Swim, bask, relax. Repeat.
If like me, you regularly need a dose of the beach bum holiday but could potentially get bored of the same location twice, then heading to a lesser known tropicana is a must. So when I realised I wasn’t bound to Malaysia last Christmas (for residency reasons), it was time to get on a cheap Air Asia flight out of here.
Fortunately, this budget airline has made travel from KL to Sri Lanka a doddle. A direct, return flight to Columbo cost 350 MYR (approximately £70 GBP.) I’ve had haircuts recently which cost more than that!
After 3.5 hrs in the air followed by a 4 hour taxi ride, we reached the beaches of Tangalle. Immediately, the lapping waves and salty air caressed my sense of wellbeing and transported me straight to the zen den.
Coming from the ‘Kiara Hills’ (aka the Beverly Hills) of Kuala Lumpur, it’s easy to forget you’re in South-East Asia. But here there’s no such disguise. This is raw SEA. Beautiful, humble and wonderfully less developed. I’d also realised that I’ve spent so much time travelling within Thailand over the past few years, that I forgot to look elsewhere. Immediately I was feeling those paradise sensations you get when heading somewhere for the first time, in a place that is inspiringly beautiful.
Tourism in Sri Lanka has quadrupled since 2009 [according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority] and as soon as I landed it was plain to see why.
Apart from the obviously lush tropical weather and blissfully wide beaches, the fauna on the island is also compelling. Despite being small in size, it is listed 34th in the world for being a biodiversity hotspot.
Many people say it’s a good first step for travellers who want to visit India, as it is a more chilled out, safer and less busy. As someone who’d love to visit India one day, I was keen to see what this island had to offer.
We decided to split our time in Tangalle at two different hotels. We normally do this as we find that all places have something different to offer. And if one is not as nice as you were expecting, at least you don’t need to stay there the whole time.
Seven Turtles (mid range)
Smooth, easy check in, a fresh coconut on arrival at the bar and very friendly staff. The rooms were spacious and to a high standard and it was a very peaceful resort. We loved their traditional Sri Lankan breakfast, which consists of fragrant curries, dahl, moreish coconut sambol and hoppers (a kind of pancake made from coconut milk and rice flour.) It was the best start to the day, sitting at a table overlooking the beach.
The owners were a very nice and friendly couple but sometimes we felt a little ‘watched.’ They obviously want all guests to have a wonderful stay, but because the place wasn’t busy, it felt like they were around a lot checking to make sure everything was in order. I also went to the hotel next door to enquire about dinner, which wasn’t received very well. This left some questions for the Sailor to answer, like ‘Why are you going next door, don’t you like our food?’ I think it’s expected that you only eat at the resort.
Good Karma Ayurvedic Resort (mid range)
This place runs like clockwork, thanks to their fantastic GM. He made us feel totally welcome upon arrival and he was very friendly yet professional. We felt more comfortable at this resort because there were a few more guests then the last and it didn’t feel like we were being watched.
The rooms were spacious, clean and gorgeous. The resort also offers a range of massages which I highly recommend (although don’t expect clean hair when you leave as they use a fair amount of oil!)
As we were there at Christmas, they put on a special Gala dinner. You could see the whole staff team coming together to make this a special night and so much effort went into it. The highlight was the entertainment. It was humblingly local and authentic, leaving us feeling inspired. The performances were definitely a trip highlight and an insight into Sri Lankan culture.
This place was great, but perhaps the Gala dinner was overpriced as the food wasn’t very good. Otherwise the food at this hotel is great.
Expecting a mini-version of India, I knew road travel would be a bit dodgy but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I think it depends what driver you have. From my experience, the taxi driver who was arranged from the better hotel I stayed at was the best. He drove much slower and I didn’t need to close my eyes and pray when he overtake.
However, I noticed that ‘estimated’ travel time was seriously underestimated everywhere in Sri Lanka. I was quoted a 2 hour travel time from Colombo airport to my hotel in Tangalle, but it took double. A taxi to the safari and also Mirissa for the whale watching was also double. So you might need to consider this when booking excursions.
For the first trip, we headed to Udawalawe National Park for a safari tour. We chose it because it had great reviews and was one of the better ones relatively close to the hotel.
We arranged a taxi to the park from our resort and the journey was estimated at an hour, but took about two. The taxi found us a jeep driver when we arrived and the cost was about 15000 rupees for 3 people, which is around £70GBP (entrance to the park roughly 10’000 plus the jeep driver fee 5’000.) The safari lasted about 3 hours.
I’d never been on a safari before so cannot compare, but I knew it wouldn’t be what you’d imagine an ‘African’ safari experience. Although, Lonely Planet say it ‘surpass many of the most famous East African national parks’ so I guess it’s on par.
It turned out to be a memorable day trip and as an animal and nature lover, it ticked many boxes for me. Just being in a jeep was pretty cool, with the wind in my hair and the fresh nature smells all around.
We saw most of what’s on offer: a herds of elephants, sambar deer, buffalo, a croc, peacocks, a flock of pelicans and my favourite, a monkey with the coolest haircut in the world. We didn’t see a leopard but I think most don’t; I guess these kings of the jungle keep to themselves most of the time. But you might just be lucky.
Was it value for money?
If you haven’t done it before then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did. Perhaps don’t go in expecting too much; the animals are relatively sparse as you’d imagine and you’ll see elephants mainly. The jeep drivers have walkie talkies to communicate with each other when they spot an animal so they’ll definitely try to maximise the animal sightings for you. Tipping of the drivers is also expected (we gave about 1500, approx. £7.)
Wanting to see as much as we could, the second day we decided to head for the ocean and take-up some whale and dolphin watching. This was another trip new to us so we were really excited.
It was an early 4am start to get the 5am taxi (organised by the hotel) which took us to Marissa. We were quoted 45 minutes, it took 1h30.
When we arrived, the taxi driver took us to the jetty where the tour operators were hanging out. We paid about 6’000 LKR p/p, about £30 GBP. Depending on the sightings, a trip can take anywhere between 2-8 hours (the average is 2-5). We were on the boat for about four.
Blue whales are known to be local residents within this coastline. On the day we were lucky enough to see two types of species, Bryde’s Whales and fin whales, as well as dolphins and some frisky turtles.
Out of the 4 hrs on the boat, we probably saw about 15 minutes worth of sea-life. But then again we weren’t taking a diving trip so this is expected. When the skipper and his colleagues on the boat spotted a whale, they sailed in its direction, then it’s another 10 minutes before the whale comes up for air.
Was it value for money?
Definitely – we came to see whales and dolphins and we achieved this goal! It did feel quite magical as I’d never seen wild ones before, and reminded me of the feeling I had when seeing wild koalas for the first time.
But if I were to do it again, I’d definitely book through a reputable and recommended operator that complies with international guidelines when approaching whales. Unfortunately the magical feeling I had was also mixed with sorrow, as it felt like our boat and many others were hounding the whales. As soon as one boat spots one, they were all chasing it, sometimes with 8 or so surrounding them.
If you’d like to support responsible tourism, then Lonely Planet recommends these reputable operators:
- Get your hotel to pack you a light breakfast before you go. It was an early start and we didn’t get to eat until the afternoon when we returned, and were starving!
- Avoid this experience during the monsoon season from May – July, as the waters are rough and it’s harder to spot the whales.
As much as these excursions were fun and memorable, it meant a lot of time travelling. We basically spent all day in a bumpy (jeep) or swerving car (taxi) during our safari day trip, and the taxi and boat trip on day two was just as bad, if not worse. My stomach was doing permanent backflips!
It was now time to chill out and thankfully, I was on the perfect beach for doing just that. We only had 6 nights in Tangalle which didn’t feel long enough to totally relax and regenerate, considering we changed accommodation and had two busy excursions. If we were to do it again, we’d stay there for one full week with a maximum of 1 excursion, then spend another week visiting some other parts of Sri Lanka, like Galle or Kandy.
If you’re in Tangalle, then the best thing to do is simply:
Swim, bask, relax. Repeat.
Sri Lanka made such an impression on us, that we are planning to go back for a kitesurfing holiday this year. Check out this page again soon for a low-down.
Have any tips before I go? Let me know!