From the churches of Little Rome and a spice trading past to a sleepy town where turtles lay their eggs, the West coast of Sri Lanka is laid back to the max.
Arriving into Colombo Airport in late September I was hit by the humid temperature as soon as I left the air conditioned cool of the arrivals lounge. Sri Lanka was the start point of my longterm travels, a place I hoped would be perfect to ease myself into life on the road.
Negombo is a fairly unremarkable city on Sri Lanka’s west coast. The airport is in fact closer to Negombo than Colombo so we stayed in the beach area of the town for a few days to plan our Sri Lanka route.
The city used to be an important production and trading hub for cinnamon up until the 1830s, with the empires of the Moors, Portuguese and Dutch all benefitting from the area’s abundance of the fragrant spice. The town’s Dutch Canal was built by the Dutch to transport the precious spices that were so lucrative to their empire. Today the canal is no longer used to transport spices, instead it’s used by the city’s fisherman to reach the sea.
Lasting longer than the city’s spice trade, fishing continues to be the backbone of Negombo’s economy. Fishing communities are dotted all around the area and the fisher folk here are mainly Karava people, the main fishing caste across Sri Lanka. Walking around the town, fishermen can be seen selling their catch along the beach, while others lay fish out to dry on large pieces of tarpaulin on the sand.
Along with fishing, Negombo is also famed for being Sri Lanka’s Little Rome, due to the predominance of Catholicism here and the number of churches. Catholicism took hold during the Portuguese colonial period and as a result the city now has around 30 churches. I was surprised to see such large crowds of worshippers drawn to the churches for evening services, it wasn’t unusual to see whole families turn up with a picnic blanket and settle into the outdoor area to listen to a sermon. Negombo, however, is a rarity in Sri Lanka as only around 7% of the country’s population is Christian, the majority, around 70%, is Buddhist.
Kosgoda is a small town on the western coast of Sri Lanka, about 100km south of Colombo and the only reason we stopped there was to relax for a few days. The size and emptiness of the railway station gave us a good indication of the size of the town. It was pretty small. But the hotel (once we’d managed to find it) was tucked away in a quiet corner and a haven of tranquility surrounded by lush green forest.
There is not much going on in this town, which suited our plans. The main challenge was finding somewhere other than the hotel to eat our meals. There was one place to eat in the town – I say town, it’s basically just a main road, with no street lights. We ended up eating there pretty much all three days of our stay. Whenever we would ask what they had to eat, the response would be “what do you want?”. It seemed like they would just go out and buy the ingredients for what we wanted and cook it to order, unless we ordered Kottu, they always had Kottu.
One young guy who was always hanging around at the restaurant when we went to eat told us about some scrapes he’d gotten into with his ex-employer, a nearby tuna factory owned by a UK company, and some work he had undertaken with people from the local underworld. Maybe he was just boasting for foreigners but it was a bit of a sorry state of affairs he seemed to be caught up in. Others who spoke to us were keen to try and get us to go on a tour to the local turtle hatchery, desperate to get the commission for sending us there.
There was a big hotel complex being developed right on the beach, maybe that will bring some more jobs to the area, who knows. It’s perhaps reflective of the fact that youth unemployment in Sri Lanka currently stands at around 20%. This town was also the first place we encountered a bit of an anti-Tamil sentiment, the civil war still looms large in the memory for some it seems.
Walking along the beach on our final morning we noticed some huge tracks in the sand, that looked like they could have been from a car. In fact they were turtle tracks. The beach here is a well-known nesting site for turtles and there is a local conservation project underway that aims to conserve the nesting sites and protect the turtles from poachers. Sadly we didn’t get to see any actual turtles while we were here.