It provides a cost advantage that is hard to resist. It is tougher to scale. And offers you a spectacular 360° view of the surroundings down below and further afield. If you haven’t scaled Pidurangala Rock, then let this be your motivation to do so the next time you visit Sri Lanka.
Around 46km from Kandy is a town that that has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Besides being among the best examples of ancient urban planning, it also has a rock towering at close to 200m called Sigiriya Rock Fortress, or Lion’s Rock. One of the best ways to truly appreciate it is if you scaled another rock a little distance away – Pidurangala Rock.
How times have changes
Growing up was a lot easier. I climbed trees, went for a casual walk up the hill around the neighbourhood, and scaled walls and rocks like I was a mountain goat.
Not anymore sadly. Age and a very lazy lifestyle mean that I think twice when anyone suggests long walks, especially one that entails steep climbs. Climbing four floors is tough enough.
When I was in Luang Prabang last year, one of the highlights was a visit to Kuang Si waterfalls. Spectacular as it was, there was a climb right to the top which I had to unfortunately abort midway through. I’ll blame it on the wet and slippery path leading up. I know better though. I just didn’t have the strength or stamina to push myself just a bit more. Nope.
Which is why I surprised myself when planning my getaway to Sri Lanka over the New Year holidays. A lot of research had gone into the trip, including places to visit, sights to see and mode of transport. Among the suggestions was a trip to the interiors of Kandy, Ella, Dambulla and of course Sigiriya. Of course, I was going to climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress. So much for research.
Sigiriya or Pidurangala Rock?
Once in Kandy, I opted to use the city as the base to make the trip to Dambulla and Sigiriya. A private car was arranged for a day trip to both Dambulla and Sigiriya, and if time permitted a visit to an elephant sanctuary – not something I was particularly kicked about.
Early the next morning, after breakfast, it was a drive of about 2½ hours to see and appreciate one of only eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka and try and see if my legs and stamina were up to scaling Sigiriya Rock Fortress.
As I got chatting with the driver, that is when the penny dropped. Turns out there is not one, but two rocks in Sigiriya. Agreed, it’s not as popular as Sigiriya Rock Fortress, but Pidurangala Rock has plenty to offer too, as I found out later.
On querying him further, he casually mentioned that Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a much more difficult climb, Pidurangala Rock, on the other hand was, according to him, not too difficult a climb. I reasoned that while climbing Sigiriya Rock Fortress would offer limitless views of the surroundings, the only way to appreciate its grandeur would be to see it from Pidurangala Rock. Besides, at USD 30 per head, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a lot more expensive when compared to USD 3 that I paid to scale Pidurangala Rock. That sealed the deal for me. Budget travel makes you think hard on each dollar spent.
My first stop was to go climb uphill to explore Dambulla cave temples. Once done with that, I didn’t have the heart, or strength, to go climb a rock immediately after that. However, better sense, and the fact that I wasn’t staying overnight was reason enough to egg me on, or at least try.
To climb or not to climb
A short drive later, the driver plonked me right at the entrance, walked me up to the steps and promptly left to sit in the comfort of his air-conditioned car.
Once at the ticket counter, I inquired whether the walk up was about half an hour as I had been told by my driver. A quick confirmation later, I purchased a ticket and was handed a brochure. A read of it confirmed that, contrary to what I had read or been told, the climb up Pidurangala Rock was going to be tougher. I silently cursed the Internet and the driver, in no particular order, and set forth to conquer the rock.
At the base is a Pidurangala Sigiri Rajamaha Viharaya, a temple that I needed to pass through before the difficult part started. Shoes in hand, it is a short walk up the steps and outside the perimeter of the temple, after which I wore my shoes again.
It’s from this point onwards that the actual climb begins. The initial ascent is steady, with a few boulders and stairs to help you move ahead.
From this point onwards, I started to slowly ascent over rocks and under boulders, between trees and roots and cliffs. While I was assured there were a few signboards indicating the path ahead and the number of steps, I was either oblivious to my surroundings or too busy trying to pace myself. I mentally made a note that the first aim of the hike up would be to try and make it to the ancient Pidurangala rock temple a little more than halfway up. That itself would be an achievement in my books.
It must have been a good half hour before I finally managed to reach the temple. It was only right that I take a well-deserved break here (my fourth or fifth, or perhaps tenth at this point).
While not much remains, the main highlight is a 12m reclining Buddha that lies under the rock face. a few decades back, treasure hunters had unfortunately ransacked the cave temple. So, while there are portions of the original structure still in place, the rest, including the Buddha’s head, have been reconstructed using brick.
I realised I didn’t have much longer to reach the summit. I know this because, just a short while before, I had, on one my innumerable breaks, asked another tourist coming downhill. She smiled and confirmed that I should make it in another 15-20 minutes. Besides, with enough oxygen pumped into the lungs, I was ready to tackle the rock and get to the top.
Immediately after the cave temple, it’s a bit of a plateau before I reached the one last hurdle to the summit. I literally had to crawl between trees and hop and finally climb up a few boulders. However, a bit of scrambling later, I was atop.
Finally! I had done it. Gasping for breath and wiping away sweat from my face and bald pate, I took a few minutes to get my bearings. One small pathway between trees and a crawl up a boulder and I knew I would be on top.
The views are simply spectacular. Staring me in front was the majestic Sigiriya Rock Fortress, rising high among the greenery beneath it. I walked all around, soaking in the sights from every angle, until, satiated, I chose to go to the farthest edge and sit for a while, gazing at the views. I will also admit, while Sigiriya Rock Fortress is the best photo-op, I enjoyed this corner far more. The views of Sigiriya and the countryside make for a beautiful setting.
There weren’t too many people around, except a delightful young Japanese couple who asked for their photograph to be taken. I happily obliged. A few minutes later, another German couple came by, and again requested a snap. Again, I was happy to.
Once to myself, I sat down to savour this special moment. While plenty of thoughts were racing through my brain, I also smiled to myself. For someone who’s not used to so much physical exertion, this, to me was an achievement. Never mind that I took close to an hour to reach the top.