The number one beach destination in Sri Lanka, the sleepy fishing hamlet Unawatuna has a mythical and historical past, which makes it a very special place.
Was Unawatuna one of the beach paradises described in Valmiki’s epic Ramayanaya, as a “seashore dotted with thousands of trees, coconuts and palms dominating, strings of houses and hermitages along the coastline human beings and superior beings such as gandharvas, siddhas, and ascetics, living in them and countless bejeweled celestial nymphs thronging the shore, the coast intermittently visited by heavenly beings, gods and demons”?
Anyhow, Ramayanaya is definitely connected with this village. The legend has it that when the Monkey-warrior Hanuman was sent back to India to fetch the four medicinal herbs, mritasanjeevani, vishalyakarani, suvarnakarani and sandhani from Himalayas, to heal Lushman who was wounded in the great battle with Ravana to save the abducted Princess Sita, Hanuman fails to identify the herbs so he uproots that mount and ferries it to the battlefield, but a hunk of that “fell-down” here, forming the Rumassala Hillock, and the name of the village derives from Unna-watuna meaning “fell down”.
Now an edfice is being built for Hanuman on the harbour end of Rumassala Hill by some Japanese monks of the Mahayana sect.
Historical background of Unawatuna is that a banished Indian Prince was shipwrecked and the Goddess of Earth, Manimekala, taking pity created a rocky shelf for him to save his life and that subsequently he headed to Unawatuna. The Goddess of chastity, Pattini, created a wall of fire to prevent him coming ashore, but being a person of some supreme power, he set in motion a tidal-wave of the ocean with his foot and extinguished the fire and set foot on the shores of Unawatuna.
It is said that he lived in Unawatuna and helped the people in various ways and over the years he had been venerated and worshipped and the Kovil or the Devalaya on the west end point of the bay which has a history over thousand years is believed to be the abode of this Devol deity.
In later years a Buduge or House of Buddah and the Swethamalee Chaitiya or Dagoba was built on the hillock abbutting the Devalaya or House of Gods. Thousands of pilgrims throng to this place of worship every month of Esala to offer poojas. This fest is a new Rice offering so most cultivators bring a share of their crop and pray for timely rain and plentiful harvest. Some others save a fistful of rice from their daily meal and offer that rice, still others would purchase a few measures or even full gunnies of rice along with coconuts to offer.
This rice is pounded and mixed with coconut milk and treacle and made into a porridge which is then offered to the deities at the devalaya and given as alms to thousands of devotees who will trek to the devalaya for this alms giving or Maha Deva Dana or Kiri Dana. Fisher folk save and offer part of their earnings called “Goda kotasa” seeking protection on their forays into the ocean.
This year’s festival will be held for one week from Esala full moon day of 2003.
Yet another aspect is the colonial past, it is said that the Dutch, after defeating the Portuguese at the Fort of Negombo, sailed south and landed in Unawatuna in 1640 and marched to Galle. The Portuguese had encountered the Dutch soldiers at Magalle (near Closenburg Hotel) where fierce fighting took place. Over 400 Dutchmen were killed while only 49 Portuguese managed to get back to their fortification in Galle, where they were held in siege for four days before they surrendered.
The Dutch built houses for their officials in Unawatuna. The Nooit Gedatch hotel, Unawatuna Hospital and the mansion Maharambe are Dutch edifices. UBR hotel is situated on a land called Parangiyawatta, meaning “land of the Portuguese” and the area nearby is known as Jayakotuwa, suggesting there may have been some fortification.
The Galle tower or Edwards Pillar in Rumassala is believed to have been a fake lighthouse built during World War I and the area is shown as property of the British Admiralty in old survey maps.
Unawatuna is also rich in its biodiversity.
Unfortunately its greatest potential for Eco-tourism, the marsh land or mangrove called Kadolana, was completely destroyed, dredged and filled up to build a chain hotel. The hotel never got off the ground as most people believe it was damned, as it was being built at the door-step of the Wella Devalaya.
Over 60 species of endemic birds had been sighted in the locality by the ornithologist Clive Byers like Terns, Egrets, Herons, Sandpipers, Kingfishers and more rare Lesser Whistling Duck, Asian Palm Swift, White Breasted Waterhen, Turnstone Loten’s Sunbird, Black Bittern etc. They are mostly seen in the remaining marshy area and Rumassala Hillock.
Beneath the placid Indian Ocean lies wealth of underwater wonderment. The coral reefs, the shipwrecks, great variety of fish and the turtles who still wade on shore to lay their nests and at times going right into the beach front restaurants as if to lay first claim to the sandy shore now invaded by the tourists and restaurateurs.
Rumassala coral reefs at the east end of the Galle Harbor, now endangered with possible Port development is a unique treasure, more details in the website listed below. Eco treks in the shrub jungles of Rumassala bring one close to nature.
How to get there
Most visitors to Unawatuna make a beeline here from the BI Airport, Colombo, which is 150 kms away but would take over four hours by private vehicle or longer by public transport. Click here for a map.
Most uesthouses provide airport transfers, which is the best way to get out of the busy Colombo area without much hassle.
Air-conditioned transportation would cost US$45-50 for the trip. Charges at the Airport Taxi counters could be more depending on the arrivals and time of the day. By public bus, get to Pettah Central Bus Station and take an A/C bus to Galle (Rs.75) and take a tuk-tuk to Unawatuna (Rs.100). Or, take the Matara A/C bus (Rs.90) and get off at Unawatuna. You would perhaps be charged double if you have backpacks or other luggage on buses, no extra charges on trains.
When engaging “tuk-tuks” or 3 wheelers as they are known in Sri Lanka, deal directly with the driver, if you have a “hanger-on” you have a tout on your back and you’ll be “taken for a ride”.
Unawatuna Beach Resort is the only Tourist Board classified hotel.
Other Ceylon Tourist Board approved places are:
A Grade Guesthouses = Milton Hotel
B Grade Guesthouses = Seaview Guesthouse, Rumassala Hotel, Sun ‘n’ Sea, Dilena Beach Resort, Araliya.
However there is a choice of places on par with any approved hotel, and one can look into couple of places before settling down as most places are close by and it’s worthwhile to walk into the village without bunking down in the first place you visit.
Best accommodation is to be found in the Yaddehimulla area, which is the best residential area and also hugs the best part of the beach. Other areas are Ganahena and Pillagoda by the Main Road and Jayakotuwa which is rather congested.
Other Places Recommended in Guidebooks
Amma’s, Benny’s, Brink House, Black Beauty, Blue Eyes Inn, Eterna, Full Moon, Family Silva Guesthouse, Golden Ente, Happy Banana, Land’s End Holiday Inn, Ocean Bay, Ocean View, Rock House, Saadhana, Strand, Saffron, Village Inn, Weliwatta, Giragiri.
Operated or Co-owned by Foreigners
Blue Swan Inn, Hotel Cormorant, Green Lodge, Italian Dream House, Neptune, Three Fishes, Secret Garden.
Guesthouses Located Outside Unawatuna Bay Area
Nooit Gedatch, Sunshine inn, Point De Galle, Sri Gamunu, Shanthi, Sri Wijaya, and Paragon.
Unawatuna on the Web
Unawatuna Beach Resort
Homestay Strand – Colonial vintage villa
Surf’s Up! – Homepage on Unawatuna
Unawatuna – German language webpage
Secret Garden Villa – Meditation and Yoga
Diving in 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 south 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 Colombo 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.
Transfers from the airport to Colombo city center 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 3 Wheeler) for much less on your return. Direct journey to Unawatuna is Rs.3000-3500.
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 to 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 quite a few days considering you get about SLR 95+ for the dollar. Euro is now on par with the dollar.
Remember the entrance fee to the cultural places is $12-15 per site, to the National Parks $15 and the embarkation fee at the time of departure SLR 1000. If you travel independently in the comfort of an AC taxi you would then need to budget for more.
ATMs are available at most major cities and towns and accept Visa, Maestro, Mastercard and Cirrus. Travellers Cheques can be encashed at any bank in the island.