I sat on the veranda at Mount Lavinia, one of the oldest hotels in the country. The night was warm and a stillness rested over the white colonial villa. I followed a fishing boat on the horizon. The light fainted in the night, as if it was trying to stay on a straight line without falling down, disappearing on the other side. I felt like Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night. Except I was five thousand miles from the French Riviera. But my adventure was just about to begin. I was going to find the lost paradise of Sri Lanka.
Travelling Sri Lanka can be tough. The traffic is horrible, the roads are bad, and the taxi drivers notoriously misunderstand where you are going. A safer way to explore the country is by train. Built by the British in 1864, the railway network takes you to all major destinations. In a very, very slow fashion that is. We decided to arrange a car with a personal driver instead, the most convenient way if you plan to go off the beaten track.
The traffic in Sri Lanka is horrible, the roads are bad, and the taxi drivers notoriously misunderstand where you are going.
Pradeep was in his mid thirties. He had a thin black moustache and one of those paisley shirts you always regret buying. A Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, dangled in the rear-view mirror as he zig-zagged the car on the winding road. “I’ll take you down the West Coast, show you the very best of Sri Lanka”, he said with a big smile. A private driver clearly had its benefits.
Our journey started in Negombo, a small coast town just south of Colombo, the 24/7 screaming-of-attention capital of Sri Lanka. It’s not the place you stay your entire trip, but a good entry thanks to its proximity to the international airport.
I spent the afternoon exploring the old town. An old fish market. A Portuguese fort. A simple yet harmonic life. The colonial legacy was everywhere. And it didn’t take long before I encountered the insanely popular sport. Cricket.
We spent the following weeks embraced by the beauty of Sri Lanka. Hikkaduwa, a hippie hangout in the 1970s, is today a meeting point for independent travellers looking for sun, nightlife, and perfect shaped surfing waves. An hour south you’ll find Galle, a colonial town built as a fort with hand crafted houses, narrow alleys and an old beautiful lighthouse. The cosy atmosphere makes it a mandatory place to spend an evening dinner.
Sri Lanka is like India without food poisoning. Exotic flavors, Hindu temples, astonishing nature. And more beautiful beaches.
The beach of Weligama was green and lush, sheltered by a deep bay. Traditional oruwa boats gathered along the shoreline as the restaurants lined up with seafood so fresh it still gasped for breath. I made my way down to the water. The sand was so hot I had to run not to burn my feet. “It’s darker here, and the grains are a bit heavier”, the boy next to me explained as he waded through the water with a spear, looking for the evening dinner. He was right about the sand. But the water was clear, so clear I could see corals shimmer from above the water.
We crossed the bay to Mirissa, a sleepy village with simple guesthouses and bad restaurants. Why would anyone go there? Well, it’s one of few places in the world where you can experience blue whales in their natural habitat. Yep, you heard right, blue whales. So grab your life west and get ready for a day at the sea.
Tours depart early mornings and is one of those things you simply should not miss. A local skipper will take you far off the coast, sometimes for several hours, before the search begins. And if you are lucky, you will rather soon spot sea turtles, jumping dolphins, and a giant whale’s tail breaking the surface. Send your prayer to the sea gods.
Some places you just stumble on by chance, it’s the only way to find them. It’s the unknown unknowns. Kirinda was one of them. On our way to Yala National Park, we ended up in a small coastal village. Surrounded by dense jungle, it felt like someone was trying to hide it from the outside world. Deep in the bay, a hidden beach appeared in front of us.
Going just slightly off the beaten track might reward you in unexpected ways.
We were all alone. Light footprints in the damp sand. A couple of sundecks, deserted, as if someone just left in hurry. Shifting colours of blue and brown. An Oruwa fishing boat on the shoreline, ready to provide a family with food for the day.
A light wind swept in from the ocean and the sun made its way down the horizon. It became darker. A group of villages started to gather on a mountain top above the beach. They were curious, followed every step we took. Remarkably, the whole place seemed known only by locals. We had discovered the lost paradise of Sri Lanka.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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