I’m not entirely sure why we decided to go to Arugam Bay in the first place. Sri Lanka’s east coast is not nearly as well traveled as its west, but Arugam Bay is the exception: known for its phenomenal breakers, it is a world-class surf destination and attracts surfers from all over the globe.
However, we are not surfers. Not even a little bit. My balance is notoriously poor on dry land, and Tony is sufficiently ambivalent about open water when he’s not wearing a BCD and an oxygen tank, that Arugam wasn’t an obvious fit or love-at-first-sight match for either of us.
Given that Arugam Bay is one of the premiere surf destinations, we did toy with the idea of taking lessons. However, when we weighed the potential cost of surf lessons against simply lounging on the beach, we realized that neither of us really felt a burning desire to catch some waves, and so sloth won out.
Before we set off on our trip, I had gotten it into my mind that this adventure would be the perfect time to try every activity; from scuba diving to cooking classes, I wanted to do it all. But the longer we have traveled, the more I have come to embrace the fact that I can’t do it all; moreover, I don’t want to. Not every pursuit needs to be my passion, and although I fully believe its important to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and try new things, with a dwindling budget, we have to prioritize and channel our energy and travel funds into the things that excite, inspire, or interest us the most. Just because an activity does exist, doesn’t mean it needs to be my next hobby, and I don’t need to audition each and every one of them to know that. We don’t have to zipline or zorb, just because it’s available to us and is a popular tourist diversion if neither of us has any inherent interest in it to begin with. One day we may change our minds and decide we’re genuinely curious about chasing waves and hanging ten, but I’m glad that at this point in our travels we’re able to separate our actual interests from feelings of what we should want to do. In a weird way, by not heading out to surf, we learned to ride a different kind of waves—those of our own desires and moods—while at Arugam Bay.
Arugam is not an excessively large place, but the main strip is populated with so many lodging and restaurant options that, from the road, you can barely see the beach for the shops; I immediately felt strange to be surrounded by so many dread-locked foreigners after feeling we had the country to ourselves for so long. The number of guesthouses and bungalows on offer is, quite honestly, a bit overwhelming, and although they cover the entire spectrum of budgets, the truly low budget options are often little more than surfer flop houses with sandy floors and a lone salt water pipe in the wall in lieu of a proper shower. Perfectly fine if you’re in town to surf, surf, and surf some more, I’m sure, but… we weren’t. Thankfully, we were able to find a new hotel set just off the beach that had some basic (but clean… barring the occasional frog in the toilet or crab in the shower!) bungalows we were able to haggle down to a reasonable price.
Even with surfing off the table, we figured we could still enjoy some quality beach time during our stay. I guess there’s a reason that this part of the country is famous for its waves and not its beaches. Arugam’s beachfront certainly wasn’t ugly, but after the gorgeous white gold beaches of the southern coast, we felt a tiny bit let down by what was on offer. It was still pretty and refreshingly free from trash and detritus, but the tumultuous surf with devilish undertow meant that frolicking in the waves was a no-go. We enjoyed a few casual strolls down the salt-and-pepper sands, but ultimately found we were just as happy to lounge on the patio of the little beach-front cabana we rented, with books and drinks in hand, enjoying the soothing crash of the waves from there.
Despite Arugam’s main attraction being of no interest to us and the beach being somewhat lackluster, I’m still really glad we made our way there because there were plenty of things about the area that charmed and delighted us.
For instance, the surrounding countryside was unrelentingly beautiful, and we enjoyed simply going for rides in King Tuk to places you would never find in a guidebook, whether it was visiting a small Hindu shrine in a neighboring city, exploring an all-but-abandoned Tsunami housing project that looked like the love child of Alice and Wonderland and The Hobbit, or just rattling out into the countryside to take pictures of white dagobas against crazy dramatic skies.
Also, although Arugam Bay has more than a whiff of touristification about it, that wasn’t all bad either. The locals still exhibited that easy Sri Lankan warmth and friendliness we had come to know and love, and within an hour of our arrival, essentially the entire town had heard about us, and people would stop us and ask us if we were the foreigners who had driven here in their own tuk tuk. People would wave to us and ask us to take their pictures, and it was refreshing to see that a place that sees its fair share of tourists hadn’t become jaded by our presence. Even the dogs were delighted to see us—one of the guesthouses just up the lane from us had an adorable puppy who, following a few cuddles, followed us all the way back to our room, prancing every step of the way.
But the real reason we really enjoyed our time at Arugam Bay, to the surprise of no one, was the food. In particular, the food at one restaurant was so good that even if everything else had been a bust, our time in town was absolutely worthwhile. I might go so far as to say that anyone traveling Sri Lanka’s east coast should stop in Arugam Bay for at least one night so that they can eat at this place.
Throughout our time in Asia, we’ve yet to visit a country where there wasn’t a hotel, bar, or restaurant named “Why Not?” We laugh every time we see one of them, so ludicrously named are they, and we always feel like we would be better off giving our patronage to literally any other establishment. But not in Arugam Bay. The Why Not? is not only one of the most reasonably priced restaurants in town, but the food is seriously SO GOOD. In a country where every meal we ate was a winner, I might go so far to say that their seafood platter is the one that I dream about and miss the most.
For just $14US, we would get a plate overflowing with grilled fish, crab, prawns, lobster and squid slathered in the most intoxicating and addictive blend of spices. Think the best tikka masala you’ve ever had, and you’re on the right track; once we had devoured all the protein on the plate, we would swipe it clean with our fingers so that we could sop up every last drop of sauce. The portion of seafood was massive, but Sri Lankans are never ones to let you go hungry, so it also came with a side of fries and a mountain of citrusy slaw. Arugam Bay may not have been my favorite place based on its own merits, but I think this might be my favorite seafood dish I’ve ever had. It was seriously so good that we went back and ordered it every single night we were in town, something I NEVER do. It’s not the only seafood platter we enjoyed in Sri Lanka, but it was far and away the very best.
(We saw other people order other things, but I think if there are two of you, for the money, the seafood platter was definitely the best deal. The guys who own and run Why Not? were really friendly and honest, and they only serve fresh seafood—if one of the protein options that normally came with the platter wasn’t available, they would warn us in advance and double up on one of the others (one night we got extra crab because they didn’t have squid). They even let us into the kitchen on our first night to check out what they had available so that we wouldn’t be ripped off with claims of “jumbo shrimp” only to find they were, in fact, “shrimpy shrimp” and could vet the seafood going onto our platter.)
(Also, yes the seafood platter counts as an extreme splurge in Sri Lanka where it wasn’t unusual for us to both eat for less than $3US, but we rightly asked ourselves when we would ever get to enjoy such fresh seafood for so little money again. (Answer: Not any time soon.) Regardless of the answer, it was totally worth it.)
It’s entirely possible that if we could have eaten Why Not?’s seafood platter for every meal, we would have, but there are a fair number of restaurants around town and we tried a few other random ones too and were pleased with what we found. For cheap breakfasts and lunch, it was easy enough to rustle up some short eats, kothu roti, and even some desserts: not all of the Sri Lankan sweets were tried were a success, but the soft crepes wrapped around bananas and shredded coconut soaked in palm syrup were just as good as they sound.
As a whole, I’m not sure that Arugam Bay was our perfect place or even the best place we visited in Sri Lanka. But so many of the little things, the ones you’d never find in a guidebook or consider making a specific detour explicitly for—friendly people, adorable puppies, an amazing seafood (though I would argue this should be reason enough to pencil in a visit!)—were all done so well, so right, that the so-called big ticket items wound up feeling incidental in the end.
Why not Arugam Bay? Why not, indeed!