The east coast of Sri Lanka has much to offer and unlike the south or west of the island, the beaches aren’t packed with resorts or hordes of tourists. The vibe here is very different, much more authentic and original, and tradition still thrives. In fact, you are more likely to share the vast empty swathes of beach with local fishermen than sunbathing tourists.
There is a culturally intriguing combination of bustling Muslim communities, spectacular Hindu temples, colourfully painted churches and even the odd Buddhist dagoba. This is a region that was hit hard by both the decades-long civil war and by the 2004 tsunami; now, despite the development, visitor numbers are low.
Those that do venture to this distant side of the country are heartily welcomed by the locals and rewarded tenfold by miles of untouched pristine coastline and an authenticity that is becoming ever more difficult to find. The east will change rapidly as the investors move in, so visit now before it loses some of its charms.
East Coast Destinations
There are many worthwhile destinations on the east coast, including Passikudah Beach, Trincomalee (where you can spot Blue Whales right from the shore), Uppuveli and Nilaveli (two beautiful beach areas near Trincomalee that offer excellent diving and snorkeling) and Pigeon Island National Park (with amazing surrounding reefs).
Unfortunately, time constraints meant that we only skimmed the surface of what this fascinating region has to offer; we visited Batticaloa and Arugam Bay.
Batticaloa, surrounded by lagoons with palm-filtered sunlight, is a historic east coast town with a mellow vibe and compact centre. We stayed out on the Kallady peninsula, to the east of town, at a small, family run guesthouse within five-minutes-walk of the lovely golden stretch of Kallady Beach.
It was a delight to wander up and down this empty stretch of sand, taking in the comings and goings of local fishermen, following the peninsula all-but to its end. Serving as a poignant reminder of the power of nature, a small fenced off area right on the sand encloses wreckage from the tsunami.
A little further along, slightly inland, lies the partly destroyed Thiruchendur Murugan Alayam Hindu Temple, its small gopuram leaning at a disturbing angle. We spent an enjoyable day cycling around Batticaloa, exploring its sights and taking in the laid-back vibe beside the pretty lagoons and waterways.
Surrounded by mangroves, this 28m-tall lighthouse dates from 1913. It’s around 5km northwest of town along a quiet lagoon-facing road; the water is calm around here, making it popular with locals for swimming.
Built in 1628 by the Portuguese, this once-grand fort was taken over by the Dutch and then the British. With stunning views across the lagoon, its offerings include English cannons, surviving watchtowers and a ruined bell tower. Even though much of the structure is crumbling and now mostly home to administrative offices, it is still an evocative sight to behold.
Mahatma Gandhi Park
Near the Dutch Fort, this modern park along the old waterfront area makes a pleasant stroll. It includes Batticaloa Gate, a 19th Century welcoming arch into the harbor.
Anipandi Sitivigniswara Alayar Hindu Temple
Of the many Hindu temples in town, this particular one is one of the finest with a large colourfully decorated gopuram, decorated with a festival of intertwined figures.
As you’re cycling around this fascinating town, keep an eye out for the bright green Auliya Mosque and a multitude of eye-catching churches, including St Mary’s Cathedral and Our Lady of Sorrows Church, both of which are painted a dazzling shade of blue.
There is also the Imperial Saloon, a kitschy salon famous for its outlandish interior of, among other things, fake flowers, sequins and tinsel garlands; it would certainly be a memorable place to get your hair cut!
Transport from Batticaloa
Batticaloa is well connected to the rest of the island; we took a direct bus from Polonnaruwa – around 3 hours.
There are also buses to/from the following destinations:
- Colombo: 9 hours
- Badulla: 6 hours
- Jaffna: 9 hours
- Kandy: 6 hours
- Passikudah: 1 hour
- Pottuvil: 3.5 hours
- Trincomalee: 3 hours
Only buses to Colombo or Jaffna need to be booked one day in advance at the main bus stand; tickets for all other destinations can be purchased just before departure. It is recommended that you arrive 30 minutes to one hour before your bus is scheduled to leave as timings are usually not exact.
Trains also run from Batticaloa to Colombo, stopping at numerous places on route and taking 8-9 hours for the full trip.
Arugam Bay is a surfer’s paradise, famed as the best spot in the country to hit the waves. There is a laid-back vibe to this tiny town, which has a population of just a few hundred people; everything is dotted along a single coast road. There are beachfront guesthouses and restaurants, which offer fantastic value for money compared to their brash west coast cousins.
During our visit, the water was calm and perfect for swimming; had we not have known, we’d never have guessed it to be so legendary among surfers. The long sweep of sand that makes up Arugam Bay makes a lovely ocean-side walk; we walked for what seemed like miles before we headed back.
Also within walking distance, though by road not beach, are the Mudu Maha Vihara ruins and white dagoba. Visited by only a handful of locals, this peaceful site is well worth leaving the beach for; there is a 3m-high standing Buddha flanked by two bodhisattva figures.
The small Muslim town of Pottuvil, 3km north of Arugam Bay, is where all transport departs and arrives. It’s well worth making a trip out here, however, for a sunrise or sunset trip on Pottuvil Lagoon, which is home to an abundance of wildlife, including elephant, crocodile and myriad bird species. The lagoon is ringed by mangrove forest and can be enjoyed on a 2 hour raft tour.
Kumana National Park
With Arugam Bay as your base, it’s also possible to visit Kumana National Park, otherwise known as Yala East. This 357-sq-km park attracts only a fraction of the tourist numbers of its busy neighbor, Yala National Park, yet offers a wonderful opportunity to spot animals such as elephant, leopard, crocodile, turtle and wild buffalo in their natural habitat. Tours can be arranged at any of the agencies or guesthouses in Arugam.
Moving on from Arugam Bay
We travelled from Arugam Bay (Pottuvil) to Ella in the hill country; even though we had to change buses twice, the journey was relatively simple and we reached our destination in good time. Ask at the bus stand in Pottuvil for up-to-date local information and for help boarding the correct bus!
Take the red government buses whenever possible, which always give proper printed tickets, as opposed to the colorful private ones, where no such tickets are issued and overcharging is very common.
Best Time to Visit the East Coast
The best time to visit the east coast of Sri Lanka is from May to September, when the south and west coasts are experiencing monsoon downpours. This is also the best time to visit Jaffna and the North; days are hot and sunny with clear blue skies. Conversely, the winter months, from October to February, are when the monsoon hits the north and east coast; this is the time to head south and west.
For Finding Tea in Ella and Haputale, read our next post!