On top of a rock plateau overlooking dense jungle and a vast plain is Sigiriya, the mysterious remains of the fifth-century fortress of King Kasyapa. When it was built, an impressive 5-acre/2-hectare fort sat astride the rock and a city nestled at its base, but now the city is gone and the fortress is in ruins. According to legend, King Kasyapa gained power after burying his father alive. He ruled for the next 18 years, until his half brother Mogallan defeated him in battle. As his soldiers retreated, Kasyapa remained on his elephant facing the opposing army. Then, with great drama, he pulled out a dagger and slit his throat.

The ruins of Sigiriya are unique among the ancient sites in Sri Lanka. Be sure to brave the rickety-looking spiral staircase to see the 19 frescoes of female nature spirits (Apsaras) painted beneath an overhang about 300 ft/90 m up the rock. The frescoes are very beautiful—their colors stunningly vibrant after 1,500 years. A wall covered with 1,000-year-old graffiti and poetry (left by visitors who recorded their impressions of the painted women) lies just above the frescoes. Near the top of the rock fortress are a pair of huge stone Lion's Paws (all that remains of a giant stone lion). We recommend seeing the ruins in the morning—it's much cooler, and people and domesticated elephants may be walking along the road. There's a small archaeological museum at the base of Sigiriya.

In nearby Dambulla you can visit a series of caves on a mountain ledge. They contain frescoes showing some of Buddha's epic struggles against evil. (Photographs are not allowed in Dambulla's caves).

Sigiriya and Dambulla are usually seen together as a day trip from Kandy. If you're traveling by car, you can see Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa on the same day. But it will be a long day—plan to overnight in Sigiriya or in one of the beautiful resorts around Kandalama Lake (near Dambulla). Sigiriya is 90 mi/145 km northeast of Colombo.

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