Matara is the largest city on Sri Lanka's south coast and at the end of the railway line from Colombo. Today it is an no-fuss commercial hub where visitors can experience the day-to-day life of urban Sri Lanka, within reach of some gorgeous beaches. In past centuries it was a thriving port, central to the spice and gem trade with the East and Holland and Matara was originally established on a narrow peninsula in the Nilwala River, which was fortified by the Dutch.
The original walls still stand, containing some rather dilapidated old buildings dating from the Dutch colonial era. The town also contains a number of beautiful temples, including the enormous Buddha of the Weherahena Temple; and the oldest and most beautiful lighthouse in Sri Lanka, located at Point Dondra.
Matara was severely damaged by the 2004 tsunami; however, the city has recovered from this tragedy and there are plenty of interesting markets and shops, as well as some good restaurants to explore. Matara is scenically attractive, surrounded by paddy fields and tea estates on the fertile river floodplain. The area also boasts some sandy, safe beaches with coral reefs good for snorkelling (although hungry crocodiles mean swimmers should stay out of the Nilwala River). These regional assets have ensured that the city is a popular tourist destination, far removed from the sometimes troubled north of the island, where civil unrest remains a possibility.
Not all Buddhist temples are ancient, nor are they all conservative affairs. The colourful and modern Wewurukannala Temple at Dikwella village near Matara is quite an eyeful, featuring hundreds of brightly painted and gilded models depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and numerous murals. There is also a Buddha effigy that is one of the world's tallest, equalling the height of a five-storey building, which visitors can ascend to enjoy the view from the top.
The Buddha statue is the biggest in Sri Lanka, and other attractions at the temple include a resident elephant, a colourful Image House containing statues of gods and royalty, and the frightening Hall of Sin, which illustrates what is in store for the less-than-righteous in the Buddhist version of hell. Although it is an active temple and tourists should be respectful of worshippers, the temple complex is also full of various touts and salesmen trying to sell things and services to visitors. Those wanting to avoid the crowds should visit early in the morning.
The temple is a short drive from both Dikwella and Matara and can be reached by tuk-tuk - just be sure to negotiate a price before setting off!
Elephants are the most frequently spotted inhabitants of the vast Yala National Park (also known as Ruhunu), in the southeast of Sri Lanka, east of Matara, but they share the reserve with 130 different species of birds and other creatures like sambhur, spotted deer, sloths, crocodiles, monkeys, wild boar and porcupines. There is also a large concentration of leopards in this, the country's oldest protected area.
Most of the reserve is open parkland, but it also contains jungle, beaches, lakes and rivers. The park is somewhat remote, the nearest town being Tissa, and is situated about 190 miles (305km) from Colombo. Yala is also dotted with a number of fascinating archaeological sites, like the Magul Maha Vihara ruins, dating from the 1st century BC.
Yala National Park was closed for several years due to political conflict in Sri Lanka, but two of the five sections of the part have now re-opened to the public. It is the most visited and the second largest park in the country and is very popular with foreign visitors. The park is almost always explored as part of a safari (a 4x4 vehicle is required to traverse the roads) and the entrance fee includes the services of an animal tracker.
The port town of Galle, about 60 miles (100km) south of Colombo and a short distance west of Matara, is steeped in the heritage of the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka, and is dominated by the 36-hectare (89-acre) Dutch Fort, built in 1663, with its massive ramparts on a promontory. Galle is a delightful and unexpected mixture of dilapidated colonial history and exotic, tropical beauty.
Inside the walls of the fort, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the oldest part of Galle, with Dutch homesteads, museums and churches, as well as the New Oriental Hotel, originally the home of the Dutch governors. Galle is home to a creative community and has attracted many foreign artists, writers and poets.
Inside the fort there are many galleries, boutiques and craft shops to investigate, and many travellers choose to spend a few nights in the fort, which is at once an interesting historical monument and a thriving modern centre. Galle has a small beach, but most sun-lovers find better beaches a little out of town along the coast road.
Getting to Galle from Colombo is a treat, because both the train and bus routes wind along the coast, offering gorgeous views. It takes between two and four hours to get to Galle from the capital by bus or train.
The southern beaches of Sri Lanka are the most popular for tourists, with the main season extending from October to April when the monsoon has moved on and the sea is calm and tranquil under bright blue skies. Bentota is one of the loveliest resorts on the coastal road, featuring good hotels, water sports and a picturesque beach at the river mouth.
Scuba divers enjoy Hikkaduwa, where there is a marine sanctuary abundant with coral and tropical fish, and the Kirinda Beach, just south of the town of Tissa, which also offers spectacular underwater sights. Close to the popular tourist resort town of Galle is Unawatuna, with its beautiful stretch of safe sandy beach. At Kudawella a novel feature is a blowhole that throws huge columns of water into the air whenever waves break on the rocks. For those who prefer small guesthouses and empty beaches over resorts, Koggala, Mirissa, Dickwella and Tangalle all remain relatively undiscovered beach areas.
The southern coastline of Sri Lanka was seriously damaged in the 2004 tsunami and it took many years for certain areas to be rebuilt, but the tourist resorts have all fully recovered and there is no longer much evidence of the catastrophe which marked the region for so long.
Most travellers to Matara are primarily seeking the palm-treed sandy stretches of beach along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and the region is usually part of a coastal road or rail trip beginning in Colombo, passing through the artistic town of Galle, and culminating in the city of Matara. There are many beautiful beaches along this route and some quiet resorts for those wanting privacy and peace.
Within the city itself, there is a vibrant and unaffected street life which is interesting for foreign visitors and provides ample people-watching opportunities and chances to sample authentic local food. Matara has a rich colonial history and the old Dutch fortifications are perhaps the main sightseeing attraction away from the beaches, with the well-preserved Star Fort a popular site to explore. A visit to the modern Weherahena Buddhist Temple, with its gaudy riot of religious art, including the enormous Buddha statue, is another must for tourists in the area.
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