By Jeremy Drake/www.escape.com.au
Meandering the Sri Lankan coast by tuktuk is a 30-year throwback to the way Australians once traveled the empty beaches of Bali and Thailand. When rock band Cinderella’s power ballad,Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),reached the top of the charts in 1988, Phuket and Kuta were palm-fringed beaches with cheap drinks, world-class surfing and fresh seafood curries.
Times have changed in these parts of South-East Asia but in 2018, by a combination of both luck and misfortune, Sri Lanka still offers a glimpse into a pristine and unspoiled coastline that’s ripe for exploring.
Sri Lanka is nestled like a jewel that has been delicately placed by hand in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Needless to say the country has endured more than its fair share of tragedy over the past century — a sharp exit by its British colonialists, a civil war that ripped apart the north and south for over two decades and the 2004 tsunami which ravaged the coastline and killed more than 30,000 people. But these defining moments in history are the key reasons why Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is only now hitting its stride.
Tourists are generally told to hop between their destinations by private taxi to save on travel times. Trains can be busy and notoriously late (albeit picturesque) and travelling by bus in Sri Lanka is akin to a game of Russian roulette. With this in mind, we chose a more quintessential mode of transport — tuktuk. We hopped between beach towns and even the bigger cities by hiring a driver in each new location. If we found one we liked, we had him re-collect us for the next leg of our journey. (There are no female tuktuk drivers in Sri Lanka.)
But much like their road rules, their pricing structures are flexible.
There are standardised prices between popular destinations such as Hikkaduwa to Galle (this keeps tourists from bartering too hard) but as a general rule you can estimate your ride at about 40-60 Sri Lankan rupee a kilometre (or about 50c). Don’t be fooled by a driver who won’t negotiate a price upfront and never let them argue an agreed fare.
Long-distance travel by tuktuk is not for the faint-hearted. Be prepared for a slightly more uncomfortable and sometimes white-knuckled way of experiencing the countryside, its people and its culture. But the best thing about travelling this way is that it offers that distinct smell of adventure, the unmissable aroma of salt, petrol fumes and grilled seafood.
WHEN TO GO
The southwest and east coasts are separated by two different seasons. In the west, the best weather is between late November and April. The east coast comes into its own from April to September when the rest of the island is under monsoon. The weather is where their differences end. Across both coasts there’s a shared value in the way Sri Lankans communicate and relate with foreign tourists. There’s a warmness, openness, trust and a desire to help or appease instead of fleece or take advantage.
On both coasts, time also has no meaning. It’s almost elastic. The only thing you can do is embrace this. It comes with the territory and an endearing reminder of why the coastline is still so laid-back.
It’s certainly not too late to discover the beaches of Sri Lanka and if you’re thinking of doing it in a tuktuk, hang on and enjoy the ride.
FIVE COASTAL SECRETS
Here’s an insider’s guide on avoiding the crowds, where to eat and where to stay on both coasts.
For your first stop be sure to skip the more well-known and busier village of Hikkaduwa, 110km south of Colombo, and head a mere 5km further south to Narigama Beach.
A beautiful stretch of sand, Narigama is tucked away from the hustle and bustle. Guesthouses and more modest accommodation push out onto the sand like gentle tree roots searching for water, while quiet restaurants and bars dot the shoreline offering up one of the best sunset views in Sri Lanka.
Neela’s Guesthouse is the perfect escape (ask for the penthouse on arrival). Top Secret and Funky De Bar are your two go-to sunset watering holes for a cool afternoon drink.
The historic fortress town of Galle has been touched by its fair share of marauding colonialists. First the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and rounded off by the British in 1796, Galle is one of those destinations during peak season that people will tell you to “just do a day trip”. But to avoid a stay in Galle is like not visiting the Colosseum when in Rome. The city is an ancient, cultural melting pot of architecture and religion and this is reflected in its accommodation choices, its food and people.
Galle Fort sits perched and proud on its rocky peninsula and has been increasingly fortified over the years. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the fort’s bastions make for incredible exploring, best done in the late afternoon to avoid the heat and to catch a breeze off the Indian Ocean. Shanjei, a former advertising exec, runs history tours and helps decode the fort’s magic and the mystery. For food, head to Hoppa or Lucky Fort, which also runs cooking classes.
For overnight stays, Galle Fort Hotel is like sleeping in a history book. More affordable, Stairway Guesthouse is a breathtaking, single-room Dutch colonial villa.
Gurubebila is a picturesque and idyllic village located just before Weligama Bay and is a hidden alternative to the now popular and overcrowded Mirissa. Guesthouses and a single hotel are set around a vibrant village green peppered with palm trees and local cows — which make for complex fielding obstacles at a ritualistic Thursday night cricket match between locals. Two beginner-to-intermediate reef surf breaks in Gurubebila — Coconuts and Plantations — can be navigated safely with famous local guide, Lucky, who has surfed the area for 30 years.
Boutique hotel Lion’s Rest has a pool and in-house daily yoga, making it a relaxing spot in this fishing village.
While the original shine of this horseshoe-shaped hideaway may be waning, it’s still unmissable in a self-guided tuktuk safari. With its distinct and authentic beach village atmosphere if you pick the right time during monsoon, it’s not unusual to have this paradise all to yourself.
Blue Beach has one of the best beginner surf waves on the island. Hiriketiya is a haven for relaxation. There’s the opportunity to dissolve with a book into one of the many modern and up-market beach cafes, such as the newly constructed Grove Lanka. The natural geographical challenges of Hiriketiya’s size make it a location that will be kept free from overdevelopment and tourism growing pains for years to come.
- Arugam Bay
The popular east coast surf town of Arugam Bay is a sleepy, laid-back and hammock-swinging town. On the southwest coast, fishermen have been forced off many beaches to make way for tourist sun beds — but not in Arugam Bay. Depending on the season, there’s a wave for everyone.
The prevalence of Islamic cultural and food influence in the town is indicative of this part of the country. Accommodation choice are varied but Rocco’s is a breathtaking new resort right on the shoreline.
For those looking for wildlife, here’s a tip: a 30-minute tuktuk return trip down to Panama Village before dusk will bring you face-to-face with wild elephants, without need for any safari.
(The featured image at the top is that of Thalpe beach)