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Sri Lanka Travel Guide

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.


Rock Fortress

The Rock Fortress


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.

Getting About


Buddhist temple in Dambulla

Buddhist temple in Dambulla


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.

Questions?
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.

General Information

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.


Fast Lane
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.

Accommodation
Click here for Sri Lankan hotels with websites.

Transport
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.

Cheap Eats
Click here for some great places to eat at low cost.


Holidays
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.

The Unusual
Click here for some of Sri Lanka’s more unusual attractions.

Money
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.


Treasure Hunt
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.

Laksala
60, York Street, Fort
Colombo 1
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.

The Author
Lionel Messias
Lionel Messias is a journalist based in Hyderabad, India and can be emailed at tigon@sify.com

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Sri Lanka Travel Guide

General Facts
Unawatuna
The number 1 beach destination in Sri Lanka, the sleepy fishing hamlet Unawatuna has a mythical and historical past, which makes it a very special place.

Mythical Legend
Was Unawatuna one of the beach paradises described in ValmikiÂ’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 his great battle with Ravana to save the abducted Princess Sita, he 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”.

Historical Past
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.

Dagoba
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 on 14th of August 2000.

Colonial Glory
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.

Unawatuna Beach
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.

Eco-Tourism
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.

Turtle
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.

The 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 guesthouses 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.80-100). 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”.

Accommodation
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.

Unawatuna Bay
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 its 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.

Operated or Co-owned by Foreigners
Blue Swan Inn, Hotel Cormorant, Green Lodge, Italian Dream House, Neptune, Thaproban, 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
  • Sadhana – Private home
  • Homestay Strand – Colonial vintage villa
  • Surf’s Up! – Homepage on Unawatuna
  • Unawatuna – German language webpage
  • Rumassala Reef – The endangered Coral Reef in Unawatuna

    General Information

    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.


    Fast Lane
    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.

    Accommodation
    Click here for Sri Lankan hotels with websites.

    Transport
    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.

    Cheap Eats
    Click here for some great places to eat at low cost.


    Holidays
    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.

    The Unusual
    Click here for some of Sri Lanka’s more unusual attractions.

    Money
    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 77-78 for 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 500. If you travel independently in the comfort of an AC taxi you would then need to budget for more.

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