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Lion Rock, Paper, Scissors

Sigiriya Lion Rock is known as one of the most remarkable natural phenomena globally and is one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka!

Rising from the lush jungle cover of Sri Lanka's central plains, Sigiriya Rock is truly a breathtaking sight to behold. This towering 200m sheer rock, thrust upwards from an otherwise flat landscape and often skirted by a veil of mist that shrouds it in mystery, is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.

And a wonder it is, given that it’s both a geological marvel billions of years old, and also home to an ancient palace and fortress built in the 5th century by King Kashyapa. Today, Sigiriya is steeped in human myth and legend about Kings and monks, triumphs and defeat, and the historical importance of Buddhism to the local area.

For travelers seeking to understand the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, a visit to Sigiriya (and neighbouring Pidurangala) is a must-do. Hiking to the top of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress to explore the ancient ruins and enjoy the vistas over the misty forests, lakes and villages below has become somewhat of a rite of passage for backpackers, and something that we think every visitor to the country should do.

Quick history

Sigiriya’s history is long and varied; once the volcanic plug of a long-dead and eroded volcano more than two billion years old, it’s been home to Mesolithic humans and reclusive Buddhist monks, and has been theorised by some historians as the Alkamandava or City of Gods, described in the ancient Sanskrit Ramayanaya.

But it’s the murderous tale of the 5th century King Kashyapa 1, that saw Sigiriya suddenly rise to spectacular prominence in Sri Lanka’s history. See, what happens when you’re the ambitious —but illegitimate — eldest son of the King, and your younger (but more legitimate) brother, Mogallana, is the rightful heir to the throne?

You hatch a plan to kill your father by imprisoning him behind a wall and exile your brother to India before assuming the throne yourself, of course!

King Kasyapa knew that this wasn't likely to be the end of the story though, and that his brother would eventually summon an army to reclaim what was rightfully his. In preparation, he moved the capital from the ancient (and flat) city of Anuradhapura, transforming the unlikely rock into an immense resting lion staircase, stately palace, and elegant gardens.

The King’s Palace in the Clouds would only last 18 years though; eventually his forces were defeated and Kashyapa died (by suicide or murder remains to be seen) in 495 AD. The fortress was eventually passed back to monks, while his legacy has millions of tourists flocking to its wonders each year

Best time to visit?

The gates don’t open until 7am, which means getting to the top (an hour’s climb) for an epic sunrise is kind of a no-deal anyway. You can, however, get some great sunset action by climbing later in the day.

Obviously, climbing to the top of Sigiriya in the late afternoon / evening means a good chance of avoiding much of the harsh heat of the day. Visiting at sunset also guarantees that you’ll enjoy some cooler weather on your descent, instead of the searing sun of the early morning hike. Plus there's less crowds in the evenings as most people visit between morning to afternoon.

How long would it take?

This really depends on your level of fitness and desire to explore every nook and cranny of the site. Those with a reasonable level of fitness who are also stopping to look at things along the way should be able to complete the 1000+ steps to the top in 60 minutes.

However, do also factor in some decent extra time to wander along the gardens, explore the ruins at the top (we spent about 40 minutes up at the top), and about 30-minutes for your descent. All in all, we’d recommend setting aside at least 3 hours for your visit.

Watch this space for further updates on everything you need to know about Sigiriya, Lion Rock.

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