Many Europeans travel to the south coast of Sri Lanka for the sun, sea and sand and it’s easy to understand why. The stretch of beaches is almost endless and the Indian Ocean is not only warm but peacock blue.
I started my journey in the south at Tissamaharama (usually called Tissa) where Yala, the best known wildlife park in the country, is found. I then arranged for a driver and car to take me to Kataragama for a couple of hours before proceeding along the coast to Tangalla.
Kataragama is one of the most important religious sites in Sri Lanka and revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike. While it lacks the grand monuments that are found in the Cultural Triangle, and is really only a collection of modest shrines, it is still a pleasant site to visit. It was rather quiet the day I was there: a few children were being lathered in soap and dunked in the river that flows by; pilgrims were buying offerings of flowers and fruit at the usual assortment of shops. Monkeys caused the greatest stir, jumping onto the large trays of fruit being carried by pilgrims and taking off with their spoils.
I rather randomly chose Tangalla for my place in the sun in a rather funky cottage overlooking the Indian Ocean. The property had a pool and a restaurant offering very uneven service. It was outside the actual village, at the end of a very rough road, so I just stayed put for four days. There was an interesting mix of guests, some with young children, and despite its remoteness foreigners regularly stopped by hoping to find a room but none were available.
From there I went to Galle, my driver this time being a rather severe school vice-principal who wanted to practice his English. We passed the stilt fishermen, perched on a cross bar attached to a single pole anchored in the ocean floor who are distinctly Sri Lankan and probably earn more money from the tourists who want to take photos of them than from fishing. As we got closer to Galle, the hotels were larger and often crowded the road and there were suddenly many foreign tourists about. Some travellers make the beach town of Unawatuna their base but I knew that historic Galle would be a better fit for me.
The Portuguese, Dutch and British all had their day in Galle, the Dutch capturing it in 1640 and enlarging the fortifications that had been built by the Portuguese; the Brits having their turn starting in 1796 and erecting, among other structures, the clock tower. What was originally the Dutch quarter is known as the Fort and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today there is a strong Muslim influence: a large mosque stands opposite the lighthouse and the sale of alcohol is generally restricted.
There were many Chinese tourists, most seemingly in their 20s and 30s and carrying big cameras, the young women often in “pretty” dresses with their hair falling in curls. What does everyone do? Not much. Walk around the ramparts, particularly at sunset. Stroll along the uncongested streets. Stop for lunch at one of the trendy restaurants run by British expats. Watch kids play cricket on any available patch of grass.
I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the “other” Galle where the traffic is crazy. We stopped at the harbour to watch the fishermen returning with their catch of the day, which was sold at makeshift stalls along the highway.
Fishing has long been important in Sri Lankan life. As you travel along the coast you will see all manner of fishing crafts, many just weathered one-man canoes. The tsunami that struck the island in 2004 destroyed or damaged much of the fishing industry so there has been much rebuilding.
After Galle I travelled to Negombo, a fishing town and low-key resort near the international airport. I stayed in a simple but charming cottage owned by a Burgher who had left the country during the civil war. He engaged a tuk-tuk driver to take me around for a few hours, so that my last day in this wonderful country was in the company of fishermen and simple vendors. I shall return.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013