Friday, 18 September 2015

Hikkaduwa and Negombo

I then did the short journey up the coast to the beach town of Hikkaduwa. Like Unawatuna, this long strip of beach has been exposed to uncontrolled development which has led to terrible erosion. What probably used to be palm trees has now given way to an almost unbroken string of guesthouses that compete to be the closest to the lapping waves. The unfortunate result is that in some parts the sand has almost completely disappeared. Some of the guesthouses are holding back the water with nothing more than sandbags and grim hope. 

Hotels on the Hikkaduwa beach front

That being said though, in some places there are wide expanses of sand and it remains one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist destinations. The surf is good and there are always board riders out just waiting for the next perfect wave to ride. There is a coral sanctuary a few hundred metres from the shore which is popular with snorkelers and glass-bottom boats tours. It is also scuba diving season so there’s plenty to do apart from working on your tan. Away from the beach there is a temple to visit and a long line of souvenir shops and restaurants all vying for the tourist dollar.

Buddhist temple, Gangarama Mahavihara

After 40 days of fairly intense travelling this was finally an opportunity to slow right down and enjoy my last couple of days in the subcontinent. I stayed at a nice little place right on the beach. Literally right on the beach… So time was spent relaxing, swimming and late in the afternoon playing some beach volleyball with the local boys. To compliment all that, the sunsets over the ocean here are beautiful and the evenings bring on a new atmosphere that isn’t there in the heat of the day.

Five hours travel up the coast after completing a transit through Colombo was my final destination of Negombo. This modest beach town receives a significant number of tourists simply because of location just 10km from the airport. For many it is the ideal place to either begin or end your Sri Lankan journey. That aside, it’s a historically interesting place and was at one stage one of the country’s most important sources of cinnamon. For the more natural-minded there is also a lagoon, canals and the beach. 
Fish drying in the sun at the local market
The Dutch captured the town from the Portuguese in 1640 and built a large fort to protect it. All the remains today is a crumbling wall and gateway with the date 1678 inscribed into it. The actual fort area is now the town’s prison which somehow doesn’t seem like the most appropriate use of such a notable place. Nearby is the bustling fish market which was a hive of activity, even though most of fish are sold early in the morning. It’s a smelly place and you have to watch your step in places but certainly worth the visit.

Also in the same area is a rather rundown place ironically called the New Guest House. Perhaps in 1958 it was new and in much better condition because it is where Queen Elizabeth II stayed during her visit to the town. Negombo is strongly influenced by Catholicism (the town is sometimes referred to as “Little Rome”) and is dotted with churches. The most impressive of these is St Mary’s with its beautiful stain glass windows and amazing paintings that cover the ceiling above the nave.

One of the Dutch canals
A couple of kilometres to the north of the town area is Negombo Beach. The Dutch showed their love of canals here like nowhere else in the country. In the surrounding area they extend distance of over 120km. I followed one of them toward the beach which was a pleasant walk. The beach itself…well, let’s just say it’s not that alluring. Rather polluted looking water whipped up by a strong breeze pounded into sand that wasn’t without some litter strewn along it. A few brave souls were in the water but only a few. And I wasn’t one of them.

I finished my day trip with a late afternoon stroll around the much prettier lagoon. It’s a good place for bird watching and also important for the local fishing industry. Most of the catches come from the open sea but the lagoon is renowned for its lobsters, prawns and crabs. As the sun dipped toward the horizon it brought an end to this extraordinary journey. As I imagined it’s one that has included many amazing sights, sounds, smells and tastes. With only the most rare exceptions, the people that I’ve encountered in both countries have been invariably warm, friendly, helpful and charming. 
Negombo Lagoon

This is one of the reasons people love travelling the subcontinent and want to return again. When I was in Kandy I met a man from Denmark who told me that it’s the middle of winter back home. Days are gloomy and cold. As an escape, he’d come to Sri Lanka on holiday for the past three years. He told me it’s a country with centuries of rich history, a beautiful climate, diverse and very scenic landscapes, delicious food and lovely people. “Why would I want to be anywhere else?” he asked me. To that question, I couldn’t give him any answer. Why not indeed!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Sri Lankan southern coast

Unawatuna itself is all about the beach but to be honest it’s not ideal for swimming, especially for tourists with young children. Waves crash in with surprising force and get sucked out again by an even stronger undertow. It can be fun though lying in the shallows and letting the water move you up and down the sand. I shouldn’t laugh but I watched the hilarious sight of a woman being knocked off balance by the water and as she stumbled around desperately trying to stay upright crashed into her husband sending them both into the surf! 

Despite being a popular tourist destination, it’s an idyllic place and it’s difficult to imagine the horror that must have occurred on Boxing Day 2004. Although reconstruction happened faster here than any other place in Sri Lanka you can’t help but feel some mistakes have been made. Some of the guesthouses are so close to ocean that during big tides there’s almost no beach left in places because the water is virtually at their doorstep. With the subsequent erosion that is caused, they could be washed away a second time within a few years! 

Jungle Beach

I did a hike over to more isolated Jungle Beach. As the name would suggest, it’s where lush green bush descends down a hill to meet a crescent of sand that warm, clear water gently laps onto. It’s a lovely place where I had a swim and sat under a palm tree for a while. This little touch of paradise isn’t exactly a well-kept secret though and as more people arrived I began my hike back. The walk took me past a huge white Peace Pagoda and a nearby temple adorned with large sitting and standing Buddha images.

This was a day where I wasn’t in a hurry and it gave me an insight into how delightful the Sri Lankan people are. The first man I met was a guesthouse owner with a remarkable knowledge of New Zealand so we chatted for a while sipping coconut milk from his fridge. When I lost my way going back through the jungle I asked a local man for some help. Before giving me directions he asked if I’d like to come in and have some tea with his wife and sister. They were a lovely family and although they wanted me to stay for some curry rice I had to keep going.

Sri Lankan family

My destination was the interesting Weherahena Temple, a few kilometres from Matara. It’s most striking feature is the 39-metre high sitting Buddha that overlooks the complex from one end. It is huge and looks magnificent after a repaint just a few months ago. Aside from that, there is a large underground chamber and hallways adorned with numerous colourful murals along the walls and across the ceilings. It’s an extraordinary place to visit and made even better by being able to ascend the stairs behind the Buddha to a viewing platform near his head. 

Weherahena Temple

I finished my day at Mirissa Beach which is where I had considered staying a few days prior. It’s similar to Unawatuna but development seems to have been more respectful to the natural shoreline. As a result, there is a broader expanse of sand to enjoy and it has swaying palm trees along much of its length. I had another swim and by coincidence, met up with a couple that I’d previously spent time with in Haputale. We had dinner together before I caught one of the regular buses that ply the southern coastal road towards Galle.

Mirissa Beach

My friends laughed when my dinner came out from the kitchen. From the pizza list that included sausage, ham, mushroom etc I chose pineapple. I thought it was a bit odd that they asked if I’d like honey on it but thought it seemed an interesting idea. When my meal arrived I just stared for a moment at what I’d been given. My ‘pizza’ was chunks of deep fried pineapple topped with vanilla ice cream! And the honey. It would have been a great dessert but I wanted real pizza that comes in a cardboard box and eaten while wearing pyjamas in front of the TV.

Stilt Fisherman

The following morning I visited the village of Koggala to see the iconic sight of the stilt fishermen. In this ancient fishing method, they sit on a cross bar called a petta which is attached to a vertical pole driven into the reef. Although it can't be very comfortable they sit holding their fishing rod in one hand and the pole with the other. Generally speaking, it is out of season and those that still do it generally use the very early morning or late afternoon. So I wasn't hopeful of seeing too much but I was fortunate to find one of them when I was there. He even reeled in a little fish while I stood and watched.

Friday, 4 September 2015


It was then a long day of bus travel down to the southern coast. The estimated six hours stretched to over eight by the time I finally reached my destination. When I started that morning I didn’t even know exactly where I’d end up. I had a couple of days up my sleeve and there are a number of beach towns along the coast that I could have chosen. I eventually decided that Unawatuna was the best option because the name has such a ring to it. Well, actually more because it has a lovely curving stretch of beach and its close proximity to Galle but the name is just great isn’t it?

Unawatuna Beach

My final challenge in the gathering gloom was to find a place to stay which I knew wasn’t going to be easy. It’s peak tourist season now but after some searching, I found myself a nice room at a very reasonable rate. Staying in Galle itself is quite expensive so I thought why not have the best of both worlds? The city within a ten minute bus ride but cheaper accommodation and the beach to welcome me home after a hot, sweaty day’s sightseeing. The steamy heat of the coastal lowlands has been quite different to the fresh mountain air I’d become used to in the Hill Country!

Galle reminds me a little of Melaka in Malaysia because of its rich maritime history and occupation through various periods by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The older part of the city is built within the fort walls and is a wonderful collection of Dutch colonial buildings, little boutique shops, cafes, hotels, churches, a mosque, library, museums and a few commercial buildings. Unlike the typical Sri Lankan tangle that is the new town, these streets are blissfully quiet and atmospheric. 

Character buildings and quiet streets of Galle Fort
The 36-hectare fort covers most of the promontory that is the original part of Galle. I climbed up onto the massive walls and walked a complete circuit of the fort. Starting at the main gate, I passed the original old gate and a number of bastions located at strategic points. It was interesting to note how the part of the wall facing inland was the most heavily fortified. 350 years after its construction through it all remains very robust and this was proven when it protected the old quarter during the 2004 tsunami. In contrast, the new town and much of the surrounding coastline was devastated.

Walls of the old Galle Fort

Historically, the most interesting building in the fort is the Dutch Reformed Church that was completed in 1755. The floor is paved with gravestones from the old Dutch cemetery, with the oldest dating from 1662. I’m not sure that it is still used but the original pipe organ from 1760 sits in the church and the pulpit is made from Malaysian wood that would have been brought to Sri Lanka on a trading ship. Next door to the church is the Amangalla Hotel built in 1684 to house the Dutch governor and officers. 

Bell Tower and Dutch Reformed Church
History abounds at almost every corner you turn in this wonderful place. There is a bell tower built in 1901 and a slab over the doorway to the Dutch Government House bears the date 1683. There is an old shipping office with a beautifully preserved 19th century ship arrival board on the front wall. The National Museum (yes, another one) was closed but I did visit the Maritime Museum. This has been renovated recently and just reopened again a couple of years ago. I found it to be more museum than maritime but the displays were well put together anyway.