Balapitiya and Ambalangoda – south coast beaches off the beaten track

Unlike other towns along south-east coast of Sri Lanka, such as Bentota or Hikadduwa, Ambalangoda and the neighbouring Balapitiya aren’t very touristic places. There are just a couple of smaller resorts and guesthouses along the beaches. The main attraction in Balapitiya is a boat safari on Madu Ganga river and lake ,while Ambalangoda is best known for the traditional masks. The beaches on that stretch of the coast are beautiful, empty but quite dangerous.

A green-necked female peacock walking on a dirt path from the village to the beach in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka
A female peacock walking on a path to the beach in Balapitiya

Balapitiya

Balapitiya is no more than a large village. Its ‘centre,’ located at the main coastal road, consists of a supermarket, a small fresh market, a train station and a bus stand. The rather fancy and pricey resorts are nearer the beaches.

Balapitiya beaches

The beaches in Balapitiya are beautiful: long, sandy, palm-fringed and empty. Unfortunately, the ocean is too rough for swimming. There are three beaches in Balapitiya, all separated from each other with small rocky outcrops with an easy land passage between them. The first and least appealing beach, closest to the mouth of Madu Ganga river, isn’t shown on Google maps. A short distance from a tiny Balapitya market there is a white gate leading to a narrow strip of land dividing the river on one side and the sea beach on the other. Madu Ganga delta is a great place to spot eagles or watch the fishermen leaving for the sea at sunset.

A white-sand beach in Balapitiya, frindged with palm trees, ending with a rocky cove where wooden fishing catamarans are lying
The second beach in Balapitiya, counting from the mouth of Madu Ganga river

The virgin beach stretching between the mouth of the river and the rocky outcrop is over a kilometer long. There are no tourists and no hotels, only boats and huts. The spot near the rocky outcrop is magical. The backwater, all covered in greenery and large boulders create a labyrinth half-submerged in the sea.

Narrow paths will take you from there to a beach full of wooden catamaran boats. Just a bit further there is a large resort facing the safest stretch of the beach in Balapitiya. The sea is still rough, though, and I wouldn’t risk getting inside the sea further than till the thigh- depth. Beyond the resort, the bank rises steeply, suggesting the existence of strong rip currents.

A long, white-sand beach with one huge boulder and a line of greenery and coconut palms in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka
The beach near the first hotel in Balapitiya

The next rocky outcrop is often frequented by local men who come there to drink alcohol and to enjoy the natural swimming pool. The pool could comfortably fit around ten seated persons or one swimmer. Just round the corner, there is another middle-sized hotel with only a few guests and a pool of slightly calmer, shallow water.

Boat safari on Madu Ganga river in Balapitiya

During Christmas, the volunteer coordinator took me and my colleagues for a river safari on Madu Ganga river. I didn’t enjoy the trip because the river was full of noisy boats smelling of petrol.

Green-water Madu Ganga river, fringed with lush mangrove greenery
Madu Ganga estuary in Balapitiya

Although Madu Ganga river and lake are protected by a Ramsar convention (environmental protection of valuable wetland habitats), there isn’t much to see. It’s a typical mangrove forest with just a few cormorants, egrets and water monitor lizards. The highlight are the sea eagles circling above the water. If you’re lucky, you could spot a crocodile.

Prawn farm at the Madu Ganga lake

The tour includes two additional attractions. Cinnamon Island is a tiny island with a family-run cinnamon farm. An elderly lady showed how the twigs of cinnamon tree are peeled off the cinnamon bark and then how the bark is dried. She also demonstrated how to weave a fan from coconut leaves in less than a minute. Predictably, just after that, we were shown the cinnamon- related merchandise.

An elderly Sri Lankan lady demonstrates how to peel the cinnamon bark of a twig on Cinnamon Island in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka
Cinammon peeling presentation at the Madu Ganga boat trip

The last attraction was a new- looking temple with rows of statues of Buddhist monks located on another lake island.

Colourful puppets of men and demons hanging from a tree in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka
In front of a small puppetry museum in Balapitiya

The last tourist attraction in Balapitiya is a private puppetry museum located towards the end of the village, on the road to Ambalangoda.

The turtle business on the south coast of Sri Lanka

Balapitiya, just like many other villages along the south coast, has a few sea turtles hatching/ rescue centres. I would advise you against visiting them. As a part of the team organising ‘volunteers’ engaged in various ‘rescue’ projects, I could see from first hand it’s just one big scam bringing profits rather than providing animal welfare. The centres’ owners keep the rescued turtles in small tanks rather than releasing them into the wild.

Five female Chinese volunteers pat a  sea turtle with sand at a hatchery in Balapitiya, Sri Lanka
Volunteering at turtle projects is ethically dubious activity

Hordes of tourists and ‘volunteers’ touch the turtles daily, undoubtedly stressing them out. The eggs are picked up from the beach at night by a large group of volunteers, unnecessarily scaring the female turtles. The eggs stay in the centre until they hatch. Then, volunteers release the hatchlings to the ocean. If you ever get offered to join the night trip of watching the turtles laying their eggs (which happens in January/ February), don’t do it! It does disturb the female turtles.

Ambalangoda town and beaches

A red, public bus number 536 would take you from Balapitiya to Ambalangoda, just 10 minutes ride away. Ambalangoda is a better-known destination and a transportation hub. You can find there a small, fresh market, a harbour and a couple of beaches.

Colourful oruwa catamaran fishing boats among the boulders, sandy beach and palm trees in Ambalangoda
Colourful oruwa catamaran fishing boats in Ambalangoda

The harbour is just a lovely, small cove filled with sailing ships. It is protected from all sides by wave breakers and natural rocks. The adjacent beach with a small, hippie bar is relatively safe to swim on windless days, but even there a pull of the sea is quite strong.

A row of sailboats, a strip of sand and a branch of a palm at a small harbour in Ambalangoda, Sri Lanka
Harbour in Ambalangoda

The next beach was inclined steeply, which is a sign of undercurrents. The rocks with crevices filled with water are an ideal envioronment for sea urchins, crabs and small fish. It’s possible to spot eagles circling above that area.

One of Ambalangoda’s wild beaches

The main attraction in Ambalangoda is Aripayala Mask Museum. It is a private museum, combined with a workshop and a pricey shop ran by a family who is in the trade for centuries. The wooden masks and figures are really stunning. The exhibition explains the use of masks in traditional theatre performances.  Unfortunately, exorcism (Thovil), mask dancing (Kolam) and puppetry (Rookada) are a thing of a past. The entrance to the museum is free and you can also watch the craftsmen producing the masks for sale.

Two huge, ornamental wooden masks of a man and a woman on manequins and two hairy masks of lions at a display at Mask Museum in Ambalangoda
At the Aripayala Mask Museum in Ambalangoda

WARNING: lonely walks in Sri Lanka aren’t the best idea (for girls)

My lonely walks on the virgin beaches in southern Sri Lanka usually ended up with at least one bizarre/potentially dangerous encounter. Once, I was approached by a ‘friendly’ guy who turned out to be a tuk-tuk driver. It was in the vicinity of hotels, so I was feeling quite safe. I told him politely I was not interested in his services, but he accompanied me for a long walk along the beach, sharing with me lots of stories. He witnessed the 2004 tsunami, which destroyed his house. His father was a fisherman, spending on the sea six weeks at a time. All was well until, upon leaving, he kissed me in the cheek! It was sleazy as that’s not normal behaviour in this culture. I was shocked.

On another occasion, I walked between the market and the beach in Ambalangoda when a middle-aged man approached me. The conversation with him turned out to be quite disturbing. When he got to know I practice Buddhist meditation, he said that Buddhism was all about control. For example, if he wanted to rape me, he would realise it was bad for his karma. Thus, he would be able to control himself. As soon as I heard that, I swiftly moved towards the people ahead of me. No such adventure had befallen me in Mirissa, Weligama and other major tourist destinations.

When I was walking through a small town or village with my two female friends, we would be often bothered by local men. ‘How are you?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where are you going?’ We would hear the same questions at least a dozen times every single day. Trust me, it gets tiring after a while. All those problems disappeared almost magically when my husband joined me.

The author standing on a boulder on the beach in Ambalangoda, some rocky outcrops, sand and palms behind her
Posing for a photo in my beach-walking outfit on a beach in Ambalangoda


I should add that during all those lonely walks I wore clothes considered decent in Sri Lanka: a short- sleeved shirt and a skirt till the knees. I assume the more revealing clothes woud draw even more unwanted attention. For your peace of mind (and safety) reserve the bikini and shorts only for the beaches popular among the Western tourists.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Balapitiya and Ambalangoda?

Both destinations are on the main coastal road between Colombo and Tangalle. The bus number 2 from Colombo to Ambalangoda/Galle/Matara/Tangalle will stop at Ambalangoda but if it’s an express service, it might pass through smaller Balapitiya. Any shorter distance coastal buses would stop at both.
It’s also possible to get to both places by train from Colombo, or if you’re coming from other direction, from Galle, Weligama or Matara. Those trains are usually totally empty (apart from peak office hours) so it’s a cheap and comfortable option.

Prices in Balapitiya and Ambalangoda [in LKR as of January 2019]

45-90 one pineapple from a market
75 3rd class train Colombo-Ambalangoda
50 one mango from a supermarket
50 3rd class train Balapitiya- Galle
50 boiled chickpea with coconut from a street stall
40 bus Bentota- Balapitiya
20-40 a bunch of bananas
20 bus Balapitiya- Ambalangoda

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