Exploring the towns and beaches of the exotic island nation of Sri Lanka

The teardrop – shaped island of Sri Lanka has a long, colorful history that is often overlooked in favor of its more popular neighbor, India. Think of Sri Lanka as ‘India light,’ the beauty and culture of India without the dire poverty, noise and uncleanliness. While the country is typically seen as a beach destination, it boasts a dizzying array of colonial architecture that tells the story of its rich integrated past. Since the 16th century, this small island has been occupied by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, and in cities like Galle these different influences are like patches on a quilt, woven together to tell a single story.

Welcome to Galle, a seaside town that offers a lot more than just a beach; it’s an intoxicating juxtaposition of East and West. Apart from the capital Columbo, Galle is the second busiest city in Sri Lanka. My first impressions of the city were that it was dirty, chaotic and cultureless. However, a closer look later revealed I was wrong. This place was a great surprise on my journey; this unblemished coast southeast of suburban Mount Lavinia was picturesque. The boom of cheap hotel buildings, tourist lodgings, even the gaudy luxury complexes I’d been told to expect were all there, but were offset by mile upon mile of unspoiled sugar-white beaches fringed with cinderblock houses, their walls sprouting wiry growths of bougainvillea. The white stupas that marked the coast road at regular intervals resembled blanched onions.

Stalls line the streets selling freshly caught fish, women in saris glide amongst the crowds ushering scores of school children dressed in crisp white uniforms and ankle socks.

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Locals would cry out, “Oh, Miss beautiful!’ as I walked along the busy road. The children are just as confident, eagerly stopping me to ask my name, country and age with big grins across their faces.

Galle is a place that’s deliciously exotic and typically Sri Lankan. In the green fields of the city, local boys gather to play cricket next to the beach with the sound of waves crashing against the rocks as background music. The city feels more European than South Asian, mainly because its center – a jumble of quaint gem shops, cafes and guesthouses – sits within the weather-beaten walls of a Portuguese-built fort.

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The Portuguese, Dutch and British influence is seen around every corner thanks to the narrow streets, quaint windowsills and imposing Dutch churches. This is a city that’s absolutely charming, and I dare you not to fall in love with it. The imposing Galle Fort, built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch, watches over this unique city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, to this day, it is still the largest remaining fortress in Asia. Brisk onshore winds cut the heat and make wandering and exploring the narrow lanes of the 90-acre walled city a pleasure. Officers prowl the fort night and day, not to guard the fort but to deter local teenage couples from kissing in one of the many secret spaces.

Good Vibrations
But if you prefer to spend your days lazing on the beach and your nights relaxing at a beach bar, the small town of Hikkaduwa (roughly 17km northwest of Galle) is the perfect destination for that. Once famed as a hippy hangout, this coastal town is no longer offthe- beaten-track and now draws in families as well as crowds of backpackers and surfers looking to enjoy its laid-back vibe and golden swoop of beach.

Hikkaduwa is located on the Galle Road, the very busy thoroughfare connecting the cities of Colombo and Galle. While the dense traffic on Galle Road calls for tourists to be cautious when traveling in and around Hikkaduwa, it also makes it relatively easy to get to and from the town. Regular buses travel between Hikkaduwa and Colombo, Galle and Ambalangoda. Trains, which according to Lonely Planet tend to be crowded and slow, connect Hikkaduwa with towns up and down the coast, as well as Colombo, Galle, Matara and Kandy. Taxis – generally minibuses for up to eight people – are readily available, especially in front of larger hotels.

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Hikkaduwa was the first place I visited in Sri Lanka and it will always hold a special place in my heart. The beach here is one of the most beautiful tropical beaches I have ever seen in my life; it’s like a postcard. The sunrise at Hikkaduwa was enough a reason to pull me out of bed at 4:30am. It’s easy to argue that the sun rising from the end of the endless sea is the same everywhere, but the one I witnessed here was inexplicably different. There were also a few early risers strolling barefoot on the beach, waves washing water and sand against their feet.

It might sound incredible, but a giant turtle, about four feet wide, came out onto the beach. A local pointed out that it weighs over 100kgs and is over 200-yearsold. Uncomfortable with the attention and shutters, the tortoise soon went underwater.

After a rising sun and a sinking tortoise, the third attraction of the morning was snorkeling. Just below 100 meters of the ocean I saw giant colonies of corals, with patches of royal blue and bright green shimmering with sunlight on their surface. The 90-minute snorkeling session was as fatiguing to the body as it was pleasing to the mind.

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Surf-wise, Hikkaduwa ranges from absolute beginner on the open sands, to fairly advanced on the reef break. The waves in November and early December are virtually empty and steadily grow in size from January onwards until the end of the season in April. What’s more, the turtles arrive in December and the sight of an alien head popping out of the water from time to time is thrilling.

The streets next to the beach are lined with stalls and stalls of street food. Don’t be surprised if your Bombay mix is served in a paper packet made from someone’s homework – so charming and so Sri Lankan. The traffic is chaotic and cows nonchalantly cross the road causing a cacophony of beeps from impatient drivers.

The highlight of my trips to Hikkaduwa was the beautiful sunsets. I spent many evenings relaxing at one of the beach bars with a beer watching the surfers catch the waves as the sun set over the ocean. Fishermen would bring their boats in and leave beautiful silhouettes against the setting sun. The images of modern day surfers intertwined with traditional fishermen represented exactly what Sri Lanka is known for – wonderful cultural diversity. Welcome to Sri Lanka.

Bio: Stephanie Raley writes Pearls and Passports, a solo female travel blog that will tell you the realities of travelling solo through Asia and Oceania. At 26 Stephanie embarked on the trip of a lifetime after securing a sabbatical from her high stress job. She has one goal: to discover her passion in life. Seven months and eight countries later Stephanie has a wealth of travel stories and advice that will help and inspire new or experienced backpackers. Follow Stephanie on her adventures via Twitter and Facebook as she learns about herself and the world around her.

With additional reporting by Christine Van

Images by asianstreetfood.wordpress.com