The ‘Cultural Triangle’ is the heart of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry; A trail of ancient, ruined cities winding its way through the plateaus and woodland of the country’s central region. It begins in Kandy before heading north to the painted caves of Dambulla, the hill fortress of Sigiriya (which many Sri Lankans refer to as the ‘8th wonder of the world’) and ending in the vast, crumbling ruins of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Tourists and pilgrims flock in their thousands each year to marvel at these wonders but often overlook what I consider the most beautiful spot in the whole of Sri Lanka – Pidurangala Rock.
We arrived in the town of Sigiriya well after sunset, our driver Kasun struggling in the dark to find the home stay that we had booked. It seemed less a town and more a grid of wide, dusty tracks with small, corrugated shacks and guesthouses set back in the forest that lined each street. There were no street lights and finding anyone to pester for directions was impossible.
The one thing you will find about Sri Lanka is that everyone has connections all over the country. Kasun was no different. A few short phone calls later and we were arriving at our home stay, just a few candles on the patio giving any indication that anyone is home. We were given an incredibly warm welcome by the family; Jaana, his wife Sudu, and his daughter Swetha. They had built two small apartments on the land next to their home for a secondary income and, although basic, they had fans and hot water – both of which I was desperately craving after a long day of travelling from Kandy.
When not running the friendliest guesthouse in the country, Jaana is a chef at a nearby 5 star hotel. With this in mind there was no way I could turn down his offer to make us dinner. He vanished in to the kitchen while Swetha, his young daughter, practised her English on us. Before long she was enthusiastically performing a song and dance routine at us, her captive audience, for which we gave her a rapturous applause.
As I devoured my meal I was accosted by the Jaana’s Nephew, Andrew. “You’re from England? Do you like cricket?” his eyes widening with the excitement of discussing his favourite sport. I tried to explain that I was more of a football fanatic and he just gave me a dumbfounded look before continuing on with his shot for shot account of Sri Lanka’s latest test against India. In a country that is so fervently pious, one religion tops all others; Cricket. Sri Lankan’s love of Buddhism and Hinduism pale in comparison. Andrew seemed relatively shy; a timid, lanky, rake thin teenager with a mop of messy black hair but when it came to discussing batting averages, he transformed into a Sinhalese Geoffrey Boycott.
Most days Andrew hopped on a bus and made the long 90km journey down to Kandy for college. With public transport in Sri Lanka you can only rely on one thing – that it will be unreliable. His trip could take anywhere between 2 and 4 hours which meant waking up well before sunrise. “If you wake up at the same time as me, I can show you Pidurangala before I go to school.” He seemed more excited than me at the prospect of an early wake up call. After a full day of travelling and a plan to climb nearby Lion Rock the next day, a pre-dawn trek up its twin didn’t sound too appealing.
We crammed into Jaana’s tuk tuk, four of us on the back seat – a tangle of limbs and tired bodies. The sky was still pitch black with just the flickering beam of our single headlight leading the way. It was only a kilometre to Pidurangala but it felt longer as we bounced along on tiny rubber tyres, elbows and knees stabbing at our sides and the engine sounding like it would splutter its last breath at any moment. Sigiri Rajamaha Viharaya, the temple at the foot of the rock, was deserted but to my surprise there was a mumble from within the trees where a lone salesman sat on a plastic patio chair, waiting to sell a ticket to anyone crazy enough to arrive at this time.
Like its more famous brother, Sigirya, Pidurangala is a huge rocky outcrop protruding from the jungle. It is as if a giant has just plucked a boulder from elsewhere and placed it in the relatively flat surroundings of central Sri Lanka. In fact, It is the remains of a hardened magma plug from an extinct volcano that has long since eroded, just leaving its solid centre behind. It is thought that the monastery here dates back to the reign of King Kassapa who displaced the monks of Sigirya to make space for his royal palace – as compensation they were relocated to Pidurangala and provided with a temple.
We arrived at the Royal Cave Temple itself after a short but sweaty climb up the steep staircases, using our phones as makeshift torches. Even this early in the morning the humidity was suffocating. It was hard to see the temple in the darkness. I could just about make out the silhouette of a large, reclining Buddha statue and the writing etched into the rock face. From here the path seemed to disappear, stopping dead as it approached the tree line. Andrew lead the way, pushing through the trees like he must have done hundreds of times before. The final ascent was a stiff climb up a cluster of boulders, almost vertically upwards. It took all the remaining energy in my burning thighs to scale them, legs apart and pushing upwards on either side of the crevasse with my aching arms guiding me.
We emerged at the summit of Pidurangala to one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.
A sea of flat rock stretched out before us, bare but for a small cluster of trees and shrubs inexplicably bunched in its centre. It felt as though we were on the roof of the world. Below us a thick cloud of mist hung over the black forest and then trailed outwards like a blanket over the seemingly endless savannah. We were the only people up there and it felt as though we were the first intrepid explorers to discover this natural wonder.
The sun gradually began to show itself, painting the sky a deep shade of purple from its hiding place behind the horizon. Before long the mist was burning away, rising upwards to reveal our surroundings. The sky lit up in a rainbow of pink and orange hues and Sigiriya became visible in the distance. From this vantage point we were almost level with the top of the volcanic peculiarity. Rising hundreds of metres from the jungle its smooth sides were illuminated in the morning light. It was beautiful. From here it looked unassailable but in just a few hours it will be overflowing with tourists queuing to scramble up its staircases to the fortress at its summit. However, at this early hour it was a peaceful lonely sentinel in an otherwise flat landscape.
We must have stayed up there for over an hour, letting the wonder wash over me until the colours in the sky has dissipated. It seemed so odd to me that no one else had thought of coming here. While they were all sleeping, they were missing the most spectacular sight in the country and instead would head straight to Sigiriya later that day, paying £25 for the privilege. Little do they know that the best view of ‘the 8th wonder of the world’ is just under their noses, 1km away on Pidurangala.
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