This travelogue is about a Sri Lanka three-day tour in the southwest Cost. And ‘cherry-picked’ excursions from the loooong list of options under ‘further reading’. The reason is very simple: having visited this area 5-10 times over the years we’ve seen more than half of the list, but there is always more lovely stuff to do in Serendib island.
Mulkirigala rock temple
We visited it as we were in the area anyhow, and wanted to see whether it really is on par with Dambulla Golden Temple; we had seen it on a travel TV documentary some years back and it looked good. Finding the proper route from Matara was challenging even with GPS and our experienced driver; but it is quite close by an exit of the E01-expressway extension which will soon be finished. And then from Matara E01 exit to the temple should be less than 30 minutes, instead of the 1.30 hours it took us.
The entry is not very impressive – a bit poorly maintained stairs without proper signage. The rock itself is not much lower than Sigiriya, but partly covered in trees hence standing out less.
But okay, for an entry price 1/3 that of Dambulla maybe one should not expect too much. After the ticket office are the first two caves; a bit smallish but artistically quite good.
Then we followed the stairs, maybe 100 m altitude in total, to the Rock plateau carved out in this huge rock. And that was a lot better. At least 4-5 different halls with impressive sculpture and wall paintings – to our relative layman’s eye the same quality as Dambulla. The atmosphere was serene, with lots of local devotees, and already some nice vistas over the surrounding plains.
However when we walked to the side of the terrace with the large water reservoir we saw there were different ‘devotees’ around – a considerable troupe of monkeys feasted and used it for swimming lessons! Whether they got their food from the surrounding trees or from the offerings that the devotees put at the shrines never got clear to us, but it was lovely seeing them jump around. Of course we tourists had to be careful with our belongings, but when not approached they kept their distance.
But the terrace is not the highest point, there was another set of stairs of maybe 50 m to conquer. Sadly the main stairs was really built for the Lankan people of 1000 years back, with small and eroded steps; the handrail to the side also did not look solid. Some other ‘monkeys’, the local kids, climbed it without any trouble. But us and other adults used the later added stairs. Which are built in an interesting ‘zigzag’ pattern to bridge the altitude in a way better suited for larger feet; a bit similar to hairpin bends on the Lankan mountains, or the Demodara looping tunnel for trains. Sandya is slowly descending on ; they feel and look a bit surreal, like floating stairs in Harry Potter books, but are a great invention. The small devala temple at the top is not as impressive as the other halls, but the vistas in between the trees are nice.
In the end a nice 1-2 hours to spend in the complex, and experience both Lankan culture and Monkey magic.
Though we’ve stayed more than five times in Bentota, in accommodation ranging from Little Paradise Hotel to Vivanta and anything in between, we somehow never made it to this estate. Maybe though technically it’s in Bentota-Induruwa, but the entrance is on the east side off the B55 local road. And also we had kind of prejudice against it – we had gone to Brief Gardens (the estate of Bewis Bawa, brother of Geoffrey) before and did not enjoy it much. We consider ourselves ‘cultural barbarians’ and keep most exhibitions and museums at a large distance; and Brief is a nice garden but mostly a museum of sculpture, paintings and family history.
Architecture, especially of landscapes and gardens and sometimes of buildings, however is what we love. Lunuganga proved to be spot on for us:
- The entrance is totally unimpressive, Sir Geoffrey wanted his Lunuganga (‘salty river’) estate to be a real hideaway with water on three sides.
- And, to compensate for the beauty later on, a part near the house had quite some dirt below the trees. When looking up in the trees we found the likely cause – a small monkey troupe, these beasties can be a nuisance almost everywhere in the island!
- The current buildings also don’t reflect much beauty. They are not completely Bawa-designed but simply old estate keeper bungalows which he kept up to date. A few of them now act as hotel suites, but they did not look worth the hefty price unless for history lovers who stay here for ‘the unique story’. Some rooms however really express Bawa’s likings and taste, like a tea saloon.
- The real beauty starts however with the landscaping. The way the main house overlooks the lawns, and in the distance the Induruwa Dagoba (Geoffrey gave dana money to keep it in perfect white shape), is stunning.
- Around the house are three-four terraces which each were used for different times of the day – e.g. for morning and afternoon teas. And each have unique windchime-like bells, so that the servants could ring a bell and all guests knew to which spot to walk.
- The man was clever up to perfectionism. E.g. a service road was needed to connect the west side of the estate, with some production trees, to the exit. He had it redesigned to be a hollow road, so that the lawn views from the main house towards Induruwa are not disturbed by the road at all!
- Finally the garden is full of functional sculptural work like fountains and Greek style decorations, not the over-the-top stuff of his brother Bewis. The picture shown is near a pond in the low tidal garden close to the river.
So we highly recommend a visit on a day with good weather; two hours well spent, with good narration by the guides.
Galatara temple viewpoint
The third excursion only gets a partial report, as we had to partially cancel due to unseasonal rains. The full itinerary, copied from the link below and inspired by what a tourist put in his travel report, is “Paurukanda vihara near Galatara. This is one of the at least 3-4 pilgrimage/vista sites nicknamed ‘Punchi Sri Pada’ in the island, inspired by the iconic Adam’s Peak; whether it is because they also offer splendid but lower-altitude vistas or by having some sacred footprint-like place depends. This site is great as a leisurely daytrip from Bentota: first 2.30-3 hours on the boat upstream the river to Horawala, then about 20 minutes by tuk-tuk or car (or 1 hour all the way from Bentota), and then starting with the 45 minutes climb of the about 600 (!) stairs up the hill to the summit temple. Most of the stairway is in the jungle and hence in the shade, hence this can be done midday; the last 200 stairs are steep and have a handrail for a part, hence not great when it has been raining. Leave in time for the long, but again leisurely, return trip!”
Sounds great, huh? We have done Bentota river trips before and really like the scenery, so the plan was to do a one-way boat ride, driver would await us at Horawala and after the climb drop off in Colombo. So on the sunny afternoon after the Lunuganga visit we dropped by at Laluna Water Sports in Aluthgama, had a good afternoon tea and booked the boat for next morning 9 AM (driver would then be Horawala around 11.) Laluna looked great and professional.
Sadly next morning 8.30 it was pouring rain in Beruwala, and not set up to clear up soon. Hence sorry for Laluna, we cancelled the boat and stayed longer in the hotel. Left the room at 10.30 when indeed it had started to clear up, and 11.30 arrived in Galatara with mostly clear skies. The place is an impressive hill out of town; entrance is not at the temple compound but around 200 m back near the local school. Scenic, but maybe 500 m east of the E01 hence not as quiet as it must have been…
The stairs are indeed mostly under foliage cover, though there was no burning sun this time. After the first 100 or so steps to our surprise a bhikshu of maybe 70+ age walked down and greeted us; it meant that the climb was essentially doable and that he was quite fit for his age. A few flights of stairs onwards another surprise: Mr. monkey again, he crossed the stairs hanging on branches of trees. This time without a visible troupe, that was maybe left behind at Lunuganga 😉
We could already see the summit with a white dagoba in the distance between the trees, but the stairs narrowed and needed a torn-out handrail to climb.
And as they were of the Medieval times Mulkirigala-style, and had become slippery due to the rains that morning, we simply backed down. Punchi Siri Pada is a great promise for another time, when it’s sunny and dry…
Hope that for you, readers, these experiences give useful inspiration. Mulkirigala and Lunuganga we can wholeheartedly recommend, and Punchi Siri Pada ‘probably but only with nice weather’. Happy travelling!
A never complete overview of excursions possible from the several popular beach areas, including the three visited in this travelogue
Sandya & Erik are travel nerds. A mixed European-Lankan couple, they split their time unsurprisingly between bases near Colombo and in Europe. And have travelled throughout the lovely island numerous times. Google if you have a strong urge to find a way to contact them directly.