Dambulla Cave Temple – Know Before You Go (2020 Visitor Guide)
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The most popular attraction in Dambulla, Sri Lanka is hands down the Dambulla Cave Temple. It is both a historical and religious temple in a unique setting – a cave.
But besides the temple itself, its unique setting and views over Dambulla are also an attraction.
I personally think that the Dambulla Cave Temple is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka. If you only visit one temple while in Sri Lanka, I think you should probably make it the Dambulla Cave Temple.
What is the Dambulla Cave Temple?
I need to start by clarifying that it isn’t one temple, there are actually five separate temples all in one cave temple complex.
What does this mean?
Well, there is a large rock that thousands of years ago was carved out by hand to create a large type of “cave”. Within this cave, there are five separate rooms, each its own temple and each you get to explore when visiting.
Visiting the Dambulla Cave Temple is about exploring these temples and seeing the many Buddha statues and paintings inside.
The Dambulla Cave Temple complex is said to date back to first century BC. Buddhist Monks first carved a cave out to create a monastery. That’s right, the caves are not natural and all carved by hand!
Valagamba of Anuradhapura (a king of the ancient city of Anuradhapura) had to hide from the South Indians when they invaded and he sought refuge with these monks at the cave temple. He is said to have lived here for fifteen years before returning to his throne in the Anuradapura kingdom.
After returning to Anuradapura, Valagamba wanted to repay the monks for their help. So, he had the cave temples carved larger for the monks to show his gratitude. Since then, many other kings have added to the temples making them even more impressive. In 1190 C.E. 70 buddha statues were built and in the 18th century, the caves were painted.
Most recently, in 1938, the columns and “walls” were added to the caves.
All of this history has made the Dambulla Cave Temple the important religious site that it is today.
In fact, in 1992 the Dambulla Cave Temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site – making it only one of eight in Sri Lanka!
Why is the Dambulla Cave Temple so impressive?
Before I went to the Dambulla Rock Cave Temples I was wondering what made them so special. So, here are a few reasons the Dambulla Rock Temples are impressive:
1. The caves are located on the side of a 160m high rock.
It is pretty crazy to think monks once lived here and that the caves were actually carved by hand (not natural.) One can only imagine the work it would have taken to carve such large caves in solid rock by hand! But that’s not all.
The views from the cave temples are also really nice and going at sunset is a beautiful time to visit. It’s actually one of the nicest viewpoints we went to in Sri Lanka.
2. The paintings are incredibly detailed.
Walking through the caves I couldn’t believe how nice the paintings that covered the walls and ceilings were. There are literally hundreds of buddhas painted on the walls and ceiling – its something that would have taken some serious time to complete!
3. They are really REALLY old.
Even if the architecture and paintings don’t impress you, the history and age behind the temples in undeniable. It’s not every day you get to visit temples from the first century BC.
4. It’s a very important religious temple for the Sri Lankan people.
When visiting I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a tourist trap and there were actually many local Sri Lankans there to pray. It felt authentic and special, and I appreciated visiting that much more.
Basically, you come to Sri Lanka to see the people and their country and the Dambulla Cave Temples are an important part of them and their history. Visiting the caves is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken for granted!
What’s the difference between the ‘Dambulla Cave Temple’, the ‘Rock Temples of Dambulla’, and the ‘Golden Temple’?
I was so confused about this before I actually visited. Long story short, the cave temple and rock temple are all the same attraction. All names refer to the Dambulla Cave Temple (a cave complex of 5 temples in the cave.)
The Golden Buddha is different though. This is a massive golden Buddha statue right in Dambulla. You can actually keep walking after visiting the Golden Buddha up the stairs to get to the cave temples, but I don’t recommend doing it this way (keep reading to find out why.)
Where is the Dambulla Cave Temple and how to get there?
You’ll find the Dambulla Cave Temple in the city of Dambulla. Dambulla is located 160 km from Colombo, 73 km from Kandy, or 105 km from Trincomalee.
The actual cave temples are located up on top of a large rock that you must walk to. The walk takes about 20-minutes and involves climbing many stairs. There are two car parks in which there is a path up to the temples, but there is only one where you can buy the cave temple entrance ticket…
Where to buy the tickets
In Dambulla, you can walk up to the cave temples from two locations. The first is at the Golden Budhha Statue and Buddhist Museum. DO NOT walk up to the cave temples from here!
Because there is no ticket booth at the top. This means you will need to walk up to the cave temples, then back down the other side to buy the entrance ticket to only back up AGAIN.
Where should you buy the entrance ticket then?
Go to the car park entrance on Colombo Rd/Kandy Rd (NOT the entrance on the Kany-Jaffna Highway/Kandy Rd.) It’s confusing because both roads are Kandy Rd, however, they both turn into different roads near the temples. You can easily see this on the Google map above.
Most tuk-tuk or taxi drivers should know this, but just in case you drive yourself (like we did) be sure to go to the correct place.
If you see a massive gold Buddha statue you are in the WRONG place.
The ticket booth on the correct entrance is just up some stairs near the carpark, stop here and buy your entrance tickets before continuing to walk towards to the top where the caves are.
Trust me on this one, your legs will thank me that you only had to walk up to the temples once!
How much is the entrance fee?
For foreigners, the entrance fee to the Dambulla Cave Temple is 1,500 rupees per person. You must pay in cash. They do state the fee must be in paid Rupees, however, the guy at the counter said we could pay in USD (we had no rupees at the time).
When to visit?
The ticket office is open from about 6 am to 6 pm (but this is Sri Lanka and opening times can vary depending on the day.)
My best advice is to visit just before sunset. Not only is this the coolest time of the day, but you will also get the amazing view as the sun goes down which just makes the whole experience that much better.
We got to the ticket booth at around 4:30 pm and this was perfect as we had time to walk up and check out the caves before the sunset.
What to wear?
The dress code to enter the temples is very strict. Make sure you remove your shoes and hat. You MUST have your knees and shoulders covered.
This rule applies to both men and women and the security at the entrance will turn you away if you are not dressed properly. I simply wore a t-shirt and tied a sarong around my waist and that was sufficient.
Important tips for visiting
Besides the dress code, there are a few other things you should know before going to the Dambulla Cave Temple.
You are only allowed to take photos WITHOUT people in them. They want to maintain the religious significance of these temples by not allowing tourists to take selfies everywhere. Also, out of respect to those who are praying, don’t take photos of them either.
You may want to bring socks to wear on your feet. The ground gets very hot, especially in the middle of the day, and you must remove your shoes. Socks will help protect your feet from the scorching hot floor.
There are approximately 370 steps you must climb to reach the cave temples. Wear comfortable clothing, sunscreen, and bring plenty of water!
You will see lots of monkeys. I love monkeys – they are just so cute! But they are known to steal things so keep your belongings close and don’t leave any bags or items unattended on the ground.
What about the Golden Buddha?
The Golden Buddha is another unique attraction worth checking out. It’s simply a giant gold statue of Buddha that’s pretty impressive.
Lots of tourists visit both the Cave Temples and the Golden Buddha at once.
Because the golden Buddha is down the stairs from the Dambulla Cave Temples. However, it is down the opposite side to the ticket booth.
So what most visitors do is they get their taxi driver to drop them on one side (where the ticket booth is) and pick them up from the other (at the golden buddha.) To me, this is the most ideal way to visit!
Where to stay near the Cave Temples?
The closest cities to the Dambulla Cave Temples are either Dambulla or Sigiriya. In both Dambulla and Sigiriya, there are some great option for accommodation to spend a couple of nights! From your hotel, you can either join a tour to the Cave Temples or get a taxi.
Here are some great hotel choices in Sigiriya that we’ve handpicked based on experience and research:
- For the budget traveler: One More Night Hostel offers dorm beds for only $8 USD in an air-conditioned room including breakfast. This is a great place for meeting people and just hanging out in nature!
- A balance of comfort and price: The Nature Park Villa is a beautiful nature escape offering rooms out in the jungle with the comfort of air conditioning, wi-fi, and an ensuite all for only $40 USD.
- For those looking for luxury: Hotel Sigiriya has an amazing outdoor pool with a view of Sigiriya Rock. The rooms are large and they have an onsite restaurant and bar for breakfast or poolside cocktails!
And if you want to stay in Dambulla, here are some awesome choices for hotels:
- For the budget traveler: Sayare Inn is where we stayed in Dambulla. This small guesthouse has large rooms, hot water, serves an incredible breakfast, and the family that runs it is lovely. It is a little bit out of town but only a short taxi ride to the Cave Temples.
- A balance of comfort and price: Freedom Village has an outdoor pool and rooms with air conditioning for only $30 USD a night (and breakfast is included!)
- For those looking for luxury: Jetwing Lake – this place is beautiful! It is in a remote area, but still central to most attractions in Dambulla and Sigiriya. They also have the longest pool you’ll ever see!
Day Trips to the Dambulla Cave Temples
If you aren’t staying in Sigiriya or Dambulla (or you just like organized tours) there are plenty to choose from that go to the Dambulla Cave Temples. Some of the best tours to consider are:
This tour is excellent value at only $60 USD! Your tour guide will teach you all about the Dambulla Cave Temples and Sigiriya Rock on this full-day tour. Pick-up and drop off are at your Colombo hotel.
This tour is only $80 and takes you all the way from Negombo to Dambulla where you’ll visit the Rock Temples. It also brings you Sigirya Rock and a few craftsmen shops! It is a full-day tour at around 15 hours long.
From your hotel in Dambulla, this guided tour will take you to the Dambulla Cave Temples. Your guide will explain all about them and you’ll learn what many visitors don’t. The tour also includes a traditional Sri Lankan lunch and a rural village tour (reached in a boat!) All of this for only $65!
I hope you enjoy your upcoming visit to the Dambulla Cave Temples and my blog has helped prepare you!
Keep Reading our detailed guides about travel in Sri Lanka…
- Pidurangala Rock – What to expect and why we loved it (more than Sigiriya Rock!)
- 14 Best Things to do in Ella – This blog tells you where to spend your time in one of Sri Lanka’s most touristic towns
- Top 10 Beaches in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka has some gorgeous beaches..let u tell you where to find the best one!
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January 4, 2020