How NOT to visit Anuradhapura

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!

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Tissa Wewa – a manmade “tank”

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Tuk tuk tour or self-guided on bikes?

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
The Bodhi Tree Temple

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Huge Buddha at the Sri Sarananda Maha Piriwena and Sri Gunarathana Pilgrims Rest

How do we choose?

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Walking through the Banyan Trees at Vessigiriya

Responsible travel: Always pay your admission fee

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Reclining Buddha at the Bodhi Tree Temple

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
The sacred Bodhi Tree

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.

Related: Climbing Adam’s Peak: The Pilgrimage to Sri Pada

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

If you are visiting Anuradhapura, please pay the correct entrance fee to the ticket office to ensure you are supporting the maintenance of the sight.

  • Be aware that your guesthouse may offer a ‘cheaper’ or ‘better’ tour than one you can organise yourself (e.g. renting bikes) or one provided by a legitimate travel agent.
  • Pay your entrance fee directly at the ticket office, not to some random person’s pocket.
  • You can rent bikes for around 250 rupees per person per day and do your own tour. Print off a map of Anuradhapura or take your Lonely Planet guidebook to decide which sights to see.
  • You can hire a tuk tuk driver for as little as 500 rupees per day (remember to haggle) but be sure to pay for your entrance fee yourself.
  • I understand that the same “tours” exist in Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa too – so be aware.
How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Dagoba at the Bodhi Tree temple

I regret how I visited Anuradhapura, but I don’t regret visiting.

The ancient city has some worthwhile sights. Below are some I really enjoyed visiting.

  • Bodhi Tree Temple (Sri Maha Bodhi)
  • Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba
  • Sri Sarananda Maha Piriwena and Sri Gunarathana Pilgrims Rest
  • The Brazen Palace
  • Vessagiriya

I’ve included photos of all of these throughout this post – refer to their captions.

Where to stay

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:

Use the booking form below to reserve a room. Alternatively, why not try AirBnB? Get £30 off your first booking by using this link.

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One last note

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.

Related: How to experience Sigiriya on a budget

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
Dagoba at the Sri Sarananda Maha Piriwena and Sri Gunarathana Pilgrims Rest

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.

How NOT to visit Anuradhapura -
View from the Bodhi Tree Temple

Have you visited Anuradhapura? How did you get around? Have you heard of this scam before?

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something from the linked site, I’ll earn a tiny (and I mean tiny!) commission at no extra cost to you, which contributes to running this blog.

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18 responses to “How NOT to visit Anuradhapura”

  1. What a refreshing and honest post! It’s nice to hear someone being truthful rather than gushing about somewhere regardless of their experience.


    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It’s always best to be honest I think!


  2. Great post – practical, and honest. A really good read.


  3. Thanks for this info! This is on our itinerary when we head to Sri Lanka with my parents later this year. Great to have an honest account and some detailed information. Good to know that it’s still worth going though 🙂


  4. Nice post. I always love to hear peoples honest opinion over the usual ‘everything was great’. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize who and what is the real deal and not a scammer if you are visiting a foreign country.


  5. Boarding Call Avatar
    Boarding Call

    really helpful to know this! I’m planning to visit Sri Lanka later this year so appreciate your post. Of course hindsight is 20/20 so don’t beat yourself up too much for doing things the “wrong” way! I’ve definitely also been duped before!


  6. Well at least a lesson was learned and new info shared, therefore, thank you! If I ever visit, I know I have more information about what I prefer not to do. =)


  7. rhiannontravels Avatar

    Thanks for your honest post! It’s great to learn from past travel mistakes. Your photos are great! 🙂


  8. Your article is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and helping many other travellers to the “right” thing. It’s not always easy to realise it when you’re in the action but research during planning is key and you’re really helping now with your very honest post so I hope you don’t feel awful anymore 🙂


  9. Avatar

    Just arrived in Anuradhapura. Thank you so much for an honest, educational and interesting read. Great advice. Lizzie: backpacking SE Asia with my boyfriend x


    1. Hey Lizzie, thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post! Have a great time in Sri Lanka ?


  10. Thanks for this post, it is very helpful! Our SL trip starts after 3 weeks and beginning is the same as yours: Colombo one day and then to Anuradhapura by train. I check your other posts too 🙂
    Greetings from Estonia!


  11. Hi Abbi. Thanks for this honest post. It helps lot since I’ll go to Sri Lanka in June by hiring a car. With that, I’m thankful to skip the tuk tuk. Now, I’m making sure of the entrance fees and I’d like to ask you some questions:
    1. So is the USD 25 the REAL price of the Anuradhapura sacred area? (I find it expensive so I kind of emphasized lol)
    2. Do you know which sites the USD 25 covers?
    3. Did you notice any Anuradhapura Tourism Office to pay this USD 25? I tried to search online but I can’t find any. I just want to make sure my payment will be in the right hands 🙂



  12. Thank for your report. Very helpful. But the pictures you show of the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree Temple are in fact of another Temple: Isurumunya Vihara which does also have a Bodhi Tree, but is not the real Sri Maha Bodhi Tree! Sorry to say. Check the unesco world heritage for pictures!


  13. Hi Abbi,
    I’m so sorry to read your experience as a Sri Lankan. According to this post the photos you have posted as “Sri maha bodhi” or sacred tree is not from the correct place. As mentioned in the previous comment its from “Isurumuniya Temple”. Just like the tuk tuk driver even I’ve heard some guides explaining wrong stories around these sites. Tourists need to be very cautious if they are seeking help from local people. There are government information centers in most sites. If you are on a lower budget better to rely on guidance books and site offices.


    1. Thanks for your comment Muthu – yes I will update the photos as soon as I can. Thank you for your words of advice ?


  14. Great, honest blog post!


  15. […] Anuradhapura is also $25 for a ticket, but there is a lot less to see than Polonnaruwa. If you want to read a story about a backpacker who unwittingly paid for a rip-off tour that didn’t include the main Anuradhapura sights, then check out this post by Spin the Wind Rose. […]


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