Kalutara

Just over forty kilometers from Colombo, bustling Kalutara is the first town you reach travelling south which retains a recognizably separate identity from the capital. It’s one of the west’s largest settlements, but the long stretch of beach north of town remains reasonably uspoilt, dotted with a string of top-end hotels which make a decent first or last stop on a tour of the island, given the town’s relative proximity to the international airport. (although it’s still a tedious two-hour drive by the time you’ve negotiated Colombo).

Sitting next to the broad estuary of the Kalu Ganga, or “Black River”, from which it takes its name. Kalutara was formerly an important spice-trading centre, controlled at various times by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Nowadays it’s more famous as the source of the island’s finest mangosteens (in season June to September). Kalutara announces its presence via the immense white dagoba of the Gangatilaka Vihara, immediately, south of the long bridge across the Kalu Ganga. The dagoba was built during the 1960s on the site of the Portuguese fort and has the unusual distinction of being the only one in the world which is entirely hollow – you can go inside the cavernously echoing interior, largely covered in a sequence of 74 murals depicting, various scenes from the Buddha’s life. Outside, a sequence of donation  boxes line the roadside, popular with local motorists, who frequently stop here to say a prayer and offer a few coins in the hope of a safe journey – if your’s travelling south, you’ll soon understand why.

The remainder of the temple buildings is situated in a compound on the other side of the road, featuring the usual Bo tree enclosures and Buddha shrines. It’s a lively complex, and a good place to watch the daily rituals of Sri Lankan Buddhism., the Buddha images here are “fed” three times a day (rather like the package tourists at the nearby reosrts), devotees place food in boxes in front of the images as well as offering flowers (sometimes arranged in pretty stupa designs), lighting coconut-oil lamps, tying prayers written on scraps of cloth to one of the Bo trees (sometimes with coins wrapped up inside them), or pouring water into the conduits which run down to water the bo trees’ roots.

Kalutara’s fine stretch of beach extends north of the ridge all the way to the village Wadduwa, some 8km away, it’s surprisingly unpoilt and quiet, given the proximity of Colombo, and boasts some good top-end hotels including some boutique resorts. The end of the beach nearest the bridge is covered in fishing boats and is rather dirty, it gets cleaner the further north you go, although (as along much of the west coast) the sea can be rough, and most people swim in their hotel pools.

Kalutara is memorable to tourists passing through the town firstly for their driver’s obligatory stop at a temple where he deposits a coin into a till tp pray for safe passage to their destination, and secondly for the bright purple heaps of locally-produced mangosteens during the season.

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