my friends got bored in Sigiriya and suggested that we take a day trip over to Polonnaruwa to see some ruins. I had just finished hiking Pidurangala Rock to catch the sunrise but never one to turn down an adventure, my exhausted self agreed. I honestly did not realize what I was signing up for. I was expecting a quick trip just to kill time but ended up cycling through the incredible ruins of the city for several hours, fully immersing myself into all of the wonders it held.
By the end of the trip, I was shocked that Polonnaruwa did not hold similar international status as a top destination like others ruins did. I would put it just a tier below Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu. The mix of Buddhist and Hindu structures, the diversity in the types of the monuments, and the easygoing yet comprehensive pace that you can take on the archaeological site made it one of the best experiences I have ever had while exploring ruins. It is spread out and diverse enough to keep you invested for an entire day, but not quite big enough that you will exhaust yourself in the process.
How To Get To Polonnaruwa
To get to Polonnaruwa, you will have to get to Dambulla first. It is the closest major hub and makes the most sense for travelers who want to visit Polonnaruwa. If you are in Sigiriya, simply take the bus back to Dambulla and catch a bus heading to Polonnaruwa from any of the bus stops. Basically, wherever you are in the country, get to Dambulla first and then catch a bus to Polonnaruwa.
The Best Route For Exploring Polonnaruwa Ruins
Polonnaruwa’s archaeological site was relatively easy to figure out. You must buy your tickets from the Archaeological Museum first for $25 USD, or about 4,500 LKR. The museum is an ideal starting point and is filled with artifacts, historical commentary, and miniature reconstructions of the ruins. It won’t take more than 30 minutes to walk through the museum and it gives you a chance to educate yourself a little bit more about the history of Polonnaruwa.
You might also get to see some of the gigantic water monitors roaming around the grounds. I heard some rustling in the bushes and assumed it was more of the hordes of monkeys. But nope, out came two Godzilla-sized freaks of nature in a crazy showdown where they were fighting each other. Eventually they calmed down and a few of the dogs tried to chase them back into the water. Nature is crazy.
But anyway, back to the matter at hand…
From the Archaeological Museum, you can follow the trail past the Old Sluice (slimy pond thing) and arrive at the Palace Complex of King Nishshanka Malla. Follow the trail along Lake Bendiwewa until you get to the main road. Take the immediate next right and this is where the archaeological site is mostly concentrated. You’ll have to pass by a ticket-checking station before you enter. There will be a few more ticket-checking stations scattered throughout the archaeological site so keep your tickets. Once you get past the ticket station, you’ve made it to the main road where most of the major attractions are.
Make sure to turn right first past the ticket station so you don’t miss the Royal Palace Complex of King Parakramabahu. Once you are done there, head the other way and breeze through the archaeological site at your own pace. There is a lot to see but don’t overwhelm yourself. I’ll let you know which ones are the absolute must-sees here in a little bit.
The Best Things To See in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
This ruins complex is one of the best in Polonnaruwa. It is medium-sized and boasts a lot of buildings that are still somewhat intact. It is all in a compact space, too, so it doesn’t require too much walking. This should definitely be a priority of your Polonnaruwa trip.
Thivanka Pilimage House
These were the final ruins that we visited as they are at the very end of the road through the archaeologic site. Although it is only one building, it is one of the most intricate and extravagant. The exterior is beautifully and masterfully carved. On the inside, which we weren’t allowed to take pictures of, there is a giant stone figure of one of the goddesses. Painted on the walls, but hardly visible now, are scenes of kings from a bygone era. The remnants of the gold-embossed imagery is still a sight to behold.
Here, there is a set of four Buddhas carved into a gigantic granite hill. This was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen and has to be seen with your own eyes. It is right off the main road leading through the archaeological site. Look for the lotus flower pond and turn onto that road and you can’t miss it.
This was the biggest stupa that we saw in Polonnaruwa. It was midday and the heat was absolutely torture on our bare feet so we opted to just admire it from a distance. Buddhist holy sites require you to take off your shoes and hat, and in the 100 degree weather, we decided not to walk around this one. However, it doesn’t take much exploring to see just how grandiose this is.
This might have been the highlight for me. The white stupa, impeccably carved walls, and a giant headless stone figure that was otherwise still mostly intact, you can see a lot of variety in this large complex. It is right across from Gal Vihara. Look for the big white stupa. There’s no way you can miss this one.
Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu
This complex felt like a little labyrinth. It was as expansive as it was impressive.
Palace Complex of King Nishshanka Malla
Located just past the Archaeological Museum, these will be the first ruins you encounter in Polonnaruwa.
Siva Devale No. 2
This is an active Hindu temple in Polonnaruwa. It is just one building but it is beautifully designed.
Pabalu Vehera (Temple of Marbles)
Just before Siva Devale No. 2 is Pabalu Vehera. This dome is surrounded by various ruins, including pillars, Buddhas, and more. It was isolated as it was tucked a little bit away in the jungle, so make sure you don’t accidentally miss it.
Carved in the shape of a full-blown lotus flower, this little pond is worth the quick stop. It is right before the Thivanka Image House and is worth checking out.
The Best Way To Explore Polonnaruwa Ruins
There are a few ways to explore Polonnaruwa Ruins: by foot, by bike, by tuk-tuk, or by car.
Exploring Polonnaruwa Ruins by foot
If you have an entire day and boundless energy, then this might be the way to go. You’ll save about 500 LKR on bicycle rental and you’ll be able to get a very comprehensive experience at the archaeological site. Polonnaruwa is much less spread out than Anuradhapura’s archaeological complex but it is still pretty daunting. Only do this if you have the energy to walk and explore for at least 8 hours. From the beginning to the very end of the complex is around six kilometers one-way, and that isn’t including all of the side detours you will take to visit the temples and ruins situated on the side roads. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to sit and catch a breather in the shade.
Exploring Polonnaruwa Ruins by bike
I highly recommend renting a bike. A decent bike will set you back at least 500 LKR but if you aren’t on a tight budget, it will be well worth the money. You will be able to see more of the archaeological site at a faster pace and get a nice breeze along the way while cruising on the bicycle. We were able to knock out about 90% of Polonnaruwa’s Archaeological Ruins in under six hours, with plenty of lengthy breaks in between. We made it to the very end at the Thivanka Image House and then cycled back to our starting point in about 20 minutes. While walking is doable, it can be exhausting and if you make it to the very end, you might have a very long, uninspired walk back to your starting point. I highly recommend renting a bike to explore Polonnaruwa.
Exploring Polonnaruwa Ruins by tuk-tuk
If you aren’t one for any form of physical activity, I can’t blame you, especially with the Sri Lankan heat. It was pushing 100 degrees at the peak of the sun while we were exploring Polonnaruwa. Tuk-tuks are the other main option. You will get to explore Polonnaruwa faster, and if you’ve got a good driver, he might even double as a guide. However, this can be expensive. I didn’t ask how much the price to hire a tuk-tuk for the day was in Polonnaruwa but in Anuradhapura, the drivers were asking for upwards of $30. I’d imagine it would be slightly less in Polonnaruwa but still at least $20.
Exploring Polonnaruwa Ruins by car or tour group
I did see a few people exploring the ruins by car or by tour bus. I don’t know much about these options so you will have to look into them yourself. By car seems like a pricy, though much more convenient and air-conditioned option. The tour buses seemed overwhelming and we tried to revolve our exploring and rest stops around whether or not there was a tour bus in the parking lot. This is Sri Lanka, so a 20-seater bus can easily fit 40 people. If you need something cheap and fast, this might be your option.
No matter which way you choose to explore Polonnaruwa, you can’t go wrong. This archaeological site quickly became one of my favorites in the entire world. It honestly kept getting better the further along we went. That’s saying something considered I was impressed right away.
The first two stops alone would have made me satisfied with the $25 I spent to get in. But again, the sheer diversity and intricacy of the ruins made it an archaeological site unlike any other. From buddhas carved into granite mountains to impressive stupas and massive statues, Polonnaruwa had so many unexpected wonders. My expectations were blown completely out of the water. Absolutely make the trip if you are in this part of Sri Lanka.