The south Travel Guide
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In many ways, the south encapsulates Sri Lanka at its most traditional. Stretched out along a great arc of sun-baked coastline from Galle in the west to Tissamaharama in the east, the area remains essentially rural: a land of a thousand sleepy villages sheltered under innumerable palms, where the laid-back pace of life still revolves around coconut farming, rice cultivation and fishing (the last still practised in places by the distinctively Sri Lankan method of stilt-fishing). Culturally, too, the south remains a bastion of Sinhalese traditions exemplified by the string of temples and giant Buddha statues which dot the coast, and by the colourful festivals celebrated throughout the region, which culminate in the exuberant religious ceremonies enacted nightly at the ancient shrine of Kataragama.
The south’s physical distance from the rest of the island, and from the hordes of Indian invaders who periodically overran the north, meant that the ancient kingdom of Ruhunu (or Rohana) – a name still often used to describe the region – evolved into one of the heartlands of traditional Sinhalese culture. In later centuries, despite the brief importance of the southern ports of Galle and Matara in the colonial Indian Ocean trade, Ruhunu preserved this separation, and with the rise of Colombo and the commercial decline of Galle and Matara in the late nineteenth century, the south became a relative backwater – as it remains, despite the more recent incursions of tourism.
The region’s varied attractions make it one of Sri Lanka’s most rewarding areas to visit. Gateway to the south – and one of its highlights – is the atmospheric old port of Galle, Sri Lanka’s best-preserved colonial town, while beyond Galle stretch a string of picture-perfect beaches including Unawatuna, Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalla. Nearby, the little-visited town of Matara, with its quaint Dutch fort, offers a further taste of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, while ancient Tissamaharama makes a good base from which to visit two of the country’s finest national parks: the placid lagoons and birdlife-rich wetlands of Bundala, and Yala, famous for its elephants and leopards. Beyond Tissamaharama lies the fascinating religious centre of Kataragama, whose various shrines are held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike.
A few kilometres east of Unawatuna, the beautiful and unspoilt beaches at DALAWELA and THALPE are becoming increasingly popular with visitors turned off by the hustle and bustle of Unawatuna. Dalawela is home to a handful of good mid-range guesthouses and hotels while a succession of high walls on the ocean-side of the Matara road at Thalpe, 2km further on, conceals a raft of luxury beachfront villas belonging to (mostly) foreigners and available for rent; there are also a few small upmarket hotels.
Accommodation aside, there’s very little to either village apart from the beach and a few clusters of fishing stilts – perfect for Robinson Crusoe types who enjoy counting palm trees and also hugely popular with Galle’s expats, who flock here for a trio of lively beach hangouts.
The section of coast between Dalawela and Ahangama is the best place to witness one of Sri Lanka’s most emblematic sights, stilt fishermen. The stilts consist of a single pole and crossbar planted out in the sea, on which fishermen perch while casting their lines when the currents are flowing in the right direction (most likely to happen between Oct and Dec, especially at sunset). Positions are highly lucrative thanks to the abundant supplies of fish, even close to shore, and are handed down from father to son.
Around 12km east of Unawatuna lies the small and unprepossessing town of KOGGALA, dominated by a pair of military themed constructions with two very different purposes: a military airbase, hurriedly built here during World War II against the threat of Japanese attack, and the spectacular new Fortress hotel. The town is also home to one of the island’s more rewarding museums, erected in honour of the famous Sinhalese writer Martin Wickramasinghe, and close to the fascinating Handunugoda Tea Estate and Kataluwa Purvarama Mahavihara temple, while Koggala lagoon is just a couple of kilometres away.
Close to the southernmost point of the island, the bustling town of MATARA (pronounced “maat-rah” the middle syllable is virtually elided) provides a taste of everyday Sri Lanka that may (or may not) be welcome if you’ve spent time in the coastal resorts. Standing at the terminus of the country’s southern rail line, the town is an important transport hub and a major centre of commerce – a lively place given a youthful touch by the presence of students from the nearby Ruhunu University. Matara preserves a few Dutch colonial buildings, an atmospheric old fort area and an attractive seafront (though you wouldn’t want to swim here). A couple of kilometres either side of town, the low-key beachside suburbs of Polhena and Medawatta offer good snorkelling and surfing respectively, while the area around Matara boasts a couple of mildly interesting and little-visited sights, including the giant Buddha at Weherehena and the town of Dondra, whose slender lighthouse marks the island’s southernmost point.
Matara itself (from Mahatara, or “Great Harbour”) is an ancient settlement, though no traces of anything older than the colonial era survive. The Portuguese used the town intermittently, but it was the Dutch, attracted by the deep and sheltered estuary of the Nilwala Ganga, who established a lasting presence here, fortifying the town and making it an important centre for cinnamon and elephant trading.
As at Galle, Matara divides into two areas: the modern town and the old Dutch colonial district, known as the Fort. The two are separated by the Nilwala Ganga, a fine and remarkably unspoilt stretch of water, edged by thick stands of palm trees and spanned by the town’s most impressive modern construction: the six-lane Mahanama Bridge, constructed with Korean help and unveiled in December 2007 on the third anniversary of the tsunami.
Matara’s main Fort lies on the narrow spit of land south of the river, its eastern side bounded by a long line of stumpy ramparts, built by the Dutch in the eighteenth century and topped by the inevitable ugly white British clocktower of 1883. At the north end of the ramparts, a dilapidated gateway (dated 1780) marks the original entrance to the Fort, while a short walk brings you to the restored Dutch Reformed Church, one of the earliest Dutch churches in Sri Lanka – a large and rather austere gabled structure sheltered beneath a huge pitched roof. The interior is largely bare, save for a few battered old wooden pews, a clapped-out harmonium and various florid British and Dutch gravestones inserted into the floor, the oldest dating back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century.
The rest of the Fort comprises an interesting district of lush, tree-filled streets dotted with fine old colonial-era houses in various stages of picturesque disrepair: some are surprisingly palatial, with grand colonnaded facades and sweeping verandas, although heavy-handed development is beginning seriously to erode the area’s character. At the far west end of the Fort, the peninsula tapers off to a narrow spit of land at the confluence of the Nilwala Ganga and the sea, where there’s a pretty new harbour.
A couple of kilometres west of the centre of Matara, the rather down-at-heel beachside suburb of Polhena has some good snorkelling straight off the beach, with lots of colourful fish and a small section of live coral; swimming conditions and visibility are best outside the monsoon period.
At the picturesque eastern end of Matara Bay, about 1.5km east of the town, another low-key suburb, Medawatta, is popular with long-term surfers who come here to ride waves of up to 4m at Secret Point, best between November and March.
Around 5km southeast of Matara, the sleepy little town of DONDRA was formerly one of the south’s most important religious centres, known as Devi Nuwara (“City of the Gods”) and housing a great temple dedicated to Vishnu, among the most magnificent on the island until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1588. Nothing of the temple now survives apart from one ancient shrine, the Galge, a small, plain rectangular structure thought to date back to the seventh century AD, making it the oldest stone building in Sri Lanka. The shrine lies half a kilometre inland from the main crossroads in the middle of Dondra; turn left down a narrow lane just after the clocktower. After 400m you’ll reach a rather flouncy modern white temple; the Galge lies up a short flight of steps in a grassy field on the slope immediately above.
The diminutive Galge pales into insignificance next to modern Dondra’s main temple, the sprawling roadside Devi Nuwara Devalaya, right in the middle of town by the main road, complete with a huge standing Buddha (a copy of the Aukana Buddha). One of the south’s major festivals, the Devi Nuwara Perahera, is held at the temple every year on the Esala poya day (late July/early Aug).
Around 15km east of Dondra on the coastal highway, the small town of DICKWELLA is home to an attractive resort and, diagonally opposite, Dickwella Lace (daily 9am–5pm), a women’s cooperative set up to protect and revive the art of beeralu, or bobbin lace-making, one of the area’s traditional industries. Women from local villages are trained up here and provided with the skills to earn an income from their craft. As well as demonstrations of lace-making techniques, there’s also a small lace museum, and assorted bags, dolls, toys, tablecloths and linen for sale.
The area dividing Tangalla and Hambantota marks the transition between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones, where the lush palm forests of the southwest give way to the arid and scrub-covered savannah that characterizes much of the island. Some 53km east of Tangalla, the dusty provincial capital of HAMBANTOTA is the unlikely beneficiary of a remarkable economic regeneration programme sponsored by President Mahinda Rajapakse (who hails from the town) focused around the construction of the island’s second international airport and the dredging of a huge new Chinese-sponsored port, along with other projects. The opening of the new airport in late 2012 or early 2013 is likely to bring significant changes to Hambantota, although for the time being it remains an indomitably sleepy little place with little obvious tourist potential except perhaps as an alternative base to Tissamaharama from which to visit Bundala or Yala national parks, or a smattering of other nearby attractions.
Hambantota is the salt capital of Sri Lanka. Salt is produced by letting seawater into the lewayas, the sometimes dazzlingly white saltpans which surround the town, and allowing it to evaporate, after which the residue is scraped up and sold.
Hambantota was originally settled by Malay seafarers (the name is a corruption of “Sampan-tota”, or “Sampan Port”, alluding to the type of boat in which they arrived) and the town still has the largest concentration of Malay-descended people in Sri Lanka, with a correspondingly high proportion of Muslims and mosques – you really notice the call to prayer here. A few inhabitants still speak Malay, and although you probably won’t notice this, you’re likely to be struck by the occasional local face with pure Southeast Asian features.
Accessed around 15km east of Hambantota (and a similar distance west of Tissa), Bundala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost destinations for birdwatchers, protecting an important area of coastal wetland famous for its abundant aquatic (and other) birdlife, as well as being home to significant populations of elephants, crocodiles, turtles and other fauna. Although it doesn’t have quite the range of wildlife or scenery of nearby Yala National Park, Bundala is much quieter and makes a good alternative if you want to avoid Yala’s crowds.
The park stretches along the coast for around 20km, enclosing five shallow and brackish lagoons, or lewayas (they sometimes dry up completely during long periods of drought) separated by thick low scrubby forest running down to coastal dunes. Almost two hundred bird species have been recorded here, their numbers swelled by seasonal visitors, who arrive between September and March. The lagoons attract an amazing variety of aquatic birds, including ibis, pelicans, painted storks, egrets, and spoonbills, though the most famous visitors are the huge flocks of greater flamingoes. The Bundala area is the flamingoes’ last refuge in southern Sri Lanka, and you can see them here in variable numbers throughout the year; their exact breeding habits remain a mystery, though it’s thought they migrate from the Rann of Kutch in northern India. Flamingoes apart, the park’s most visible avian residents are its many peacocks (or Indian peafowl, as they’re correctly known): a memorable sight in the wild at any time, especially when seen perched sententiously among the upper branches of the park’s innumerable skeletal palu (rosewood) trees.
Bundala is also home to 32 species of mammals, including civets, mongooses, wild pigs, and giant Indian palm squirrels, as well as black-naped hares, though the most commonly seen mammals are the excitable toupes of grey langur monkeys. There are also a few elephants, including around ten permanent residents and some twenty semi-residents: larger seasonal migratory herds of up to sixty, compromising animals that roam the Yala, Uda Walawe and Bundala area, also visit the park. All five species of turtle lay their eggs on the park's beaches, although there are currently no turtle watches. You'll probably also come across large land monitors and lots of enormous crocodiles, which can be seen sunning themselves along the sides of the park's lagoons and watercourses.
Not only is Bundala a hotspot for birds, but it is also a treat for plant lovers. Made up of six different wetlands, 400 plant species including seven that are considered nationally threatened, Bundala is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. Water lilies cover the marshes and streams, and the vegetation is made up of a variety of Acacia scrubs. Combine the biodiverse plant life with the fascinating species of birds and many mammals, you have a picturesque scene straight from a junglistic postcard. With significantly fewer tourists than more popular national parks in Sri Lanka, you can enjoy nature with a sense of peace and quiet to truly maximize your mindfulness with the wildlife.
The diversity in bird species and mammals in general at Bundala National Park makes it no surprise why visitors travel there in the first place. What once was a wildlife sanctuary in 1969 was upgraded to a national park in 1993 and ever since people have ventured into the park to enjoy all the wildlife it has to offer. To enter the park, an entrance fee is required however if you take part on one of the jeep safari tours this fee is usually included in the overall price, this is a fairly cheap way to see and learn about the wildlife, often from locals who know the park and species best. There are several options for tours, with some venturing further afield to the hidden temples or offering all-inclusive packages (hotel and tour combined).
Accommodation in Bundala National Park is often a unique experience in itself that has options to suit every budget. Choices range from camping style hotels where you spend the night in tents, although closer to 'glamping' with en-suite hot showers and mosquito nets, to more traditional hotels, may that be basic or luxury. Most accommodations require a thirty minute or so car ride to gain entrance to the park, solely due to its size and protected areas. The ride to the park is often a delight and a good opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery that basks the countryside and coasts. Most accommodations in the area provide information and give tours of the park, as this is their main niche in the area.
The best time to visit Bundala National Park is between September and March when the migratory birds arrive; early morning is the best time of day, though the park is also rewarding in late afternoon. Although the bird migration begins in September, it is worth bearing in mind that the drier season is from December to March. Sri Lanka's climate is made quite complex due to it being affected by two separate monsoons, which is challenging for such a small island. While it might be the dry season on the West and South coasts, it is the wet season on the East coasts.
Beyond Bundala National Park the main highway turns away from the coast towards the pleasant town of TISSAMAHARAMA (usually abbreviated to Tissa). Tissa’s main attraction is as a base for trips to the nearby national parks of Yala and Bundala or the temple town of Kataragama, but it’s an agreeable place in its own right, with a handful of monuments testifying to the town’s important place in early Sri Lankan history when, under the name of Mahagama, it was one of the principal settlements of the southern province of Ruhunu. Mahagama is said to have been founded in the third century BC by a brother of the great Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura, and later rose to prominence under Kavan Tissa, father of the legendary Dutugemunu. A cluster of dagobas and an expansive tank dating from this era lend parts of Tissa a certain distinction and a sense of history which makes a pleasant change from the run-of-the-mill towns which dot much of the southern coast.
Modern Tissa is a bustling but unremarkable local commercial centre – essentially a single thoroughfare, Main Street, lined with banks, shops and little cafés. Refreshingly compact, the town is bounded on its northern side by a lush expanse of paddy fields, in the middle of which stands the most impressive of Tissa’s various dagobas, the Tissamaharama dagoba, allegedly built by Kavan Tissa in the second century BC and now restored to its original glory, with a “bubble”-shaped dome topped by an unusually large and lavishly decorated harmika and broad spire – a strangely squat and top-heavy-looking construction quite unlike any other dagoba in the island.
A second, much more obviously ancient dagoba, the Sandagiri dagoba, stands close by (currently covered in scaffolding) comprising a big, square, high brick base and a slope-shouldered dagoba in the “heap-of-paddy” shape (see Structure and shape), although the harmika has completely vanished. The scant remains of the monastery which formerly stood here can be seen scattered hereabouts.
Early Sinhalese history has many heroes but very few heroines – with the notable exception of the legendary Queen Vihara Maha Devi. According to tradition, Vihara Maha Devi’s father – a certain King Tissa of Kelaniya – unjustly put to death a Buddhist monk, whereupon the waters of the ocean rose up and threatened to submerge his kingdom. The waters abated only when he sacrificed his pious and beautiful young daughter to the sea, placing her in a fragile boat and casting her off into the waves. The brave young princess, who had patiently submitted to this ordeal for the sake of her father’s kingdom, was carried away around the coast and finally washed ashore in Kirinda, near Tissa. The local king, the powerful Kavan Tissa, came upon the delectable princess as she lay asleep in her boat, fell in love with her, and promptly married her. Their first son, Dutugemunu, became one of the great heroes of early Sinhalese history.
Quite what the story of Vihara Maha Devi’s sea journey symbolizes is anyone’s guess (although since the 2004 tsunami the part of the story describing the catastrophic flooding of Kelaniya – which was previously regarded as a piece of colourful but entirely fanciful story-telling – has acquired a new significance and credibility). Whatever the legend’s basis, it provided the Sinhalese’s greatest warrior-king with a suitably auspicious parentage, and created Sri Lanka’s first great matriarch in the process.
A horde of local operators offer a wide range of trips from Tissa. Easily the most popular are the half- and full-day trips to Yala and Bundala national parks, and some operators also offer overnight camping trips. Camping trips don’t come cheap, although staying the night in the park gives you the chance to see nocturnal animals, including snakes, crocs, owls, wild pigs, porcupines (rare) and nocturnal birds. .
Another popular option is the half-day excursion to the rock temple at Situlpahuwa followed by a visit to Kataragama for the evening puja. The journey to Situlpahuwa passes through the fringes of Yala (though you don’t have to pay the entrance fee), so you might spot some wildlife en route, but this is much less interesting than a proper trip to the main portion of the park. There’s also a third national park nearby, Lunugamwehera (entered off the Wellawaya—Tissa road close to the km282 post) although this lacks the appeal of both Yala and Bundala and sees very few visitors.
Nineteen kilometres further inland from Tissa lies the small and remote town of KATARAGAMA, one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka (along with Adam’s Peak and the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy), held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike – even Christians sometimes visit in search of divine assistance. The most important of the town’s various shrines is dedicated to the god Kataragama, a Buddhist-cum-Hindu deity who is believed to reside here.
Kataragama is easily visited as a day-trip from Tissa, but staying the night means you can enjoy the evening puja in a leisurely manner and imbibe some of the town’s backwater charm and laid-back rural pace. The town is at its busiest during the Kataragama festival, held around the Esala poya day in July or August. The festival is famous for the varying forms of physical mortification with which some pilgrims express their devotion to Kataragama, ranging from crawling from the river to the Maha Devale to gruesome acts of self-mutilation: some penitents pierce their cheeks or tongue with skewers; others walk across burning coals – all believe that the god will protect them from pain. During the festival devotees flock to the town from all over Sri Lanka, some walking along the various pilgrimage routes which converge on Kataragama from distant parts of the island – the most famous route, the Pada Yatra, leads all the way down the east coast from Jaffna, through the jungles of Yala, and is still tackled by those seeking especial religious merit. Most of today’s visitors, however, come on the bus.
Kataragama town spreads out over a small grid of tranquil streets shaded by huge Indian rain trees – outside poya days and puja times, the whole place is incredibly sleepy, and its quiet streets offer a welcome alternative to the dusty mayhem that usually passes for urban life in Sri Lanka. During the evening puja, Kataragama is magically transformed. Throngs of pilgrims descend on the Sacred Precinct, while the brightly illuminated stalls which fill the surrounding streets do a brisk trade in garlands, fruit platters and other colourful religious paraphernalia, as well as huge slabs of gelatinous oil cake and other unusual edibles.
Perhaps no other deity in Sri Lanka embodies the bewilderingly syncretic nature of the island’s Buddhist and Hindu traditions as clearly as the many-faceted Kataragama. The god has two very different origins. To the Buddhist Sinhalese, Kataragama is one of the four great protectors of the island. Although he began life as a rather unimportant local god, named after the town in which his shrine was located, he gained pan-Sinhalese significance during the early struggles against the South Indian Tamils, and is believed to have helped Dutugemunu in his long war against Elara. To the Hindu Tamils, Kataragama is equivalent to the major deity Skanda (also known as Murugan or Subramanian), a son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh. Both Buddhists and Hindus have legends which tell how Kataragama came to Sri Lanka to battle against the asuras, or enemies of the gods. While fighting, he became enamoured of Valli Amma, the result of the union between a pious hermit and a doe, who became his second wife. Despite Kataragama’s confused lineage, modern-day visitors to the shrine generally pay scant attention to the god’s theological roots, simply regarding him a powerful deity capable of assisting in a wide range of practical enterprises.
Kataragama is often shown carrying a vel, or trident, which is also one of Shiva’s principal symbols. His colour is red (devotees offer crimson garlands when they visit his shrines) and he is frequently identified with the peacock, a bird which was sacrificed to him. Thanks to his exploits, both military and amorous, he is worshipped both as a fearsome warrior and as a lover, inspiring an ecstatic devotion in his followers exemplified by the kavadi, or peacock dance (see The evening puja), and the ritual self-mutilations practised by pilgrims during the annual Kataragama festival – a world away from the chaste forms of worship typical of the island’s Buddhist rituals.
The town is separated by the Menik Ganga (“Gem River”) from the so-called Sacred Precinct to the north, an area of sylvan parkland overrun by inquisitive grey langurs and dotted with myriad shrines; pilgrims take a ritual bath in the river before entering the precinct itself. The first buildings you’ll encounter are the ul-Khizr mosque and the adjacent Shiva Kovil – the former houses the tombs of saints from Kyrgyzstan and India and is the main focus of Muslim devotions in Kataragama.
Kataragama’s Sacred Precinct springs to life at puja times. Flocks of pilgrims appear bearing the fruit platters as offerings to Kataragama, and many smash coconuts in front of his shrine. As the puja begins, a long queue of pilgrims line up to present their offerings, while a priest makes a drawn-out sequence of obeisances in front of the curtained shrine and a huge ringing of bells fills the temple. Musicians playing oboe-like horanavas, trumpets and drums perambulate around the complex, followed by groups of pilgrims performing the kavadi, or peacock dance, spinning around like dervishes while carrying kavadis, the semicircular hoops studded with peacock feathers after which the dance is named. The music is strangely jazzy, and the dancers spin with such fervour that it’s not unusual to see one or two of the more enthusiastic collapsing in a dead faint on the ground. Eventually the main Kataragama shrine is opened to the waiting pilgrims, who enter to deposit their offerings and pay homage to the god, while others pray at the adjacent Buddha shrine or bo trees.