Sprawling NEGOMBO is of interest mainly thanks to its proximity to the international airport, just 10km down the road – many visitors stagger off long-haul flights straight into one of the beach hotels here, or stay here as a last stop before flying home. Negombo’s beach is very wide in places, but rather shabby compared to the more pristine resorts further south, although the surrounding resort area is often one of the liveliest places around the coast if you’re in search of cheap beer and late nights. A couple of miles south of the beach, Negombo Town offers an interesting introduction to coastal Sri Lankan life, with a lively fish market, a dash of olde-worlde colonial charm and hundreds of colourful wooden boats.
The hordes of international tourists who descend on the town annually are merely the latest in the long line of foreign visitors who have done so much to shape Negombo’s decidedly cosmopolitan history. The town was one of the first to be taken by the Portuguese, who converted many of the local Karavas, and the area remains a stronghold of Christian Sri Lanka, as borne out by the imposing churches and florid wayside Catholic shrines scattered about the town and its environs. The Dutch transformed Negombo into an important commercial centre, building a canal (and a fort to guard it) on which spices – particularly the valuable cinnamon which grew profusely in the surrounding areas – were transported from the interior to the coast prior to being shipped abroad. Nowadays much of the town’s economy revolves around tourism, although fishing also remains vitally important, with the sea providing plentiful supplies of tuna, shark and seer, while the Negombo lagoon, backing the town, is the source of some of the island’s finest prawns, crabs and lobster.
The people of Negombo are Karavas, Tamil and Sinhalese fishermen who converted en masse to Catholicism during the mid-sixteenth century under the influence of Portuguese missionaries, taking Portuguese surnames and becoming the first of Sri Lanka’s innumerable de Silvas, de Soysas and Pereras.
The Karavas are also famous for their unusual fishing boats, known as oruwas, distinctive catamarans (a word derived from the Tamil ketti-maran) fashioned from a hollowed-out trunk attached to an massive sail. Hundreds of these small vessels remain in use even today, and make an unforgettable sight when the fleet returns to shore.
Local boatmen sometimes hang out on the beach touting for custom and offering pricey oruwa trips either out to sea or into the Negombo lagoon. Some guesthouses and tour operators arrange boat trips along the Dutch canal north of Negombo. These usually include a visit to a coir factory and some low-level birdwatching along with the chance to watch local toddy tappers at work, and perhaps to sample some of the resulting brew – Negombo’s very own booze cruise. None of these trips, however, is as interesting at the boat ride through the nearby Muthurajawela wetlands.
The watersports and diving centre between the Jetwing Beach and Jetwing Blue hotels offers diving, sailing, surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing tuition, and also has kayaks, sailing boats, boogie-boards and other equipment for hire. Diving can also be arranged through Colombo Divers. Negombo is particularly good for kitesurfing (best Jan–March), including a fine, 8km-long downwinder along the coast from Waikkal to Negombo.
There’s heaps of accommodation in Negombo, ranging from inexpensive guesthouses through to a growing range of chic modern resorts – although some of the cheaper hotels remain stuck very much in the 1970s, catering to an endless supply of all-inclusive package tourists who appear to demand nothing more of Sri Lanka than cheap beer, execrable quasi-European cuisine and ping-pong tournaments. Most of the budget places are in Lewis Place, at the southern end of the beach area; more upmarket options are concentrated to the north along (or just off) Porutota Rd in the suburbs of Ettukala and Palangatura. The landmark Brown’s Beach Hotel had been demolished at the time of writing; it will eventually be rebuilt and reopen as a posh new five-star in around 2014. All the places listed below appear on the Negombo Beach map.
Negombo has one of Sri Lanka’s better selections of places to eat – although disappointingly, most are strung out along the main road, rather than on the beach itself, and the majority are identikit tourist dives with largely undistinguished cooking and ambience. The town’s proximity to the Negombo lagoon, source of some of the island’s finest prawns and crabs, also makes it a good place for seafood. All the places below appear on the Negombo Beach map apart from the Icebear Century Café and New Rest House, which are shown on the Negombo town map. Some restaurants close down in the sleepier months from May to October.
During the season, Negombo is usually the liveliest of the west coast resorts, with most action concentrated along the northern end of the strip around the Rodeo bar and Pub Sherry – about as rowdy as Sri Lanka gets, which isn’t very.
There are a number of low-key attractions scattered around Negombo including the fine wetlands of Muthurajawela, the Henerathgoda Botanical Gardens and a couple of temples, any of which make for a pleasant half-day excursion.
North of Negombo, the coastline becomes increasingly rocky and wild, with narrow beaches and crashing waves that make swimming impossible for most of the year. Not surprisingly, the area remains largely undeveloped, although there are a cluster of appealing places to stay just north of Negombo in peaceful Waikkal. Heading north brings you to the bustling fishing town of Chilaw and the interesting Munnesvaram Temple, one of the island’s most important Hindu shrines, while further up the coast the idyllic Kalpitiya Peninsula is home to the island’s best dolphin-watching and a superb cluster of small-scale eco-resorts on beautiful Alankuda Beach – which also provide a convenient jumping-off point for the nearby Wilpattu National Park.
Occupying a vast swathe of land stretching all the way up to the border of the Northern Province, Wilpattu National Park is the largest in Sri Lanka, and was formerly the most popular until the onset of the civil war, when its position straddling the frontline between Sinhalese and Tamil areas led to the widespread destruction of local infrastructure and killing of wildlife. The park finally reopened in 2009 and its wildlife is now gradually recovering, although the effects of long-term poaching mean that the overall density of wildlife remains significantly lower than in parks such as Yala, Uda Walawe and Minneriya, although there’s a small but significant chance of spotting the leopards and sloth bears for which the park was once famous, not to mention elephants, deer, and many types of bird. Equally, the lack of visitors and the size of the area open to visitors (around eight times larger than that at Yala, for instance) means that it’s also supremely peaceful compared to many other parks.
An unusual feature of Wilpattu’s topography are its numerous villus. These look like lakes (indeed the park’s name derives from villu-pattu, “Land of Lakes”), though they’re actually just depressions filled with rainwater which expand and contract with the seasons, attracting a range of water-birds and wildlife.
According to legend, Munnesvaram temple was established by none other than Rama himself, after he defeated and killed Rawana, as related in the Ramayana. Following the final battle with Rawana, Rama was returning to India in his air chariot (the Dandu Monara, or “Wooden Peacock” – often claimed to be the earliest flying machine in world literature – whose stylized image formerly adorned the tailfins of all Air Lanka planes) when he was overcome by a sudden sense of guilt at the bloodshed occasioned by his war with Ravana. Seeing a temple below he descended and began to pray, whereupon Shiva and Parvati appeared and ordered him to enshrine lingams (symbolic of Shiva’s creative powers) in three new temples: at Konesvaram in Trincomalee, Thirukethesvaram in Mannar, and at Munnesvaram.
The belief that these three temples were thus established by Rama – an incarnation of the great Hindu god Vishnu – lends each an additional aura of sanctity, though the fact that they were created to enshrine a trio of lingams serves as a subtle piece of propaganda asserting the superiority of Shiva over his greatest rival in the Hindu pantheon. The paradox is that, despite Sri Lanka’s close association with Vishnu in his incarnation as Rama, almost all the island’s Hindu temples are dedicated to Shiva, or to deities closely related to him, and hardly any to Vishnu himself.