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Tangalla Days

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Dream Beaches

We arrived in Tangalla with mixed emotions. Now on the southern coast, we were undeniably in the final stretch of our tour through Sri Lanka. There was still a lot to see — the attractions of the country’s southern extreme are considerable — but our journey’s approaching end was tangible for the first time. Still, we’d only have a few days in Tangalla, a small town which occupies some of the island’s most beautiful coastline and offers a number of memorable excursions. No time for moping.

Peacock-Rock
Peacocks like to preen atop big rocks. Showoffs.

After unpacking, we set right out into the city. The majority of Tangalla’s hotels and guesthouses are found outside town, toward the east. Which is fine. The town itself isn’t going to win any awards for beauty. A single strip runs through Tangalla, with the usual array of Sri Lankan shops and noisy activity. After our initial exploration, we would venture into town only in search of cheap eats and to get to the bus station.

Tangalla’s harbor is probably the only in-town attraction worth a look. An outrageous number of colorful boats clog the port, all of which were unloading stinking fish when we arrived. The fishermen were boisterous sorts, encouraging us to come aboard their ships (doubtless in search of a few extra bucks).

But though the town is forgettable, our time in Tangalla was anything but. Amazing nature, fascinating culture and interesting day trips are within easy reach. Plus, the beaches are beautiful… if difficult to swim at. Perhaps it was the time of year (early April), but the waters were stormy, and attempting to bathe in the powerful waves was terrifying. I mean, exhilarating. No, wait — actually, I do mean terrifying. Our favorite beach-side game became guessing which tourists might brave the sea, placing bets on whether they would survive, and then debating whether we’d jump in to help save them.

Location of Tangalla on our Map
Great Places to Stay in Tangalle (we chose Nugasewana Eden)

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Small Tangalle Island
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April 21, 2012 at 6:22 am Comments (4)

A Boat Tour of Pottuvil Lagoon

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Birding For Beginners

There’s more to do in Arugam Bay than just surfing and chilling out in beachside bars. The village is surrounded by some amazing and largely undeveloped nature. One sunny morning, we took a tour of the Pottuvil Lagoon, just to the north, hoping to see the elephants and crocodiles which make their home there.

Bird Paradise

Bright and early at 6am, we piled into a tuk-tuk and set off for Pottuvil, where a boat and its conductor were waiting for us. The vessel looked rather homemade, a wooden pallet tied to two skinny canoes, and if we had been venturing into deeper water, I’d have been nervous. But this water was merely crocodile-infested, so I happily clambered on.

We glided silently out into the water, with the rising sun slowly bringing color to the sleepy scene in front of us. Thick forests of mangroves line the lagoon, their roots providing shelter for fish and their branches for birds. Our guide navigated us around the lagoon, alternating between pushing and rowing, depending on the depth of the water.

Along with diving birds, eagles and water buffaloes, the only other living creatures we saw were fishermen, returning home after a long night of work. They were moving as silently as us, cutting quickly across the surface of the still water, and waved hello instead of shouting. We didn’t see any crocodiles or elephants, but that was fine by us. It was as if everybody — animal, nature and man — had conspired to make this as serene an experience as possible.

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April 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm Comments (0)

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)

The Udawattakele Sanctuary

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The small, densely-forested Udawattakele Sanctuary is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, and offers a number of long, secluded paths for exploration. During the morning we spent there, we felt completely alone, almost frighteningly so. Amazing, considering the fact that Uduwattakele is basically in the middle of Kandy.

Cave Buddhist

The Sanctuary’s entrance is just a couple hundred meters past the Temple of the Tooth. Tickets cost around $6 for foreigners, but there’s a lot to see and you could spend hours on the various tracks. We chose a path which would bring us past cave temples and deep into the jungle.

Udawattakele is full of life. Huge trees block out the sun almost entirely, and are entwined by giant creeping vines. With over 80 types of birds, including endemic and threatened species, the park is famous as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Most of the mammals which inhabit the woods are nocturnal; fine by us, since I wasn’t eager to run into a wild boar or greater bandicoot rat. We did, however, see monkeys and a snake.

We had followed a path down the side of a hill overgrown with jungle shrubbery and spiderwebs to a cave sanctuary hollowed out of the stone. A quiet sense of evil pervaded the place, made worse by a creepy collection of art — the legs of a reclining Buddha posing without the rest of the body, an elephant molded into the wall peering out with one great white eye, and a disturbing sculpture of a starved human corpse abandoned half-done on the ground. A curtain hung over the entrance to the sanctuary and, after calling out to see if anyone was home, I steeled my nerves and swung it open. The only thing I saw was a small serpent retreating into the blackness.

Udawattakele isn’t just a sanctuary for nature, but also for the religious. A number of hermitages dot the grounds, and the cave sanctuary we found was built for crazy enlightened people who’ve decided to live on their own in the woods. I’m not sure anyone lives there now, but it’s certainly possible. We hurriedly got back onto the main path, before the monk could return home and invite us in for a cup of rice and snake meat.

If the noise and congestion of Kandy are getting to you, Udawattakele is a great place to escape and let your mind unwind. The fact that an area of such wild, pristine nature exists within the country’s second-biggest city is incredible.

Location on our Kandy Map
Great Hotels in Kandy

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Junlge in Sri Lanka
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February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am Comments (0)

Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

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Different Kind of Buddha Statues

Immediately after visiting the quiet water temple of Seema Malaka, we decided to check out Gangaramaya. Built in the 1800s, this is the most important place of Buddhist learning and worship in Colombo. The sprawling complex is a bewildering assault on the senses. Packed with worshipers, tourists, clouds of incense, chanting, elephants (alive and stuffed), and a collection of everything even the slightest bit related to Buddhism, there is enough here to occupy a huge chunk of time.

Gangramaya Buddhas

When visiting temples, we usually maintain a quiet composure and respectful behavior. There’s nothing more hideous than a sunburned tourist in a place of worship, with safari hat and fanny pack, laughing and yakking as though he were at Disney World, and snapping pictures of the funny little monks who are clearly there for his amusement. But when we entered Gangaramaya, the first thing I did was run over to the resident elephant like a blathering idiot. “Can I touch it, huh? Huh? Can I?” I guffawed and posed while Jürgen took photos of me with the gentle giant, whose name is Ganga. The usual dignity? Out the window. Shucks, I’m touchin’ a real-life elephunt! Gyuk-gyuk.

Having to pay Ganga’s caretaker 500 Rupees brought us back down to earth, and we composed ourselves before exploring the rest of the temple. First, we ventured into the image room — fantastic. With a massive, golden Buddha decorated with elephant tusks and surrounded by various other gods, this room was breathtaking. Nearby, there’s an ancient Bo Tree, which worshipers were circling. I love this aspect of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Every temple on the island has a Bo Tree, which is subject to almost as much veneration as images of Buddha himself. According to the faith, it’s the tree which Buddha sat underneath while obtaining enlightenment.

We spent a lot of time inside Gangaramaya’s strange and delightful museum. A guide led us on a tour of the wide-ranging collection of bric-a-brac and Buddhist memorabilia. There were gifts from other Buddhist nations, including a Japanese sandalwood cabinet which our guide claimed was worth at least a million bucks. And we saw the world’s tiniest Buddha, smaller than a thimble, which revealed extraordinary detail underneath a microscope.

Gangaramaya is one of the top sights in Colombo. Don’t pass up a visit to this amazing, living center of Buddhism.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
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Gangaramaya Temple
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Main Buddhas
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February 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comments (6)

Sri Subramaniya Kovil

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Found on Slave Island, Sri Subramaniya Kovil is one of Colombo’s most impressive Hindu temples. We were welcomed inside on a balmy February morning, and had a great time watching the ceremonies. When we left, it was with colorful dots on our foreheads and a beginner’s appreciation of Hindu.

Hindu Blessing

Slave Island takes its name from the days when Colombo was ruled by the Netherlands. It’s actually an inland peninsula, enclosed by Beira Lake, which provided the colonialists a handy place in which to confine their African slaves. Only one side needed to be protected against escape attempts, because the dastardly Dutch had filled the waters with alligators. It’s as though they delighted in pure evil! (1) Subjugate an island nation. (2) Ship in foreign slaves. (3) Guard slaves with man-eating monsters. They probably wore handlebar mustaches, too.

When our tuk-tuk pulled up in front of the Sri Subramaniya Kovil on Slave Island, my jaw dropped. An 82-foot tower reaches up to the sky, covered with what must be hundreds of Hindu deities. The sculpture work is intricate, colorful and not a little gaudy.

After removing our shoes, we stepped inside. Nobody seemed to mind us our presence and, to the contrary, we were made to feel welcome. A number of brahmans were wandering around, and gave us some flower petals to place before the shrine of our choosing, then put dots of color onto our foreheads: a tilak, which represents the “third eye” common to many of the Hindu gods.

This was my first time inside any sort of Hindu temple, and it was fascinating. There were a number of shrines inside, which people were circling in a clockwise manner. Priests were carrying offering plates to the various shrines and blessing the faithful. There was fire involved. Elephant gods. Face painting. Incense. Requisite shirt-removal. Bells, flowers and chanting. My overall impression? Hinduism is kind of a blast.

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Guesthouses in Colombo

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Hindu Dude
Hindu Horse
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Hindu Temple Colombo
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February 9, 2012 at 3:38 am Comments (4)

The Pettah – Colombo’s Colorful Bazaar

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Walking around Colombo’s Pettah neighborhood, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in Tehran or Cairo. A bazaar with definite Middle Eastern flair, the Pettah is where Sri Lanka’s multi-culturalism is at its most pronounced. The district has long been inhabited by Muslims, but a strong population of Sinhalese and Tamils contribute to an intoxicating mix of ethnicities in Colombo’s most colorful area.

Pettah District

We visited the Pettah on our first full day in Sri Lanka, and were instantly won over. The narrow streets are clogged with tuk-tuks and men pulling heavy carts laden with goods, while a bewildering assortment of shops clamor for business. The Pettah spreads out north from the Fort Railway station, and we walked aimlessly about for a couple hours, snapping photos and absorbing the ambiance.

Similar shops tend to be grouped together. Hundreds of jewelry stores cling side-by-side on Sea Street, then around the corner you’ll find a collection of shops selling ayurvedic herbs and roots. South of the Old Town Hall, there’s a covered market selling fruits and vegetables, some of them familiar and some less so. Vendors were happy to identify the stranger specimens, and I almost bought a jackfruit — but carrying around the giant, spiky melon-shaped fruit for the rest of the day wouldn’t have been a good idea.

Eager for a break, we ventured into the Old Town Hall. In the midst of such chaos, it was strangely deserted. On the second floor, we found a collection of dummies dressed in official uniforms, seated around a long table. Some sort of recreation of an old town meeting? I don’t know, but it was definitely bizarre. We took a seat in a room full of empty school chairs and recharged.

The Pettah is home to a wide variety of places to worship. We visited the New Katherisan Kovil (Hindu), the gorgeous red and white Jami ul-Aftar (Muslim), and the Wolfendahl Church (Christian). Anyone in the market for a new religion should head straight to the Pettah, for some convenient comparison shopping. Without a doubt, this was the most lively and exciting neighborhood we visited during our short time in Colombo.

Location of The Pettha on our Sri Lanka Map

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Pettah
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Ayuveda Shop
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February 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm Comments (7)
Tangalla Days We arrived in Tangalla with mixed emotions. Now on the southern coast, we were undeniably in the final stretch of our tour through Sri Lanka. There was still a lot to see -- the attractions of the country's southern extreme are considerable -- but our journey's approaching end was tangible for the first time. Still, we'd only have a few days in Tangalla, a small town which occupies some of the island's most beautiful coastline and offers a number of memorable excursions. No time for moping.
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