|HOME | AIR TICKETS | VISA SERVICE | HOTELS | TOURS | LINKS | MAP | ABOUT | CONTACT US|
The main tourist resort of Negombo is situated just north of the town. It has a long, often wide, picturesque stretch of sandy bay with numerous attractions both on land and water, and a string of well-established hotels. There is plenty to do apart from swimming and sunbathing as windsurfing, diving, and even kite surfing have become popular sports here.
Negombo is a centre for Roman Catholicism (its nickname is “Little Rome”) and so the town is dominated by beautiful shrines and churches. The biggest is the impressive, candy-coloured church of St Mary’s, built over a period of 50 years from 1874, which exhibits some amazing ceiling paintings.
While each church in Negombo celebrates its own patron saint’s feast day, the small island of Duwa (separated from the southern end of town by the lagoon) stages passion plays at Easter with puppetry and theatre that usually involve the whole village – a great event to witness.
The waterways surrounding Negombo offer the opportunity to explore the area. The Dutch Canal – also called the Hamilton Canal – runs south to Colombo and north to Puttalam. It was designed especially to transport spices such as cinnamon. You can enjoy peaceful boat trips observing local life and appreciating the wildlife as you glide by.
The Negombo Lagoon – a great expanse of water usually visible from your plane window as you land or take off – is famed for the quality of its prawns and crab. It joins the Indian Ocean to the north, and to the south weaves into the estuaries and waterways of the Muthurajawela Marsh – a mangrove-studded wetland 15km south of Negombo that makes for a great excursion.
There are two theories as to the origin of the Westernized name. Governor General Sir Thomas Maitland had built a mansion there in 1805 (now part of the Mount Lavinia Hotel) and had fallen in love with a beautiful low caste dancing girl called Lovina, who was discreetly smuggled into the mansion through a tunnel. But perhaps it’s a corruption of an old name, Lihiniyagala – “rock” or “cliff of the birds”.
If you stay in Mount Lavina there are several nearby attractions. The closest is the National Zoological Gardens at Dehiwela, better-known as the Dehiwela Zoo, one of the largest in Southeast Asia. The zoo and its gardens are best experienced early morning as soon as the zoo opens (8am – 6pm everyday). The animals - some 350 species - are naturally more active at this time, going through feeding and cleaning rituals, it is cooler, and the crowds wouldn’t have arrived as yet. Bear in mind the zoo tends to get overcrowded at weekends.
Though the zoo was a pioneer of the open plan concept, this is yet to be implemented throughout the zoo, so bars and cages are still to be found, but enclosures like the lion and gibbon islands are a fascinating place to watch the animals in their simulated surroundings.
The elephant show - which is still a major attraction - has yet to be discontinued, even though it is unnatural and demeaning. However, these days it is preceded by a talk on conservation and human-elephant conflict.
A few kilometres inlaid with a grand extent of 37,400 hectares, stretches Bolgoda Lake. Sri Lanka’s largest natural water basin and greatest freshwater pool. Up to 45 fish species have been identified, five of which are endemic and 160 bird species (mostly migrants and waterfowl) prowl and flit along the lakeshore. The flora biodiversity is equally rich, including aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial plants – grasses, trees and water pants – and, of course, dense mangrove.
North of this bridge, all the way to Wadduwa (8km), extends a fine catamaran-scattered beach, often deserted, which is ideal for quick dips and long sunset strolls. There are some top-end resort hotels bordering the beach, but there’s not much of an option for budget travellers.
The large dagoba of the Gangatilaka Vihara isn’t old – it was built in the 1960s – but its hollow interior is the only one of its kind in the world. Inside its cavernous interior there is a mini-dagoba surrounded on four sides by golden Buddhas. Around the edge are painted 72 images of the previous births of the Buddha-to-be. The narrow windows below these paintings afford 360-degree panoramic views over the river and into town.
Kalutara is famous for its mangosteens, which are sold when ripe from May to July in stalls along the roadside. And Kalutara is one of the country’s most successful rubber producing districts. Travelling a few kilometres inland from Kalutara reveals the silvery trunks of the rubber trees while a visit to a factory will show you how the latex is made into sheets of rubber.
Kalutara is associated with two remarkable Victorian women. Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the first portrait photographers who pioneered soft focus, was a resident. She began photography in 1863, at 48, yet soon became a central figure in this new medium and had photographed famous personalities such as Charles Darwin. She also took historically important portraits of Kalutara women, which hang at the National Portrait Gallery, London. In 1877, Marianne North, one of the greatest botanical artists, stayed with Cameron. Her paintings, which include a view of the Kalu Ganga from the Cameron’s verandah, can be seen at Kew Gardens, London.
Bentota is Sri Lanka’s water-sports centre. The sea here is calm and an excellent diving location. The beach divides into two, the north end comprising a spit of land – dubbed “Paradise Island” - dividing the waves of the Indian Ocean from the still waters of the Bentota Lagoon, while the more pleasing southern end comprises an attractive swathe of wide sandy beach where some of the island’s best upmarket hotels are located. Surprisingly, although Bentota is one of the island’s most popular resorts, the beach is relatively quiet.
The Bentota Lagoon offers a wide range of water-sports such as wind-surfing, water-skiing, canoeing, banana-boating and deep-sea fishing. In addition, the Bentota Ganga (river) has been an important tourist attraction since the 19th century. Boat safaris up the beautiful river provide an ideal opportunity to observe a variety of fauna – from herons to crocodiles - associated with a wetland environment.
You can also explore the remains of the Galapata Vihara, built in the 12th century, which has interesting wall paintings, Buddha statues, and a large rock that has an extract from the chronicle, the Mahavamsa, carved on it.
About 3km south of Bentota is a turtle hatchery, where eggs bought from fishermen are buried. When they hatch the baby turtles are kept in tanks for a few days before being released into the sea...
The beach is, thankfully, a good distance from the main road and packed with catamarans and fishing boats. For this reason the beach in town is not so suitable sunbathing as Hikkaduwa or Unawatuna further south. Instead it is great for exploring and witnessing Sri Lankan daily life.
However, both beaches at the extreme southern and northern ends of town are picturesque, great for walking and nearly always empty, though perhaps a little close to the main road. As a rule, be wary and follow the local advice about where to swim, as there can be dangerous currents.
Ambalangoda is well-known for mask-making and as a centre for south coast traditional dancing. Masks are made for three types of dancing rituals: kolam, which tell satirical stories of traditional Sri Lankan colonial life, sanni, or devil dancing masks, used in an exorcism ceremony to heal people of persisting ailments believed inflicted by demons, and raksha masks, used in festivals and processions. Now they have become more important as one of Sri Lanka’s most sought-after souvenir, and the streets of Ambalangoda are lined with shops from which leer these sometimes demonic-looking but somehow attractive creations.
Seven kilometres inland is south Asia’s longest (35m) reclining Buddha statue, located at the Sailatalaramaya Vihara. At Balapitiya, five kilometres from Ambalangoda, boat trips can be taken up the Madu Ganga (river). This shallow body of water, its estuary and islets, make up the complex coastal ecosystem of the Madu Ganga Wetlands, declared a Ramsar Site in 2003. Possibly the last remaining area of pristine mangrove forest in Sri Lanka, it is home to 303 species of plants and 248 vertebrate animals including many bird species.
The village of Meetiyagoda near Ambalangoda is the only place in Sri Lanka where the gem, the moonstone, is found. You can visit the narrow, deep shafts from which it is mined, or at least gaze down them. Moonstone carries a sheen, seen on the surface of the stone from certain angles. It is like a floating light, the finest of which is bluish in colour.
The foreign influx began in the mid-19th century, when ‘picnic parties’ were regularly held here and it became a stopping place for the Galle to Colombo stagecoach. The second influx came in the 1960s, when American and Australian surfers discovered the waves here and at Arugam Bay on the east coast. Soon the town became a surfing paradise, attracting not only surfers but fun-seeking visitors of all types.
The best period for surfing is November to April, as it is for diving and snorkelling, for the visibility is good. There are a number of excellent wreck dives, including the Shell-owned SS Conch, the world’s first oil tanker, sunk in 1903. The Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary, established in 1988, ensures the underwater world is accessible to all whether they can dive or not. Snorkelling in the shallow waters 200m off shore is possible, and although the corals are dead in places you still come across a number of brightly-coloured fish as you float a few metres above. The less adventurous can always take a glass-bottomed boat ride, though this is environmentally questionable
Clothes are tailored here to western tastes and in western sizes. Jewellery is of the more understated silver type with beautiful semi-precious stones. There are dozens of souvenir shops with items such as masks, puppets, musical instruments, batiks and paintings.
There a several places of interest to visit in the area around Hikkaduwa. The Gangarama Maha Viharaya is filled with the lifetime work of one artist depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Dodanduwa Lagoon and Telwatte Bird Sanctuary provide a wealth of fauna, flora and spectacular scenery. And only 9km inland from Hikkaduwa you are already entering the totally different world of tea plantations.
Unawatuna is protected by a double reef and is therefore one of the safest beaches in Sri Lanka for swimming. You can snorkel in the clear blue waters of the bay. It is a great place for surfing and diving. Or you can go fishing or snorkelling out to sea by using the traditional catamarans dotting the beach.
Many restaurants line the whole curve of beach with sun beds enticingly placed outside. Because there are no big hotel complexes here, and no busy road, it is a favourite of tourists staying a few months. With welcoming villagers and an unforgettable ambience, it is easy to see why.
A charming legend concerns Unawatuna and the prominence called Rumassala Kanda at the west end of the bay. In the epic Indian poem, the Ramayana, which is partly set in Sri Lanka, Hanuman, the monkey god, was sent to the Himalayas to find some special medicinal herbs. But Hanuman forgot which herbs he needed and in desperation took with him, twisted in his tail, a chunk of the mountains. On his way back he dropped a piece at Unawatuna forming this hillock. That’s why the village name means “fell down”.
Rumassala Kanda, well worth exploring, has a great variety of unusual vegetation and protected medicinal herbs not found anywhere else in the area, making this story seem mysteriously possible.
Unawatuna is the ideal place to relax and unwind. As importantly, however, it is well-placed to allow you to easily explore the surrounding area. For an alternative beach, for instance, try Dalawella, just 2.5km from Unawatuna, which is unspoilt – it’s narrow but great for bathing and safe for children.
At Kottawa Rainforest and Arboretum, only 45 minutes from Unawatuna, you can experience a rainforest environment. Most importantly, the remarkable Dutch fort of Galle - one of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and considered the best-preserved fortifications in South Asia - is just 5km north of Unawatuna. And remember that if you are a cricket fan, Galle has an International Cricket Stadium where test matches are played.
Weligama means “Sandy Village”, though it is also referred to as ‘Red Bay’ due to its rose-red cliffs. These red cliffs and rose-tinged islands do indeed characterize Weligama and can be viewed as far as the eye can see. Another famous aspect is stunning Taprobane Island, in wading distance from the shore, built by a fake French Count, lived on by American writer Paul Bowles, and now a hotel.
Hundreds of outrigger catamarans float in the expanse of Weligama Bay and dot the sandy beach. At the western end, with islands just offshore, the water in season is miraculously still, calm and as blue as a Sri Lankan sapphire. To the eastern end of the bay the waves roll in to provide great opportunity for surfers. This is where the bulk of guesthouses are situated.
Weligama town is pretty in parts – street to the west, for instance, hide houses decorated with mal lali (an elegant southern wooden fretwork) set amidst lush gardens. There are a handful of Buddhist dagobas and churches to the western part of town. However, the three-metre high megalith carved with a figure popularly thought to be Kustaraja or “Leper King” at Rasamukkanda is what Weligama is historically famed for.
There are several beliefs surrounding the identity of this figure, carved around the 8th or 9th century. Does it represent a leprous Sinhalese king who lived off the village’s coconut milk for three moons to cure his sickness. Or is it an Indian prince who introduced the coconut to the island? Another belief is that it is a Mahayana Bodhisattva (a being who assists all sentient beings achieve Buddhahood).
One famous visitor to Weligama was the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology but faked scientific evidence. Haeckel spent several weeks in Weligama at the rest-house, still much as it was then, collecting marine specimens.
To the western end of the bay is a rocky headland. Cabanas can be seen poking through the green sea of trees. Down below, where the waves crash, are restaurants and guesthouses hidden by foliage, until the beach skirts the Matara road and stretches towards the far end at Giragala (“parrot”) Rock. This whole length of bay, though never far from the main road, is particularly tranquil.
Mirissa is great fun for body boarding and surfing. Equipment can be rented from the beachside restaurants and instruction may also be offered. Do be sure to ask where the safest places are to surf and be aware of strong currents. Swimming is good at the eastern end of the bay, on the far side of Girigala Rock, where small reefs provide opportunities for snorkelling. This is also a popular fishing spot. Girigala Rock is a great place to watch the sunset.
A small river runs behind the village of Mirissa. There is as well some forested jungle worth exploring on foot or bicycle. The village has reasonable accommodation, much of it comprising simple chalets or rooms. Beachside cafes and restaurants serve delicious, fresh seafood.
There are not many places on the western and southern coasts where you can walk along superb sandy shores for kilometres hardly seeing another soul. So, if you are looking for a low-key beach destination, then Tangalle is the place to go. As well as housing budget travellers, Tangalle has its fair share of mid-range and exclusive accommodation.
There is little to see in the town, though a few Dutch buildings display characteristics of Dutch architecture such as the courthouse, the island’s oldest rest-house (1774), and the residence of the district judge. The Dutch also built a fort, though it has now been transformed into a prison.
Tangalle encompasses the adjoining villages to the west Goyambokka and Pallikaduwa, and to the north, along the arc of bay, Medaketiya and Medilla. It is Medilla beach and the stretch beyond to Rekawa that’s most enticing. Your feet sink deeply into the fiery sand scattered with shells. There are shelves of rocks and coral in the sea, visible from shore, which create pockets of safe swimming, though it is best to ask nearby guesthouse owners as there can be dangerous currents.
Swimming is safest at Medaketiya, where most of the budget accommodation is located. From here, under overhanging palms, you can stretch out on the beach and relax leaving the time fly by.
However, Tangalle has many worthwhile surrounding attractions. At the Hoo-maniya blowhole, seven kilometres west in Kudawela, jets of water spray 15m into the air through a crevice in the rock. It is best viewed at the height of the monsoon season in June.
There’s the magnificent rock temple of Mulgirigala, although it’s 20km inland, and Wewurukannala Temple a few kilometres beyond Hoo-maniya, home to the tallest (50m) Buddha statue in the country.
Ten kilometres to the east, at Rekawa, is a turtle nesting site run by the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP). TCP pays villagers to protect turtle eggs laid on the beach. November to April and full moon days are the best time to go and watch turtles laying eggs.
A more attractive alternative is Coral Island, a few kilometres north of Nilaveli, which unlike Pigeon Island cannot be landed on, but which has a well-preserved reef containing the beautiful cabbage coral and a marvellous variety of dazzling tropical fish. Coral Island is considered by many to be Sri Lanka’s best snorkelling spot. However, the water over the reef becomes quite shallow at low tide, so precautions must be taken not only to avoid cuts and scrapes but also ensure no coral – nowadays so vulnerable – is damaged.
The Kanniyai Hot Springs are 8km from Nilaveli. There are seven springs, which are more like wells in a small compound. The water is indeed warm and if large crowds are there it can be a fight to get your hands on the bucket to dip into the well. It is a public mixed bathing area - a sarong, shorts or swimming costume is required. There are several Hindu legends surrounding the creation of the wells. Some believe it was due to Vishnu, others that it was legendary King Ravana of the epic poem Ramayana. Many Sri Lankan pilgrims – regardless of religion –visit the hot springs early in the morning to bathe before proceeding to worship at the Tirukoneswaram kovil in the fort of Trincomalee. It is also believed the waters have therapeutic value especially for those with body aches associated with conditions like arthritis and rheumatism.
Another site of interest is the carefully maintained Commonwealth War Cemetery at Uppuveli. Buried at this memorial are Allied service personnel who lost their lives during the Japanese aerial attack on Trincomalee in April 1942. If the caretaker or his wife is around they will show the register that lists all those buried there, including members of the crew of HMS Hermes, the firat purpose built aircraft carrier that was sunk by Japanese planes north of Batticaloa.
Almost equally represented in number, communities of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims live in Trincomalee. You will notice the particular characteristics of each group in various parts of the town from the obvious Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils and Islamic mosques to the chosen dress and language of locals. This diversity, together with its history, makes Trinco an absorbing place to spend a few days.
A highlight is Fort Frederick. For an introduction into its colourful history read the plaque on the entrance gate archway – the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British jostled for it from 1623 until 1895, when the British captured it for good.
The fort is still being used by the military, though one can walk through it. Inside it is shady with huge banyan trees providing the comforting canopy. At the top of Fort Frederick is Swami Rock and the Tirukoneswaram Kovil, an ancient Hindu temple. It’s gorgeous location high above the sea - you should visit between a 4.30pm and 6.30pm..
Stand behind the kovil and look over the edge down to the sea some 100m below and watch the colourful fishing boats come in close to the rocks with burning incense on the bow, the fishermen saying a small prayer, some of them smashing a coconut against the rocks for extra blessings.
The original kovil, said to have been built thousands of years BC, was demolished in the early part of the 17th century by the Portuguese who pushed it over the edge of the cliff into the sea. The temple’s focus point for devotion is the phallic symbol for Shiva, the lingam.
Visitors to Trinco are easily enraptured by the region’s quiet beaches that it makes it difficult to think about anything other than lazing in the sand, swimming, water-sports such as diving, or going on a whale-watching expedition. However, as with most places in Sri Lanka, a little exploration can uncover any number of treasures.
For instance, try the magnificent ruins of Velgam Vihara, built around 1st AD, and 13km west of the town. Among the ruins are the remains of a large dagoba and several other structures, including at least two small Buddha statues. The site was declared an archaeological reserve in 1934.
The curved sandy bay is wide and long. There are no big hotel complexes towering over the beach, which at many places is lined with a multitude of brightly coloured fishing boats. That there are empty spaces between restaurants and guesthouses is striking when you have been used to seeing how crowded and developed most west and southern coast beach spots are.
During May to October, which is dry season on the east coast, the bay becomes safe for swimming, and best for surfing. There are some beautiful coral reefs and an unbelievable number of tropical fish to be seen in and around the area where the best snorkelling, on a calm day, is on the southern tip of the bay.
There are no dive shops in Arugam Bay but you may be able to organize a tour with qualified PADI instructor in advance. There are some Dutch and Portuguese shipwrecks to explore that are home to a wide variety of marine life.
Of course surfing IS Arugam Bay, and the area offers a variety of right-hand point breaks that delight even the most experienced surfers. Access to surfing spots can be arranged from guesthouses where you will also be able to hire surfboards if you don’t have your own.
Two kilometres from Arugam Bay is the beautiful mangrove ecosystem of the Pottuvil Lagoon. The tour, by traditional outrigger canoe, lasts two hours and lets you get very close to the abundance of wildlife the mangrove has to offer.
There are two national parks close to Arugam Bay. Lahugala is 12km from Pottuvil - you will probably pass through it on your way to Arugam Bay. Here you can see very large herds of elephants at dawn or at sunset. Yala East, 25km away, also contains elephants and some leopards. To the north-east of the park you can visit Kumana Bird Sanctuary.
Near Pottuvil Point in the jungle is the Magul Maha Viharaya, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist temple that was reconstructed in the 14th century and contains ruins that include a palace and a monastery.
|© Lankaeuro Group 2009|