Surfer Paradise, Royal Cities and Beauties on the Rock: Tourists re-explore the northern and eastern coast of Sri Lanka. What beach travelers are missing in the crowded southwest.
The grass-green lizard in the hut shows how it goes. In the sunset, it sits there on the wall, warming itself in the evening sun, looking towards the Indian Ocean and doing: Absolutely nothing. That's exactly the right stance to take in Arugam Bay.
The far-away beach- and fisher village at the eastern coast of Sri Lanka offers what people at home are dreaming of: Tropical beaches with fine sand, gracefully bended coconut pines and surf waves said to belong to the Top Ten of this planet. But what is almost more important is what Arugam Bay has not on offer: Exhaust and traffic, gigantic hotel blocks, package tourism, loud entertainment enterprises, shopping malls.
When the government wanted to construct several luxury residences after the Tsunami in 2004, the community resisted with unity. Still Arugam Bay is a nice, sleepy and very relaxed place.
Travellers may for instance rent a wooden hut on the beach covered with palm leaves, order a freshly-pressed mango juice and a cool beer – and otherwise do the same as the lizard does.
Sometimes, if they want even more rest, they let themselves be taken to a some ten Kilometers away lonely surfer beach towards the south. Here all streets end, and the end of the world seems near – which is in this case wonderful. The name of the beach is, no joke, Panama.
The area around Arugam Bay shows in the best possible form what the whole northern and eastern coast of Sri Lanka offers: Bleached charm, hidden paradise, places for explorers. For a long time insulated by the civil war between Tamils and Singhalese, then horribly hit by the Tsunami, now the region is slowly getting on its feet again. Since 2009 there has been no terror attack anymore, the infrastructure is generally repaired, and the island tries to rejuvenate its old fame as travel paradies and pearl of the Indian Ocean.
But the Tsunami has left its marks. Now the formerly pitiful coastal road has been reconstructed thanks to international relief funds. But the mood in the vehicle gets somber, when the rood passes by a cemetery near the beach, where almost all tombstones have been thrown down or broken. Blue signs show the escape route – in case the Ocean might rise again.
During their Sri Lanka-trip, many people are only planning the classical, but over-run by tourist beach destinations like Beruwela or Hikkaduwa on the western coast south of the capital Colombo. However, actually almost no country in Asia offers such a diversity on such a small space than Sri Lanka, a country smaller than Bavaria: Mountains, cities, beaches and temples.
And the eastern half of Sri Lanka has another advantage: The best travel time is here from April to September – thus exactly during those months, when in most other South Asian countries and also on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka the monsoon makes the stay rainy.
If you want to reach Arugam Bay on the direct route, you can take the direct bus from Colombo and reach the eastern coast within ten hours. Tourists expecting more than beaches and waves of Sri Lanka take some days more and go in a northern bow through the country: To the attractions of the so-called cultural triangle, with the corner points formed by the former royal cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy.
Five hours away with the express bus from Colombo, in Anuradhapura it is highly possible to pounder about the transience of all earthly things. For more than a thousand years, the mighty capital of Sri Lanka was here, until it was attacked in the year 993 and then slowly perished. The rulers had among others erected the 120-metres high Jetavana-Stupa, which was the third-biggest construction of the world in the year 300 BC.
Today, a 40-square-kilometres large area of enchanted ruins tells the story of the once proud city. The far-reaching area can be best explored with a rented bike. Getting lost is part of the excursion. In front of one ruin, a snake charmer is playing his pumpkin flute with a cobra dancing to the tune, and a sad monkey is showing his tricks.
Crowds can only be found on the central attractions, the Maha Thupa for instance, the big stupa: In the Buddhist monument relics are kept. The white cupola looks likes a gigantic cream tart, decorated with a red-colored ribbon.
At the sacred bodhi-tree, also people are crowding. As the story goes, this is a offshoot of the tree, under which once Buddha found enlightenment in the Northern Indian Bodhgaya. Flying traders sell candles in Anuradhapura. "It's good for your Karma," the vendor claims.
Cave Temple of Dambulla
Religion is an important matter in Sri Lanka, that gets obvious after two hours of driving in the village of Dambulla south of Anuradhapura. That's the only way to explain the endurance of the monks carving numerous up to 14 metres high Buddha figures into the rock of five big cave temples in the course of 2000 years – pieces of art with a great radiance. It pays off to climb up here in the heat to see this.
After the visit, you only wonder how the modern Buddha statues ended up in the monastery on the food of the hill: 30 metres high kitsch in cold – an unusual view in the otherwise style-sure Sri Lanka. Seldon the crying colors and loud chaos can be found otherwise known from India. Sri Lanka on the other hand relaxes.
In this context, exotics are not missing, for instance in the nearby Sigiriya. There, like a big tooth the famous rock fortress is rising up from the jungle 200 metres into the sky. Steep iron stairs are leading to the solitary table mountain, in which you are received on the way by the cloud girls. More than 20 bare-breasted and graceful ladies painted by unknown artists in the fifth century in warm colors at the rock walls.
They are the oldest non-religious paintings of Sri Lanka, and so erotic, that a fanatic vandal has destroyed almost all of the originally 500 images decades ago.
On half way, a terrace offers the opportunity for rest. However, you have to take care, that the thieving monkeys will not abduct your water bottle. Now it is time for a honest pondering especially for people with fear of heights: Do I dare to go up all the way? As now the way leads up on airy stairs between the remainders of a monumental lion figure to the flatted top, on which once the fortress was standing. Only the foundations are remaining, but the view towards the flats pays off: The jungle lights in green shades, lined by blinking rivers, and on the horizon there is the blue shadow of the mountains.
In the center of the country, a stop in Kandy can be recommended. Kandy was the last capital of the Singhalese kingdom, before it was taken in 1815 by the British. The days of the August full moon, and the Esala Perahera takes place, as the story goes the biggest religious festival of Asia. The Esala Perahera is like a popular festival: There are snacks at food stalls, balloons with monster motifs are flying in the sky, children are running, parents calling. The festival goes on for ten days, but tonight is the highpoint.
If you still want to get good seats for the famous parade of the elephants, you have to take a outrageously high bribe into account – Hundred Euro for two plastic chairs along the street. Some 150 elephants are brought there from the whole country to march once a year from the tooth temple across the old royal city. The biggest and grandest elephant carries in a golden shrine the most important relic of Sri Lanka, a tooth assumedly directly from the mouth of Buddha.
When the night falls in Kandy, it starts: Dancers with naked breasts and turbans are leading the parade. Musicians are playing, following by fire-breathers designing flaming figures in the air. And then: Elephants, elephants, elephants – two, three, four hours. According to the temple in Kandy responsible for the animals, they wear a red, white or blue coat, decorated with LED-lamps shining like small stars. An unbelievable spectacle demanding some endurance.
Walking in the South: The Mountain Village of Ella
After the hustle, some people are craving for solace and find them in the village of Ella in the central mountains south of Badulla. If it was possible to connect the capital Colombo in the west and Arugam Bay in the east with a straight line, Ella would be in the middle. Slowly the red line bus is moving the close roads up to the small village with the assumedly most spectacular view of Sri Lanka: From some thousand metres of height, you can see the Indian Ocean, if the weather is good.
To Ella the English colonial masters went in the summer. The climate makes you want to move. More or less assuming walks and hill tours are leading through tea plantations and light forests, passing by waterfalls and rocky summits.
It walking is too tiring, you can take the train in Ella and go all the way West to Colombo. The track is said to be one of the most beautiful in Asian, leading through mountain forests and deep rifts, passing gigantic bridges, banana plantations, forests and big ferns. The train moves so slow through the landscape, that the traveler can earily sit on the steps of the mostly open doors and feel the air in his face. A train passage like hundred years ago.
However, if you are feeling the wish to go to Panama, you can go eastwards from here – to the beaches of Arugam Bay.
Source: Andrea Schuhmacher, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 8th May 2014