Sri Lanka: The Southern Beaches

Sufficiently satisfied with Sri Lanka's wildlife watching experiences, Stefje and I departed from Udawalawe early on Saturday afternoon with one thing in mind: the beach! The ride was another roller coaster, our driver careening South with a lack of safety before screeching along Sri Lanka's gorgeous Southern Coast. Using her trademark charm, Stefje was even able to get the driver to make an unscheduled pitstop right next to our destination, and we quickly stepped off the moving vehicle. 

Ironically our arrival at the remote beachside village of Marakilloya coincided with the worst weather of our trip so far. Although this only consisted of a few light raindrops that broke the afternoon heat, we were disconcerted by the weather forecast upon securing an internet connection. 

Various sources indicated that this rain was just the beginning of a much larger and more intense weather pattern, maligning our plans to relax and the sun-kissed sand for the last week of the trip. After a brief period of frustrated disbelief, Stefje and I concluded that we had no choice but to make the best of the cards we were dealt. 

That evening we went for a long on the beach to take in our new surroundings, equipped with a rain jacket and umbrella. Ultimately, we discovered that no amount of precipitation can detract from the enjoyment of drinking a beer while listening to the steady monotony of waves breaking onto the shore. 

On Sunday morning, the rain parted to enough for me to get my first view of Tangalle beach. Anchored by the city an hour's walk to the West, a long stretch of wide, smooth sand opened up as my eyes swivelled East. Even further away from the busy metropolis was Rekawa, an almost wholly undeveloped beach. 

Buoyed by the unexpectedly dry weather, Stefje and I laid our towels out on the sand and soaked it all in. The surf here was viciously rough and combined with a forceful current to make swimming a dangerous endeavour. However, a large reef ran parallel to the shore for a large stretch of the coastline, breaking the violent waves and creating a natural swimming hole just steps from our accommodation. It was here that I spent the better part of my day on Sunday, floating in the shallows and letting the ocean rip me from one side to the other. 

A light breakfast had us aching for some nourishment in the mid-morning; luckily enough an idyllic cafe was just steps away. Only a few restaurants populated this portion of the beach, driving up the price of standard Sri Lankan fare, but we happily plopped down in one of their hammocks for an overpriced banana lassi. 

After some more typical beach activities like immersing ourselves in novels and setting off on long barefoot walks, Stefje and I navigated our way into town. Slowly the desolation of our destination transformed from a lonely paradise into a bustling local economy. As the beach continued towards Tangalla it slowly shrunk in width until we ended up peering down onto crashing waves from seawalls reinforced by rocks. 

Yet the lack of natural sand has yet to halt the spread of tourism, as ghastly hotels and innumerable guesthouses were prominent everywhere we looked. Soon enough we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of town. Here two highly trafficked roads intersected and masses of traffic made it easy to forget our paradise beach was just a few minutes away. 

On Monday the monotonous cloud cover showed signs of yielding, so I woke early in an attempt to take in the sunrise. Joining me in this endeavour was a fisherman, strapped into an absurdly skinny boat and laying out thousands of meters of string in an attempt for a morning catch.

Overnight while all other signs of life had retreated from the shore, I was surprised to find evidence that a pregnant turtle had waddled ashore to lay her eggs. 

This was just one of many signs of the impressive ecosystem that abounds in Tangalle. In the morning, monkeys leap through the mangrove trees in the freshwater lagoon, birds hunt for fish in the shallow waters, crabs come out by the hundreds at night to scuttle beneath our toes, and lizards shimmy up palm trees with remarkable agility. 

Although sunrise didn't yield those bright shades of orange and gold, a much more important color was prevalent on Monday: blue. Periods of clouds eventually burned off in the mid-morning heat, yielding the best views yet. Absolute joy took hold of our bodies as we lay soaking up the strength of the sun's rays. 

Anyone who has been to the beach with me before would already be able to predict the rest of the day's activities: lounge until you're too hot, swim until you're too wet, repeat until it's time to retreat to the bungalow for a beer. 

In the hottest heat of the afternoon we made our way slightly further down the coast to Talalla. The brief journey was led by an eccentric tuk-tu driver who somehow installed a tiny HDTV and stereo system into his vehicle. As we drove along the coast a myriad of magical beaches appeared out the left side of the car while we were serenaded by music videos featuring the likes of Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jackson, and The Backstreet Boys. 

More of a couple of alleys strung together than an actual town, Talalla proved almost instantly to be the relaxed destination we were seeking. Just steps from our room was an opening out into a long curve of white sand accompanied by just a few sparsely populated restaurants and boutique hotels. 

The waves here proved ten times better for swimming. I gleefully stripped down and ran headfirst into the shallow surf. The setting sun behind our heads meant I had to delve further into the ocean to catch the day's last rays of light, gleefully riding the current back in as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. 

A lack of infrastructure combined with the Sri Lankan cultural norm that most meals are consumed at home means that Talalla lacks a strong diversity of eating options, but Stefje and I were lucky enough to find an undiscovered gem that evening. Three generations of female family members collaborated to produce a brilliant rice and curry concoction featuring spicy pumpkin, tender okra, and all the staples. 

Needless to say, we even returned the following morning for breakfast. While a young mother of two prepared us coconut roti and dhal curry, I explored the natural surroundings. Under the tutelage of our friendly host Chameera, I learned that four different types of fruit trees grow in just this one tiny garden, producing a bounty of beautiful results. This natural harvest is not lost on the colony of monkeys that lurks in the canopy above, as they slowly made their way towards us via the power lines for a morning meal. 

Later Stefje and I contradicted our normal budget travel mentality by checking into a boutique bed and breakfast. A compact three story building was our home for the next few days, combining spectacular service with stunning scenery to make us feel utterly pampered. 

Facing out from the main entrance we could see a classically decorated dining room, a beautiful pool, and then a thin trail of sand that led to the ocean.

With the exception of a mid-morning walk on the beach to go hang out with a large group of young monks, there was no need to leave the premises. 

A strong left to right current swept any prospective swimmers across our plane of view as we lounged on beach chairs, read books, and savoured the feeling of another perfect day slipping slowly away. 

Talalla has achieved an odd balance as a beach town. Only foreigners and local villagers coexist on this tiny crescent of fine sand; other Sri Lanka visitors haven't yet made this a popular destination on the map. As such, old fishermen equipped with plastic bottles and long strings of hooks still navigate deftly amongst tourists and swimmers. 

In the streets, school children excitedly waved hello every time I passed by. Yet local acceptance hangs in a delicate balance; should Talalla follow the development cycle of its more popular sister cities along the coast, backlash is inevitable. Trash will accumulate, irresponsible visitors will propagate, and a way of life that has worked for decades will quickly dissolve away. 

On Wednesday the storm that had been threatening to sour our mood for four days finally came to fruiting. As I sat at the open veranda under a foreboding sky, huge gusts of wind worked into a torment, followed briefly by sheets of rain blown sideways by the gusts. Yet due to our comfortable accommodation even a full morning of rain couldn't do much to eliminate our routine. There was still the opportunity for reading in lounge chairs under the spell of crashing waves, enjoying a long breakfast, and swimming as raindrops plunked into the salty sea. 

Despite Talalla's perfect ocean views, the strongest memory I'll have from this location is actually the sounds of a Beethoven symphony. In a village too small to support it's own bakery, the only logical solution is to have a tuk-tuk drive through town loaded up with bread, snacks, and goodies twice a day. As the bell was to Pavlov's dog so was the sound of Für Elise to me, as I jumped out of my seat and ran to hail the snack man for some delectable flaky vegetable samosas on Wednesday afternoon. 

On Thursday the weather showed signs of improving so I was awake for another sunrise, catching a thin layer of glowing light projected across a sliver of the horizon.

In the distance two fisherman worked their way out to a rocky outcropping to find a morning catch, silhouetted perfectly against the glow of the rising sun. 

As the sun began its steady ascent into the sky, the clouds burned off and the scene turned absolutely idyllic. Stefje and I treated ourselves to a leisurely breakfast, a long walk on the beach, and a morning swim in the crystalline water. We capped our stay in Talalla by letting the sun's rays seep through our skin and straight into our neurons, absorbing as much as possible to protect against future depression. 

The temperature rose and rose, and we eventually abdicated our thrones of ease to make our way further west along the coast. A bus picked us up right outside our hotel and dropped us off an hour later within steps of our homestay for the pittance of less than 50 cents each. 

A local schoolboy returning home saw us turn down one of the town's small side streets and inquired as to where we were going. 

"Mirissa Holiday Bungalow," I replied. 

"That's my place," the 8 year old proclaimed enthusiastically, puffing his chest out in pride and helping us navigate around puddles on the quiet street. 

What followed was an experience that rose the bar to new heights despite already impeccable levels of hospitality in Sri Lanka. His entire family was a beacon of warmth and happiness, greeting us with broad smiles, serving us coconut cake, and going out of their way to make our stay as comfortable as possible. As they repeated many times, you can find them on as Mirissa Holiday Bangalow.

Mirissa is another beach town along the South coast, and despite the chaotic highway that bisects the city, a long stretch of inviting sand and turquoise waters beckoned us that afternoon. Contrary to our time in Talalla and Tangalle, we were shocked to find a rampant tourism industry here. 

Very few patches of sand were not populated by restaurants, bars, or hotels, their plastic lounge chairs butting up against the oncoming high tide. In order to truly enjoy the scene here we found it necessary to continuously gaze seaward, avoiding the onslaught of humanity and instead taking in the sight of calm waves crashing gently onto the soft sand. 

Nevertheless it was a perfectly pleasant afternoon; a long swim, a coconut in the blazing sun, and a pair of happy hour drinks were eventually all upstaged by the miraculous beauty of a vivid sunset. 

The following morning we made it to the beach before the masses and were pleasantly surprised to find a much simpler environment. Before the restaurants set up their tables, before the jet skis and tour agencies open for business, and before the sand is spotted with sunbathers, Mirissa still retains most of its natural beauty. 

That afternoon we took the bus yet again, this time ending up in Galle, one of Sri Lanka's largest cities. 

On our first day in the city we went to check out the historic center. Galle's fort was originally constructed in 1588, and it served as an important trade hub for both the Portugese and the Dutch.

Luckily enough, our visit coincided with a massive school field trip, and the old walls were awash with hundreds of children, ranging from rambunctious dancers and cricket players to friendly school kids.

We wasted away the last evening of our vacation taking in the scene on the old rampart walls. It was only fitting that after two weeks of such memorable beauty, we would get one last perfect sunset.