Sri Lanka is a fascinating and varied place to visit, with endless adventure waiting around every twist of the rails. Yet, you can also have a great time within minutes of the airport. We head to Negombo to get the lowdown
Go beyond Sri Lanka’s usual tourist destinations to discover the beach holiday of your dreams.
SRI LANKA, IT’S A PLACE THAT means so much to so many people; and more often than not, that meaning and understanding of this emerald of the Indian Ocean comes in a different form.
It really isn’t easy to sum up Sri Lanka, as the country is so deeply varied in almost every possible way.
For many, it’s the dreamy and secluded beaches that draw them back time and again to these tranquil shores. For others, those same beaches offer up some of the best surf in the world, while many head a little further offshore for a glimpse of the famous blue whales that inhabit the waters around the southern coast.
Head inland along its classic, old colonial railways, and you sweep through mountains and tea plantations that positively dwarf those of Cameron Highlands. Between these lush, green plantations are pristine national parks jammed full of wildlife.
The central part of the island is flat and hot, and extremely rich in ancient religious architecture – especially Buddhist. For culture vultures, the central “Cultural Triangle” is truly paved with heartstopping inner beauty.
Needless to say, the capital city of Colombo is a hot and bustling place, which can often come as something of a mild culture shock to unsuspecting visitors, even if it is on the tame side when compared to neighbouring India.
For those in the know, the first (and last) stop on any visit to Sri Lanka should be the seaside town of Negombo, a comparative oasis of tranquillity. Negombo makes for a perfect base for a short visit to the country, or a great starting point for longer adventures around the island.
Being less than 10km from the international airport makes Negombo an even more appealing curtain opener to Sri Lanka; but, as many find out, it’s a whole lot more than that, and it’s well worth kicking your heels up here for a few days of mild-mannered adventure and relaxation.
The main Negombo beach is long and alluring. Overall, it’s a
great place to simply walk and acclimatise. It’s a fairly quiet place, though you might well get hassled by trinket vendors and boat owners, but not in an usually aggressive way.
There are several beach cafés and restaurants along the way, and if you head towards the old-town end of the beach, you pass through coves and eventually reach the old fish market, which is a must-visit place.
Along this strip, there will be several traditional catamarans, and a trip out on one of these is a great local experience, but be sure to negotiate well before setting out.
The surf and the snorkelling here are reasonable too, though they do not compare to that of Negombo’s southern beaches, and the water is not quite as clean.
The flat coastal fringes around the island make for great cycling, though it definitely pays to steer clear of the busy main roads.
There are some really nice village roads leading in from the beach, which could provide you with a sweet and interesting introduction to local culture. The coastal road north is relatively quiet too, and also makes for a hot and often blustery ride with an ocean backdrop.
If you head out very early, you will most likely come across one of the most fascinating cycling subcultures in the world: that of the “Sri Lankan standard racers”.
Each morning, the flat roads of the island are thrashed out by hundreds of cyclists, most on standard issue single-speed roadsters left over from the British Colonial era.
On bikes ridden out of necessity, these riders are passionate beyond belief, and there is a thriving racing scene based around these old steeds. Hopping a ride out with them is a cycling experience not to be passed up.
Most ride the busy roads between the airport and Negombo, using the morning traffic as motor pacing. If you find it all a little hairy, then take the coastal road from the old town southwards; it follows a spit of land, is very scenic, and has almost zero traffic.
STEPPING IT UP
If the slow pace of Negombo has you yearning for more adventure, then it’s an ideal place to arrange transport or trips to the rest of Sri Lanka.
There are local agents all over town, and you’re just an hour or so away from the centre of Colombo, which gives access to the rail network and long-distance buses.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
It takes just over three-hours of direct flight time from KL-Colombo, with Malaysia Airlines, SriLankan Airlines and AirAsia all operating direct daily flights.
Transfers can easily be arranged when booking your accommodation. It might cost slightly more, but at least the driver will know where to go. It only takes about 20-30 minutes to town, and rates are cheap.
Local tuk-tuks linger everywhere; be sure to negotiate prices before setting off. For longer trips, trains and buses are a good option.
You can also rent cars with drivers, but be sure to check the details before doing so. (You can’t rent a car without a local licence.)
WHEN TO GO
Sri Lanka has a fickle and varied climate, meaning that it’s always good to go somewhere, but not everywhere.
January, February and early March are the driest months in Negombo, with July- September also being pleasant.
EATING AND SLEEPING
There are numerous guesthouses, dorms and hotels of every possible standard to be found in Negombo, with rates being slightly less than in Malaysia – and with better standards at the lower end.
Check online in advance and book at least your first night. Try to make sure that you are within walking distance of the main tourist and beach area, as that’s where the best eateries are found.
There are many great restaurants along the coastal road, with freshly caught seafood being especially good, and very cheap.
Curry and rice is a daily ritual here, and for a set fee, you will be served with copious amounts of various mildly spiced curries. Be sure to try devilled dishes for something spicier, and kutu roti (chopped, mixed roti) for a snack.
Visas are best applied online. It’s a simple and swift process. Check out www.eta.gov.lk
A traditional catamaran waits to take tourists out for a ride
Fresh fish on sale by the beach
Street food on the beach after dark
Colourful treats downtown