Down south in Sri Lanka
It’s been a busy few weeks since Paul updated this for our winter plans, well when I say busy I mean we’ve moved about a bit, eaten a lot of good food and drank a fair amount. We had an amazing time in France with my parents and family and it was great to be able to spend quality time with them and with the help of their drive space for Daisy, lifts to and from airports and high-speed internet we managed to source flights and start a plan for winter in Sri Lanka.
We knew that we were going to be hitting Sri Lankas South coast a little bit early for their normal tourist season, as they always have rains up until December time, even so it seemed like every day the Facebook groups we had joined showed pictures of biblical rain and knee-high flooding in some places! A few central regions got hit very hard and we heard that some of the pretty mountain train lines we wanted to do were not working due to landslides, with this in mind and having made friends with some English that were in a south town called Unawatuna our course was set.
Our flights were a little complicated as we couldn’t fly direct to Colombo Sri Lanka from Nice and obviously covid was adding further complications as we'd need to get a PCR test in English 72 hours before departure, so we'd have to go from Nice to Paris, then Paris to Sri Lanka with an annoying 2 hr stop in the Maldives.
Having decided not to go to the Maldives as it was just too expensive at the moment, this really seemed like someone somewhere was rubbing it in. Luckily Paul is an organised man and he quickly made lists and started spreadsheets and before long we had everything we needed, our PCR was done quickly and painlessly in Vallauris and the results were in enough English for it to be acceptable for entry to Sri Lanka, all systems were go.
The flights took around 24hrs and were mostly night flights, so not very exciting. Seeing the Maldives from the air was pretty special though.
We were shattered when we arrived and instantly wished we’d changed into shorts and lighter clothing as we struggled with bulky clothing and bags in the Asian humidity, but we managed to grab Dialog local sim cards with a huge data allowance for only £5.50 each and then went off to meet the taxi Paul had booked online, before pouring ourselves in his air con car. We both slept in the car for the 2 hrs it took to get from Colombo airport to Unawatuna but as it was mostly motorway, I don’t think we missed much.
Our first hotel was one our new friends Lisa and Kim had recommended; we had only booked it for the first 3 nights expecting to find our feet in the area and maybe get an apartment after that. It was a lovely old Dutch building called Nooit Gedacht and although not on the beach it was set in some lovely gardens with a pool and spa. We’d learnt last time we travelled that AC is a must for us in hot humid countries and this little rustic bungalow had both ac and a ceiling fan, it also had a fridge for keeping water cool, which is fast becoming another luxury we don’t want to do without….we must be getting too old for this traveling malarky.
I fell in love with Unawatuna quite hard and it was great that this was our first introduction to Sri Lankan people and food because honestly it was fabulous there.
The main road is very very busy with a mixture of tuk tuks, people, cars, mini vans, work trucks and the crazy Leyland buses; these buses drive at high speed usually over taking multiple vehicles whilst the driver keeps his hand on the horn to warn everything to get out of its way! It’s nuts.
Tourism is only just beginning to wake up after the past 2 years of covid and for Sri Lanka it’s been a hard 3 years off the tourist trail as they had a terrorist attack in the capital back in 2019, so it’s totally understandable that a lot of places haven’t opened back up and sadly some of them never will. The beach road is the place in Unawatuna that you will find most of the restaurants, guesthouses, souvenir shops, jewellery shops and fruit sellers on. It’s still busy with tuk tuks and a few cars but it’s mainly people that greet and wave as you pass and you get to know the regular faces and shops and spot what new things are being cleaned up for re-opening.
3 nights turned into 6 nights at Nooit and then we booked a further 7 nights at a cheaper place called Milindas Guesthouse we loved it there that much.
This time it was just a small ac / fan room with balcony and toilet below a really nice restaurant, but we liked the family that ran it and it came through at only £12 a night with breakfast so was under budget.
Breakfast in Sri Lanka we’d learnt at the Nooit was quite filling, you seem to get as standard a huge plate of fruit, coffee, toast, jam then eggs or an omelette spicy or non-spicy. You can if you are adventurous have a Sri Lankan breakfast which is Rice or Roti, Dahl, Curry and Coconut Sambal and this still seemed to come with toast, jam and an omelette! A Sri Lankan breakfast with its blast of chili and spice is an amazing way to wake up and the Rotis, Dahl and Coconut Sambal at Coconut Style were so amazing that we asked Manouta, the wife, if she’d teach us on our last morning.
What else did we get up to in Unawatuna apart from eating amazing food? We caught one of these crazy buses to Galle town, it is the largest city in the south of Sri Lanka and has an impressive Dutch Fort (think it was originally built by the Portuguese) which is now a world UNESCO heritage site, it was very cool to walk round although if you do go please don't engage the snake charmers.
Buses are the cheapest of cheap ways to get around but even after learning what number you need knowing which ones you can actually get is slightly trickier and possibly changes depending on who you are and where you’re going. For example the 350 bus goes between Matara and Galle and there are loads of them every few mins on the main road but some are express buses that don’t stop and some just don’t want to stop where you are going, so it took us 30 mins or so and a few ‘discussions’ with the bus conductor person before we could get one coming back from Galle, also try to give exact money or just don’t expect change. Price one way from Unawatuna to Galle should be 30rps each, which is about 11p
Another bus took us to Hikkidewa to another beach where we snorkelled and saw some turtles that have been taught to come to people to get fed seaweed – I’m very divided on this matter as the local guys running this did know all about them and were anxious for us not to touch them but it’s really not natural behaviour for them to be hanging around humans, but they do get points for feeding them natural food. I did feel it was a little bit of a tourist trap as locals weren’t told off for touching them and no money changed hands for seaweed or guidance. Snorkelling was quite good in Hikkidewa, although visibility wasn’t the greatest because of all the rain – best bit was around the middle of the beach.
We had a birthday party on the beach for Lisa, by now we’d been joined by Willie and Julie and Nat & Dave, so there was 8 of us that met up for drinks often and this one went late into the night with dancing, food and lots of laughter. The party was amazing and the family that run the beach bar Lucky Tuna had pulled out all the stops with a band, fireworks, decorations and cake.
As food features highly in our lives we of course went on a cooking class, this one had an unexpected bonus as we discovered the owner of the restaurant (Sam) was a fellow festival and events worker back in the UK and weirdly we all had people and companies in common, in fact Paul and Sam must have worked the same festivals back in 2004. It’s such a small world sometimes. We had a wonderful day shopping for veg and cooking with his wife Wasantha and his daughter Sasa and now have a whole list of things to attempt to cook back in the UK, although I might need to source a coconut grater first.
Most days however we relaxed either by a pool, or at a beach bar, snorkelled, watched the monkeys play in the trees, caught glimpses of big monitor lizards sunbathing, or if the sun/rain was too much just sat in our AC cool room planning our next steps. We made a lot of friends in Unawatuna, some English that like us have chosen to come to Sri Lanka instead of Goa and some local families and I can’t wait to come back here later in the season to see everyone and find out what has changed as the season got busier.
So, after 2 weeks we set off again this time back to Galle to get a train to Weligama, again this is a cheap way to travel and like travel in other bits of Asia you get 3 classes to choose from although 1st doesn’t really exist, our 2nd class tickets cost us 70rps each.
We probably should have read up a little more on what to do in Weligama because for 2 overweight unfit people there wasn’t really that much! 😂
It’s a surfers paradise and the enormous beach has lovely small waves for people to learn on and to be honest it looked like a lot of fun but I suspect you’d have to have a small element of body control and fitness to even get on the board, so we just watched from afar. Our hotel was about 20 mins walk from the beach and as there are no pavements and the buses are still weaving about the road at top speeds it’s not a comfortable walk that you fancy doing often, add to that the fact that there aren’t any beach bars / restaurants / shops and we decided to cut our trip short by a day.
We did walk around the busy back streets and get enticed into a small restaurant for egg hoppers and Sri Lankan curry that cost under £2 including drinks!
And we’re back to food again but I should explain that Sri Lankan curries aren’t like Thai or Indian curries, here you get your rice and then 3 or 4 veg accompaniments all highly spiced and freshly prepared but not very saucy so you can, as is traditional, mix it up and eat it with your fingers (we didn’t, I just can’t get the knack yet). Sometimes you will get a small bit of fish or chicken curry as well and you normally get popadoms and a chutney to go with it, so it’s not a small meal but it is delicious and because it’s always slightly different it doesn’t get boring.
Next stop was just round the corner at Mirissa so we just got a tuk tuk with all our gear there, these range vastly in price and can normally be haggled down slightly, a rough guide is about 100rps to 1km. This place has a bit of a rep in the book as being party central when in high season but it’s normally only 1 bar each night that has a late one, so you either avoid it or join in depending on your preference. As was standard at this time only half the places that are listed on google maps were open, so you do end up with huge stretches of golden sand with nothing and their beach road only had a couple of shops and restaurants open on it.
Our hotel, Sky Garden Mini Hotel, was nicely located in the middle of beach road only a few mins walk from the main road in one direction or the beach in the other, so you couldn’t hear any of the beach parties. It was a nice hotel with a huge room but unfortunately, we had a few issues – the first one being they seemed to be making up an exchange rate price for the room $ into SL Rupees. It didn’t match any Sri Lankan banks or currency converters and it was quite a bit in their favour, however when we queried this they quickly said we could pay the standard bank rate, which obviously was good but the mood was a little bit tainted. The next issue was that our room leaked really badly, the storm hit only a few bours after we checked in and it was the biggest we’d seen in Sri Lanka and this meant it trickled through the window and wall quickly forming into pools and soaking the bed. They moved us once we’d told them but the next room was nowhere near as nice, yet still seemed to be the same price.
We did settle in a little bit and went snorkelling- where we found a cool mini bait ball of I assume Sardines and a massive Spider Conch. We also found a couple of cool bars, had some terrible food and some really good food and even partied until 2am fuelled by cheap gin but when we were woken up at 7:30am by DIY upstairs in our hotel for the 3rd time we decided to leave Mirissa a bit early and hop along the coast. This in hindsight was a slightly silly snap decision but it turned out well.
Matara isn’t really a top spot for tourists to go but it was a little bity further along the coast, had an old fort / Dutch buildings and a KFC…... It’s one night how bad can it be!
The hotel we’d booked right on the beach near the old quarter had managed to double book itself and with no phone signal we had little choice but to go with the recommendation of the hotel manager, he paid for us to get a tuk tuk 15 mins inland and out of town to a place he knew had a room.
The new place was cheaper but it also came with a damp smelly room, cockroaches, mosquitos by the truck load and stained sheets, I’m not entirely sure why we didn’t hightail it out of there asap but we duly paid for our nights B&B and just got on with it (after insisting they changed the sheets obvs).
A walk into town showed us a very busy city with a few kids rides at the beach, groups of giggling schoolboys and girls, a few old looking fort walls, some dangerously thin dogs and a KFC. I know, I know but the point we were proving here was that even in Sri Lanka you can get chicken on the bone – something which you can not get in KFCs in the south of France (much to my family’s annoyance)
The next morning after having quizzed various members of staff the night before about what time breakfast was, we discovered they don’t do breakfast at this hotel! Grumpy, tired, itchy and now hungry we set off towards another long shot of a place in Talalla.
Talalla is rumoured to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, I’m not so sure about that as they are all very pretty beautiful but it certainly was the quietest one we visited. Garden Villas was where we stayed and it was a little bit of perfection in a few days that had been a lot less than perfect.
Gaby the owner was wonderful, as were her two golden Labrador dogs and her guesthouse was spotless, we discovered it was only 2 mins walk from the beach and that the beach had 1 beach restaurant / shack on it which served cold beers, had friendly service and really tasty food. We quite quickly changed our 1 night into 3 and settled into a lazy read books, play games, watch TV, swim, eat, drink routine.
Having walked the entire length of the beach and back along the road in about 1 hour and clocked that sadly most resorts and restaurants were not going to be reopening any time soon we had just enough nights to eat at the 3 places that we knew were open. I can highly recommend all 3 - Sunshine Beach for coconut style curries, Funny Banana for Sri Lankan curries and fresh fish and Garden Villa for Italian carbonara with a Sri Lankan twist.
3 nights here flew and although I think Paul was craving somewhere with a bit more going on, I could probably have stayed longer but I’d already heard good things about our next place from a couple we met in Funny Banana so was looking forward to getting to Hiriketiya Beach, meeting them and having a few beers.
We ended up staying in nearby busier Dickwella at a lovely homestay called Secret House, it’s set right back from a really busy town centre but you can’t hear the town once you get into the gardens and Amilla the host was very helpful. The places we’d bookmarked in Dickwella sadly are no more but we had a nice walk along to the far right hand side of the beach where we spotted a sea snake and loads of crabs in the rock pools before hitting Hiriketiya Beach.
If you’re looking for a small surfer beach with a few bars and a very cool vibe then this is the place to be, there are a few more hipster places and prices are slightly inflated but the food is good, the beers are cold and we had a fantastic few days chilled out there, helped largely by meeting such lovely people. Nikki and Josh were the couple from California that we met in Talalla briefly and we tagged along with them for food and drinks every day, they introduced us to Phil from Manchester and the 5 of us had more than 1 late night drinking session.
Nikki and Josh had already done nearly 3 weeks in Sri Lanka and so we picked their brains on what to do and where to stay and they were heading to Unawatuna next so we could give them our tips, Phil had been in Sri Lanka many times before so had loads of fascinating stories and tips.
Definitely one of the best tips we got from them was the local triangle or roll shaped snack foods called Short Eats, you see them everywhere in bakery windows and all of them are tasty but our fav was the triangle deep fried egg rolls. I’m guessing it’s a thin roti filled with like a potato style spicy curry and boiled egg then wrapped up, breadcrumbed before being deep fried. Totally delicious, really cheap (50rps each so about 20p) and handy to always have a couple in your bag for a lunch, I wish I’d been told about them earlier.
4 nights wasn’t really enough but we were starting to plan our inland journey and so were heading slightly further along the coast to a place near Tangalle. It’s actually closer to Marakolliya beach but we’d booked this place as it looked lovely in the pictures and was next to a lake that had a lot of wildlife around it, shortly after we booked it we learnt that this stretch of beach has 5 different species of turtle using it for their nest sites and a very small non tourist hatchery was just round the corner, I was very excited.
The Hideaway Lodge was quite a long way out of the town, possible further than we imagined but it was peaceful and our room overlooking the garden was nice.
Peggy the owner’s girlfriend met us and said we could join her that afternoon at the turtle place if we liked and so at 5pm, even though it was raining a little bit we set off on the 10 min walk to the beach. It’s not marked on any maps but you basically follow the road away from town past more closed resorts until you reach the last building and some really friendly guys come out to show you their fenced turtle hatchery. I’m not really sure how they came about as there is no signs or internet presence advertising them but they have loads of knowledge and a real love of turtles, so I happily gave them some money to help build a new hatchery enclosure.
Whilst we were there he said a nest was due to hatch so he had a quick dig to see if there was any movement, we were very lucky 7 little turtles were waiting to begin the journey to the sea, so whilst he helped them out of the hole we guarded them during their 30 meter race to the sea, shielding them from the hungry puppies and dogs that have taken up residence here.
I was so conflicted with this because I adore all animals, the puppies were so cute and trusting and their mum had been so clever having them close to a food source, but I wasn’t going to let them get any whilst I was there and bringing them any food at other times would only encourage them to stay there, which the turtle guys could really do without.
We had 3 very quiet days here and caught up on the blog, future bookings, reading and bird watching, we also had an amazing curry evening hosted by Peggy and Mandu (the owner) where we sampled some different Arrack and tasted the delicious Toasted Cashew nuts, Garlic and Curry Leaves (something I must try at home). On our last morning I went back to the turtle place at 6am to discover I’d missed a Leatherback Turtle laying her eggs by about 45 mins, but she’d left some very impressive tracks in the sand! Looks like a giant motorbike went round the beach and into the sea.
I’ll leave the blog here as I’ve waffled on for far too long and our next stop was inland, and we were going to be doing a Safari Park trip. Exciting!
Links to photos