“Beware of wild elephants roaming around at dawn and dusk,” is the rather disconcerting sign that greets you when you walk into one of the hotels in the forested regions surrounding Dambulla. Usually, when an animal strays onto the playing field it's something thoroughly domesticated, like the dog that strutted its stuff in Galle and briefly stopped play. Here, though, it's a case of cricket invading animal country.
The hilly landscape, dotted with lakes, makes the region a perfect habitat for a wide range of animals. From the Gibbons monkeys that are so used to humans these days that they sidle up to your hotel rooms - literally - and refuse to leave, to the 160-odd species of birds that make the region an ornithologists delight to the more creepy crawly kind, you can barely walk fifty metres in Dambulla without an encounter of the animal kind.
The thick undergrowth means that monitor lizards are quite at home, with plenty of insect-life for their forked tongues to seek out. If they don't creep you out, though, hang on. The rocky terrain provides perfect housing opportunities to snakes, most notably cobras. Sri Lanka reports an average of 900 fatalities from snake bites annually, a higher density than any other country in the world. When England played at the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium last, play was halted soon after the lunch break when a couple of fielders chanced upon a two-metre long cobra nestled in the undergrowth just beyond the long-leg boundary.
It's not a surprise then that the famous cave temples of Dambulla, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, is home to, among other things, one of the most unusual statues of Buddha. In one of the five caves, which houses some 2000-plus year old frescoes, is a statuette of Buddha being sheltered by the hood of a cobra, protecting him from the rain.
Dambulla lies in the heart of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, formed by the ancient cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The ruined forts, ancient temples and centres of learning draw tourists from around the world. Add to this the cricket, and there's just too much to do and too little time to do it in.