Sri Lanka – Southern Beach Towns, Unawatuna and Galle
January 11, 2015 – January 14, 2015
After India we decided to journey a bit further south and check out Sri Lanka. Not originally on our country hit list, we had heard so many good things from other travelers that we decided to add it on to the list. After all Sri Lanka is only a short flight from India, and who knows when we will ever be in the area again, so we bought a plane ticket about a week in advance and were off.
We took a flight from Udaipur, India through Mumbai (Bombay), India and arrived early in the morning at Colombo’s new modern airport. From there we took a taxi to the city of Colombo, the small nation’s capital which sits roughly halfway down the island on the west coast. There we could board a train to our next destination on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Our timing worked out great and with our 5am flight arrival, we had no trouble making the 7am train.
In the space of just a few hours after arriving, Sri Lanka was already making great first impressions. Sri Lanka sits just off shore from India, and has so many similarities with India that most, including us, assumed it was just a smaller and more tropical version of India. However, for a nation which sits so close to to India, and does have many cultural similarities with India, Sri Lanka struck us as completely different.
From the moment we stepped out of the airport we noticed a pronounced lack of touts shouting at us, no taxi drivers hassling us, streets that were new, modern and clean. Roads that were not crowded with cars and cows and sidewalks, yes they actually have some sidewalks! (It’s the simple things you miss). For those that say Sri Lanka is like a smaller version of India, well I suppose it is, albeit a much less crowded and calmer and more welcoming one. We liked Sri Lanka right away.
Our first destination would be the beach towns on the south end of the island, and that meant taking a train from Colombo south along the coast. There are faster ways to head south like a private car or a bus but the trains are something we heard were not to be missed, particularly the coastal train from Colombo. We had seen the coastal train on the TV show “Amazing Race” and we could see why the coastal train is a destination in itself. It’s an old train and chugs along slowly, but when you look out the window you find yourself more than content with the slow speed. The tracks were built literally right along the coast and for the majority of the ride there is nothing between you and fantastic sea views save a few long stretches of perfectly untouched beaches. Occasionally you might spot a sunbather or a fisherman standing along the shore, but for around a hundred kilometers there is very little population other than a few small beach towns. If endless tropical beaches aren’t your thing or just get tiring after several hours you can look out the other side of the train and see endless stretches of lush green tropical forest, and if you look carefully enough you can see wild peacocks near the tracks.
The doors of the train cars are wide open for the whole journey and it is popular to stand in the doorway while the train is moving and hang out of the train, and check out the view like a dog riding in a car. Looking along the train from the outside you will see scores of other passengers doing the same. With an abundance of so many deserted beaches and bright blue water, we really got the feeling that Sri Lanka is an untouched tropical paradise.
Our first stop in southern Sri Lanka was Unawatuna. A small beach town set in a cove of calm bright green water ringed with beaches. The train stop was just a small mostly deserted platform along tracks surrounded by green jungle, and a small sign which read “Unawatuna”. There are many stops along the trains route and no announcements, and typically at the small stops the train will stop for a minute or even less, so keep track of where you are so you can get off in time. Downloading a map on your phone or even using GPS helps a lot! There were only a couple taxis waiting for someone to get off the train and when we asked them if they knew where our hotel was they all just stared at the name and address and scratched their heads. Again a good tip for Sri Lanka is to always print out or download a map on your phone of the local area, and to try to figure out exactly where you’re going as the Sri Lankan taxi drivers often don’t know which hotels are where, and giving them an address doesn’t help either as house numbers are seemingly random, with no discernible order, if you can see one at all. In all our time in Sri Lanka no taxi driver could ever make sense out of an address. If all else fails, give the taxi driver the telephone number of the hotel you are trying to find and they will get directions.
We had a rough idea where our hotel should be as it was supposed to be near the beach, and the beach could only be in one direction along the road so we elected to walk and when we were close enough (less than a block away) a passing taxi driver successfully pointed it out. Just a short time earlier in India, the thought of walking along a crowded road in search of our hotel with our large packs on would be a daunting task, fraught with pestering tuk-tuk drivers, beggars, touts, and shop owners following us for blocks. But here no one bothered us at all.
This small lazy beach town is popular with tourists and we saw many westerners walking the streets window shopping, eating at restaurants or just playing around on the beach. The beach in Unawatuna felt small and crowded, not exactly what we were expecting, but the water was beautiful and calm and the sun shining for some quality beach time.
At one end of the beach you can climb a small rise to a Buddhist temple and a huge statue of Buddha.
Galle – A Dutch Fortress along the sea
A short 10 minute bus ride from Unawatuna is the larger city of Galle, which dates back to the early European colonization attempts of the area. The principal attraction in Galle is the large Dutch fortress which encompasses the cities ‘old town’. The walls, towers and many colonial buildings are still standing and worth checking out. We made a day trip out of it, though you could easily spend several days exploring the fortress. You can even stay inside the fortress at one of the many hotels there. The fortress walls and Dutch colonial era sewage systems are all still in working order, in fact we learned that during the 2004 tsunami the high quality 300 year old Dutch walls helped block much of the incoming water and the Dutch drainage system which still works drained away all the water from inside. As a result the old town inside the fortress weathered the tsunami better than the new city outside.
You can walk along the walls and towers which surrounded the entirety of the old town and check out the great views of the water and city beneath you. Or you can stroll through the city’s maze of tiny streets which are filled with cafes and restaurants as well as dozens of art galleries and shops. There are also a few museums dedicated to the city’s colonial past.
After checking out the walls we went inside the fortress to explore the old city and get lunch. Sri Lankan food is similar to Indian food in that you typically get curry with rice. The typical meal in Sri Lanka is rice with a selection of around four different curries, dahl or lentil curry will always be one of them but the other options will often change from one restaurant or home to the next. I liked the Sri Lankan curries better than Indian curries because I thought they were usually sweeter and to me more flavorful, Krista liked the Sri Lankan curries as well but still liked the Indian curries better.
Sri Lanka made a great first impression with us and quickly turned out to be one of our new favorite countries, if not our most favorite country thus far. Great beaches, perfect weather, friendly people, cheap prices, and with only a handful of tourists around it definitely has a bit of an ‘undiscovered’ feel. With Sri Lanka being about as far away from North America as you can get, we got the feeling Americans were very rare there, guest houses were always surprised to hear where we were from. Most tourists we met were European, with a few from Asia and Australia.
After exploring Galle we returned to Unawatuna to relax again on the beach after our tiring 10 minute bus ride and set off the next day to our next beach destination of Mirissa, Sri Lanka.