The pristine beaches of Tangalla and the cave temples of Mulkirigala

Tangalla (also spelled Tangalle) is more peaceful and beautiful than its more famous cousins like Mirissa and Unawatuna. It is also cheaper so long you stay in the town proper. The beaches are incredibly picturesque but unfortunately only a few places are safe to swim. The vicinity of the ancient Mulkirigala cave temples makes it a perfect destination for those who like to combine beach time with sightseeing.

Statues of a blue bearded warrior and a white warrior hold swords above a plaque with Sinhala script in a cave temple in Mulkirigala
The interior of one of Mulkirigala’s temples

Tangalla on a budget

We stayed in Tangalla town, within walking distance from the bus station and the fresh market, surrounded by shops and cheap eateries but still just a short walk from the nearest beach. All the other beaches were easily accessible by bus. At first, we paid 1500 LKR for a simple double-bed room since we booked it via Booking.com. Next day, we had a direct deal with the owner, which saved us 300 rupees. In Sri Lanka, finding a place without a booking often pays off.

Tangalla has plenty of budget eateries catering for locals. The buffet, lunchtime diners are cheaper than the restaurants open in the evenings. The local market is a great place to buy fruit for fair prices.

Tangalla beaches

Most of Tangalla’s numerous sandy beaches are undeniably beautiful. On the flip side, they are unsuitable for swimming or even bathing due to strong current.

Marakallagoda, Goyambokka and Silent Beach

I wasn’t impressed with Marakallagoda, one the beaches closer to Tangalla town. It was a cove with an ugly unfinished building on one end and a rocky peninsula on the other. The beach was very close to the road and had a couple of restaurants along its length. It looked like the days of its glory were over: there were lots of abandoned buildings in the vicinity. The sea was too rough for swimming.

Scattered cafes and buldings at the little cove on Marakallagoda beach in Tangalla
Marakallagoda beach

The next beach westward was deserted, apart from one restaurant overlooking it. It must have been due to the steepness of the beach dropping spectacularly down to the sea. The sea was very rough, hence entering the water could be suicidal there.

High waves at a cove of Goyambokka beach, surrounded with thick coconut grove
People braving high waves at Goyambokka beach

We walked for around 500 meters along Tangalle road and then turned left into a local road which took us to the famous Goyambokka beach. It was pretty indeed, divided in two coves separated by boulders. Just a perfect combination of the palms, sand and rocks. Goyambokka beach was also surprisingly empty around 4 pm when we visited. If you wanted, you could walk again along the main road to get to the equally famous Silent Beach.

A rocky outcrop and a rough sea around it at Goyambokka beach in Tangalla
The far corner of Goyambokka beach

We came to Silent Beach by bus on another occasion. That medium-sized cove beach was one of the finest we had seen, with the green wall of trees all along, golden sand and picturesque rocks and at one end of it.

A narrow, steep Silent Beach sandwiched between the sea and the wall of palm trees
Steep bank on the Silent Beach

The beach yet again was empty, but the sea was downright dangerous. The beach was descending to the sea very steeply. There was a sudden dip in the water: from knee-depth to the depth above man’s height. The waves were high and the pull of the sea was quite strong. Upon entering, you’d be immediatel pulled towards the depth only to be pushed back onto the shallow water by the same wave. If you were not cautious enough, you would get knocked over and thrown with force onto the beach. After getting badly mistreated by the ocean, we gave up on enjoing the water and just walked towards the rocks, watching fish trapped in the rock pools.

A narrow strip of sand, a rocky peninsula and greenery beyond on the Silent Beach in Tangalla
The far end of Silent Beach

Tangalla Beach and Rekawa Beach

The main Tangalla beach was an incredibly long stretch of sand, starting just after Tangalle harbour and ending with Rekawa beach and lagoon. The beach nearest to the town was far from impressive. The vicinity of the fishing harbour and a rather smelly mouth of Kirama Oya Lagoon successfully discouraged me from swimming.

A very beach narrow strip of Tangalla beach separated by strings of wavebreakers
Wavebrakers at Tangalle Beach

The further we walked away from the town, the wider and greener the beach was getting. The artificial wave breakers created safe swimming pools for the first 1-2 kilometres. Despite the wave breakers, the banks were steep, the pull of the sea noticeable and the waves relatively high. It wasn’t ideal for swimming, but bathing was possible.

After the last wavebreaker, the beach became empty and the landscape more beautiful, with palms and other plants growing all along. However, the sea bed was full of rocks, while the ocean got really wild, completely unapproachable. There were no ugly, high-rise hotels in Tangalla. All the resorts were discreetly hidden behind the palm trees, away from the beach.

A very long, deserted, white sand beach in Tangalla
Never-ending Tangalle Beach

We walked along the Tangalla beach for 3km, lured by the Google maps showing ‘Medilla swimming area‘. It turned out to be a minuscule natural pool where the pull of the sea and the waves were still so strong that it was impossible even to sit still.

A shallow rivulet in a brackish lagoon fringed with mangroves in Tangalla
Lagoon behind the Tangalle Beach

The beach itself, though, was definitely among the most beautiful we’d seen in Sri Lanka, partly due to the nearby lagoon covered by the mangroves. From the lagoon, we took a little road leading to the main road and caught a bus to Tangalla from Marakolliya bus stop.

If we continued along the ocean, we’d have soon reached Rekawa Beach and Lagoon. Rekawa Beach is a popular spot for watching turtle hatching. Trip Advisor reviews I read suggested the whole experience was horrendous. I wouldn’t like to be a part of a loud, 40-50 people strong group stressing out a single turtle.

Mulkirigala Cave Temples

We devoted the last morning in Tangalla to see the ancient cave temples of Mulkirigala, about one hour journey outside Tangalla. Getting to Mulkirigala was easy (see ‘Practicalities’ below), though it required one bus change in Beliatta and a bit of a walk. I’d strongly recommend visiting this place in the early morning or late afternoon as at other times it can be a very hot and sweaty climb. All foreigners need to pay a perfectly reasonable fee of 500 rupees.

A gate to Mulkirigala cave complex and a vertical rock covered with greenery where the caves are located
The entrance to Mulkirigala temple complex

The 205 meters rock is peppered with caves turned into temples. Those seven cave temples spread over five terraces. Although some of the temples are from 3rd century CE, they were all rebuilt in the 18th century. All temples have similar layout: rock ceiling is painted with floral motifs, a large reclining Buddha statue flanked by a few smaller standing or seated Buddhas or his kneeling disciples and some frescos on the walls.

A yellow, reclining Buddha statue located under a painted, very low ceiling of the natural cave in Mulkirigala cave temple
Reclining Buddha statue in one of the cave temples

The Lower Terrace contains two caves, one of which has the largest reclining Buddha statue. The murals from Kandyan era (18h century) are of exquisite beauty. I just loved the murals in the second cave, depicting demons eating humans. Most of the frescos depict Buddha’s life and Jataka stories (about previous lives of Buddha).

A mural in Mulkirigala temple cave depicting demons devouring humans.
Kandyan era murals in one of the cave temples in Mulkirigala

The next level, Bo Tree Terrace, contained the third temple and a stupa with lovely views at the sea of greenery below. The next level, Great King’s Temple Terrace has four more caves, one of which is much more recent.

A simple, white-walled entrance to the temples hidden in natural caves in Mulkirigala, Sri Lanka
The Great King’s Temple Terrace

The last steep climb up the stairs would take you to the Upper Temple Complex with a stupa, behind which there is a small path leading to a viewpoint.

A view from Mulkirigala temple upper terrace at the hills covered with trees and paddy fields.
The view from the top of the rock

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Tangalla?
Tangalla doesn’t have any rail connection but it has a large bus stand well connected to the east, west and north. If you’re heading to Tangalla from the east, you can take a bus  Route No 32 from Colombo to Tangalle or Kataragama. Also buses to Hambantota pass by. You can get to Tangalle directly from Up Country as well, taking route no 31 to Badula or Nuwara Eliya (both stop in Ella). It’s around 4h by bus to Ella, over 1h from Mirissa and around 2.5h from Galle.

How to get to Mulkirigala from Tangalla?
Go to Tangalla bus stand and asked which bus goes to Beliatta (7km). From Beliatta bus stand, take another bus to Mulkirigala junction (9km). From the junction it’s just 1km walk slightly upwards to the foot of the Mulkirigala Temple.

Prices in Tangalla [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]
1200 ensuite double room far away from the sea
500 entrance to Mulkirigala caves
250 ordinary bus Tangalle-Ella (140km)
140 buffet lunch at budget eatery
86 bus Mirissa-Tangalla
60 egg roti in a budget restaurant
23 bus Tangalla- Beliatta (7km)
28 bus Beliatta- Mulkirigala (9km)
15 bus Tangalla bus stand to Silent Beach

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