After exploring Sri Lanka's bustling cities, tranquil beaches and busy mountain towns, we were eager to see another side of Sri Lanka: the ancient cities and ruins. We planned two nights in Polonnaruwa, one of the main cities in the Cultural Triangle (along with Anuradhapura and Kandy) in order to explore the famous ruins of the ancient city where for many years Kings ruled over Sri Lanka almost a century ago.
A Brief History of Polonnaruwa
First established in the late 10th century, Polonnaruwa was made the capital of the South Indian Chola dynasty given its strategically superior placement against rebellions in comparison to Anuradhapura. The Sinhalese King Vijayabahu I conquered the Cholas in 1070 and kept Polonnaruwa as the capital.
His successor, King Parakramabahu I, developed a massive and thriving city; stunning parks, architecture, monasteries, temples and a lake were built. His successor, Nissanka Malla tried to outdo all this incredible success. In doing so, he bankrupted Polonnaruwa and turned it into a city of chaos and disrepair.
Polonnaruwa was abandoned in the early 13th century and was hidden by thick jungle until excavations and restorations led to the declaration of the Ancienty City of Polonnaruwa a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Where to Stay in Polonnaruwa
We checked in for two nights at Hotel Sudu Araliya where large and ornate elephant statues adorn the exterior of this grand and high-capacity hotel. While the service could use some tightening-up, the layout of the place was a welcome change to some of the guesthouses we had endured elsewhere. The all-you-can-eat dinner buffet was a bit too pricey for what we got, in our opinion, but their a-la-carte menu suited us just fine. We particularly enjoyed the on-site Ayurveda Spa massage we all participated in, as well as the outdoor pool layout, but the wi-fi was a big flop. A huge highlight for me was spotting a wild elephant just outside the property boundaries, even though I was highly unimpressed with the young working boys throwing vegetable scraps in order to tempt the poor animal closer to the hotel fence.
Visiting the Ancient Ruins of Polonnaruwa
The ultimate and most popular way of visiting the huge grounds of the ancient city is by bike. Either rent a bike at a local rental shop or arrange for a rental through your hotel. Entrance to the ruins is $25 USD per person, and you must purchase your ticket at the Polonnaruwa Museum. Entrance to the museum is included in this hefty entrance fee, so take your time exploring the exhibits and make it worth your money! Be sure to wear appropriate clothing; even though the city is in ruins, it is still considered sacred.
The Lonely Planet and DK Eyewitness Guide both have fantastic descriptions of all the different ruins, easily visited in a few hours. There are five distinct groupings of ruins from south to north. Starting with the Royal Palace Group furthest south, then the Quadrangle, the Northern Group, the Southern Group and the Rest House Group. Be sure to bring water as it gets quite hot exploring the ancient city in the glaring sun. There are many locals selling drinks on the side of the road.
The Island Group
Just outside the museum is the Island Garden where the Council Chambers, Royal Baths and ancient Audience Hall ruins are to be found. This is a great place to have a wander around before heading inside the museum. This is the only part of the ruins you can visit for free. The most fascinating structure left here is the Council Chamber where columns feature inscriptions of the various dignitaries who would have attended council next to the King's throne where the lion now stands.
The Royal Palace Group
Turn right just after you enter the grounds of the ruins to reach the first significant cluster of ruins at the Royal Palace Group. Featuring the Royal Palace, stunning Royal Baths and another Council Chamber, you can just image the grandiose structures that used to stand here. It is believed that the Royal Palace used to stand seven storeys high!
The Quadrangle is home to a whole collection of interesting structures all clustered together on a raised terrace. Entrance to any of the structures requires covered shoulders and knees as well as bare feet. Incredible moonstones and carvings are to be found everywhere.
This impressive dagoba is Sri Lanka's fourth largest and stands more than 50 metres high! You cannot get inside, but the dominating building is worth a walk around.