Arugam Bay: Sri Lanka’s recreational hub?

According to industry expert Supem De Silva, you’ll find more family-friendly places to go and fun things to do within easy driving range of Arugam Bay than there are around almost any other travel destination in Sri Lanka.

Updated March 24, 2012: “Don’t write about this place,” the chubby little man said urgently. “People will come here and spoil everything.”

The agitated speaker was Manik Sandrasagra, the late auteur of Sri Lankan cinema, but Supem De Silva hadn’t known who he was back then. This was in 1998, and Supem had been gathering information for Arugam Bay’s first online directory of hotels and other services. He’d noticed Sandrasagra sitting by himself at another table at Chutti’s Place Restaurant. Since the movie director was barechested, with a towel draped over his shoulders, Supem had assumed he was one of the local beach bums.

The baby waves at Whiskey Point are perfect for beginning surfers. Lessons are affordable.

Supem chuckles as he recounts this story, shaking his head as he adds that Manik had actually been a consultant to the Sri Lanka Tourist Board at the time (I could just picture this scene, having encountered the mercurial director and his larger-than-life personality when I wrote the print and radio ads for Rampage, Manik’s 1978 movie about a homicidal elephant; my colleague Chris Greet wrote the movie’s tagline, “Can an elephant plan and execute a murder?”).

In a way, Supem notes, his encounter with Manik Sandarasagra illustrates one of the reasons why Arugam Bay has been overlooked as a tourist destination. On the one hand there are those who’ve been coming to Arugam Bay for years, and who are apprehensive about the notion of it becoming discovered as a resort. And on the other, there are those who should know about Arugam Bay and don’t. Among this latter group are travel industry experts who aren’t even aware that there’s hotel accommodation here.

Johnson Ratnasingham’s new Amigo Surf School charges around $20 an hour for lessons (that’s Farook—who’s done most of the sign painting for Arugam Bay businesses over the years—working on the surf school’s sign in February). I forgot to ask Johnson whether he named the school after his dog Amiga, a likable pooch.

“Arugam Bay is a black hole as far as many people in the travel industry are concerned,” says Supem ruefully. “They have no idea what facilities are available here.”

That’s too bad, because the fact is that there are quite a few good hotels in Arugam Bay. And there are going to be even more, what with a number of plans for hotels underway (scroll down to the bottom of this post for information on a really cool new place to stay in Arugam Bay for around $9 a day).

Elephants are supposed to need 300 pounds of fodder a day, but at the rate this fellow was stuffing himself with water plants at Lahugala National Park (twelve miles west of Arugam Bay), I’d say they need a great deal more.

Supem himself is an unassuming guy whose mind is a jackdaw’s nest of fascinating facts about Sri Lanka. He’s also able to step out of the Sri Lankan mindset and see the country from a tourist’s perspective.

He knows, for example, that you’re not coming here to be bored out of your skull by sitting through a harangue on Sri Lanka’s religious history and cultural heritage; you’re coming here to enjoy yourself and have an unforgettable time. He gets that.

Supem De Silva created Arugam Bay’s first online directory of hotels and other services, and was the first webmaster of the first site dedicated solely to news about the area. The Sri Lanka Tourist Board is using his case study on Arugam Bay as the basis for its plans for the area’s future. In case you wondered, there are no tall buildings within fifty miles of Arugam Bay; took this picture outside Supem’s office in Colombo on February 29, 2012.

As a senior travel industry professional—among other things, he lectures trainee tour guides on Sri Lanka’s east coast attractions—Supem has seen the glazed eyes of  New Yawkuhs looking uncharacteristically subdued while being subjected to a mind-numbing recital of historical, religious and archeological arcana.

Generations of travel planners seem to have plotted Sri Lankan itineraries based on recommendations originally made in Baedeker’s Indien: Handbuch Für Reisende, published in Leipzig in 1914 by Verlag von Karl Baedeker. That first edition featured maps of India, Ceylon, Burma, the Malayan Peninsula, Singapore, Bangkok and the Dutch East Indies (click here to see a scanned image of the map of Ceylon that appeared in that edition; look for Arugam Bay on the east coast, between Pottuvil and Panama).

The 2,000-plus-year-old Muhudu Maha Viharaya near Arugam Bay is said to be the actual place where the princess Viharamahadevi and her retinue were washed ashore after she offered to sacrifice herself to the waves to atone for her father’s sins. Viharamahadevi’s son Dutugemunu became Sri Lanka’s most famous war hero.

As Supem knew, after years spent evaluating the appeal of dozens of travel destinations in Sri Lanka, itineraries are often slapped together without much thought being given to such questions as, “What’s there to entertain the kids to see and do?” and “What else is there along the way?”

He points out that there are far more family-friendly places to go and fun things to do within easy driving distance of Arugam Bay than there are around almost any other travel destination in Sri Lanka.

The Magul Maha Viharaya, a 200-acre archeological site at Lahugala (twelve miles west of Arugam Bay), where King Kavantissa married Viharamahadevi more than 2,000 years ago.

Arugam Bay: Sri Lanka’s recreational hub

As Supem says, the fun things you can enjoy around Arugam Bay include surfing, kite surfing, nature trails, bike rides to Panama and the Radella tank, ATV rides on the sand dunes, cruises around the Arugam Bay lagoon and out to sea (including trips to see dolphins), snorkeling and scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, offroad adventures in the jungle, bird-watching and camping at Kumana and Panama.

Leave ’em alone and they’ll leave you alone: Wasp nest on the way to the Kudumbigala jungle monastery.

And there are plenty of unusual places to visit nearby. Like the Kudumbigala jungle monstery, for example. According to veteran scuba diver Nihal Hewapathirana, Hermann Hesse and his friend, painter Hans Sturzenegger, came here on their trip to Ceylon in 1911. Aldous Huxley is supposed to have visited some years later. (Like Fred Netzband-Miller of Arugam Surf fame, Nihal is a good raconteur; when you visit Arugam Bay, ask him about the time he served frozen vodka shots to a lachrymose Marlon Brando at the Ramada Culver City on Sepulveda in the early 1990s.)

View from the summit of Kudumbigala. Don’t ask me what this guy was doing on this rock; he hadn’t been there when I looked in that direction moments before. (How did I know this was a male? That’s easy: seen in profile, the Ceylon bull elephant has a convex back, unlike the square-shaped profiles of cow elephants. Also, he was alone.)

I had a strange experience at Kudumbigala recently. After going up to see the ancient chaitya at the summit, I was looking around and taking pictures when I noticed an elephant on a rock a couple of hundred yards away. He hadn’t been there when I looked in that direction moments before, and then he suddenly appeared as if conjured up by a genie.

It made me nervous on the way down, and I kept execting to see him on the long walk back through the jungle to my vehicle. Call me a scaredy cat, but Sri Lanka’s bull elephants have very large cranial bulges, and boy, are they smart. I didn’t put it past the guy—who spent a few unnerving moments looking directly at me—to sneak through the thickets and surprise me somewhere on the trail. (OK, so that was scary. But one of the oddest things I saw there was an elderly Budhhist monk sitting on a rock, limned against the sky with a cell phone glued to his ear. I didn’t want to offend him—he looked like a senior guy—so I didn’t take his picture.)

The grave of a South Indian swami at the rock kovil at Okande, about twenty miles south of Arugam Bay. My brother Tyrone and I saw this holy man when we were hunting here with our Dad back in the 1960s.

I also wanted to visit the grave of the famous swami at the Hindu kovil at Okande. Tyrone and I had seen this enigmatic mystic—who did incredible yogic things like staring up into the sun for hours without suffering retinal damage—when we were hunting wild boar and deer here with our Dad in 1963 and 1964. The guy ignored us, but a few years later Cedric Martenstyn (who’d been six or seven years senior to Tyrone and me at St. Thomas’s College, Mt. Lavinia) wrote an article about him in the Sunday Observer. I’ll be going through old newspapers at Sri Lanka’s Department of National Archives, and hope to find it. As I dimly recall from Cedric’s article, the swami (red-headed from long exposure to the sun) had been meditating on the rock for more than 40 years.

There are three ways to get here from Colombo, Supem says: “The road is carpeted, dual track up to Panama from Colombo, and a car will be fine. However, if you plan to visit places around Arugam Bay like Lahugala and Kumana national parks, you’ll have to hire or rent a Jeep, Land Rover or some other 4x4 vehicle.”

Bullock carts heading north on the Panama-Pottuvil Road, a few miles south of Arugam Bay. Hermann Hesse probably used something like this to go part of the way to Kudumbigala when he visited Ceylon in 1914.

Supem notes that there are three easy ways to get from Colombo to Arugam Bay—through Ratnapura, Pelmadulla, Kahawatte and Embilipitiya/Udawalawe; from Udawalawe, Thanamanwila and Wellawaya; or from Monaragala through Siyambalanduwa. All three routes take you past Lahugala National Park.

Supem likes to get out of Dodge around 3:00am to avoid the traffic, but of course you can leave later than that ungodly hour. And while you can pretty much do it yourself, Supem strongly recommends the Bird and Wildlife Team for serious birders.

Anyway, here’s Supem De Silva’s dream itinerary for a three-day trip to Arugam Bay:

Sites to visit on the way to Arugam Bay:
— Ratnapura Gem Museum (Ratnapura is where you can buy a blue sapphire for about a tenth of what it would cost you for a similar stone at Van Cleef & Arpels)
— Udawalawe National Park (a good place to see wild elephants)
— Udawalawe Elephant Orphange (a great place to see baby elephants; Supem recommends that you stop by at feeding time around noon to see bottle-fed babies sneaking back into line for a second helpings)
— Buduruwagala (ancient carvings)
— Handapangala (wild elephants)
— Lahugala National Park (wild elephants; you can plan to visit on your way to Arugam Bay or on the way back, depending on what time you’re passing through)
(Supem also notes that there’s an ancient pond about 50 yards from the road at the 262-kilometer marker)

Day 1:
— Panama (Crocodile tank and Radella tank)
— Kudumbigala jungle monastery
— Okanda kovil and beach
— Kumana National Park and bird sanctuary

Day 2:
— Crocodile Rock and Elephant Rock (beach and surf)
— Peanut Farm (beach and surf) and the ruins of the Sastraweli temple
— Arugam Bay Surf Point and sand dunes
— Pottuvil Point (beach and surf)

Day 3:
— Magul Maha Viharaya
— Lahugala National Park
— Jungle road from an Arugam Bay school to the 4th milepost (312 kilometer marker)
— Whiskey Point (beach and surf; the perfect place for beginners)
— Komari Lagoon

Affordable accommodation

By the way, not all the new rooms are going to be priced out of the range of surfers. Realizing that many Australian and Israeli visitors like to surf Arugam Bay for four– or five-month stretches during the season, hotelier Fred Netzband-Miller has worked out a way to enable more of them to do that.

Ever the contrarian, Fred figured that affordability is the key to profitability. His brainwave: The Arugam Bay YMCA, adjoining his iconic Siam View Hotel (easily identifiable by the red telephone booth designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott planted outside).

Here’s the deal: For around $9 a night, you get to sleep in an air-conditioned room with a hot shower, cable TV, free wi-fi (with a super-strong signal), an ATM and lots of other amenities. One of this hostel’s best features is its laundry service. There are no washing machines in Arugam Bay apart from those at the fancier hotels, and let me tell you, after a few weeks your clothes get so dirty, you can grow potatoes on them. This place rocks. You can make reservations at 0773200201 (or 01194773200201 if you’re calling from the U.S.).

OK, you might ask, but why visit the surf capital of Sri Lanka when you don’t surf? Well, you can always learn, can’t you? Johnson Ratnasingham just opened his Amigo Surf School, and charges around $20 an hour for lessons. You can reach him at 0632248379 or 077427–5229 (01194632248379 or 01194774275229 if you’re calling from the U.S.).

Copyright © David Graham