There are two types of people in the world. Those who like to travel and those who don’t. And for those who fall into the travel category, there is a huge sense of achievement when you enter new, unexplored territory and discover that it ticks all the boxes. For me, Sri Lanka is a definite travel success story. It has culture, natural beauty, friendly people, budget prices, delicious food, fascinating history and most surprising of all – traveling here is easy. Unlike many other Asian countries and emerging tourism hotspots, navigating Sri Lanka is simple. There is noticeably less hassling and haggling, people who offer you help generally do just want to help you and the best thing is, we didn’t get sick once. This place truly is heaven on earth.
When you travel, timing can be everything. And there is also a notable feeling of having a win when it comes to nailing the timing of your journey. And the timing that we chose was perfect in more ways than one. First of all, if you want to visit Sri Lanka you should come now. Book a flight, pack your bags and leave immediately! One of the reasons Sri Lanka was so high up our travel hit list was that we wanted to visit while the country is a relatively new tourist destination. Now I am not one of those people who complains about crowds for the sake of complaining (I mean for goodness sake you are always going to have crowds at the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu places get popular because they are worth visiting!) but there is a very small, beautiful window when a country comes out of conflict or economic turmoil before the crowds descend and possibly never abate. And for Sri Lanka, that window is already closing. The 26 year long civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) only ended in 2009. According to the Lonely Planet, a record number of tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2011 (over 800,000) which was an increase of almost 40% from the previous year. And there are no signs of tourism slowing down. According to locals, business is better every year. And for someone of my generation, this is a unique opportunity to experience this country before it changes too much. Like I said, I’m not against change and development but I never had the opportunity to visit places like Bali before they became tourist havens. So take my advice and get to Sri Lanka as soon as you can. Before the prices get too high and the crowds get too crazy.
Secondly it is worth noting that Sri Lanka has a very defined tourist season. Arriving in mid April was the best decision we could have made. We still managed to score perfect weather in the South coast before the monsoons rolled in a week later, but we also managed to avoid the European crowds chasing the sun during their winter and were easily able to find accommodation on our arrival at different locations. And the best part – often we were paying up to half the price of peak season rates.
The West and South Coast beaches of Sri Lanka are everything you dream of in an idyllic holiday destination. We started our trip with the obligatory stop over in Negombo as it is the closest place to the airport. While Negombo certainly isn’t anything spectacular, it is a good starting point. We stayed at Sachal Mir’s guesthouse and were warmly welcomed by Massi, the Italian avid traveler who is currently working there. Massi was a wealth of information and we left armed with print outs of guest houses he personally recommended around the country. Next stop was Bentota beach. The beaches in the Bentota area are long, beautiful and uncrowded making it a great place to begin to unwind. There are plenty of great restaurants serving fresh, locally caught seafood and many local operators offering boat trips on the vast lagoon. Bentota has its fair share of high end resort accommodation so the mid range and budget options are more limited compared to other areas. We stayed at Hotel Susantha for 5000 per night including breakfast. It was a simple but clean room, but this guest house does have great beach access. The train line does run right along the beach in front of the hotel so you may want to pack ear plugs.
From Bentota we caught the train to Galle and I would highly recommend taking a train journey somewhere along this coast route. The views are stunning as the train hugs the coast the entire way with coconut trees framing the endless stretches of beach. From Galle we took a three wheeler (tuk tuk) to Unawatuna where again we reaped the benefits of visiting in off-season. We found an amazing beachfront room for 4500 including breakfast and AC at Little Villa where the owner claimed they charge $US100 in peak season. Unawatuna is an absolutely stunning beach – with crystal clear waters and fresh seafood dining on the sand by night – but by all accounts it has a very different vibe in the high season. While we experienced tranquility, escape and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing onto the sand, locals informed us that in peak season you cannot find a room without booking and you cannot get to sleep at night as the tourists party into the wee hours of the morning. So my recommendation – Unawatuna is not to be missed but definitely aim for shoulder season if you can avoid the monsoons.
Our final destination on the south coast was Mirissa Beach. Again we had no trouble finding accommodation – another beach front room at Coral Beach which is in the western corner of the first bay, in front of the surf break. Coral Beach is a great place to stay and the staff are very friendly and helpful. There are plenty of rooms, but we managed to score two out of the three beach front rooms with AC and breakfast for 4500 a double. Mirissa is a great place to let your cares melt away into the azure sea while you sip on a Lion Lager or a pineapple juice and enjoy the endless sunshine and fun surf. There are some great restaurants along the beach displaying fresh seafood for you to choose at night as you dine under the stars.
All I can say is a week on Sri Lanka’s South Coast is the perfect start to a holiday.