A self guided cycle tour of Anuradhapura

There's something about being on a bike, riding around the countryside that gives you a sense of freedom that you don't get from being in a car.

That's why, when it's an option, Zev and I try to take it - even when our guesthouse owners tell us that it'll be too hot!

At the suggestion of the nice folks we met in our guesthouse in Mirissa, we decided to head north to Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. Famous for its well-preserved archaeological and architectural ruins, Anuradhapura is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is the centre of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Our first hurdle was getting there.

Catching the train from Colombo to Anuradhapura

January - April is a busy time in Sri Lanka, and this is reflected in the availability of train tickets. Home to some beautiful train journeys, and some of the worst traffic, it's easy to understand why tickets sell out so quickly. Our plan to ride the train from Kandy to Ella, reportedly one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, was thwarted when we found out that tickets were booked out until the end of January - which is pretty impressive when you consider that it runs five times a day in each direction. Instead, we opted for second class reserved seat on the 1555h train from Colombo to Anurdhapura - largely because they were the only tickets left!

Once the train pulled into the station, we found our seats and settled in. Although it was nothing flash, the seats were comfortable, and there were fans which we assumed would come on once the train started moving. Soon enough, the power came on, and after a couple of minutes of fiddling with the fans, trying to get them to work, the locals laughed at us and flicked a switch on the wall. Right.

We sat back down and opened the big window next to our seat, eager for the train to depart if only to get the air moving. Decidedly promptly, we started moving. And on we went for the next 4.5 hours, rattling around as the country rolled by outside the window. Periodically, vendors would wander through the carriage, selling cold water, oranges, or chai. Towards the end of the journey, we caught a beautiful pink sunset out the window in the distance.

Cycling around the sites in Anuradhapura

Despite warnings from our guesthouse host that it would be hot and tiring, we opted for a self-guided roue of the sites rather than a tuk tuk. We did some quick internet research, and found this great cycling itinerary from Atlas & Boots. Off we set on our trusty and rusty steeds, doing our best to follow the suggested outline, which ticked off the main sites we were interested in seeing.

Before we set off, we made sure to follow the advice of our guesthouse host with regards to attire. In order to enter the sites, you must have your knees and shoulders covered, and you must remove your shoes and hats. He suggested wearing thick socks, as the ground can get very hot and burn your feet. He also told us that Buddhists visiting the site dress all in white, and it is respectful to do the same if you're able. Sadly, neither of us had thought that white was a particularly practical colour, so we had to settle for what we had...

Not long after setting off, Zev was checking the map while cycling. Next thing I knew, he was sprawled on the concrete, bike collapsed behind him and phone halfway down the road. While we're still not entirely sure what happened, other than that his bike rejected him, he was luckily okay - just feeling a bit battered, and nursing a pretty big graze on his arm and hand. This certainly kept us on our toes for the rest of the day, and we were sure to pay our bikes regular compliments to ensure their ongoing cooperation.

Despite attempting to follow Atlas & Boots' itinerary, we detoured pretty quickly, stopping at the Jetavanarama Museum to buy  entry tickets to the sites and to try to glean some information about the sites. A hefty $25USD entry fee per person allowed access to the sites, and a brief 5 minute tour of the museum proved fruitless in teaching us anything about the area.

A brief 2 minute cycle via some dirt paths took us to our first real stop of the day - Jetavanarama Dagoba.

Jetavanarama Dagoba

The huge dome of Jetvanarama Dagoba was incredibly impressive. As we walked up the steps. the red bricks stood in bold contrast to the blue sky behind it, and we were among the only people there. 

The dagoba was built in the 3rd century, and is reported to have originally stood at over 120m high. Now, it stands at about 70m due to a broken spire. At the time it was built, it is thought to have been the 3rd tallest building in world, containing more than 90 million bricks.

We spent some time here wandering around, admiring the scale of it, and talking about how peaceful it was compared to other similar sites we've been to. As we came back to our point of entry, we passed a large group of Buddhists all in white, quietly praying. It was a nice reminder that these sites are still in use today.

We hopped on our bikes and rode off down the dirt paths in the park before meeting back up with the road, mostly following our noses to our next stop.

Abhayagiri Dagoba

Similar in size and structure to Jetavanarama Dagoba, Abhayagiri Dagoba was surrounded by forest, peeking out from between the trees. Although busier than Jatevanarama, it was still incredibly peaceful, and mainly busy with Sri Lankan visitors.

We walked back to our bikes, then stopped for a quick snack to refuel before our next destination. Naturally, the rustling of the foil packet and aroma of cheesy crackers made us a new dog friend before too long. Once us and our new friend had had enough, we set off on our merry way.

Ruvanwelisaya Dagoba

This was the busiest site we visited all day, but again, it was largely locals visiting to pray. Although it incurred a lot of damage during the Sri Lankan civil war, Ruvanwelisaya Dagoba has been extensively restored, particularly the striking elephant wall surrounding it. We spent about 15 minutes here, sitting in the shade of one of the walls, listening to the locals pray and watching workers remove the brightly coloured cloth wrapped around it.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

Our next stop was Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi - the centrepiece of Anuradhapura in both physically and spiritually. Grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India, where Buddha is said to have found enlightenment, it is thought to be the oldest living tree to be planted by man. It has been cared for by an uninterrupted line of guardians for over 2000 years. 

Here, we expected to pay an additional entry fee, as we were informed that this is not included in the main ticket price, but despite passing through the main entrance and many official gates, we weren't asked for an entry fee, nor were our tickets checked.

The site contains many bodhi trees, with the one grown from the cutting on the top platform. The grounds were again filled with locals praying, and the fences surrounding the trees were covered in prayer flags.

Isurumuniya Vihara Temple

Our final stop for the day was certainly the most interesting. The temple is carved into a rock, and was once covered in ornate sculptures. Today, most of these have been moved into an on-site museum. We spent some time climbing around on the rock, looking out over the area, as well as checking out the museum on the grounds.

By this time, it was nearly 1pm, and the sun was out in full force. With our energy levels waning, and our temple tank overflowing, we decided to pedal back to town for some lunch, before heading back to the hotel for a couple of hours before our next outing.


Following the suggestion of our guesthouse host, we set out to see sunset at Mihintale, a temple complex 16km east of Anuradhapura. After paying our $4USD entry fee, we started climbing the 1000-odd steps to the top. As soon as we reached the top, the extent of the view became clear - you could see for miles. From the top of the stairs, there were 3 options further uphill options - a huge white Buddha statue, Sela Chetiya (a huge rock with a stone rendering of a buddha footprint), and Mahaseya Dagoba (with a view out towards the setting sun).

We opted to climb to the Buddha first, admiring the view back out over the temples, before climbing Sela Chetiya. It was quite a challenging climb, as the path was steep, narrow, and very busy. Again, most of the people there were locals, which was awesome. While we were at the top looking out over what felt like all of Sri Lanka, a local struck up a conversation with Zev about how lucky they were to be able to call this their kingdom.

After a very slow and careful descent, we headed up to watch the sunset from next to Mahaseya Dagoba. The view out over Anuradhapura was staggering, and the low dusk lighting made for a breathtaking sight. We perched on the edge of the base of the dagoba, and sat for about 30 minutes, watching both the sun go down, and local monkeys attack children to steal their lotus flowers.

Mihintale was a definite highlight of our time in Anuradhapura.

We headed back to our accommodation for yet another delicious home cooked Sri Lankan meal, and got ourselves prepared for our next destination - Sigiriya!

More on that next time.

Lots of love,
S & Z