Traveling can’t always be always a fairy tale and it only makes sense that this day would be challenging. After two days biking across vast ruins in one of the hottest parts of the country, I climbed Sigiriya in the early morning, quickly packed my bags and caught a tuk-tuk south to the town of Dambulla. I figured I could see the cave temples there and then catch a bus several hours south to Kandy, but it promised to be an exhausting day. The climb to the summit of Sigiriya had been tiring and the day was only getting hotter as I traveled south.

The tuk-tuk dropped me at the cave temple entrance, a gaudy building called the Golden Temple on top of which sat a monstrous 30m-high Buddha image. I passed under the archway and began to ascend the many flights of stairs. Under the midday sun, the heat was oppressive and my shirt was soaked through almost immediately. I climbed and climbed without shade until I reached the cave temples. “Ticket,” the guard asked. I pulled out my $40 Cultural Triangle ticket and he shook his head, telling me I had to return to the bottom of the stairs and buy a ticket specifically for the cave temples. I pleaded with him at first, desperate to find a way to avoid making that torturous climb another time, but the guard wouldn’t budge. Hot and weary, I became frustrated and angry. I argued for as long as I could and his buddy’s laughs only made me more irate. By the time I gave up, I was cursing the man, Sri Lanka and anybody else who dared cross my path. I was furious as I descended the stairs and every person who had begged me for money or to buy their t-shirts or pineapple all got to hear a piece of my mind this time around. I swore to everyone that now I wouldn’t even bother seeing their ‘damn caves,’ but I was even more upset knowing I had no choice but to ascend these sweltering stairs again. I paid my 500 rupees and laughed out loud when they handed me my ‘ticket’- a measly receipt. And as I stormed back up the stairs past the beggars and t-shirt peddlers, all they could do was smirk and laugh.

Tossing the receipt at the guard without even looking, I stormed into the Royal Rock Temple. The place was packed with local schoolchildren and I wasn’t in the mood to entertain them so I bypassed the first four caves and headed straight to the last. As I entered the cave and saw what lie before me, my sour mood almost instantly dissolved. The cave isn’t very large, but nearly every inch of it is covered in elaborate paintings and carved Buddha images, the largest of which is a reclining Buddha that stretches nearly the entire length of the rear wall, flanked by 2 standing Buddhas. The images were even greater than I imagined and as I walked from cave to cave, I couldn’t help but be astounded at the work, and very pleased I had made that second climb.

Cave IV was even larger with a small dagoba in the center of the room and 19 meditating Buddhas against the rear wall. A central Buddha figure is seated under a  (ornamental archway) and the ceiling is covered in a very detailed painting showing worshipers, Buddha, and a checkerboard pattern that flows with the natural waves of the walls.

The third cave (called the New Great Temple) houses 67 Buddha statues in all, along with statues of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy, who had this former storeroom converted to its present state in the 18th Century. On each side are 4 meditating Buddhas, each getting progressively smaller from left to right. A meditating Buddha in the center is enshrined by an elaborate carving that includes 3 dragons. The rear wall has 3 meditating Buddha statues with several standing Buddhas between each one. Elaborate paintings cover the south walls showing dagobas with figures praying and other worshipers holding flowers and facing the a statue of the king. A giant reclining Buddha lay in a nirvana state in front of the east wall, while the north wall features a line of standing figures painted repeated, all facing a red-robed standing Buddha.

Cave II is the largest and arguably the most spectacular, measuring 52m from east to west and 32m from the entrance to the back wall; the highest point of the ceiling at 7m. It is called the Temple of the Great King because of its 2 wooden statues of kings Valagamba and Nissanka Mala. The cave’s main Buddha statue was once covered in gold leaf and is situated under a makara torana (an archway decorated with dragons). There are 5 meditating Buddha statues along the east wall, getting smaller from left to right, with paintings on the wall that cause them to appear 3-dimensional. The dagoba in the center of the room is surrounded by 8 meditating Buddhas, 2 with cobras that appear as hoods. The ceiling is covered in brilliant frescoes showing temples, Buddha, followers praying and a reclining Buddha in nirvana state. There is also a vessel in the room which collects water that constantly drips from the ceiling, even during droughts.

The 1st cave is called the Temple of the King of the Gods, and though it is the smallest, the 15m-long reclining Buddha it houses is one of the cave temple’s most impressive sights. There are 2 other statues in the room, a seated Buddha and Ananda, Buddha’s loyal disciple, and a small shrine in the corner of the room houses a statue of Vishnu.

The Royal Rock Temple of Dambulla with its 5 caves and 150 or more Buddha statues was an awe-inspiring sight, one that I could never do justice in words. I descended the stairs in my own state of nirvana, overwhelmed with what I had just seen, and exhausted from 4 days of biking, walking and climbing to see so many wondrous ancient sights. I walked past the beggars, vendors and voyeur for the fourth time of the day and this time I shared in their amusement. “Of course I went to the temples,” I responded to their taunts. “I came all the way around the world to see this!”

Without a morsel of energy left in my weary body, I boarded the bus for a trip of several hours into the Hill Country of Sri Lanka. To my dismay, there was hardly a space on the bus to even fit my weary body, and I would be stuck standing at least for a couple of hours. As the bus traveled into the hills and their winding roads, I struggled to keep myself standing, clutching both overhead rails, and the driver weaved at insane speeds through the twisting mountain roads. I wondered how much longer I would be able to cope, both physically and mentally, but it was at that point that yet another miracle happened. A man, probably 35 years old, stood up and offered me his seat. Though it seems like a simple gesture, a seat on a local bus is a coveted spot and even women and elderly are forced to stand for hours, only hoping that somebody will depart and a seat will become available. I nearly fell into the seat, unable to even lift my bag, which the thoughtful man did for me. Hardly a word was spoken between us, but the gesture touched me profoundly. I offered him my pineapple pieces and several times mouthed the words “Thank you,” hoping to relay my extreme gratitude though my actions felt completely inadequate as the man clutched the railings and for the next two hours was thrown from side to side as we roared into the Hill Country.

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