Day 5 – so many temples: after a massive breakfast of fruit, omelette, and my first ever hoppers (both the plain and the string variety) I headed out to tour Polonnaruwa. I only had until 3pm when I had to be back at the guest house and ready for my driver to take me the 5 hours back to Colombo (planning fail). The site is younger than Anuradhapura and in better repair, it also feels far more Indiana Jones, if that’s your bag (it’s certainly mine), more tightly packed with more individual buildings to explore and a lot more intricate in its detail. Everything was on a smaller scale than Anuradhapura and yet somehow more impressive.
I started at the Archaeological Museum, which I suspect is overlooked and underappreciated by visitors. I recommend you make this your first stop, as it gives you a good background to the history of Polonnaruwa so you know what you’re looking at later. It’s pretty well laid out and very informative, not something to miss. The route I followed from there was to move north from the museum to the ‘Royal Palace Group’, on to the ‘Quadrangle’ and then the ‘Northern Group’ and finally to Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara Buddha carvings is one of the most striking sights in Polonnaruwa, including a huge standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha 14m long. They are beautifully carved with serene yet expressive faces. Nearby is the beautiful lotus pond, Nelum Pokuna (which I sadly saw in passing from my speeding tuk tuk) and the Tivanka Image House, which contains a series of frescoes. It is not very well lit, and the cloudy sky the say I visited didn’t help. My favourite was in the ‘Northern Group’ which contains Lankatilaka, a tall and long temple containing a huge standing Buddha as well as the Kiri Vihara, which 700 years on still retains its original lime plaster. While smaller than some of its cousins in Anuradhapura, there was something extremely pleasing about its dimensions and I found it more impressive. The Quadrangle is also a treasure trove of temples and ornate carvings and I spent a huge amount of time here and in the Royal Palace Group taking photos of the carved balustrades and moonstones.
All too soon it was time to head to the guest house, grab a quick shower and wait for my ride to Colombo. Just as I thought there was no end to the lengths the guest house would go to accommodate me (having allowed me to shower in a spare room before I left) then presented me with a little statuette of one of the Polonnaruwa statues as a souvenir of my stay. Love this place.
The drive to Colombo was surprisingly pleasant despite the 5 hour car ride. After stopping to watch two young elephants playing together on the side of the road (my first elephant sighting!) we had an uneventful journey passing through town after town as the sun set at 6pm on the dot as it does every day when you’re so near the equator. My driver was completely incredulous when I told him it was light until 10pm in summer in the UK. After a pleasant dinner in the Cinnamon Grand ( I don’t remember which restaurant, only that the food was spicy and I sat next to a koi pond), it was another early night for a 4:30am start for the south coast.
My tips for this leg of the journey
Yes, trainers are comfortable for all day walking and probably better for your feet, but by the time you’ve unlaced them and taken them off for the third time to enter a temple, you start to lose patience. I always forget about the need to remove shoes and so I’m always unprepared- it is a lot easier if you wear flip flops or something else you can easily kick off and slip back on.
Polonnaruwa deserves a full day, I had to cut my time here short before I was really sated. If anyone tells you it’s a half a day job, ignore them.
I had originally planned to take the sleeper train from Polonnaruwa back to Colombo, but then I chickened out of it because I was alone, didn’t know what I was doing, and I like to be comfortable (I also should never have Googled pictures of toilets on Sri Lankan sleeper trains). The way the train timetables work means that it is far easier to either use Habarana as a base, as I’ve already explained, as there is a train in the morning from Habarna back to Colombo, but nothing in the afternoon (unless you want to arrive at 3:30am), or to do this portion of the trip in reverse, going from Colombo to Polonnaruwa, then on to Habarana for Dambulla and Sigiriya and then up to Anuradhapura, as there is a far better selection of trains going from Colombo to Habarana / Polonnaruwa and then back from Anuradhapura (a choice of 6 arriving in Colombo at a sociable hour).