In case we have not been clear in our previous posts, Sri Lanka has some really beautiful beaches. By which I mean, literally every beach we visited in Sri Lanka was the most beautiful beach we had ever seen in our lives in the entire world. Weeks later when we were in Paris and had a very serious “best beach smackdown” with our CouchSurfing hosts in Paris (we were thisclose to having actual PowerPoint slides and everything), every single photo we picked came from Sri Lanka, and the majority of of those were from Mirissa.
With that in mind, if all we had done during our stint in Mirissa was lounge on the glorious beachfront just a stone’s throw from our guesthouse, that would have been a completely valid choice. The beaches of Mirissa straddle that delicate line of being quiet enough to promote carefree frolicking and relaxation, but have just enough development that a cold beer is never far from reach following a dip in the ocean or a stroll along the sand (and there is always an adorable puppy nearby eager for a cuddle). Sri Lanka has no shortage of sleepy beach paradises, but if you’re looking for the be-all-end-all coastal hideaway, this is it; Tony and I both had a hard time pulling ourselves away from the town’s silky shores.
Nevertheless, with a tuk tuk at our disposal, pull ourselves away we did for a few daytrips so that we could travel for travel’s sake. With numerous cultural/historical/religious attractions and some of the prettiest coastline in the country all within an easy drive of Mirissa, we did our best to explore as much as we could over the course of two days.
Here then are the good, the bad, and the awkward (this is Sri Lanka so nothing is ever ugly here!) sites we uncovered:
As the nearest major city to Mirissa, spending some time at least passing through Matara is a given. It’s a fairly Podunk coastal town, with some old forts that sound more impressive than they look and some truly horrendous traffic.
It only took us one drive through the city to realize we really didn’t want a do-over, and we plotted subsequent journeys via the coastal road through the old quarter and some of the outskirts of town. This proved to be a lot more scenic, and we stopped frequently along the way for random diversions that caught our eyes, such as at this sprawling temple complex with all sundry of animals, from massive monitor lizards to some beautiful—but baleful—elephants chained up in the courtyard…
On another occasion, we paused by the ocean to nibble on short eats and enjoy the coastal scenery, while canoodling couples did the same and enjoyed the privacy offered by large umbrellas. I felt like a bit of a creep as I stalked behind them taking shots of them all lined up, each couple about 10-feet apart, littered all the way down the beach… The view was beautiful, and with Parey Dewa (a rocky island colonized by an ornate Buddhist temple) on the horizon, I can’t say the popularity of this spot with the locals was all that confusing.
We were lured to Weherahena temple because of its colloquial name: the comic strip temple. Rumored to be adorned with panel after panel of colorful depictions of scenes from the Buddha’s life, Weherahena was supposed to be a bit like a Marvel comic come to life.
This is actually a very apt description of the place. Every surface (save for the floors) was covered with brightly colored images and if we could read Sinhala, our tour through the labyrinthine passages would have allowed us to trace the entire life and adventures of Buddha.
Lest you think that we had to simply satisfy ourselves with blindly wandering the walls in uncomprehending fascination, never you worry. This is Asia, so wherever tourists might be, a guide will always make himself available… whether you want him to or not. After having been burned by stealth guides in Vang Vieng, Tony and I were on our guards this time; although our unasked for new friend swiftly dove into explaining the first few panels in the hall to us, we just as quickly interrupted him when he foolishly stopped to catch a breath and informed him that we were already familiar with the story of Buddha and would prefer to see the temple on our own. He wasn’t exactly pleased with us and kept popping up every now and then as we’d turn down one dark corridor in this psychedelic maze on the off chance we might now want his services. (We did not.)
As you might imagine, this was really pretty frustrating and we spent equal amounts of time admiring the temple and trying to ditch this guy. The final straw was when we entered a room with a large donation box and a crimson-robed monk sitting before it. Of course our would-be guide materialized out of the shadows like the best of all super villains and immediately asked me to hold out my wrist so that the monk could tie a sacred string around it. I said I wasn’t interested, but appreciated the thought. He then countered that at least I could leave a donation as many tourists had done before, “for temple upkeep.” This really rubbed me the wrong way because prior to entering the temple, we had already been made to pay a “foreign visitor fee”. I asked him what that money went towards if not maintaining the temple? He simply mumbled and said that other visitors hadn’t had any issue giving additional donations in the past.
Needless to say, we elected not to donate any additional funds to the temple, and soon left after this encounter. There were not many things I disliked about Sri Lanka, but it is by far the worst offender when it comes to tourist pricing (something I’ll talk more about later) and we were constantly finding ourselves in situations where despite having paid an inflated admission fee that locals were exempt from, we were then solicited for additional donations and tips for guides. At 250LKR per person (~$2US), Weherahena is not an expensive attraction and is pretty cool to see if you’re in the area, but be prepared to be hounded during your visit.
Mulkirigala might be another temple complex, but it could not be more different than Weherahena. For one, rather than a manmade structure, Mulkirigala is actually a series of cave temples that can be visited during a winding ascent up a massive rock.
Previous research on our part had revealed that two of Sri Lanka’s biggest cultural attractions are the painted cave temples of Dambulla and the giant 180m high rock known as Sigiriya (“Lion’s Rock”). Although both of those sites sounded cool, each one had a hefty foreign admission fee: 1500LKR (~$11.50US) per person for Dambulla, and a whopping $30US per person for Sigiriya! Although we would never veto seeing either of these things purely on the basis of cost if we really wanted to see them, we figured Mulkirigala might offer a bit of both worlds… and for a much more reasonable fee of 315LKR per person (~$2.50US), we figured we had nothing to lose by giving it a visit.
Given that Mulkirigala is a sacred site, many visitors elect to do the climb completely barefoot. Given that when we reached the rock it was just past midday and scorching hot, we demurred to follow suit and instead removed our shoes whenever entering the cave temples. With the abundance of monkeys we saw lurking in the trees, I think the likelihood of shoe theft is pretty high and I don’t regret our choice.
Choosing to ascend Mulkirigala during the hottest time of the day had a few perks: we were able to climb in solitude for the most part, only encountering a handful of other pilgrims on the way (and one friendly family insisted on peppering us with questions and then posing for pictures together). Maybe it was too hot and all the touts were napping, but we were pretty much left to explore Mulkirigala in peaceful solitude, a definite bonus.
Also, the caves themselves were a blissful reprieve from the blistering midday sun, which made up for the fact that the caves on each level were pretty much all identical to one another: inevitably they would contain a gilded reclining Buddha alongside elaborate—often macabre—wall paintings.
The climb to the top was hot and sweaty, and the final push required clambering up a treacherous set of stairs (there were two options, but neither one was appealing and both seemed to guarantee certain death). I wish I could say that we were rewarded for our efforts with a glorious view or a really phenomenal temple, but the truth is that there was no view whatsoever due to brush and foliage and the only thing up there was a solitary white dagoba, which are pretty much a dime-a-dozen in this part of the world.
That’s not to say our time at Mulkirigala wasn’t time well spent or that we didn’t enjoy ourselves, because we did. The cave temples were cool to see (literally and figuratively!) and it was nice to visit a site unmolested by tourist-dollar-hungry shysters. The only person who asked us for money was a woman selling water and fruit by the parking area, and we happily bought a bag of fresh-cut mango from her in lieu of a parking fee after our sweaty trek back down. I can’t say how it compared to Dambulla or Sigiriya, but at a fraction of the price we didn’t regret making the time for it.
Dondra is really a speck of a town, a blip on our phone’s GPS, a freckle on Sri Lanka’s sun-kissed skin. But we had heard it had a lighthouse worth visiting, so we wended our way along back roads towards the coast, passing children on their way to school and baffled locals wondering where the heck we could possibly be going.
It was a beautiful but bumpy ride and we were grateful when we arrived for the chance to stretch our legs and give our bottoms a rest.
Plus, the lighthouse really was nice (though not all that dissimilar from the one that graces Galle’s harbor) and the coast, complete with craggy rocks and crashing surf, was absolutely magnificent. An enterprising local offered to let us climb the lighthouse for 1200LKR (~$10US) each (a price that swiftly plummeted to 600LKR for the two of us when we declined, provided we promise not to tell the approaching tourists what we had paid) but we were happy enough to enjoy the view, take pretty pictures, and play with puppies on the ground.
With so many beautiful beaches on offer in Sri Lanka, there are really two tacks you can take: find one you really like and just hunker down OR make it your mission to try to find the very best beach that you can. Normally we opt for the former, but for whatever reason (probably because we had King Tuk), we decided we’d see if the remote beaches of Tangalla were as good as they sounded on paper.
The short story is that, no, they were not. By which I do not mean that they were bad, because come on: this is Sri Lanka and bad beaches don’t exist here. But we personally felt that the beaches here either looked identical to the ones we already had and loved in Mirissa, or were undergoing substantial development. Although we had considered potentially moving on to Tangalla after Mirissa, after a mediocre lunch at one of the beachfront guesthouses (most of which were overpriced), we decided to stay put.
As if to reward our decision, as we drove westward back to Mirissa that evening, we were gifted with the best sunset we have ever seen. We have terrible luck with these kind of things so my bar is pretty low, but no matter your history with them, I think you’d agree this one was special; because Mirissa is in something of a secluded cove, we never would have seen this had we remained in town that day. There was nothing to do but pull over and just watch the sky alight in flame.
Looking back at our experiences outside of Mirissa, I can’t say that any of the excursions we took were especially critical or unmissable. But sometimes that’s not the point of day trips or even of travel in general. Sometimes it is as Robert Louis Stevenson said:
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Now it’s your turn! Tell us, would you have elected to stay put in Mirissa or do you enjoy taking day trips when you travel? Which of these places would you most like to see for yourself?