Where to Start
Negombo – 8 km from the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake, and your possibe first pit stop if you hunger for the sea. Check out Lewis Place or Ettukala, crowded with restaurants like Coconut Primitive (Manageress, Anita Giezendanner), among the few run by Westerners. If you are German, you might want to stay at Kellmich Village (US$23+10% SC). Contact Manfred & Sharmalie Hellmich, Kreuz Str. 7 C, 4133, Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany (02845-58416). The beach is a bit dirty from the wear and tear of tourist use.
Mt Lavinia – A suburb of Colombo, wide beach, glorious sunsets, all of which makes Colombo SE Asia’s capital beach city.
Kalutara – Just 43 km. South of Colombo (CMB). Water aplenty – a river, a lagoon, sea.
Settle Down to the Sun
Sri Lanka’s short South West coast is really mile after mile of sultry beach. Shut your eyes, point to a map. Lead yourself to where you pointed. Chances are you wouldn’t hit these spots:
Beruwela – Broad, laid-back beaches, perennially safe. 55 km from CMB.
Bentota – Lazy river cruises, water sports. 64 km from CMB.
Ahungalla – A premier seaside resort.
Hikkaduwa – Coral reef, a favourite with snorkellers and scuba divers. Or, just wander around with a revealing glass-bottomed boat on hire instead. Many spirited restaurants. 99 km from CMB. Ambalangoda, where the distinctive Sri Lankan masks are made, is just a short drive away.
Galle – Live within the Dutch Fort if you chose heritage or at Unawatuna if you seek the sea. To journey into the Fort, click here.
Koggala – Long, lonely and lovely. 130 km from CMB.
Hambantota – The furthermost destination down the South West coast and gateway to the Yala National Park. 238 km from CMB.
Head for the Hills
Kandy – A repository of art, culture, religion and tradition. Must see, Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) which enshrines the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha. In late July or August, the streets come alive for the Esala Perahera, a pageant of dance and rythm. Or, simply walk around the wide Kandy lake, right in the middle of town. 116 km from CMB.
Nuwara Eliya – 1890 metres above sea level. Walk to Badulla Road from the bus stand to search for a hotel. Even has a golf course. Definitely the most convenient in Sri Lanka to find a hotel. I chose the New Blue Heaven Inn (tel. 052-23707) and discovered its owner Senaka Gunasekara to be the kind you would like to meet on a holiday. NE is distinctly colonial in character and the tea heartland. 180 km from CMB.
Sita Eliya the site of the only temple in the world dedicated to Sita, wife of Lord Rama, associated with the Indian epic the Ramayana is just 5 km from Nuwara Eliya. East of Nuwara Eliya is Kitulgala where the “Bridge on the River Kwai” was shot.
Bandarawela – Another agreeable hill resort. 197 km from CMB.
Catch Up With the Past
Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka’s ancient capital (206 km from CMB) with treasures like the Ruwanweliseya Stupa, one of the largest structures of the ancient world; the Isurumuniya Rock Temple; the Royal Twin Baths; and two huge irrigation tanks; stuff even Steven Spielberg couldn’t dream up.
Visit the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, Anuradhapura’s most venerated possession. It was grown from a sapling of the very Bo tree under which Gautama Siddhartha attained Buddhahood. Saturated in heritage.
Stay at the Samanala Tourist Guest House on Wasala Datha Mawatha (tel. 072-621384) and you could find its owner V.U. Bandula extremely helpful.
11 kms East of Anuradhapura is Mihintale regarded as the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The high rock site here is riddled with shrines, and has a stairway of 1,840 steps made of granite slabs 15′ wide leading to the summit. The view from above the Maha Seya Dagoba (entrance fee SLR 100) is stupendous.
Polonnaruwa – Was Sri Lanka’s capital after Anuradhapura and significantly better preserved than its predecessor. Visit the statues of Gal Vihara (entrance fee SLR 1080), the Parakrama Samudra tank and the monastic complex. 216 km from CMB.
Sigiriya – And the Rock Fortress (entrance SLR 1080). A 6th century fortress perched on a 200 metre high rock. Sigiriya (169 km from CMB) is possibly the most dramatic of Sri Lanka’s historic sites. On the western and northern sides of the steep rock face runs a gallery or pathway which provides access to the seemingly inaccessible nearly three acre wide summit. Shielding this pathway is a 9½ft plaster wall so highly polished that even today after fifteen centuries of exposure to the sun and rain one can see one’s reflection in it! Dambula, another historical site lies a short distance away.
The island, despite the fighting in the North East, is strangely as safe as any country on this planet can be for the tourist, its people extremely friendly and helpful. I felt an unspoken bonding on the road, a sort of “we appreciate your visit here despite our problems.”
I got a visa extension in quick time, an errand that could consume valuable hours elsewhere. In Negombo, a post office called the ‘Topaz Agency Post Office’ sold me an aerogramme at 8:30pm.
Perhaps, its smallness helps too, as you rarely find yourself travelling overnight. Mt. Lavina with its pick of moderate and expensive hotels or beach huts is a suburb of Colombo and yet insulated from the bustle of the city. Every other beach town right down to Hambantota on the South East coast is quickly accessible.
The Intercity Express from Negombo to KURUNEGALE and another onwards to Anuradhapura takes just 4½ hours. This is the best way to get there and to the ancient cities. The bus journey from the Pettah bus stand in Colombo to Negombo costs a mere SLR 25 for the 37 km journey. You don’t get hasseled by taxis, tuk tuks because low key tourism ensures that the island does not have a problem of too many.
I took the only Intercity Express (departure 730 am) from Nuwara Eliya to Matara and paid SLR 140 for the journey through the Up Country which stays that way till past Welimada. From here the bus progresses quickly down to the Low Country from Bandarawela in the Mid Country. It heads southwards to Hambantota on the SE coast and hugs the coast till Matara. An exhilarating drive down every conceivable countryside for a mere $2!
I took another bus ride from Matara to Galle and later to Colombo, halting at Bentota. Here I erred in alighting at the bus stand only to find that the beach resorts were mainly downtown in Bentota ie: South of the Bentota river. This is because the bus stand falls in Alutgama town, a 30-minute walk from the real Bentota. An item to remember in Bentota as well as Galle/Unawatuna.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.
Where Is It?
On the East coast of Sri Lanka, almost a stone’s throw from the southernmost tip of India. Click here for a map.
With a history that stretches back over 2500 years, it’s easiest to dwell straight into the interesting blend of varying influences Sri Lanka has seen for more than 600 years like the Islamic mosques, the Catholic, Dutch Reformed and Anglican churches.
The Dutch colonial style of architecture is very much in evidence, as are the special quarters for separate trades in Colombo Fort and Pettah. Yes, the Fort got its name from the former military garrison located here under the Dutch and British; today partly occupied by the Janadhipathi Mandiraya – the Sri Lankan President’s home. Nearby, the beautiful sandstone building which is the Presidential Secretariat – almost a replica of Whitehall in England.
The Pettah, bordering the Fort, its many criss-crossing roads selling anything from sarees to spices. One of these streets – Gabo’s Lane, still specialises in ayurvedic herbal medicines.
Click here for Sri Lankan hotels with websites.
Transfers from the airport cost between Rs. 650-1,000. This fare is for up to four persons travelling in an AC car. You can get an autorickshaw (aka Tuk Tuk) for much less on your return.
A train service also runs from the airport to the city and back. The railway also serves Kandy, Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya), Bandarawela (SE of Nuwara Eliya), Hikkaduwa, Galle, Matara, Negombo, Bentota (all beach resorts), Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa (in the Mid Country) and Batticaloa (on the eastern coast) and therefore makes for a tremendous journey.
You can even get an observation saloon on the ‘Podi Menike’ and ‘Udarata Menike’ trains to Kandy and Badulla. Contact the Railway Information Centre at the airport (tel. 0315-260).
The fare from Colombo Fort to Kandy is SLR 72 which gives you an idea of the fare structure. The island also has an efficient, friendly and cheap Intercity Express bus service of privately owned AC buses connecting every town. The tiny Japanese buses depart almost every half hour from all towns.
Click here for some great places to eat at low cost.
Sri Lanka has a five day week. In addition to to Saturdays and Sundays and special public holidays, the full moon (Poya) day of each month is a public holiday. All places of entertainment including cinemas and bars are closed on Poya day. Hotels arrange to serve you liquor on this day.
Click here for some of Sri Lanka’s more unusual attractions.
Foreign currencies exchanged in every town. You can however exchange Sri Lankan rupees only at the airport. It’s advisable therefore to change $100 bills at a time, which if you are a back packer and travelling every third day, can be stretched over 12-14 days considering you get about SLR 70-71 for the dollar.
Remember the entrance fee to the cultural places is $12-15 per site and the embarkation fee at the time of departure SLR 500. If you travel independently in the comfort of an AC taxi you would then need to budget for more.
The country is famous for gems and silverware. Goods purchased at the Duty-Free Complex in the Airport have to be paid in foreign currency.
Blue Sapphires, Cats Eyes, Rubies, Star Rubies, Star Sapphires, Alexandrites, Moonstones, Zircons, Garnets, Amethysts, Topaz, etc. can be bought at the
Sri Lanka Gem & Jewellery Exchange
310 Galle Road, Colombo 3
Tel. 576144-46, 574274, 574361.
A free gem testing service is provided to tourists.
60, York Street, Fort
A handicrafts emporium run by the State. Check out the handicrafts made in wood, brass, silver, rush and reed, natural fibre, papier mache, buffalo horn, coconut shell, cane and bamboo.
Lionel Messias is a journalist based in Hyderabad, India and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org