As you might guess, a 2000 year old operating temple that is being built up as a tourist attraction in a far off land, like Sri Lanka, might have special considerations for visiting. We compiled our list of ten things you need to know before visiting Dambulla Cave Temples to help you have a great time in visiting one of Sri Lanka’s oldest temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Wear modest clothing
- You’ll have to climb uphill to reach the temple
- Buy tickets at the lower / south entrance
- There are no services at the top
- Entrance fees
- Hours of operation
- Stay for enough time (but not too much)
- Pick a good time to visit
- The difference between Dambulla Cave Temple, Dambulla Rock Temple, and the Golden Temple
- Plan side trips
When I first heard about cave temples in Sri Lanka I was like – gotta go. We love caves and dig Buddhism. (sometimes, we dig caves too but that’s another story). When I realized that “caves” in volcanic Sri Lanka are just rock overhangs, I got a little disappointed. Even still, the Dambulla Cave Temples made a great second half of our Sigiriya Rock day.
Caves, be it limestone or rock overhangs, are the most stable spaces on Earth. They preserve a history that counts time in centuries, not decades. The Dambulla Temples are well preserved and still functioning today after nearly two thousand years of continual use. The continuity of use makes it the best preserved antiquity you’ll ever visit. As you look at our pictures, just think that these temples are over 2000 years old!
10 – Wear Modest Clothing
There is a dress code for entering temples in Sri Lanka that is similar to many temples in Southeast Asia. You can’t wear shorts and woman need to cover their shoulders. If you didn’t bring the appropriate clothes, you may be able to borrow a wrap at the entrance, but it’s best not to take chances. Take a look at Ed’s lovely purple wrap that he used to cover up his shorts.
9 – You’ll have to Climb Uphill to Reach the Temple
There is about a 300’ climb to reach the temple. It will take you about 10 minutes to make the climb, but you will might be sweating at the top if you are leaving in the middle of a tropical day. The fact that the temples are 10 minutes and 300’ up from the entrance makes the next two points even more important.
8 – Buy Tickets at the Lower / South Entrance
There are three entrances to the temple complex, but only one ticket counter. If you enter through the Golden Temple or the local entrance halfway down the hill, you will have to walk down hill to temple counter. There is no way to buy tickets at the top where they collect them.
7 – There Are no Services at the Top
First off, make sure you take your water with you. On a similar note of water management, make sure you go to the bathroom at the bottom too. If you’re staying for sunset, consider packing a snack but beware the monkeys. They are used to pilgrims bringing lotus flowers for temples and can be food aggressive. One chased Ed until he gave him half his flowers.
6 – Entrance Fees
As of 2017, it cost LKR 1500, which is about $10 USD for foreigners to enter the temples. We always considered these fees part of ethical tourism and the costs of maintaining a 2000 year old historic site.
4 – Stay for Enough Time (but not too much)
Most visits take 1-2 hours. You might think that 5 cave temples would take a while to visit, but in reality, they are small rock overhangs. If you’re in good shape, you can blaze up and down the hill in an hour. If you want to rest at the top, take pictures, or wait for sunset, it might take you a little longer.
3 – Pick a Good Time to Visit
The best time to visit the cave temples is either early in the morning or in the afternoon. Most of the tourists come in the morning and the sunsets from the temples are outstanding, so that’s a nod for coming at sunset. Also, if you combine the trip with Sigiriya, it allows you to climb the higher (and harder) Sigiriya Rock in the cooler morning and enjoy the sunset from the Cave Temples.
2 – The Difference Between Dambulla Cave Temple, Dambulla Rock Temple, and The Golden Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple and Dambulla Rock Temple are two different names for exactly the same place. You might also hear cave temple and cave temples since there are, in fact, five separate caves. The Golden Temple and the Cave Temple are part of the same temple complex. The Golden Temple is at the bottom of the hill, close to the main road and the Cave Temple is at the top of the hill. Realistically, you should go ahead and visit the Golden Temple and Cave Temples at the same time since they are basically right next to each other.
1 – Plan Side Trips
Dambulla Cave Temple will not fill a full day of exploration. Make sure you optimize your time by planning side trips. We stayed at a nearby Mahagedara Retreat and visited Sigiriya Rock and the Megalithic Tombs on the same day as Dambulla Cave Temples. Nearby is hiking Pidurangala Rock and elephant safaris at Kaudulla National Park. Our alternative plan to visit the Dambulla Cave Temples was as a stop before we took the train to Kandy.
Concluding Our Visit to Dambulla Cave Temples
We thought about the history and heritage of ayurvedic medicine when we returned to Mahagedara Retreat. With our Ayurveda program at the retreat, we weren’t embarking on a fad diet or flash cure. We were working on a practice and a lifestyle that has endured for thousands of years and is still practiced today, like the Dambulla Cave Temples. We were glad that the staff at Mahagedara helped us set up a great excursion and wanted to pass their tips along to you. We hope that they help you if you, or someone you know, is visiting Sri Lanka.