Located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, the town of Dambulla is known for its iconic cave temple. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, which also goes by the name Golden Rock Temple, is definitely worth a visit. The place will leave you speechless with its spectacular Buddhist murals, detailed colorful paintings, and over 100 Buddha statues. It is one of the oldest pilgrimage sites, dating back 2200 years, and is part of the famous Cultural Triangle. This region once used to be ‘The Country of Kings’, making it a historical destination with unique sights to see. This guide to the Dambulla Cave Temple is all you need when planning your trip. Learn more on how to get there, where the (correct!) entrance is, what to expect, and more.
After spending a few days up north in the Sacred City of Anuradhapura we headed south to Dambulla. We decided to spend 3 nights here to explore the most important sights. Among them are the incredible Dambulla Temple caves, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya, known for the famous Lion Rock.
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The Ultimate Guide to Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka
History of Dambulla Cave Temple
Elevated above the countryside, the Dambulla Cave Temple is the best-preserved and most extensive cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. Buddhism has a long history and presence in the country, and the Dambulla cave temple represents one of the oldest sites for Buddhist monasticism. The pilgrimage site dates back to the 2nd century BC when it was used as a shelter by monks during the monsoon season. Throughout the centuries it served as one of the most important monasteries in Sri Lanka and is still operative until this day.
Disclaimer: Prices in this travel guide to Dambulla Cave Temple are indications and are based on the daily currency rate during our stay in Sri Lanka. Bear in mind that the Sri Lankan currency is currently heavily fluctuating due to inflation. We also advise you to check current travel advice to Sri Lanka due to the ongoing economic crisis. This has led to possible shortages of basic necessities (such as food and fuel), power cuts, and overall unstable security situations.
Unesco World Heritage
The golden royal cave is quite unique in Asia since it was carved out from a huge granite rock by monks. As you can see in the pictures the caves are more inwards in the rock. They were carved with a drip line to keep the interiors dry. Traditionally it is believed that King Valagambahu converted the caves into a temple. Meditating Buddhist monks provided refuge to the king in the 1st century BC. This served as protection from the king’s enemies during his exile from the Anuradhapura kingdom. Once the king returned back to the throne he had the spectacular rock temple built as gratitude to the monks.
Throughout history, it was common to transform caves into temples by Buddhists and Hindus. In their religion, caves are regarded as something made by the Gods and therefore sacred places. This all fits within their idea of a simple monastic life.
Over time the caves were inhabited by different kings who all added collections of artwork and helped maintain and continually develop the cave temple. Records show that the last repainting dates back to the 17th century and was done in Kandyan style. The sacred pilgrimage became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991 under the name of the Golden Temple of Dambulla.
Guide to visiting the Dambulla Cave Temple
The hike up with a panoramic view
The ancient temple is located on top of a mountain and the rock itself towers 160 meters above the lush green surrounding plains. Steep stairs will lead you up to the Golden temple, where on top you will be rewarded with some magnificent views. If you are lucky with the weather you can even catch a glimpse of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress from up the hill.
Unfortunately, the day was a bit cloudy when we visited, so we could only see the near surroundings.
The ascent to the Dambulla cave temple will only take you 15 minutes, but the steps are quite high and strenuous so don’t forget to bring enough water! You will only need around 2 hours to visit this site, so we decided to go in the afternoon at 3 PM. This way you can beat the scorching heat and avoid huge crowds. Once you are at the gate entrance you will have to remove your footwear first and hand it over at the shoe counter. They are quite persistent here and keep a close eye that you don’t put them in your backpack. You get your shoes back at the end of the visit after paying a small shoe-keeping fee.
Entering the temple
Once you passed by the security gate at the main entrance, you will find yourself in the courtyard of the actual temple. Some playful monkeys might be welcoming you, in search of snacks, so be careful! The first thing you will notice is the Bodhi tree with all its colorful Buddhist flags flapping in the air. At this point, you are actually standing on top of a giant rock, on your right the carved-out temple out of another rock towering above you. On your left, you have a steep drop-down with a breathtaking view of Dambulla city and its surrounding flat lands.
The whitewashed structure of the cave is covered by rock like a roof, which provides protection. The outside look, with its arched colonnades and gabled entrances, has only been added more recently in 1938. The arched openings give you entrance to a long corridor, providing some well-needed shade from the sun.
Most people start with the first cave, so our advice is to work your way back from the end of the corridor if it’s too crowdy. This way we were able to avoid the big group of tourists in front of us and started with the smaller caves first. Saving the best for last, with the most impressive caves and statues at the end. Overall I think we got really lucky with the number of visitors to the bigger attractions in Sri Lanka, given the timing (right when they were opening again after Covid).
You will notice that some of the caves are rather dimly lit, this is to preserve the vibrant colors of the murals and paintings. As we have mentioned in other posts before it is extremely rude to turn your back on a Buddha statue and take selfies. However, since you will be surrounded 360° by Buddhas we think it’s safe to make an exception here. 😉 Out of respect, just take a few steps back, before turning away.
Some tips for those who love photography as we do, don’t forget to pack a tripod or a wide-angle lens with a large aperture to capture the beauty of the Dambulla cave temple. We totally didn’t think of this and were only able to make a couple of decent pictures of the more well-lit spots in the cave with our standard lens. So I ended up with quite some shaky disappointing pictures at home.
The 5 caves
The 2000-year-old ancient temple consists of 5 separate caves of various sizes. They house over 150 Buddha statues, varying from very small to large, in several positions, sitting, lying, or standing. Further, there are several statues of Sri Lankan kings, gods, and Hindu deities. The dim light, especially in the larger caves, adds to the serene atmosphere and the devotional mood of the place.
The interior of the caves is covered with colorful gilded murals. They make up an area of around 2100m², depicting Buddha’s temptations and first sermon. So don’t forget to look up to the ceilings when wandering around, because these frescoes contouring the rock are absolutely impressive. Since the caves were carved out, the ceilings are somehow uneven and it almost gives the effect of a painted draped fabric hanging from the ceiling.
There are five caves to explore, here you have a small lineup of each:
Cave of the Divine King (Deva Raja Viharaya)
When entering the complex, you will find the first cave on your right. This one is called the Cave of the Divine King, built in the 1st century. Compared to the other caves this one is really small in size and is almost fully taken up by a 14-meter reclining Buddha statue. Make sure to check out his feet, which have been painted. At his feet, you find also a statue of Ananda, Buddha’s favorite pupil. The frescoes in this particular cave are believed to be the oldest ones.
Cave of the Great Kings (Maha Raja Viharaya)
The largest cave is known as the Maha Raja Viharaya or Cave of the Great Kings and is probably the most exquisite. It’s about 60 meters long and 15 meters high. It houses over 50 man-high statues and even 100 smaller ones. Here you will find more Hindu deities such as Vishnu. The ceiling is high enough to even house a small Dagoba surrounded by eleven seated Buddhas. The name of this particular cave derives from the fact that there are two statues of Sinhalese kings present: King Valagambahu and Nissankamalla. The beautiful shrine shows a collection of remarkable murals on the ceiling, depicting scenes from the Lord Buddha’s life. Unfortunately, due to renovations half of this cave, so a large part of the statues, were covered at the time of our visit.
Cave of the Great New Temple (Maha Aluth Viharaya)
Although the third cave is a bit smaller than the second one, it felt very enchanting. The perfectly placed moody lights in the corners and the stunning rich yellow and red colors illuminate this ancient cavern perfectly. The frescoes reveal the history of Buddhism and the most significant events in Buddhist life. The room is centered around one specific seated Buddha statue and the paintings here are supposed to be in Kandyan style.
Cave of Western Temple (Paschima Viharaya)
The fourth and fifth caves are the smallest ones and were created more recently than the others. This cave features an image of a serene Buddha in a meditative pose.
Cave of Second New Temple (Devana Aluth Viharaya)
The fifth one is the most recent and holds a small stupa surrounded by several Buddha figures. The statues in this cave are made from brick and plaster, whereas the ones in the other caves were created out of granite rock.
Dambulla Golden Buddha
Once you are finished exploring the Dambulla Cave Temple you will want to hike down the trail toward the Golden Buddha statue. This should be the other way of where you came from. The massive golden buddha is considered to be Asia’s largest Buddha statue seated in the wheel-turning pose (dhamma chakra mudra). As you can tell by the style, it’s a relatively new addition to the city’s landscape. And as it turns out, this rather kitsch-looking statue is actually plated with real gold!
The golden Buddha is seated on multiple layers of the lotus flower on top of a dragon – lion (?) kind of creature. The open mouth serves as the entrance to the Buddhist Museum underneath. The exterior is the most exciting part and is free to visit. We actually skipped the museum because we read it’s quite outdated and supposedly a bit disappointing. But if you have some time to spare, the entrance is only 200 rupees anyways (less than ~€1).
Interesting detail: On the right side of the building, you can find a row of monk sculptures approaching the Buddha with offerings. Each monk represents a part of the offering process, in this case leaving a lotus flower.
All you need to know guide to Dambulla cave temple
How to get to the Dambulla Cave Temples?
Depending on where you are staying, there are several ways to get to the Dambulla Cave Temples. Chances are you are already based in Dambulla itself, Sigirya, or Habarana, and the caves aren’t the only thing on your agenda.
The Golden Rock Temple is located south of the city center and depending on your accommodation, might be within walking distance. Ours was only a 10-minute walk away. If you are located on another side of town it makes sense to quickly grab a tuk-tuk. Quick, cheap, and easy.
You can either opt to take a tuk-tuk, a bus, or a combo of the two. When taking a tuk-tuk, it takes around 30 minutes and would cost you around 2000 LKR (~€8). This is for back and forth, which usually makes the most sense. Just discuss a return journey with the driver, he will wait for you in the parking lot of the Golden Buddha to take you back once you are done.
If you want to take the bus, you will need to get to Inamaluwa Junction first, the main road between Dambulla and Habarana. You can do this by foot or hop on a three-wheeler quickly. From there take the bus in direction of Colombo Fort. Buses to Dambulla run every 30 minutes between 6.30 AM and 6 PM. (costs around 40 rupees). Get off in Dambulla at the Rock Temple stop, the one after the main bus stop of Dambulla. After this, it’s still a short walk of 15 minutes to the ticket counter.
It’s the most convenient and cheap way to take the bus from Habarana to Dambulla. The bus line runs directly between the two places and the journey takes around 40 minutes. You can hop on the bus at the main crossroads in the city center, the one with the direction of Dambulla will be marked with the destination Colombo Fort.
Getting to the right ticket office
In the past, the entrance to the cave temple used to be via the Golden Buddha temple. However, this is no longer the case, or only for locals. Tourists should go further down the street (see location here). The ticket office is not really well indicated, but you will recognize other tuk-tuks going up and down, which is a good sign ;). In case you are driving with a tuk-tuk or taxi, ask the driver to drop you off at the actual ticket counter. Ask the driver to wait for you at the car park of the Golden Buddha. Note that you have to purchase your ticket in the little booth before climbing the stairs. You can’t buy them on top of the hill and will have to come down all the way again.
ENTRANCE FEE | 2000 LKR (~€9)
OPENING HOURS | 7 am – 7 pm every day – ticket office closes at 5 pm
Don’t forget to hydrate
The climb to the top of the hill is about 350 steps and will take about 15 minutes. The hike isn’t hard, but given Sri Lanka’s humidity, it can get quite sweaty and exhausting on a tropical day. We found ourselves having to take a break somewhere in the middle. So don’t forget to bring enough water! There are no shops or stands on top of the mountain. In case you are thinking of bringing snacks, make sure to close your backpack very well! The monkeys welcoming you at the temple can’t wait to steal those. On a more positive note: the views at the end are truly rewarding!
Just like in most sacred places, you should dress modestly out of respect. So make sure to cover up your shoulders and knees. In case you forgot to bring a sarong, you can rent one at the entrance for 100 LKR (~€0,40). Once at the top, you will need to remove your footwear at the designated place and remove your hat.
Best Time to visit Dambulla Cave Temple
In all honesty, most places in Sri Lanka are best visited early in the morning or in the afternoon before sunset. Since days can get pretty hot and humid, especially around noon. Don’t forget you will have to climb up a small mountain and walk around a hot rocky surface barefoot, which is not ideal. Furthermore, around these times most sights are less crowded so that you can enjoy the place more peacefully. In case you are combining the trip with Sigiriya, we advise you to do the Lion Rock in the cooler morning and enjoy the sunset from the Cave Temples.
How long do I need to visit the caves?
The complex isn’t that huge, so you only need to count a maximum of 2 hours visiting. We always take our sweet time, snapping away pictures, and getting involved with monkeys, and we did the whole thing in less than 2 hours.
TIP | In case you are not staying in Dambulla, you can even opt to see the royal caves while passing through. At the end of your Sigiriya trip, you can easily stop by on your way to Anuradhapura or Kandy, since the main bus station isn’t too far from the attraction. There is actually a storage room for luggage at the ticket booth.
Other things to do around Dambulla
Aside from the Dambulla Cave Temples, there is not much else to do in Dambulla city itself. It’s mainly a distribution center for goods and trading, due to its central location. If you book a stay for multiple days in Dambulla, you can easily do a day trip to Sigirya or Polonarruwa, which is exactly what we did. If you would like to go on a safari, there is even the possibility to do a few from here to Minneriya & Kaudulla National Park. Some even prefer a quick day trip from here to the ancient city of Anuradhapura and Mihintale. For a local experience, you can book a village tour in Habarana with an authentic lunch.
BOOK A TOUR | Book a safari trip to Minneriya National Park HERE
Sigiriya and the Lion Rock
I believe the Lion Rock in Sigiriya doesn’t need much introduction. It is one of the most popular attractions of Sri Lanka and can’t be missed from your itinerary! Sigiriya’s Lion rock is a 200-meter-high rock with a palace fortress on the top. This archeological landmark is one of the most significant historical monuments on the island. Locals even call it the Eighth Wonder of the world.
This Unesco World Heritage site is only a 30min drive away from Dambulla with a tuk-tuk and can be easily combined on a day trip with its neighboring Pidurangala rock. You need half a day to see the fortress, given the climb is challenging. We advise going really early to Lion’s Rock, it’s best to start your ascend before 9 AM, after that it’s getting really hot.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Another day trip you can’t miss is the historic city of Polonnaruwa. It was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura. It remained the island’s capital for almost 200 years and is home to quite some impressive ruins and temples dating back to the 11th century. A trip from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa takes between 1,5-2 hours with a tuk-tuk.
Dambulla Cave Temple Guide | Where to stay in Dambulla?
Before our trip, we were contemplating whether to stay in Dambulla or Sigiriya, or even Habanera. We only wanted to book one accommodation for the 3 nights and go from there to all the sights in the area. In the end, the choice between Dambulla or Sigiriya really depends on a few points.
- Dambulla’s location is more ‘strategic’ as the main bus stop to arrive from/depart to other cities is here. This way you wouldn’t have to travel far to/from the bus station to your place with your luggage. Additionally, it’s easy to reach all the sights from here. If you are traveling on a budget, Dambulla is a good choice. Accommodations are overall much more affordable than around Sigiriya, where the famous Lion Rock fortress is located. That being said, Dambulla is a bigger city, focusing on domestic trade and goods.
- Sigiriya is located half an hour away from Dambulla. The town is more relaxed compared to Dambulla and caters more to tourists with cozy restaurants and bars.
Our guest homestay in Dambulla
We ended up booking in Dambulla because of its convenient location but might do it differently next time. We would book in Sigiriya with its more laid-back atmosphere and peacefulness. But both places have their pros and cons.
I guess the fact that our accommodation wasn’t as expected, tainted our experience. When booking we were looking forward to this place, which has nice reviews and a good rating. However, it ended up being our least favorite stay of the trip. Even though the owner was really sweet and tried hard to be helpful and the breakfast and dinner were absolutely delicious. The rooms themselves lacked basic comfort and hygiene and we just couldn’t get a good night’s rest there. The property itself was quite beautiful and serene, with a big terrace full of plants. There is so much potential here if only the essentials would be improved upon. That’s why at the moment we wouldn’t fully recommend Golden Rainbow Guest house in Dambulla.
There are some backpacker options around, as well as some nice hotels. For those on a budget, a good choice would be the New Peacock Resort. It is only a 5minute walk from the center, yet a quiet place to spend the night.
Dambulla Rock Arch is a beautiful medium-budget hotel located in the greenery, but still within walking distance to the city center. Rooms are modern and spacious and come with a lovely private balcony.
If you want to indulge more, we spotted the Amaya Lake Kandalama hotel, which is as the name suggests located by a lake. The setting seems very idyllic with beautiful views all around. You can even have dinner by the water in candlelight. The property comes with a pool, perfect for a refreshing dip at the end of an intense sightseeing day! Its location is a bit further from the center, but that all depends on your needs.
Dambulla Cave Temple Guide | How long to stay in Dambulla?
If you opt to book a room in Dambulla just to catch all the highlights in this area, then we would recommend 3 nights. This will give you plenty of time to see all the best it has to offer, including the Dambulla Cave Temple, both rocks in Sigirya, and a day trip to Polonnaruwa. If you want you could even squeeze in a safari trip to Minneriya & Kaudulla National Park before heading to the caves in the afternoon.
As mentioned we recommend booking a stay in Sigiriya and visiting the Dambulla caves from there. Depending on your schedule you could even pass by on your next stop to Kandy or Anuradhapura.
Dambulla Cave Temple Guide | Where to eat in Dambulla?
Choices of cozy restaurants and bars are more limited in Dambulla city, compared to Sigiriya. We found a place close to our guesthouse stay called Sandra restaurant, a family-owned restaurant that offers a very nice homemade buffet. It’s all traditional Sri Lankan dishes here, perfect for those who want to try out different things to get acquainted with the cuisine. There are plenty of vegetarian dishes to choose from. The restaurant is located not too far from the caves, so perfect if you want to grab dinner or lunch after sightseeing.
Dambulla Cave Temple Guide | How to get to Dambulla?
There is no train service for this particular route, so the only way to get to Dambulla from Anuradhapura is by private car or taking the bus. We find the bus to be the perfect option, not only is it fast and comfortable but also way cheap! Buses come around every 30 minutes. The trip takes around 1,5 hours and will cost you 400 LKR per person (less than €2). If you are traveling with a big backpack or luggage you might have to pay for a second seat. It can get very cramped in there. Two lines are going up and down, bus number 42 or 43 (line Kandy – Vavuniya) heading south to Kandy. Make sure to take bus 43, it’s the only one with AC. The bus will stop at the main bus station of Dambulla and the conductor will give you a heads-up once you arrive.
Kandy is located a little over 2 hours away from Dambulla. You will need to go to Kandy’s bus station, which is right next to the train station. It’s the same bus line that you take from Anuradhapura, bus number 42 or 43 (line Kandy – Vavuniya) heading north. Bus 42 costs you around 180 rupees, really cheap, but that’s without air conditioning. For 450 rupees you can take the air-conditioned bus 43, which is way more comfortable. A no-brainer in this heat.
Be aware that getting off can get a little chaotic. The conductor usually yells when a stop is coming up, and you better get ready then. The bus driver ‘slows down’ rather than stopping and you quickly have to get your backpack and jump off the bus. After some yelling, the bus is already on its way again.
Bus | The easiest and most affordable way to travel to Dambulla from Colombo is by bus. There are several bus lines running, such as number 48, going from Colombo Fort to Kaduruwela. Or bus number 49 going to Trincomalee. Always make sure to double-check bus numbers again at the Colombo Fort bus station, since these might change.
Train | There is no direct train going from Colombo to Dambulla, instead it goes to Habarana. So we would advise this less unless you decided to book a stay there. Also, there are only two trains a day going to Habarana. The first one leaves already at 6 AM, the second at 9.30 PM, both from Colombo fort. All over Sri Lanka, you can buy your train tickets directly at the station. However, if you like to book upfront, you can check out 12Go Asia. You can check the train schedule here.
BOOK TRANSPORTATION | Book a train, bus, or taxi to Dambulla with 12Go Asia
Private or by booking
Private Car | Lots of people decide to take a private car when coming from Colombo since you most likely just landed in Sri Lanka. It’s the most convenient and will only take you 2,5 hours. Expect to pay around 12,000 rupees (~€55) for this one-way trip. If you don’t want the hassle of finding one on the spot, you can book a private car upfront already.
Pick Me App | In big cities like Colombo you can use the Pick me app, it’s just like Uber. With the app, you choose your type of vehicle, tuk-tuk or car to take you to Dambulla. People use it however mostly within the city, but you can give it a try, there might be drivers willing to take you.
Tours | If you are short on time and only want to make a day trip from Colombo to Dambulla, this tour might be for you. It combines both the Dambulla Cave Temple and Sigiriya’s Lion Rock in one day for only €60 a person.
We hope you enjoyed this Dambulla Cave Temple guide and it was of value for planning your own trip. You might want to check out our other Sri Lanka posts as well. You can show some ❤ and support for the blog and help us share more adventures! Our travels are entirely self-funded, so any show of support is greatly appreciated. It allows us to keep writing helpful travel guides and gather information to make it easier for people to discover the world.
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