In my original itinerary for Sri Lanka, I'd thought I'd have to head north from Kandy and spend a night or two in Dambulla or Sigiriya to see the cultural sites up there. But as soon as I arrived at my hostel in Kandy, the Canadian girl running the place assured me that seeing both could be done in a single day. Since this day trip is not detailed in either the Lonely Planet or online anywhere, I thought I'd spell out how you can make this trip.
1. Wake up early. Crazy early!
OK, so to my parents, this would not be early. But to me and all the other normal people on the planet, you'll have to rouse yourself at the ungodly hour of 6:30 or so as you'll want to be at the bus station between 7 and 7:30 and on a bus by no later than 8 am.
2. Get yourself to the Kandy bus station and wander around saying "Sirigiya? Sigiriya?" like a mental patient until someone puts you on a minivan
I didn't promise this would be filled with actual details like the number of the bus you need to take or practical advice like bus schedules. That's because I don't think in Sri Lanka they exist. I mean, they exist in theory, like there's a number on the top of the bus and maybe even the destinations are shown but the surest way to get to your destination is to say where you are trying to go, over and over again, until someone takes pity on you and helps you. In my case, a man informed me that the bus to Sigiriya had left but his minivan was leaving at 8 am for Dambulla and he'd show me where to change buses. It cost a whopping 180 rupees ($1.34), which was the priciest ticket of the day as all the other bus tickets cost around 30 - 60 rupees (22 cents - 44 cents) for each subsequent leg of the journey.
I changed buses in Dambulla and it was easy as could be. As we slowed down in Dambulla, the minivan attendant pointed at a red bus and said "Dambulla" over and over. I followed his instructions, and got on and told the bus driver I was going to Sirigiya. Then I saw the bus was half filled with other Westerners who were obviously also going to Sigiriya, so I was in good company.
Time from Kandy to Dambulla, approx 2 hours. Time from Dambulla to Sigiriya, approx 30 min.
3. The bus from Dambulla to Sigiriya drops you off at the exit to Sigiriya
This is great because you'll know exactly where you need to wait for the bus back to Dambulla. You'll have to walk halfway around the site to get a ticket and into the entrance. The entrance is really expensive ($30) which is typical for Sri Lanka tourist sites (all overpriced in my opinion). Since I'm travelling solo, I made it to the top of Sigiriya pretty quickly (there's a lot of stairs up to the top), and I think I spent about two hours here in total before continuing on.
4. Walk out of the Sigiriya exit and down the road you walked in on, back to the road where the bus dropped you off
See how easy this is? From here you'll see a bus slowing down and run like a maniac to get on it, much to the amusement of the Sri Lankans on the bus who will think the sight of you wheezing and soaked with sweat because you ran to catch a bus is the funniest thing they've ever seen. Smile because they need further convincing you are a deranged half wit. Then sit and enjoy the thirty minute ride to Dambulla while you use up all your tissues mopping yourself off.
5. Enjoy classic Sri Lankan cooking at Dambulla Heritage Resthouse Café
This spot is mentioned in Lonely Planet and I thought I'd give it a go. And oh how delicious it was! I had a traditional rice and curry for a reasonable price, sitting in a pretty little restaurant with cream coloured walls adorned with black and white prints of the area from the 1940s while dark wood fans spun lazily overhead. And while some spots in Sri Lanka can be pricey when it comes to food (looking at you, Galle), I think I paid around 700 rupees for a large meal. I highly recommend this as a midday break if you're doing the Sirigiya-Dambulla day trip from Kandy. To get there, I just hopped in a tuk tuk when I got off the bus in Dambulla.
6. Walk down the road about 5 minutes from the restaurant to the entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temple
Heading in the opposite direction from the Dambulla bus station, continue down the road to the entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temples. Again, the entrance fee is high ($10) and you'll get to walk up another bajillion stairs in the heat to get to the to. Consider it punishment for stuffing yourself with so much curry for lunch, you glutton!
Note: it's a long walk from the bus station in Dambulla to the entrance to the cave temples. Between fifteen to twenty minutes, which doesn't sound like much, but can be a real pain in the heat and direct sunlight. I'd recommend a tuk tuk (probably around 200 rupees) or, at least, a hat and umbrella. This is why the stop at the restaurant is the perfect interlude and lunch break in this epic day trip outing!
7. Take a tuk tuk back to the Dambulla bus station and head on back to Kandy
I tried to figure out if a bus heading back to Kandy would just slow down on the road outside the cave temples but I was told it would not. So, I took a tuk tuk back to the Dambulla bus station and said "Kandy" over and over again until I was put on the right bus heading back to town. By the time I got on the bus back, it was just before 4 pm, which meant we hit some rush hour traffic and the bus was very crowded with kids getting out of school, people getting off work, etc. It meant I had to stand for a while, but after about 40 minutes, I eventually got a seat. It also meant the return journey took a good 2.5 hours and I got back to Kandy as the sun was beginning to set, so I had enough time to walk around the lake and enjoy another delicious meal at the Garden Café before tuk tuking it back up the road to my hostel.
So there you have it. A whirlwind tour of Sigiriya and Dambulla in one day, using Kandy as your 'home base.' It's not the easiest day trip -- it's long, and perhaps a bit confusing for those who like their travel perfectly planned -- but, like climbing up a bajillion stairs in the heat just to see the view, it's worth it.
Any questions? Don't be shy! Ask away.