Recognised as part of the ‘Cultural Triangle’ of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities, Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is firmly on the tourist trail. Dating back to 380AD, the site contains ancient ruins, well-preserved dagobas, brick pools and crumbling temples. Many of the holy sites are still in use today as places of worship, particularly during the pilgrimages on poya (full moon) days. We were lucky enough to visit on a poya day and were a part of the throngs of people dressed all in white as they came to pay their respects to the ancient gods.
The ruins are located close to the modern-day city but cover a vast area; you will need to organise transport to explore them as there is simply too much distance to cover by foot. The most common options for this are either by tuk tuk or by bicycle. In this post, I’m going to describe our experience at Anuradhapura and encourage you to visit the ancient city in the most responsible way possible – I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did!
The ancient city of Anuradhapura was our first stop in Sri Lanka after leaving Colombo. We arrived at our guesthouse and asked the owner if we would be able to rent bicycles to explore Anuradhapura the following day.
“Yes,” she replied, “but Anuradhapura very big. Is better go by tuk tuk.”
She then got out a pen and paper and began scribbling down the prices of our options.
“With tuk tuk, entry fee included. Bike, you pay for bike, plus two entry fee, plus entry to Bodhi Tree.”
Bike hire would cost us 250 rupees each for the day. On top of this, we would have to pay the $25 USD entry fee each, and the additional 200 rupees each to enter the Bodhi Tree Temple (this temple isn’t included in the admission ticket price for some reason.) In total, visiting Anuradhapura by bike would cost us 12,300Rs.
The second option was a six-hour trip with a tuk tuk for 5400 rupees. She showed us a list with photos of the sights in Anuradhapura and ticked off which ones were included – it was most of them on the list. The tuk tuk driver would speak English well and be our ‘guide’ for the day.
Comparing the two, we could see the second option was easily the more affordable choice. But how could it cost so much less than our combined admission fee (7600Rs)? Something didn’t seem right. I challenged her.
“No ma’am, you pay per tuk tuk, not for two people,” she said. Strange. I thought you had to pay per person.
“So the tuk tuks have got some sort of deal with the site?” I asked hopefully.
She looked at me like I was really stupid, smiling slyly as she muttered something I didn’t quite understand but nodded in response to.
Over dinner, James and I discussed what to choose. Cycling did seem a little ambitious in the heat, and the ruins were some distance from the town, where we were staying. I was also unsure which of the ruins were the ‘must visit’ sites, and was quite happy for the decision of which ones to see to be made for me. I shook off the funny feeling in my stomach. Our tuk tuk driver arrived at 7:30am the next morning.
To our driver’s credit, we were given a 6-hour long in depth tour of a number of sights in Anuradhapura. He knew an awful lot about the sights – I shook the cynical suggestion from my head that he could have been making it up.
Returning home at 2pm, we felt obliged to tip our driver. I’m not sure why; perhaps because we’re British and that’s what British people do. We’d had a great day, but I couldn’t help thinking that we had done the wrong thing by choosing this “tour” instead of doing our own self-guided visit.
Although the admission fee of $25 USD per person to visit Anuradhapura is steep, these funds go towards the maintenance and conservation of the ruins.
Responsible travel is about ensuring that your money is going to the right place. That afternoon, I decided to research this “tour” of Anuradhapura online. I found that we weren’t the only people who had been tricked into doing the wrong thing. Even though it had been entirely our own decision, I felt like we had been scammed, and I felt so guilty that we hadn’t paid our money to the right place.
Reading through others’ experiences, I realised we had only visited one or two of the ‘bigger’ sites; the ones with more security. We had visited smaller, unknown sites that weren’t as impressive as others detailed. We hadn’t even visited all of the sights on the lady’s checklist!
I had assumed that our “one-time fee of $25 per tuk tuk” (which the lady in the guesthouse had advised would cover our entry) would be paid directly by the tuk tuk driver to the organisation. However, I hadn’t seen him buy a ticket anywhere. It dawned on me that no money had been paid to the site. The tuk tuk driver hadn’t paid the $25 fee for us to visit the ruins.
But what about the Bodhi Tree temple? There had been an office at the entrance and the tuk tuk driver had spoken to the guards behind the counter. I recalled another temple in which I had seen him slip a guard a few notes – at the time I thought this was to watch our shoes. I realised the driver, the guards… they were all part of this game. A tip here and there meant the security guards were all too happy to let two dishonest visitors into the sights.
Essentially, we had paid no money to the organisation. Instead, we had paid a random tuk tuk driver 6000 rupees to show us sights that we didn’t need a ticket to see, and to a few sights he’d bribed the security guards to get us into. I felt awful.
The ancient city has some worthwhile sights. Below are some I really enjoyed visiting.
I’ve included photos of all of these throughout this post – refer to their captions.
I won’t recommend the place we stayed at because I don’t support what they are doing in encouraging tourists not to pay the admission fee to the site.
Some affordable sleeping options recommended by the Lonely Planet include:
Perhaps it was because of this experience that I feel slightly negatively towards Anuradhapura, however, I didn’t find the sights here anywhere near as impressive as Polonnaruwa. Many other travellers we’ve spoken to have said the same. I believe this is because Anuradhapura dates back further than Polonnaruwa, therefore the ruins are in much worse condition in Anuradhapura and many are simply the low foundations of ruined buildings. If I were to choose one of them, I would pick Polonnaruwa.
Whilst I’m looking back on the way we experienced Anuradhapura with regret, it’s so clear that this ‘tour’ was a scam in some way – perhaps not only scamming tourists, but also scamming the organisation itself.
I can see now that the lady in the guesthouse wasn’t trying to save us money or offer us a better deal; she was helping her friend by making money off us. I would rather have spent more money and ensured I was giving my funds to the organisation itself. Lesson learnt: the next attraction I visit, I’ll make sure to pay the correct fee to the correct party.
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
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