I’m on my way from Kandy to Habarana, sad to be leaving the cool elevation of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, but excited to visit the ancient cities on my journey north to the rarely-visited Jaffna and the northern islands. I’ve booked a private driver for the day, as there’s no easy train between the two cities and I want to stop at the famous Dambulla Cave Temples on the way. I’m expecting an easy and relaxing day in a nice, air conditioned car, punctuated with a great visit to some marvelous caves filled with gorgeous old Buddha statues.
But you, dear reader, know that what I expect and what actually happens are rarely the same thing.
The Dambulla caves were just as spectacular as I had imagined, but I had the misfortune to be stuck with the worst driver I’ve ever had on any trip anywhere in the world. And I once had a Burmese driver pick up a pregnant woman and wedge her up against me, where she promptly started to go into labor. So when I say this guy was the worst, you know he really put some effort into it.
Not many things will get me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, but 2000 year old cave temples on top of a mountain are one of them. I’ve arranged my driver through Blue Haven Tours, a company listed in my Lonely Planet and vouched for by the manager of my hotel. Nuwan arrives at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, and we set off for Dambulla in his mildly battered black Suzuki Celario.
As most Sri Lankan taxi drivers do, Nuwan likes to make small talk, and begins asking me questions. Where am I from, why did I come to Sri Lanka, how long am I staying, etc. I rather wish he wouldn’t, as his glances into the rear view mirror are taking his attention away from the narrow, winding roads out of Kandy. But I’m a captive audience, so I answer as blandly as possible, to keep him from getting more distracted from his driving.
His face breaks into a broad leer in the rear view mirror as he says, “United State! And are you happy with your new president?”
Oh, brother. Here we go.
“No, not especially.” Please watch the road, please watch the road, please watch the road.
There is a brief pause as we round a bend and come bumper-to-bumper with a white Toyota. The road isn’t wide enough for two cars (it’s barely wide enough for one, with a steep drop into a drainage ditch on my side and a tall, unruly hedge on the other). After a brief stare-down, Nuwan puts the Suzuki into reverse and backs up a few feet. The Toyota inches forward. Nuwan refuses to back up further and honks the horn. The Toyota doesn’t have enough room to pass, so he honks back. Men emerge from a nearby building and become impromptu traffic conductors. They’re yelling and motioning for Nuwan to back up a little further, to a point where the road widens enough for the Toyota to pass. He refuses. They shout and gesture some more. Finally the Toyota driver lays on his horn until Nuwan relents and backs up enough for him to pass.
As soon as we’re back on the road, Nuwan starts in again. “You should be very happy with your new president. Everyone in Sri Lanka love him!” (This is categorically false, as he is the only person to express this view during my 3 month trip, but anyway…)
“Well, good for you.” The erratic driving is starting to make me nauseous, and I wish I had skipped breakfast. One day, I will be smart enough to lie and say I’m Canadian.
“He defeat Hillary Clinton, who support terrorists!” The way he’s staring at me in the mirror, eyes bulging, is well past creepy and closing in on psychotic.
“Um, no, I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate.”
“Yes it is!” He’s shouting now, and slaps the steering wheel for emphasis. “She give money to dirty Tamil dogs to bomb our Buddhist temples and kill Sri Lankans!”
Cool, so now he’s a gross bigot on top of being delusional. Only 2.5 hours to go. I’m definitely feeling carsick at this point, and breaking out into that pre-vomit cold sweat that signals impending doom.
“I’m not going to have this discussion with you. I’m paying for a driver, not some rando to yell at me while swerving all over the road.”
I’ve momentarily shocked him into silence. I’ve noticed that Sri Lankan women tend to be fairly meek, and Sri Lankan men aren’t used to being chastised. He stops talking, but continues to stare at me in the rearview mirror. I’m unsettled and nauseous, and almost want to skip the cave temples altogether. I would open my mouth to say so, but I’m afraid I would be sick.
Two uncomfortable hours later, we arrive at Dambulla. Nuwan drops me at the bottom of the steep rock stairway that leads to the caves, and points to a small parking lot nearby, saying he’ll be waiting there for me when I finish. He seems to have calmed down from his earlier rant.
The silver lining of the day: the Dambulla cave temples are absolutely stunning. It takes a bit of effort to reach them, what with maneuvering the slippery steps and dodging the marauding local monkey population, but once you do, the reward is magnificent.
At the top of the first set of steps you’ll visit the ticket window and pay your $10 USD for admission. Make sure you’ve got plenty of water, spare camera batteries, or whatever else you need before you start slogging your way up. You’re not going to want to turn around and do this twice. Also make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, as you’re not getting past the guards without being properly attired.
Even though you’re on top of a mountain, poking around in some caves, they’re still sacred temples, so you’ll have to leave your shoes outside. As you reach the top of the steps you’ll hand your shoes to the shoe minder in the little kiosk (and pay 25 rupees when you pick them up later). A few touts hang around the shoe drop, selling beaded bracelets and carved wooden boxes. They’re not as numerous or as pushy as most other tourist sites in the Cultural Triangle area, however.
As you enter through the wooden archway, a guard will stamp your ticket. FYI, this is where the quiet zone starts; the guards have no problem pouncing on unruly tourists and demanding they follow proper temple etiquette.
It won’t take long to visit all five temples, as most of them are quite small. The first and smallest cave is my favorite; there’s barely enough room for a handful of visitors at once, and the bulk of the chamber is taken up by an enormous reclining Buddha with a captivatingly serene expression.
Large tour buses do visit Dambulla, and the cave temples can get crowded. They all tend to stick together, though, and as the caves are right in a row it’s easy to avoid the groups and move back and forth to enjoy empty or nearly-empty caves most of the time.
As these are still active temples, you’ll see groups of Buddhist monks moving around from cave to cave to pray. They’re accustomed to being surrounded by tourists all day, of course, but I still think it’s nice to give them some space and vacate a temple while they’re using it. Or you could be like some tourists I saw and shove your camera in their faces while they’re kneeling in prayer. (No, don’t do this, those people were horrible. Seriously, who does this?)
When you’re finished, there are two ways to get back down to the bottom. You can go back down the King’s Way steps that you came up (dodging the same monkeys and slippery steps). You can also exit down the other side of the mountain to the Golden Temple (these steps are new, wider, and with nice sturdy hand rails…but the same monkeys, unfortunately.) Personally I wouldn’t bother with the Golden Temple as it’s a new construction, over-the-top gaudy tourist trap.
I make my way carefully back down the way I came up, head across the dusty road to the car park…and find no little black Suzuki. It’s a tiny parking lot, so it only takes me about 30 seconds to determine that Nuwan is most definitely nowhere to be found.
Not panicking, not panicking, not panicking…
I approach the driver of a bright red tuk tuk parked nearby and ask him if there is another parking lot nearby. He immediately looks concerned. “No, madam. This is the only one.”
I explain that my driver dropped me off and was supposed to wait here for me, but he’s not here, so I’m thinking there has to be another car park nearby. He shakes his head vigorously. “The only other car park is by the Golden Temple, but no driver would drop you off here and pick you up there. He would wait here. He must be here.” He looks back over his shoulder as though Nuwan is going to pop out from the bushes.
“He’s definitely not here. How do I get to this other parking lot?”
Red tuk tuk driver points at the road that brought us into the cave temple complex, and I start walking.
This may be an appropriate time to mention that it’s 92 degrees outside, there’s no shade whatsoever, and I’m wearing long sleeves and long pants because I was visiting temples. So this is nice.
It takes 40 minutes to reach the other parking lot. Remember how, earlier, I reminded you to take your water with you when starting your climb? Yeah, that’s because I didn’t. I didn’t want to carry it and I assumed it would be there waiting for me at the bottom when I finished. I should really not assume things, based on my track record, but I’m a slow learner.
By the time I stumble into the second parking lot, I’m a sweaty, sunburned, half-delirious mess. But the car is there! Hallelujah.
My excitement is short-lived, however, because Nuwan is nowhere to be found. This car park is much larger than the first, with a few shady spots for waiting drivers to pass the time. I walk around the perimeter of the lot, hoping to spot him among the groups of men, but he isn’t there. I return to the car and wait, unwilling to let it out of my sight now that I’ve found it again.
More than half an hour passes with no sign of Nuwan. I’m definitely on the verge of sunstroke at this point, so I stop a passing driver on the way to his car and ask if he has possibly seen the driver of this black Suzuki. He says he hasn’t, but he’s a regular at Dambulla and he knows the car. I confirm it belongs to Blue Haven tours, and he kindly offers to call the owner of the company and get him to track down his errant driver.
Five minutes later, Nuwan comes speed walking around the corner. It would appear that the owner was successful. He immediately starts interrogating me, raising his voice loud enough for a few of the waiting drivers to turn and stare. “Why are you here? You aren’t where you’re supposed to be! You should have gone to the Golden Temple!”
I’ve already started to cry; I’m so weak and exhausted from the climb and the walk and the sun and the lack of water that I can’t even answer. He had asked me before we arrived at Dambulla if I was interested in seeing the Golden Temple, and I had declined, saying I was only interested in the Dambulla cave temples. I don’t have the strength to remind him of this as I practically fall into the car and start chugging water. The driver who called the tour company on my behalf approaches Nuwan’s window and starts speaking to him sternly in Sinhala, frequently gesturing to me and then to the sky, presumably referencing the blazing noontime sun. I don’t have to speak their language to know he’s asking where Nuwan has been and why he left his client out here for so long. Nuwan ignores him and backs out of the parking space as the man is still speaking.
He continues his tirade as we exit the parking lot, but all I can do is sit there, shaking, and wipe my tears on my sleeve. He finally stops as he realizes I’m not going to answer him.
It’s another 30 minutes from Dambulla to my hotel in Habarana, which passes in desperately uncomfortable silence. All I can do for the first four hours after I arrive is lie in the dark, air conditioned room and drink water until I stop shaking. The stress of the day has hit me like a truck and I can feel the onset of the fever and joint pain that signal a bad flare up of my fibromyalgia. It’s going to be a long night.
Once I can type again without shaking uncontrollably, I fire up my laptop and send an email to the tour company to express how upset I am at the behavior of their driver. In. Excruciating. Detail.
A few hours later I get their response: “We are sorry this happened! Please try to forget about it and enjoy the rest of your holiday.”
Now, with all that said, I still think you should definitely visit the Dambulla Cave Temples. They are extraordinary, and Dambulla is situated perfectly for visiting the unmissable ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. Just, um, don’t let Nuwan drive you there, OK?
Dambulla Cave Temples are a UNESCO World Heritage site located on the Kandy – Jaffna Hwy, Dambulla, Sri Lanka. You can read more about them here.
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