The expressway from Negombo to Colombo would surprise many who think Sri Lanka is all congested roads, lorries battling for space with three wheelers, cows, crowds, crowds and more crowds. Instead what you’ll experience if you’re driving in from the airport is a two lane highway almost free of traffic, like a movie showing 1950’s motorways in Britain before many people had cars.
Then we hit Colombo and all that ends, temporarily, as we negotiate the busy roads of the city. Here you’ll find the congestion, the stereotypical controlled chaos. I wouldn’t like to drive there myself I think as we jolt to a halt for the third time in five minutes, I’d have an accident for sure but Vikkee, my driver, negotiates it all with ease and deals with the many sudden stops, swerves and near misses without a hint of road rage.
We’re through the city within an hour and the expressway begins again, taking us south. Again we have the two lane highway almost to ourselves and we make excellent time to Galle. The old three hour journey via the coastal road now takes nearer an hour. It’s temping to ease off the gas, though, as apart from the odd service station the roadside scenery is glorious; lush green hills, dotted with tea and rubber estates, cinnamon trees and palms as far as you can see.
We could have stayed on the fast road until Matara but we leave it at Galle and take the coast road instead. It’s more crowded, although nowhere near the roads through Colombo are, but the advantage is that we can stop at a few of the many beaches that grace this stretch of coast.
Galle itself has no beach to speak of but it’s worth a few days of anybodies time; the old city has a timeless, unique atmosphere whilst the sunset from the Dutch ramparts is one of the best I’ve seen, anywhere in the world.
South of Galle you come first to Unuwatuna, a pristine sweep of sand hidden behind the ramshackle shopfronts that line the main road. We didn’t stop here today, I’d had a week at Unawatuna a few years ago and so wanted to explore other places but if you’ve not yet visited then you must. Just take earplugs; it’s a laid back place during the day but at night the bars can get loud!
The road hugs the coast from now on…
…and we soon stopped again to enjoy the beach at Weligama, first opposite the island of Taprobane (where the writer Paul Bowles used to live)…
…and then further on to watch four local teams playing beach cricket.
They’ve held an annual mini competition here for the last three years, a lad told me. Each side gets four overs and play is stopped every seventh wave to reset the bales after the ‘pitch’ is swept over.
‘Waves stop play!’ Brilliant. The offside fielders were up to their waist whilst the nearside were among the crowds as space between beach and main road was limited. I sat and watched the quarter final. I was a little perplexed as to how a four team tournament can have anything other than semi’s and a final, but it was a cracking game all the same.
We had a chance to stop and photograph the famous stilt fishermen, Vikkee cut the engine and I considered it but the idea felt empty to me. The guys are well known from every tourist brochure and I can see why, they make an unusual and quite beautiful sight. And they don’t earn much from their fishing so it’s easy to see why they might charge tourists for taking photos of them. But there they were, sat on top of their stilts in the waves, holding their fishing rods whilst a couple of lads waited on the shore to land any tourists who happened to point their camera in that direction, and I couldn’t see the point of paying to get photos of people I’d never even spoke to – photos that won’t be anywhere near as good as the hundreds that talented local photographers, who have time to wait for the right lighting conditions – have already taken. Far better to wait for a more personal encounter, such as the cricket game, to make photos to remember, in my opinion. Or perhaps stay with one of the fishermen, if you can, get to know them, then your memories will be of more than a financial exchange (perhaps there’s room for LSR to sort such a homestay out).
We continued south past Mirissa (another great, mostly empty beach where I’ve spent happy times before and thoroughly recommend)…
…to Tangalle, a town with a picture postcard sweep of sand overlooked by palms and a few low key restaurants. The road is five metres above it although once on the beach the surf drowns out the sound of traffic. A single European family played in the waves, I had the rest of the beach to myself. The swimming was excellent and at a different time of year, Vikkee told me, when the monsoon has passed, the bay is swimming-pool calm.
We cut slightly inland to approach Hambantota, a sleepy town no more than eight years ago but now the centre of a huge development push (the entire Sri Lankan government may well move here from Colombo is the near future).
The conference hall, the first impressive building that greets you on the town outskirts, probably won’t be of any interest to most tourists but the salt pans caught my eye. I’d never seen salt being made before and here you can see great mounds of the hard, white crystals piled up beside the shallow man-made seawater lakes.
Opposite the salt lakes stand the ruins of houses destroyed by the tsunami. The roofless buildings still have their bright wall colours – pinks, greens, blues and yellows – but trees sprout where furniture once stood and nobody lives here now, the survivors were moved to the new housing project not far from the conference hall.
Hambantota isn’t a tourist destination in itself but the old port, full of blue fishing boats, has it’s moments and the ocean view from the hill behind the navy port, near the monument, is pleasant enough. The act of moving the entire government here, which the current president hopes to do, reminds me of the ancient Egyptian Akhenaten moving his entire court from Karnak to a purpose built city further north on the Nile, where he abolished most of the old gods and insisted everybody just worship the sun. His new city lasted just twenty years as after he died the priests moved everything back to Karnak (and brought back the old gods) but then again, the Sri Lankan president isn’t making everybody change their religion so who knows, maybe his plan will work.
The monsoon clouds closed in as we drove to our accommodation for the night, the Uva Kuda Oya Cottages, through forest where clearings held small plantations of papaya and banana trees.
At the end of a quiet road, the sort that you really need a 4 x 4 to handle, the bungalows stand among forest on the edge of what is usually a lake. Friendly dogs licked my hands as I looked over the barren lake-bed.
The monsoon hadn’t delivered rain this far south yet so the lake that attracts wild elephant to bathe in and drink from was at the moment just a sandy depression across which five peacock roamed. A rock squirrel looked at me as I sat on my balcony; the sun set and the peacock called.
My room was basic but had electricity, a fan, comfy beds with mosquito nets and a clean bathroom complete with washbasin, toilet and shower. The water was coolish but anything hotter really wouldn’t be appropriate in such a humid climate. The caretaker keeps pigeon in a large coup and the restaurant is surrounded by paddy fields. It’s a fine place to get away from it all.
Dinner was superb. I asked for vegetarian and they brought me enough rice for a party of four then dishes of dhal, potato curry, soya meat and onion salad with crispy pappadam; there was a good range of textures and subtle, totally organic tastes. Then for dessert came the regions specialty; fresh buffalo milk curd with local honey (the honey was kept in an old unmarked brandy bottle). It wasn’t artificially over-sweet as is often the case with western desserts and it had a firm texture. I generally try to stay clear of any animal products but the honey was collected from the nearby forest and the buffalo looked to be living nice lives in the next field so I gave it a go, and was pleased that I did.
I got back to the room and found two frogs had replaced a lizard in the toilet, hiding under the lid. I used the bidet hose to send them away and they found a drier spot from which they croaked as I dropped off to sleep. It was like sleeping in a swamp, but in a nice way; all the atmosphere, none of the discomfort.
We left early the next morning but for those following after me I’d advise staying two nights at the Uva Kuda Oya Cottages and have one day purely for walking around the immediate area. You’ll get great portrait photos and you’ll meet people who don’t work in the tourist trade but who are as thrilled to see you as you are them. Here are the people who worked at the cottages; they don’t look too happy but that’s because they hardly ever see cameras here so I think posing for me must have been a little unsettling for them and also, I had little time to communicate with them so our meeting was rather rushed, which probably didn’t help them relax. But they were super friendly, lovely people and I’d advise you stay with them longer if you can, I’m certain you won’t regret it!
Part two of the journey, dealing with our visit Katagarama Temple among other things, is coming soon!
In the meantime, if you’d like to take the same tour as I did, with LSR, please visit their website at http://www.lsr-srilanka.com/