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ULTIMATE Guide to the Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

Last updated : May 13th, 2020

Entering the cave temples in Dambulla


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If you’re planning a trip in central Sri Lanka, chances are you’ve already heard of the Dambulla Cave Temples (also known as the Dambulla Rock Temples.) Well, if you need more info about visiting these extraordinary temples including what to expect, then you’re in the right place! Here’s everything you NEED to know before exploring the Dambulla Cave Temples for yourself!


The most popular attraction in Dambulla, Sri Lanka is hands-down the Dambulla Cave Temples. These temples hold both religious and historic significance, but what most tourists come to see is their unique setting…inside a series of caves!

But besides the temples themself, the beautiful views over Dambulla just outside of the Cave Tamples are also an attraction.

I personally think that the Dambulla Cave Temples are 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 Temples!

So, in this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about visiting the Dambulla Cave Temples including common questions about this popular Sri Lankan attraction.


Dambulla Cave Temples Historical Significance

Buddha statues in the Dambulla Cave Temples

The Dambulla Cave Temples are said to date back to the 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 this 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 Temples the important religious site that it is today.

In fact, in 1992 the Dambulla Cave Temples were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site – making it only one of eight in Sri Lanka!

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Why Visit the Dambulla Cave Temples

Before I went to the Dambulla Cave Temples I was wondering what made them so special. So, here are a few reasons the Dambulla Cave Temples are impressive and why you should visit for yourself!

1. The caves are located on the side of a 160m high rock

The outside of the Dambulla Rock Temples in Sri Lanka
Bailey just outside of the cave temples.

It is pretty crazy to think that monks once lived here and that the caves were actually carved by hand. One can only imagine the work it would’ve taken to carve such large caves in solid rock by hand!

But that’s not all.

The Dambulla Cave Temples are located 160 meters from the ground! Therefore, the views from the cave temples are 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

The paintings on the walls of the Dambulla Cave Temple
Just a tiny fraction of the paintings on the ceiling!

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 – it’s something that would’ve taken some serious time to complete!

3. They are really REALLY old

A laying buddha in the cave temples in Sri Lanka

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

person praying outside of the entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temples

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, if you’ve come to Sri Lanka to see the people and their country then 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!


Common Questions about the Dambulla Cave Temples

When researching for my visit to the Dambulla Cave Temples I had a few questions that I couldn’t find the answers for. I figured that these were likely questions that other people would have too, so here is that info!

What’s the difference between the “Dambulla Cave Temples”, the “Rock Temples of Dambulla”, and the “Golden Temple”?

Another photo on the inside of the Dambulla Cave Temples in Sri Lanka
They are some really beautiful caves!

Many people will refer to the Dambulla Cave Temples as the “Rock Temples of Dambulla”, “Golden Temples”, or anything similar. All of these names refer to the Dambulla Cave Temples (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, Sri Lanka. Dambulla is located 160 km from Colombo, 73 km from Kandy, or 105 km from Trincomalee.

The actual Dambulla 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 is two car parking lots 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 Tickets to the Dambulla Cave Temples?

walking up the stairs to the Dambulla Cave Temples
You’ll have to walk a few stairs before you reach the Cave Temples.

In Dambulla, you can walk up to the cave temples from two locations. The first path starts at the Golden Budhha Statue and Buddhist Museum. DO NOT walk up to the cave temples from here!

Why?

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 path on 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 a set of 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!

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How much is the entrance fee?

More Buddha statues in the cave temples in Dambulla

For foreigners, the entrance fee to the Dambulla Cave Temple is 1,500 LKR per person. You must pay in cash. They do state the fee must be in paid LKR, however, the guy at the counter said we could pay in USD (we had no rupees at the time).

When to visit the Dambulla Cave Temples?

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 sunset.

What to wear inside the Dambulla Cave Temples?

Bailey showing appropriate temple dress attire in Sri Lanka
The general rule is your knees and shoulders must be covered. You also cannot wear shows into temples in Sri Lanka.

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.


Day Trips to the Dambulla Cave Temples

Dambulla Cave Temples in Dambulla, Sri Lanka
The inside of the first cave temple

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:

From Colombo

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.

From Negombo

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 Dambulla

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!


Other Important Tips for Visiting the Dambulla Cave Temples

money at the Dambulla Cave Temples
There are lots of monkeys hanging around the Dambulla Cave Temples.

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.

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What about the Golden Buddha?

The Goledn Buddha in Dambulla Sri Lanka
The Golden Buddha

The Golden Buddha is another unique attraction nearby that is worth checking out. It’s simply a giant gold statue of Buddha that’s pretty impressive.

Lots of tourists visit both the Dambulla Cave Temples and the Golden Buddha at once.

Why?

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 Dambulla Cave Temples?

hotel sigiriya
Hotel Sigiriya – isn’t that an amazing view! Photo credit: Hotel Sigiriya

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!
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Before you go…

selfie in sri lanka
Thanks for reading our blog!

I hope you enjoy your upcoming visit to the Dambulla Cave Temples and my blog has helped prepare you!

-Bailey

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About the Author - destinationlesstravel

We are Dan and Bailey, just your typical thrill-seeking travelers! You will likely find us hiking, scuba diving, catching public transport, or just drinking beer at a hostel.

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