Adia and Anil were busy studying the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka while I worked on my journal beside the pool. They were taking on the task of planning our itinerary for the balance of the time that Adia would be with us. They read some interesting things about the beaches along the south coast and about the different places to stay in the region. There was one place that caught their attention, the Mangrove Beach Cabanas. The description in the book and the information on the website was intriguing.
We thought it might be a nice place to stay for a couple of days on our way to the central hills and check availability on the website, only to learn that they were completely booked for all of January and February as well as the rest of December. We came up with the idea of hiring a tuk tuk to take us on a day trip along the coast, and if it was comfortable enough, we would go all the way to Tangalla and visit the Mangrove Beach location for future reference. If it was completely booked up, there must be something very special there indeed.
There was a nice young man who waited outside the Thambapanni Retreat each day with his Bajaj tuk tuk, and we had taken short rides with him. We asked him if he was available and interested in a full day trip, and he quoted us what seemed like a very fair price. We set off right after breakfast when the air was still relatively cool and for the first time, we headed east into new territory. The road runs fairly close to the sea, in some places right along the beach. There was a long stretch of hotels situated right on the beach but before long, we were out of the developed areas and it was just us, the sea on the right, and the farms on the left.
We had a great day and it was wonderful to be able to stop easily and take photos from the side of the road, Surjit was only to happy to accommodate my requests for yet another photo. He pointed out the fishermen who perch themselves on thin poles planted in the surf and spear the fish that are swept within reach as the waves break below them. I had seen a photo on the cover of the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka, but it is quite another thing to see the men working in such an unusual way. This was a style of fishing that I had never seen anywhere else before.
We carried along and before long reached one of the most popular beaches in the region just near the town of Mirissa. We stopped at a small beach restaurant, and after changing into our suits, went for a swim in the gentle surf on the wide, soft sandy beach. After our experience with the rocks and broken coral at Unawatuna Beach, this was heaven. Anil and Adia had a great time and it was all I could do to drag them away. If they hadn’t been keen on seeing Mangrove Beach, I don’t think I would have persuaded them to continue.
A little further Surjit left the highway and took us to a beach that is popular with local families. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon and the beach was packed with swimmers of all ages and stages of undress. The women were wading in the water in their saris while the young boys were frolicking in their trendy western style bathing trunks. It was quite something to see the very dark-skinned Sri Lankans after seeing pretty much pasty white foreigners on the beach at Unawatuna.
Our next stop was a quick visit to a large stone lighthouse located at the southern-most tip of Sri Lanka. It was quickly apparent that the gatekeeper was charging foreigners a fee to climb to see the views; it was a fee that was unaffordable for locals to pay, so we gave it a pass and headed back on the highway once again. It was great to see the changing landscape and we headed east, at one point the trees were so full that they stretched across the highway and made a green tunnel for us to drive through.
We saw a tiny island with a very expensive hotel located on it. The hotel is accessible during low tide by walking on a sand bar, at other times, small boats are waiting to ferry the lucky few across to luxury. We saw another small island just off the coast that was home to a Buddhist temple, but this island had a modern bridge to make it easy for the faithful to worship.
At last we passed through the town of Tangalla and watched for the signs for Mangrove Beach Cabanas. We left the highway and drove for four kilometres through low lying swampy terrain until we reached the beach and the austere buildings set in a lovely landscaped yard. We climbed a stone path to the open area reception/dining room and found the place almost deserted. It did seem strange for a place that was fully booked for the next two months, but then I remembered, this is a place to get away from it all. People come here because it’s so quiet and deserted that they can forget their busy lives back home.
We walked out on to the wide Marakolliya Beach and gasped at the size of it. It ran in both directions, as far and the eye could see, and there was only one person, a foreigner walking off in the distance. It was beautiful, but too isolated for me. We all agreed that we like to be in the center of the action, with plenty of opportunity to mix with the locals and that we were lucky there weren’t any vacancies or we might have found ourselves there for a few, all too quiet days.
I wandered down the beach to where I could see several boats pulled up above the high tide line, and took some photos of the outrigger vessels. I was surprised to see how very narrow the boats were and couldn’t imagine why they would be constructed in this manner. It was obvious that the outrigger was attached to keep the boat from tipping, but it didn’t look like there was much room for the fishermen to move around or to stow the fish that they caught.
This was the turnaround point for our Bajaj excursion, so we opted for a light lunch for the four of us, Surjit included, and then piled into the tuk tuk for the long trip back to Unawatuna. We had taken four hours to reach this place, with lots of stops on the way, so we knew it would be getting dark by the time we reached ‘home’. As we drove back through the mangroves we saw dozens of different birds walking through the low lying water and the native grasses. A bird-watcher’s paradise.
We pretty much retraced our steps without the stops at the various beaches and the lighthouse, but I had to persuade Anil and Adia not to stop for another swim at Mirissa Beach. Storm clouds were gathering inland and they looked like they were moving towards the highway. Surjit told us that if the clouds were inland, it would definitely rain, if they were off the coast a little, it would not. We weren’t really keen to get caught in an open tuk tuk in heavy rain after dark, so my crew agreed to push on.
A Bajaj doesn’t hold much petrol so we had to stop once again for a refill and while Surjit was waiting in line, I wandered across the road to a small lagoon where men were fishing in the same type of small narrow boats that I had seen earlier on the beach. Now I could see why they are so very narrow. The fishermen stand in the boats and lean against the top edge with their thighs while they fish with a rod, not a net.
The bottom of the boat is a little wider than the top edge to allow for their feet to fit. They have a small oar to steer with or to move from one place to another. I don’t imagine they catch too many fish with just a rod and a line, so space on the boat isn’t really an issue for them. The men on the boats noticed me taking pictures and shouted and waved to me. They seemed only too happy to pose for a photo, a little excitement in an otherwise typical day on the water.
As Surjit predicted, the rain blasted us before we reached Unawatuna and the last half hour was spent driving in the dusk, with the rain flaps pulled around us to keep us dry. As we drove down the lane towards our hotel, Surjit suddenly made a hard right turn and pulled into the yard of his home. He drove right alongside the door so that we could get out the right side of the tuk tuk and into his house, protected from the rain by the overhanging eave.
His mother in law was sleeping on a sofa in the living room, under a mosquito net with Surjit’s two-year-old daughter. She was surprised to have him turn up with foreign guests, but quickly composed herself and disappeared into the kitchen to make tea. We were embarrassed to disturb the family, but it was clear that Surjit wanted us to meet his wife and two children, he has a brand new son as well, and I got a chance to hold him.
It was wonderful to hold such a little fellow, wonderful that is until I realized that he was going to do his business and wasn’t wearing a diaper. I quickly handed him back to his adoring mother who whisked him away to the other room. We drank our sweet milky tea and promised to come another day when the little girl was awake. We were happy to be back in the little town, mixing and meeting the local Sri Lankan people.
Meeting Surjit’s family was a highlight of our stay, and a great way to end a long day in the Bajaj. I’m not so sure his family were as pleased to have such impromptu guests, but they beamed to have such a proud husband and father in their midst. I thought once again about how happy I was that we hadn’t ended up staying at the remote Mangrove Cabanas, this was more of what we are looking for when we travel.