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.

Sri Lanka coastline
With coastline like this nearby, how could we not explore?!?

Boats off of Sri Lanka coast
Sri Lanka Coast

Here then are the good, the bad, and the awkward (this is Sri Lanka so nothing is ever ugly here!) sites we uncovered:

Matara

Building in Matara
Not one of Matara’s old forts, but it sure is pretty!

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.

Random temple in Matara
Massive Buddha Statue

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.

Parey Dewa

Weherahena Temple

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

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.

Mulkirigala Painted Cave Temple
Mulkirigala Painted Cave Temple

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.

Steph with Sri Lankan family
Steph with a friendly Sri Lankan family; they had LOTS of questions for us!

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.

Mulkirigala Painted Cave Temple Reclining Buddha
You might say this guy was lying in wait…

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

Dondra Coastline

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.

Tangalla

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.

Seafood lunch, Tagalla
This might look better than it tasted…

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.

T5010134
P1330105

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.

P1330115

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?

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (29)

  1. July 31, 2014 at 2:46 am
    Jul. 31, '14

    Tell me you guys did not do all the above spots in one day…

    But some neat places in there… Because SL is such a big island, the water doesn’t look crystal clear, even though it’s a pretty color of blue. Is that correct? (Yes, I am a huge beach snob…)

    For touts, I always start speaking another language. Have yet to encounter one that speaks Vietnamese! But French would probably do, too. And remind me never to canoodle anywhere near you guys… LOLZ

    • August 1, 2014 at 8:05 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      No, we didn’t see these all in ONE day… we saw them in TWO! 😉 Given some of the trips you take, I would have thought this kind of “wham bam thank you ma’am” sightseeing would make you proud…

      As for the water issue, I admit I only worry about clarity of water when I’m diving, so I wasn’t to fussed with that in SL. I think the issue is less that SL is a big island and more that its position means that in many places, the surf is pretty choppy and rough, which would obviously mean less translucent water. If you head to places like Mirissa that are more sheltered and known for their swimming beaches, then you tend to see clearer water too.

      I’d be more inclined to speak a different language if Tony could understand it too. Perhaps after our upcoming adventures we’ll be able to start babbling in Spanish the next time we head to Asia… 🙂

  2. July 31, 2014 at 3:08 am
    Jul. 31, '14

    Awesome! I particularly loved the comic strip temple (even though you were hassled for money). I have a copy of the Mahabharata which is essentially a comic book. I’ve never owned any other comic book in my life, but strangely, those pictures were the only way I could properly understand the very detailed stories in that text!
    Karyn @ Not Done Travelling recently posted..My Online Vision Board

    • August 1, 2014 at 8:08 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      Yes, the comic strip temple was really cool. Were it not for the unwanted guide, I think we could have spent A LOT of time there…

  3. July 31, 2014 at 7:29 am
    Jul. 31, '14

    Those sunset photos and story are a near replica of on of our best sunsets. We were on Koh Lanta at a popular sunset bar and the sunset itself wasn’t very tantalizing, so we paid our bill and left. As we were winding our way north back to our hotel, the set sun painted the sky in incredibly intense hues of red and purple. While we may have seen it at the bar, it was much more satisfying to be sitting on a beach, alone, enjoying that moment.

    The snogging-beneath-umbrellas seems to be a universal theme in Asia – we’ve encountered it a few times, most notably around Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. It’s a romantic sight – so long as you aren’t looking across a small pond to see what the couples are doing!
    Tyler recently posted..Soothing Sydney

    • August 1, 2014 at 8:10 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      The funny thing is that if the couples were just making out in the open (not that this would ever happen in Asia!), I would have likely been far less inclined to look and would have averted my eyes! But by having the umbrellas, my curiosity was piqued!

  4. July 31, 2014 at 7:38 am
    Jul. 31, '14

    I want to take you guys along with me on a trip as my official photographers!! These pics, especially the sunset ones, are amazing! I could spend a couple of weeks going around Sri Lanka… and these posts are tickling my already itchy feet!!!
    Tim | UrbanDuniya recently posted..Melbourne’s cute French-style crêperies

    • August 1, 2014 at 8:11 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      Don’t even joke about it, Tim! We’d LOVE to be your official trip photographers; just tell us when & where… 😉

  5. July 31, 2014 at 7:42 am
    Jul. 31, '14

    The cave temples at Mulkirigala look so cool, especially that picture where the ceiling is all uneven. Good to know it’s more affordable than some of the other attractions – did you end up making it Dambulla or Lion’s Rock? At least the beaches in Tangalla are breathtaking, although the others you’ve posted have been too! I LOVE french fries, and only ordered them a couple times in SE Asia… they were just not the same – bleck! haha. I do like to explore a little when i travel, but I’ve found when I pack in too many day trips or excursions, I miss that feeling of really getting to know a place. As our travel style develops (it’s always changing slightly), I find that I prefer less and less day trips, or at least a mix of both! 🙂
    Katie recently posted..The Underwater Temple Garden of Bali

    • August 1, 2014 at 8:24 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      Unfortunately we didn’t manage to make it to Dambulla or Lion’s Rock—we ran out of time and didn’t make it to that part of the country. Also, by the time we were getting closer to that area, I admit we were getting kind of burned out on temples, etc., so decided there was no point in us paying the huge entrance fees anyway. Next time!

      Mirissa was small enough that you don’t need much time at all to see it, but sometimes you do just need a few days to bum around on the beach. I wish we had had more time in SL so that we could have done daytrips like this but also spent more time in Mirissa.

  6. July 31, 2014 at 12:27 pm
    Jul. 31, '14

    ahhh thank god for this post! I Think I am going to Sri Lanka this month and this post is going to help so much!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..12 Tips for Visiting the Biltmore

    • August 1, 2014 at 9:00 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      Never fear, Rachel—we have way more SL posts coming so we should have plenty of inspiration for places for you to go during your visit! (So jealous, by the way. We’d LOVE to go back!)

  7. July 31, 2014 at 3:01 pm
    Jul. 31, '14

    These pictures are making me insanely jealous. The beaches look beautiful! Also, the pictures of Weherahena Temple are amazing. Too bad you had to be hounded for money the whole time.

    • August 1, 2014 at 9:02 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      It really was unfortunate that our visit to Weherahena was plagued with that greedy guide. It’s certainly not the first time in our travels that has happened, but it was still annoying, especially since we made it pretty clear that we weren’t going to give anything above and beyond our entrance fee! This type of thing happened a bit more in SL than in other places, I think, but not so often that it was a deterrent to visiting the sites.

  8. July 31, 2014 at 5:10 pm
    Jul. 31, '14

    I would definitely be like you and take the day trip! You saw so much in one day, wow! Such beautiful views of the water and that sunset is really nice!
    Lauren recently posted..Travel Blogger Thursday: Anna of Slightly Astray

    • August 1, 2014 at 9:07 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      We actually spent two days exploring, so we didn’t actually do all this in a single day… but it was still a lot!

  9. August 1, 2014 at 4:24 am
    Aug. 1, '14

    I’ve heard that Sri Lanka is ridiculous when it comes to inflated tourist prices (I was so annoyed when we paid an arm and a leg for Petra – guess that was just peanuts!). I would be very much annoyed with the someone following along and pestering us after we’ve already paid the price to enter. Yeesh.

    The photos of the beach look stunning. And that sunset! Wow – spectacular!
    Emily recently posted..E-Double in Prague

    • August 1, 2014 at 9:09 am
      Aug. 1, '14

      I know that Petra is really expensive and I’m not sure how it compares to SL, but by far the sites in SL are the worst we have ever encountered in terms of tourist pricing.

      What was especially annoying about the guy following us around is exactly that we had already paid a tourist-only fee; if it were free for us enter as it is for locals, we probably would have donated some money, but don’t ask me for “upkeep” money after I’ve already been made to pay just that!

  10. August 3, 2014 at 7:55 pm
    Aug. 3, '14

    Mirissa looks gorgeous but I probably would have done at least one day trip too – I find it hard to sit still and always end up seeing as much as I can!
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Why you have to visit these intriguing cemeteries around the world

    • August 4, 2014 at 4:42 pm
      Aug. 4, '14

      Yes, it is especially hard to sit still in Sri Lanka because the whole country is SO BEAUTIFUL. It was very much a push & pull between enjoying what we already had and then wanting to see what else we could uncover. No regrets!

  11. Enrico
    August 4, 2014 at 12:49 pm
    Aug. 4, '14

    Speechless
    Every story I read from your website, every picture I come across, leaves me speechless

    I hope one day to have seen at least half of the places you have been
    Thank you for sharing
    Enrico

    • August 4, 2014 at 4:43 pm
      Aug. 4, '14

      Aw, thank you so much for your kind words, Enrico! Having seen some of your own beautiful photos, your compliment is extra meaningful to us.

      We can’t wait for you to get out there and see some of these places so we can enjoy your pictures! We know you have plenty of adventures ahead of you (but we are so glad we got to share some together in Bologna!). 😀

  12. August 5, 2014 at 5:05 am
    Aug. 5, '14

    Ugh – the touts! I know how awkward and irritating it is to try and brush them off politely but firmly, we had particular trouble with this in Burma. Great pictures, especially of the sunset – I love the fact that you found so many puppies to hang out with too 🙂
    Amy recently posted..Exploring the Temples of Bagan

    • August 5, 2014 at 4:09 pm
      Aug. 5, '14

      I really loved SL and thought the majority of the people we met there were so lovely, but it was one of the worst places for people trying to provide unwanted guide services and then ask for money. And if it wasn’t that, then there was a lot of “even though you paid an admission fee, we would still like you to give another donation” going on, which I did not like. Even after so long in Asia, I still have a hard time saying no to people, even if I know they’re just after my money, but I got pretty good at being assertive in SL. We weren’t constantly being harassed or anything like that, but we knew we should be on guard when going to temples.

  13. August 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm
    Aug. 6, '14

    I love this post, Steph – and I love the honesty here, and that you’re giving actual opinions, rather than just saying EVERYTHING is “unmissable” and the best, new, “undiscovered gem” etc etc. It makes me value what you say more than a lot of other blogs I come across.

    Anyway, Sri Lanka sounds and looks stunning, and is fairly near the top of my must-visit-soon list. Good to know about the touts, and I think the tourist prices would annoy me too, if I were asked to contribute additionally after already paying.

    I think I get what you mean by “travel for travel’s sake”, too. I’ve done it in places before, just because I feel like I should – even though I may just want to plonk myself down in a cafe and not move for the entire day. But, sometimes you end up with great experiences that way – other times though, I wish I’d have stayed in the cafe 😉
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Instagramming Taipei: Summer Edition

    • August 7, 2014 at 10:18 am
      Aug. 7, '14

      Oh Tom, you know you can always count on us to give the straight scoop. We love traveling and have more time than most, but the truth is not everything that guide books tout is going to be awesome and I figure one thing travel blogs CAN do is give people real talk about whether places are really worth your time and money. Nothing we visited on our day trip was out of this world incredible, but we still enjoyed our time and got some pretty pictures. But if we had just decided to stay at the beach (or someone else makes that choice) that would be totally valid too!

      And yes, Sri Lanka is AMAAAAAAZING. Definitely one of our very favorite places we have been. That list seems to always be growing, but trust me, Sri Lanka easily earned its spot!

  14. August 8, 2014 at 2:25 am
    Aug. 8, '14

    I’m going to be really annoying and say “It depends.”
    I’m a natural “rusher” and tend to look for the “next one” which is why I like going to places again and again, as you can be sure I missed some things the first time around LOL! However, experience and years of travelling have shown me that “the best” place was actually where I started at the beginning!
    The photos are gorgeous by the way Steph!
    Victoria recently posted..The astonishing rivers and lakes of Berlin and Brandenburg: 10 reasons why you should!

    • August 8, 2014 at 11:48 am
      Aug. 8, '14

      I think travelers frequently fall victim to the “grass is always greener” paradox—we spend all this time searching for something better, only to find ourselves thinking wistfully of that which we had in the first place. Thankfully in Sri Lanka, whatever you choose is guaranteed to be good. There wasn’t really a single place we visited that we felt was a waste or a real disappointment!

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