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The Kanniyai Hot Wells and Velgam Vihara

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Hotels in Trincomalee

After a few days spent recharging our batteries on Uppuveli Beach, we were ready for some sight-seeing. Luckily, we didn’t have to go far. A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take us on a 500 rupee round-trip tour of two great spots near Trincomalee: the Kanniyai Hot Wells and the Velgam Vihara, which is an ancient monastery set near a picturesque lake.

Hot Springs Sri Lanka

Tha Kanniyai Hot Wells are likely to disappoint any pleasure-seekers hoping to submerge themselves in a large spring. This isn’t Iceland. Kanniyai is a place of Buddhist worship where the faithful come to buy trinkets, venerate Buddha and douse themselves with buckets of naturally warm spring water.

The wells are exactly that: wells. You grab a bucket, dunk it in the water, and drench yourself. It’s a lot of fun, especially with the presence of locals urging you on. We had a blast, engaging people in conversation and taking impromptu lessons in proper dousing by a couple of concerned ladies. I had made a major faux-pax at first, washing my head over the well, which allowed the water to run off my face back into the pool. Uncool, and it got me reprimanded.

A bit further north is the beautiful Periya Kulam, a large artificial lake set in a forest, with small islands and vestiges of Hindu worship spotted around it. Just to the west of the lake, we found the Velgam Vihara — the remains of a Buddhist monastery from the 2nd century. The ruins here are gorgeous, especially given their off-the-beaten-track location.

Velgam-Vihara

Monks are still active at Velgam Vihara in an adjacent modern temple. One of them ushered us into a makeshift museum dedicated to a brutal 2000 LTTE bomb attack. After having admired such ancient beauty, this was an unexpected and sickening jolt back to reality. Photos of dead children and piles of mutilated corpses lined the walls, and brought me close to vomiting. We pushed a little donation money into the monk’s outstretched hands and left.

Together, Velgam Vihara and the hot springs make for a great day trip away from the beaches of Trinco. Find a tuk-tuk and agree on a price. The 500 rupees ($4) which our guy charged us was way too little, and we gave him a nice tip once we got back. A small price to pay for such a surprisingly fun excursion.

Location of the Kanniyai Hot Wells
Location of Velgam Vihara
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April 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm Comments (2)

The Beach at Nilaveli

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Cheap Places To Stay in Trincomalee

Nilaveli Beach, about fifteen kilometers north of Trinco, was once one of eastern Sri Lanka’s favorite destinations. But then the twin catastrophes of Civil War and tsunami came along. The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left 35,000 Sri Lankans dead and displaced a further half million, mostly along the eastern coast. Nilaveli has spent the last few years in recovery mode and, if our short visit was any indication, it’s ready to welcome visitors back.

Dream Beach Sri Lanka

We hopped on a local bus from Trinco to the Nilaveli Beach Hotel: perhaps the most celebrated place to stay in the Eastern Province. Every local knows where it is, and the bus dropped us off right at the entrance. This resort hotel is truly beautiful, with a great restaurant, large, clean pool and a laid-back, almost Caribbean ambiance. But we skipped right through, on our way to the beach.

Two islands sit off the coast of Nilaveli, almost close enough to swim to (although it’s both dangerous and illegal to try): Pigeon Island and, a bit further out, Coral Island. Pigeon Island is known as one of the best spots in the country to snorkel. We considered going out, but learned that authorities have recently started charging foreigners those discriminatory entrance fees that Sri Lanka is so wild about. After talking to a couple who had gone out the day before, we took a pass. $85 for two people to snorkel around a heavily-damaged reef. Eh, there are better ways to spend that money.

Despite its name, the reefs of Coral Island are apparently damaged and bleached beyond all hope.

Spending our day on the sand instead of in the water was a fine consolation. After swimming and chatting with the military stationed around the beach, we went over the hotel and had a couple drinks over lunch. In all, a great day.

Location of Nilaveli Beach Hotel on our Map

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April 6, 2012 at 10:32 am Comment (1)

Whale Watching at Trinco

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Going out on a whale watch is like visiting a casino. You hope to hit the jackpot, but you’re prepared for the likelihood of ending up empty-handed. Along with Mirissa on the southern coast, Trinco offers the best odds on actually spotting whales, so we put our chips on “blue” and “sperm” (and, just for fun, a long-shot dollar on “killer”), and spun the wheel.

Whale Watching in Trincomalee

For the first hour of our trip, no dice. We ventured far out into the ocean, and only spotted other humans in other boats on the same fruitless search. But then… over thar! Where?! Thar! Come on, say it with me…

THAR SHE BLOWS!

Yes, I shouted this. No, we weren’t alone in the boat. No, the other passengers didn’t find me funny. No, I can’t understand it either.

Over the next hour, we saw four whales, two of them within about fifteen meters. It was exciting! One stayed above water for half a minute, allowing us to fully appreciate its size. And then it blew water. I repeated my joke. Still no laughter. We stayed out for a couple hours, saw some bottle-nosed dolphins, and went back home.

The tour cost us 4500 Rupees and, fine, it wasn’t the forty whale extravaganza which the organizer had breathlessly promised. But it was more than I expected. If you can walk away from the casino with a little cash still in your pocket, you’ve done well enough. And that’s exactly how I felt about our whale watching experience.

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April 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm Comments (3)

Uppaveli Beach

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A gorgeous stretch of beach just a few kilometers north of the city, Uppaveli was our home during the week we spent in Trincomalee. A chain of hotels lines the coast, but we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. After trips to action-packed cities like Kandy and Jaffna, a little sun, sand and solitude was exactly what we needed.

Dream Vacation

We stayed in the Aqua Inns, which has just recently come under the management of Fernando and Jo. They were still in the process of sprucing the place up, but our room was comfortable, clean and had an incredible view of the ocean (ask for room 115 for the view). The best part of the Aqua Inns is Fernando’s Bar. A stilted beach hut with cozy furniture and a breeze, this was my unofficial office during the week. And it was here that we spent every evening, with a cold beer or arrack.

There’s not much to Uppaveli Beach apart from the warm water, fine sand, and utter natural beauty, but what else do you need? We walked one day towards the north, where a small river empties out into the sea. After crossing the river, we arrived at a small rock outcrop with a beach made of coral and, just past that, a neat Hindu temple. That was a fun twenty-minute hike, and afterwards we felt another beer at the bar was totally justified.

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April 2, 2012 at 8:25 am Comments (8)

Fort Frederick and Swami Rock

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A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee’s Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It’s an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city’s affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it’s occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.

Fort-Frederick-Trincomalee-Sri-Lanka

The Portuguese were the first colonial power to exert control over Sri Lanka, and the island couldn’t have found a more callous master. They razed temples and kovils wherever they could, erecting Catholic churches in their stead. Tragically, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars (Koneswaram Temple) was among the destroyed. This amazing building, which had led early explorers to pronounce Trinco the “Rome of the Orient”, was literally pushed off the rock and into the ocean below. Thanks, Portugal.

In 1628, the fort was erected. Control soon passed into Dutch, who expanded the construction and provided it with its current name. The French won it from the Dutch, and the British from them. Fort Frederick remained a British garrison until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. It’s still militarily active today, although open to tourists (and deer).

A visit to the fort was the first thing we did in Trinco, and we really enjoyed it. The Koneswaram Temple has been rebuilt, though the new construction is nowhere near as grand as the original. Luckily, the outstanding views over Trinco from the top of Swami Rock were something that not even the Portuguese could destroy. One tree, clinging to the cliff face, is burdened underneath flags and a huge number of light baskets tied onto the branches by couples hoping to get pregnant.

Even if you’re just in Trinco for the beaches, a visit to the Fort should definitely make its way onto your itinerary. We walked, but you can also hire a tuk-tuk to take you to the top.

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April 2, 2012 at 6:17 am Comments (0)

The Deer of Trinco

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Watch Bambi

Our first day in Trinco, while we were walking up Fort Frederick Road, we spotted a small deer in a park. Of course, deer are skittish, but we were unusually nearby and no “danger alarm” seemed to be going off in his head. Then we noticed another deer, walking alongside dogs, and another approaching a group of people. Then we saw someone petting one. Then I pet one. And after that, we watched a couple guys share their rice and curry with one. And that’s when I figured out there must be LSD in my water.

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But I wasn’t drugged, nor had we fallen into a rabbit hole and emerged in a Disney-esque land of wicked queens and singing chipmunks. Trincomalee, for whatever reason, has a large population of spotted deer who are perfectly comfortable and even sociable with humans. They’re especially prevalent inside Fort Frederick, but can be seen all throughout the city, foraging for grass and begging like dogs for food.

Cool. Every time you think you’ve basically figured out Sri Lanka, you get taken completely off guard.

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April 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm Comments (0)

Trincomalee

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Hotels in Trincomalee

After our time in Jaffna, we headed southeast to the capital of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Trincomalee. We’d spend six nights in Trinco (as it’s almost always referred to), enjoying its beautiful beaches and fascinating city life.

Sri-Lankan-Princesses

Trinco is more of an ethnic melting pot than any other city in Sri Lanka, except perhaps Colombo. Its population is split almost equally between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims: a mixture which proved explosive during the Civil War, when the groups viciously turned on each other. Not only was Trinco among the most war-torn of Sri Lanka’s cities, but it was forced to host thousands of refugees who had fled Jaffna.

Downtown Trinco occupies a peninsula which extends between two natural harbors. The massive Kottiyar Bay is one of the world’s best deep-water ports, and has made the city an important center of commerce since the days of Marco Polo, who once landed here. We walked from the outer to the inner harbor, along streets buzzing with activity, chatting with the curious locals who ran out to greet us. Thanks to its beaches, post-war Trinco is winning back tourism more quickly than Jaffna, but it’s still a city where foreign faces are a novelty.

Just north of downtown, the beaches of Uppuveli and Nilaveli are where most tourists will spend the night: long white stretches of sand with a wide range of hotels to choose from and few other visitors (though, it was low season when we were there and gets crowded between June and September). Add in some of Sri Lanka’s best snorkeling and whale watching, and a manageable collection of unique things to see outside the city limits, and Trinco starts to shape up as one of the country’s best destinations.

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Hostel in Trincomalee

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April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am Comments (3)
The Kanniyai Hot Wells and Velgam Vihara After a few days spent recharging our batteries on Uppuveli Beach, we were ready for some sight-seeing. Luckily, we didn't have to go far. A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take us on a 500 rupee round-trip tour of two great spots near Trincomalee: the Kanniyai Hot Wells and the Velgam Vihara, which is an ancient monastery set near a picturesque lake.
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