The countryside and coastline south of Arugam Bay is beautifully unspoilt. Buses run three times daily along the good tarmac road which rolls through rice paddies and scrub jungle as far as the dusty little village of PANAMA, 12km south of Arugam Bay. There are miles of superb deserted beach along this stretch, and a pair of huge rock outcrops popularly known as Elephant Rock and Crocodile Rock for their alleged resemblance to these creatures, though you’ll need a tuktuk (or 4WD) to reach them. Elephants are sometimes seen wandering in the vicinity. Panama itself has a fine, dune-backed beach, 1km south of town; to reach it, pass through the village and follow the road round to the left.
The road south of Panama is currently unsurfaced, although the dirt track is kept in reasonable condition and is usually passable in a 2WD (tuktuks make the journey with ease). The countryside here is almost completely uninhabited, and very similar in appearance to that of Yala (West) National Park, with extensive lagoons, scrub jungle and huge populations of aquatic birds, as well as occasional elephants and crocodiles.
Around a 45min drive from Arugam Bay, a turning on the right leads for 500m to reach the beautiful forest hermitage of KUDIMBIGALA, whose hundreds of caves are thought to have been occupied by Buddhist monks as far back as the first century BC.
From the car park, follow the path ahead of you (keeping the modern rock-top dagoba to your right) into the surrounding woodland, following the track as it squeezes through the trees and between enormous rock outcrops to reach, after about ten minutes, the Sudasharna Cave, a small white shrine half-covered by an overhanging rock outcrop bearing the faint remains of ancient Brahmi script next to an unusual little carving symbolizing the Triple Gem.
Following the path to the left of the cave leads after another ten minutes up to the Madhya Mandalaya (“Plain of Ruins”), with a small dagoba and other monastic remains scattered over a rocky hilltop. Alternatively, heading right from the cave brings you to the huge Belumgala, a towering rock outcrop topped by yet another small dagoba. Rock-cut steps lead to the top, a breathless ten-to-fifteen-minute climb, at the end of which you’ll be rewarded by one of the finest views anywhere in the east: a vast swathe of jungle dotted with huge rock outcrops running down to the sea, and with scarcely a single sign of human habitation in sight.
Yala East National Park
Yala East National Park (also known as the Kumana National Park) has recently reopened after extended closure during the war years, when it served as an LTTE hideout. The main attraction within the park is the Kumana Wewa tank and surrounding mangroves, home to an outstanding array of aquatic birds.
The 1883 tsunami
The 1883 tsunami
Contrary to popular belief, the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in 2004 was not the first the island has experienced in modern times. As recently as August 1883, the massive eruption of Krakatoa, between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, unleashed gigantic tidal waves that sped west across the Indian Ocean before reaching Sri Lanka. At Galle, a sequence of fourteen freak waves, each separated by a few minutes, was observed. The Ceylon Observer described the scene preceding the arrival of the waves, one eerily prescient of events 121 years later: “The sea receded as far as the landing stage on the jetty. The boats and canoes moored along the shore were left high and dry for about three minutes. A great number of prawns and fishes were taken up by the coolies and stragglers about the place before the water returned.” Further around the coast, a 3.5m-high wave hit Hambantota, while at Panama on the east coast “ships suddenly sunk downwards and were then drawn backwards to be left stuck in the drying mud, their anchors exposed – and just as suddenly were borne up by an inrushing surge of water. The local streams, with hitherto sweet water, all promptly turned salty for at least a mile and a half upriver” (as Simon Winchester describes it in his vivid account of the eruption, Krakatoa). What the 1883 tsunami mercifully lacked, however, was the destructive force of its 2004 counterpart. Only a single casualty was recorded in the entire island, at Panama, where a woman was swept away from the harbour bar – probably the unluckiest victim of a volcanic eruption more than 3000km distant.