Endless beaches, the beautiful Indian Ocean, great surfing, amazingly kind and hospitable people and some of the best seafood anywhere in Sri Lanka. No wonder the Southern Coast has been a traveler favorite for decades. You can wake up with a view of a new beach every other day if you want or if you already found your favorite you can tune in to the constant crash of waves right by your door step. So far this has been one of the highlights of our adventure.
Our “tour” of the South took us from the beaches of Tangalle gradually along the coast all the way to Galle. Even though the entire coast is full of white sand beaches each of the ones we stopped at had a distinctively different vibe to it.
Starting of from Tangalle, where we arrived from the Hill Country (LINK), we were welcomed by one of the most spectacular beaches we’ve ever seen. The beach here runs for miles and miles with no end in sight. Not the best place for those who like to swim as the waters are full of rocks and the waves tend to grow quite large here especially during the summer monsoon. Still you can find good spots for dipping into the ocean scattered along the beach. Tangalle has a well established infrastructure for housing travelers but more establishment also brings along slightly higher prices and more of a touristy feel to the place than what we found later on.
There are three main beaches in Tangalle. Tangalle Beach, Marakolliya Beach and Rekawa Beach are all connected and reach out east from Tangalle town. The further East you venture from the town, the more relaxed and private the beach becomes. You might find the more eastern parts of the beach to be generally nicer.
Best of Tangalle: Rent a kayak and spend a late afternoon exploring the mangrove lagoon. Stay quiet and keep your eyes peeled as you can spot many wonderful birds here as well as a range of reptiles such as monitor lizards.
Worst of Tangalle: To be honest, we did not enjoy the Rekawa turtle sanctuary. Anyone who claims to protect nesting turtles, shouldn’t take a mob of 50-75 people with cameras and lights (albeit they were redlights) to the beach with the call “Alright, we have a turtle on the beach digging a nest now. Let’s Go!”. Not at all enjoyable and by far the least for the poor turtle mother who failed to lay eggs that night. If you care for these creatures, stay away or at least try to find an organization that has leadership and values.
After spending three nights in Tangalle we boarded a local bus further south on the coast. A two-hour ride later we disembarked in a sleepy fisherman town called Weligama. What a wonderful place this turned out to be. Weligama consists of a small town centre with a bus station and a couple small surrounding streets with stores and local eateries. The coastal road that passes by the town is full of side by side fish stands, where the local fishermen come to sell their catch. Any one of these has a bbq too if you would want to enjoy some fresh seafood on the beach.
In addition to the fishing, the sea here creates the perfect setup for surfing. Not as crowded as the (in)famous beaches of Arugam Bay (we can only reference the stories we hear as we decided to avoid going there), the beaches here cater for all levels of surfers. All along the beach there are surfboard rental stands and surf schools ready to help you get started. you can rent a board here for as little at 500 rupees an hour (around 3 USD).
The lifestyle of Weligama has been the most relaxing so far in all of our Sri Lankan adventure. Light healthy foods easily available, morning yoga classes on hill-side yoga platforms, relaxing on the beach side and enjoying the calm waves on a surfboard (relaxing at least once you learn how to surf). It says something of a town when there is only one bar there and that too is only open on Wednesdays and Fridays and requires a little local knowledge to even find the place.
Weligama is also a great central spot for exploring the coastline with a scooter. Rentals for a day can be as low as 1000 rupees (6 USD) for a day and you can easily reach all near by beaches all the way from Galle to Mirissa. Our favorite in addition to Weligama was Mirissa which is slightly more developed than Weligama and seems very backpacker friendly with hammocks here and there along the beach. Check out Papa Mango for some food and a nice view of the beach. If possible, we would try to avoid Unawatuna, which was something similar to a party beach in Thailand or Ibiza.
Best of Weligama: This is a tough one as we really enjoyed the surf, yoga, guesthouse and the cliff top restaurant (Chef Akila Kitchen) but we would have to say that the overall atmosphere here was just perfect. We traveled here during “low season” which made the area more relaxed and quiet but still the weather was perfect for our stay.
Worst of Weligama: Somehow mass tourism has also found its way here as some years ago the corporate men in suits were able to bribe the right person to get permission to build a Marriot hotel. An ugly monster of a hotel that is outrageously out of proportion to anything along the Sri Lankan coastline. This is highlighted by the building rules that you shouldn’t build higher than the tops of trees. I guess for this one they used Californian redwood as the measure.
An hour by scooter from Weligama (also accessible by any public transport in the region) is the historical fort town of Galle. Arriving there was like arriving in an old Southern European town. This is not super surprising as the town was built by the Portuguese and then the Dutch before the British took over the for during their rule. This trading port has been central for the spice trade of the East India Companies of the time and the fort town has maintained much of the old charm.
The town is easy to explore by foot in a couple of hours. If you want to spend more time here, there are countless jewelry, art and antique shops along all the streets which will keep you busy exploring and allow you to escape the heat and sun for a moment. There are also a wide range of wonderful restaurants and cafes around to keep you energized. If you really need to escape the heat, look for the Fort Beach, next to the light house for a quick dip in the ocean.
Best of Galle: The timeworn feeling you get when walking the streets of the old fort. You can easily imagine the life once lived here by the colonial traders.
Worst of Galle: You will notice that prices jump up quite steeply here compared to many of the local restaurants and cafes in the region.
Whats with the season?
You will notice when planning a trip to Sri Lanka that there are generally two distinct seasons here. The summer here tends to bring good weather to the North and East of the Country and the winter bringing good weather to the South and to the West.
To be honest, we have not seen any difference so far and the southern part of Sri Lanka has had some of the best weather so far during our trip. Be aware though that many tourist operators (dive shops, surf schools etc.) will move between the south and north depending on the season. Mainly the season will affect the sea conditions with the monsoon stirring up the sea and creating quite a swell where it is in force. This will impact what you can do in each place you visit so keep an eye out for the season when planning your trip.
The 2004 tsunami
Sri Lanka has had many rough periods over the last 40 years going through a civil war. Further as for many countries in South East Asia, Sri Lanka too got hit by the devastating Tsunami on Boxing day 2004. The Souther and Eastern part of the Island was hit the worst and you can easily see the damage along the coast even today. The tsunami here left more than 30.000 dead, one and a half million people displaced and total destruction of homes, businesses and crops for many parts of the coast. Many locals have told us their stories about the day and what came after it and it is hard to listen to these with dry eyes.
While traveling keep in mind that each place you visit has a history and a story to tell. Have respect to the locals and their lives and when possible take a moment to listen to the stories people want to tell you.