South Coast, beach by beach. Part one: Bentota to Unawatuna

The southern coast of Sri Lanka has some of the best beaches in the country. Those which are suitable for swimming and blessed with the presence of coral reefs are obviously the most popular. Some of the famous resorts are a bit over-rated while others do deserve a few days stay. Here is a subjective overview of the beaches on the south-west coast: Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. Out of the three, Unawatuna is the most recommended.

A rocky outcrop on a sandy beach in Bentota, decorated with a Sri Lankan flag
Sri Lankan flag on the rocks on Bentota beach

Bentota

Bentota is a large, lack-lustre resort at the far west of the southern coast. I did not like the vibe of this place, full of high- rise hotels peppered all along a long beach. Even though it is a well-known resort, it was surprisingly empty when I visited in January. Unlike other famous beaches, the coast didn’t have any bays, so the sea was quite wavy. However, the sand was fine and white. Unsurprisingly, restaurants in Bentota itself have tourist prices but you can find cheap eateries in the nearby Aluthgama.

A few tourists on a very long, sandy beach lined with coconut trees in Bentota
A long strip of Bentota beach

Kande Vihara Temple

Although interesting, I’d discourage visiting the17th century Kande Vihara temple, located within easy reach from Bentota. After passing through an old gate and walking by a new monumental Buddha statue with lots of kitsch paintings inside it, you would stand face to face with an elephant. This temple elephant stands all day long on concrete, chained by one front and one hind leg in such a way that it’s unable to make even a single step. Devotees feed it with fruit as it brings them luck and prosperity. Once it leaves his spot in front of the temple, the elephant gets chained in the same manner to two large trees in a nearby grove. Even when taking a bath in a tiny, concrete pool, the animal is still in chains. It is heartbreaking to see the miserable existence of this glorious creature.

An elephant in chains standing on the concrete floor in front of a Kande Vihara temple near Aluthgama, Sri Lanka
A temple elephant in Kande Vihara

From the outside, Kande Vihara looks very much like a richly decorated, old Dutch merchant house with its beautifully carved, white-washed facade. Colourful paintings and Buddha sculptures inside contrast starkly with white-washed exterior walls. It is possible to get to the temple by bus 2/472 to Kalawila from Aluthgama bus station (which is within a walking distance from Bentota beach).

Hikkaduwa

On Christmas Day, I decided to go to Hikkaduwa Beach, one of the major seaside resorts on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka. It probably wasn’t the best moment. The beach was very crowded due to the peak season and local holidays. The locals dominated, but there were also plenty of Russians and Scandinavians.

A dense crowd of fully-dressed Sri Lankans on the narrow strip of the beach in Hikkaduwa
Sri Lankans enjoying a day off on Hikkaduwa Beach

Hikkaduwa Beach was dissapointing. The narrow strip of sand, densely packed with buildings, was close enough to the main road to see the cars passing by. Numerous boats belonging to divings schools were bobbing on the sea.

Rocks coming out of the water on otherwise sandy beach in Hikkaduwa, small boats bobbig on the waves on the horizon
Boats bobbing on the sea on Hikkaduwa Beach

The particular geography of the coast makes Hikkaduwa beach unique. The nearby coral reef acts as a natural breakwater. As a result, it is possible to swim safely, undisturbed by the waves. Hikkaduwa Coral Reef offers some great snorkelling, including swimming among the turtles.

I walked along the most crowded stretch of the beach until I reached a small peninsula with a large hotel build on it. Just behind the hotel, flat slabs of stone covered with ankle-deep water stretched dozens of meters into the sea.

Ankle-deep water covers flat-stone seabank reaching some 50 meteres far into the sea in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
An ususual coastline in Hikkaduwa: ankle-deep sea covered with stone slabs

A so-called Turtle Beach is located right in front of that peninsula. A few large turtles turn up in shallow water regularly, especially early in the morning. They are hand-fed with seaweed by the tourists. The reptiles are constantly touched and harassed and I would recommend not to participate in this.

Apart from lots of hotels, sea-front restaurants and cafes, there is a large vegetable and fish market in the Hikkaduwa town.

Unawatuna

Unawatuna is a famous seaside resort just 15 minutes drive away from Galle. A long, wide, sandy beach located in a large bay is used by the local and foreign tourists alike. It is a popular destination, so the beach tends to be quite busy, though rarely fully packed.

The sea bank has a sudden dip: from knee-height to chest-height. Generally, the waves are quite small, so it is possible to swim in the bay. The waves tend to throw the swimmer back and forth, so it is safer and more comfortable to swim a bit futher from the shore.

The author with her friends enjoys smoothies in a typical tourist cafe on the beach in Unawatuna
A bit of luxury on Unawatuna Beach

There are many snorkelling and diving tours to the nearby coral reef on offer. The beach is also full of restaurants and cafes, all geared towards foreign tourists. The sea-front restaurants are very posh, but it’s possible to find something more simple, with a decent meal below $2 on the roads leading to the beach (eg. Yaddehimulla Rd).

A simple but well- presented Sri Lankan meal of curry, dal and poppodams in a restaurant in Unawatuna
A simple yet overpriced meal near Unawatuna Beach

Jungle Beach in Unawatuna

One day, I came back to Unawatuna to check out the Jungle Beach. I walked along Yaddehimulla Rd to the Unawatuna Beach, continued all along the beach to the Buddhist temple at its far end. Then I turned into Devala Rd, which took me to the Jungle Beach Rd, all marked on Google maps. It was still around half an hour walk from the temple, but most of the way was thankfully shaded. At some point, the tarmac road finished and turned into a rocky, narrow path. It was possible to buy fresh coconuts and fruit from the vendors all along the way.

A white stupa stands among the trees on top of a hill in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
The Japanese Pagoda at the Rumassala Sanctuary

Eventually, I entered Rumassala Sanctuary which didn’t feel much like a sanctuary. It was just a rocky peninsula covered with shrubs. Quite a few people were snorkeling on the western side of the peninsula. Galle, with its white buildings, a lighthouse and churches was visible across the bay. Just above me, a white, new stupa was visible among the trees. I didn’t go up the hill to see the Japanese Pagoda up-close, but I heard it was a good viewpoint.

A view across the bay at Galle old town surrounded with city walls and a white lighthouse
Galle seen from the road towards the Jungle Beach in Unawatuna

Jungle Beach stretched just behind the peninsula. The first of the two coves was small and very crowded since most of the sand was wet. However, the sea was perfectly calm. I finally found an ideal place for a swim! I followed a narrow path, crossed a rocky beach and reached the second cove. Ironically, I found lots of space on the sand and in the natural shadow, but there were so many rocks in the water that swimming wasn’t possible.

Jungle Beach in Unawatuna: calm, crystal-clear water, tiny stretch of sand and lots of greenery around it
Jungle Beach – small but pleasant

I decided to walk back to the Galle Rd using 2 km route towards Eramudugaha Junction bus stop, (near Unawatuna rail station). I just started walking towards the main road and admiring lovely views at the Jungle beach down below, when a tuk-tuk driver offered me a free ride! I got off at the main road and started walking towards the bus stop. I soon found a roadside eatery, where I had a cheap lunch.

A view from above at the green peninsula and the cove with Jungle beach in Unawatuna
Jungle Beach from above

Yatagala Temple near Unawatuna

Unfortunately, I haven’t got the time to check out a small, ancient rock temple called Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya Temple. It is known for its 9-meters long reclining Buddha statue and old murals. A bus from Unawatuna Rail Station stops just 600 meters from the temple. Trip Advisor is full of warnings of dodgy ‘guides’ who ask for ‘voluntary’ contribution of 500 to 1000 LKR for visiting this tiny site so I’d advise being cautious about visiting that place.

January poya in Unawatuna

I was lucky during my first visit to Unawatuna , which happened to be on the day of January Poya (Buddhist full moon festival). I was standing on the Yaddehimulla Rd when I heard the noise of drumming. A long procession of white-clad people, mixed with drummers and male dancers in brightly coloured outfits was marching towards the beach.

Poya procession in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, including girls dressed in white, male dancers in white dhotis and metal headdress and ornaments on the torso and a truck with Buddhist monks
Poya procession in Unawatuna

A police car protected the procession which snaked for at least 500 meters. Local people stood along the road, distributing free sandwiches and drinks to the participants. Some of the male dancers wore strong make-up, while the others looked like fierce warriors in armour.

Male dancers in full make-up and crown-like, colourful headdress at the January Poya procession in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
Dancers at the January Poya procession

At the end of the procession, a pick- up van carried a few monks and a twig in a beautiful receptacle. This twig symbolised a sapling of the Bo tree (under which Buddha got enlightened). The January Poya celebrated the historical event when an Indian princess, a daughter of emperor Asoka, brough a sapling of the bodhi tree to Sri Lanka.

Buddhist monks in orange robes sit around a sapling of bodhi tree, transported in a decorated truck during January Poya procession in Sri Lanka
A symbolic sapling of Bo tree

The procession carried on to the beach, passed by surprised bathers and walked through the gate to the hill-top temple. The dancers left at that point, while the monks carried the sapling to the temple.

A large group of female Buddhist devotees dressed in white and carrying flags marches through the beach in Unawatuna to reach the temple during Poya festival
The poya procession on Unawatuna Beach

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Bentota?
Bentota is located on the main coastal road. You could get there by bus no. 2 from Colombo. The bus stop is located some 1.5km from the beach.
There are two train stations nearby: Bentota, very near the beach and Aluthgama. Aluthgama is served by more trains, including express connections. A regular, commuter train gets to Colombo in 2h.

How to get to Hikkaduwa?
Hikkaduwa is located on the main coastal road. You could get there by bus no.2 from Colombo, provided it is the route to Galle or Tangalle (if it’s the shorter route to Ambalangoda, you’d need to change for a local bus in Ambalangoda).
Hikkaduwa train station is located just 5 min walk from the beach. It’s 2h from Colombo with an express train.

How to get to Unawatuna?

Unawatuna is located near Galle, on the main coastal road. Bus no.2 from Colombo to Tangalle stops there.
Unawatuna railway station is located 2km from the beach. You could reach the beach by a local bus going down (eastwards) the coastal road.

Prices in Bentota/Hikkaduwa/Unawatuna [in LKR as of January 2019]:

380 lunch at the simple but tourist-geared eatery near Unawatuna beach
150 avocado smoothie in a cafe on Unawatuna beach
150 lunch in a cheap eatery in Aluthgama or Unawatuna inland (Galle Rd)
70 AC minivan from Ambalangoda to Hikkaduwa (15km)
50 bus from Weligama to Unawatuna beach (25km)
50 fresh coconut in Unawatuna
40 bus from Balapitiya to Bentota (20km)
24 bus from Galle centre to Unawatuna beach (6km)
14 bus Kande Vihara temple to Aluthgama (2.5km)

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