Surfing Sri Lanka, everything at a glance.
Surfing Sri Lanka is great, no doubt about it! But lets first talk a bit about the island…
Sri Lanka, former Ceylon. To me, this sounds already like a place you have to go. Even without knowing a thing about it. It has something historical, something appealing in it’s name. Sri Lanka, the island that hangs like a teardrop of India in the Indian Ocean is a rich place. Not money-wise but in many other ways. It probably reminds us of black tea and this for a good reason, as it is one of the worlds biggest producer. What else do we know? Maybe we know that the Tamil guy, who works in the restaurant around the corner, comes from there. But there is much more to it.
There are two big different ethic groups in this country and a few more minorities. In the North the Tamil, who speak Tamil and in the South the Sinhalese who, what a surprise, speak Sinhala. To us, this might be the same, they all look like there from India and they sound like this as well. Fact is that both these groups come from India, but from different states and are different people. At least different enough to have a long lasting civil war that ended in spring 2009. Well…this is a really brief, incomplete and simplified explanation of the whole country and conflict. But if you go to Sri Lanka and don’t look into its history, you won’t feel anything about its shattered past. Unless there are some new fights! Never know. So it’s up to you, if it’s your “everything is fine”-holiday, or if you take your time to read a bit more about it.
The South and the East, where most the surf is, was pretty save even during war time. But by now, it is possible to go where ever you want on this island. And there would be so much more to see that just beaches and waves. You could travel around here and feel like Lara Craft or Indiana Jones. Walking in some lost cities in the middle of the jungle, see wild elephants or hike up Adams peak, where they believe Adam put first his foot on earth. Sri Lanka had to overcome more than just war and one of the worst Tsunami hits in history. But that couldn’t stop them from smiling and wiggling their heads all day long, for one reason or another.
Surfing Sri Lanka General
Surfing Sri Lanka has two seasons. From around October to March in the South and from April to September in the East, what makes it a year round surf destination. The East is all about a place called Arugam Bay or simply A-Bay. A long and easy to surf sand bottom right hander. There are a lot of other waves around. But most people who go there, stay there and become to lazy to explore and rather surf the perfect but crowded wave in front of them. There are a lot of other places around, just talk to the locals and they can take you to some spots with there tuk-tuk. They charge 1000 Rupees to the closer surf spots, such as Pottuvil Point, or up to 3000 to Okanda..
The South offers a bit more variety but most people come and stay at least for a bit longer than planed in Hikkaduwa or Welligama. But there are a lot of different places and waves in this area, and most of them have a couple of cheap hotels right next to the beach. Plus there are a good number of waves in between these towns. Just ask around, find out or go and explore.
Update from September 2015
Surf tourism is a big business here for a long time already, but seems to explode now. It is more trendy than ever to be a surfer, and the surf marked expanded not only within its well know borders, but also toward countries we didn’t see as a surf nations 10 years ago. For example, there are more and more Russians who like to surf. And surfing Sri Lanka, with its easy and friendly waves, plus cheap flight from Moscow, it became one of their new favourite holiday destination. But there are of course people from everywhere around the globe who come here. And with the masses, the tourism changes. Places that were “secret spots” a few years ago, are now home to surf camps and hotels, and the solo session is much harder to find. Big concrete bunkers with the name of an international hotel on it became part of the landscape on the beaches between Hikkaduwa and Yala.
Arugam Bay is a name you always hear, if it comes to surfing Sri Lanka. It used to be one of those places that make every surfer dream and want to travel. Warm water, a perfect and long pealing point break, that is surfable with a small swell, but getting better with size. Life here was cheap, and the destination as exotic as it can be. It was hard to get there, and only the serious surf travellers made the long and tiring trip to this fairytale like place. Over the years, some things have changed and other stayed more or less the same. The Sri Lankan people, who got used to the surf tourism in the South, realised that if they move up here with the season, they have a secured income all year round. So it was the people from the Hikkaduwa area, who were well adjusted to Western tourists, who made A-Bay grow so much as a surf destination. By now, it’s not only a place where surfers come, but backpackers and holiday tourists in general. Even if this part of the country has mainly muslim people, the whole drinking and walking around in bikini became every days business. Of course, some of the local people don’t like that, but at the same time, it brings a lot of money from abroad.
If we come to such a place, we have to keep in mind, that no such thing as sustainable tourism exist! But it’s in our hands to make it a MORE sustainable tourism, to respect the local customs, and to be good guests. Arugam Bay is a full on Holiday town, but if you go to lets say Pottuvil, remember there muslim way of life, and try not to offend them with what we see as normal.
Pottuvil is the next town in the North, only a short Tuk-Tuk ride away, and has direct busses to Colombo. But don’t forget that Colombo is far away, and far away becomes reeally far away in a local bus. You can make it a 2-3 days trip to get to Arugam, and choose the route through the highlands, or take a private driver/ share taxi from Colombo Airport. This is definitely more expensive, but depending on how limited your time is, it could be wise spend money.
Arugam Bay and most of the waves around here are kind of similar. It’s always bays, where the incoming swell has to wrap around, what makes the waves really clean. There is often an outside point (main point) and a inside (baby point), with the main point much bigger, but sometimes not as clean. All those points depend on the sand, and they can change a lot during the season or from one year to the next.
Arugam Bay is usually a easy and friendly wave, kind of fat and rarely big. This is why surfing Sri Lanka became so popular. But if it gets big, it gets even better and can turn into a world class wave, that rewards those who made the trip. It’s always ultra crowded, unless it gets big enough to make most people enjoy the show from the safe shore. The people in the water are way more dangerous than the wave its self. With a reputation for being such a friendly wave, a lot of people with little experience paddle out. Drop ins, crashes and and boards flying around, are as common here as Rice and Curry. Baby point is even crazier, with absolutely everyone in the water, including the drunk Sunday afternoon Sri Lankan, who can’t swim!
With Arugam Bay as such a tourist hotspot, restaurants and hotels are plentiful, but budget options are disappearing. They still exist, but are more difficult to find, specially during the main season. They also use the excuse of its far distance to Colombo to sell everything more expensive here. Doesn’t matter if it is your souvenirs, your tailor made boardshorts and bikinis, or local food. And surfboard wax is something you really shouldn’t forget. You can buy it here, but one bar costs around 6-7$!
If you get annoyed too much with the crowds, ask a Tuk-Tuk driver to bring you to one of the other surf spots. All the drivers know most of the other beaches, and if one of the other points (or all of them) has the sand right, everyone knows. But give it a try anyways, maybe you score a perfect session with not too many other people in the water.
Hikkaduwa is super easy accessible from Colombo. It’s probable the oldest destination, if it comes to surfing Sri Lanka. From the airport you have to got to the “Fort Colombo” train station. From there leaves a train a few times a day, which brings you straight to Hikka, and is surprisingly punctual. As you get of the train, the Indian style hustle goes on and everyone knows the best place to stay. Of course everyone has a tuk-tuk just outside and is willing to carry your stuff even you don’t want him to! That’s just the way it is. There are a lot of places to stay, and most of them are close to the beach. Things are changing fast, and a lot of new and more expensive hotels opened here. Some of the old places, where everyone stayed for a few Rupees a day still exist, but most of them are renovated and more expensive than a few years ago. If you are on a tight budget, ask around and have a look in one of the backstreets away from the beach. As everywhere around the globe, the hotels a few street back from the beach are usually much cheaper than on the beachfront.
The main wave is a A-frame with a slow left and a steep right. To say first things first, if this wave is on, it’s one of my all time favourite waves! As it’s a A-frame, it cuts the crowd in half. The water is warm and clear and the wave is just fun. It is steep enough to do what ever you want to do on it, and it barrels if you get it right. It’s long enough for your surfing to progress, but short enough to paddle back quickly. The crowds can be a big problem here, and the locals know their wave, know their game and are hungry for every set. But you still can get lucky. Specially if you go early or late season when everyone else surfs A-Bay.
There is another wave in the town of Hikkaduwa, a left hander that rarely comes to life. It’s shallow and the reef is sharp, but a great wave on its day. Walk along the beach to town when the swell is big, and you’ll see it. Plus Hikkaduwa has a beach break that can be good. Usually early season.
Take a Tuk-Tuk from Weligama, or a local bus to get there, and choose one of the many places to stay. The times when only hard core surfers stayed here in the basic home stays are over. You can choose from a few nice places, where great waves in from of your door, and a comfortable place to stay go hand in hand. A lot of the younger surfers, who don’t want to surf Weligama stay here. As times have changed, you even have a few crazy parties every week in Midigama!
One of the good things about Midigama is, the multiple breaking peak of the reef. Thanks to this, the crowd is often not as bad as you first think. Plus a lot of the people rather go a few hundred meter up the road and surf the slow waves of Lazy Left and Lazy Right. But keep an eye on all the reefs here. Depending on size, direction and tide, different spots start to work.
Weligama is a town where you can find plenty of cheap food, from fresh fruits and cake to Western-like restaurant food, plus a great beginner wave. If the swell gets big enough, this place becomes difficult to paddle out, but can be super fun and long. But as just said, normally more something for whitewater rockers. There are a few hotels right at the beach, and this is where most the foreign surfers stay. As soon as you arrive in town, Tuk-Tuk driver will surround you and offer to drive you to the beach.
Weligama has changed so much, and is packed with surf schools and tourists from all around the world by now. From what I heard, it gets insane during peak season (November-January, but specially over Christmas). And the whole bay if full with people floating around on there boards, not knowing what they do! As I said, it’s a beginners wave. But with so many beginners in the water, it can become more dangerous than somewhere else. If you decide to surf here, make sure you’re not adding to the hazard in the water, and maybe better pay one of the local surf teachers to show you a thing or two. If the crowd will fade in the future? Most probable not, with the 12 story hotel, that was under construction when I was here in 2015. I guess it will only get worse!
But Weligama could be a good bet, if you’re here out of season and all the other places are blown out. It is well protected from the winds and often not only the best but the only option for some waves.
This is the kind of place you could convince you girlfriend to join you on a surf trip. This is surfing Sri Lanka, as she might imagined it. It’s crystal clear water, a small strip of light sand and beautiful palm trees just behind. It has a right hander point break, more or less over rocks, where you surf from rocks toward some other rocks. A place that has something claustrophobic to it with all those rocks around, but still a super easy and mellow wave.
Depending on the sand, it can be difficult to get in and out of the water, because of the many sea urchins. Better have a close look first, and if it feels too sketchy, paddle out from the beach and around the big rock.
When I was here in 2009, there were lots of different and cheap places to stay. They were all somewhere in the shadow of the palm trees. There are still a lot of different places to stay, but the vibe and the prices have changed a lot. It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to find a cheap place to stay, and definitely not right on the beach. Not anymore. It became a full-on tourist destination. With everything those tourists want, asked for, and couldn’t find a few years back. By now, you’ll find everything you need for your holiday. Everything from overcrowded whale watching boat, to overpriced coffee, to parties… you name it. But I don’t want to be negative. It became, what we as tourists made it. And if we as individuals like it or not…it is still a beautiful place, in its own, artificial-feeling way.
Depending on the sand, the swell and the size, the point can be surfed around the rocks, into the open beach. But most of the time, you surf the short but super fun point, or choose one of the peaks down the beach. The beach break is much faster and hollow, and it’s often not easy to find a wave that stays open. But less people and still fun.
When I was here in 2009, these were the main surfspots around here: Hikkaduwa, Midigama, Weligama and Mirissa. I’ve surfed them all, plus some others, and always found waves for myself. It gets more and more crowded every year, but if you’re willing to go and explore, you still find your own wave. I didn’t even tell you here my favourite places! There is soo much more, believe me.
Out of the water
As on every surf trip, there is much time of daylight where you’re not surfing. It might be the wind, or your arms that feel like jelly after a five hour morning session. There are not many things around to keep you entertained. You should go and see some of the countless and huge Buddha statues, the Catholic churches, and the Hindu pagodas. And while walking around a market and being overwhelmed by smells and smiles, you can appreciating how those religions co-exist here so close and so peaceful to each other. You can feed massive turtles in knee deep water with seaweed you pick of the reef, or go to a turtle hatchery. You can do a (1-2) day trip to Yala National park/ Udda Wallawe, or check out the spice garden. But there will still be a lot of time. Best thing to do is bring you girlfriend. Otherwise I hope you like reading.
Bring bookes, they are easy to exchange after you’ve finished them and you’ll find something interesting in every language. Other great things to do expect surfing are: buying aloe products, or having such a massage, going to a tea shop and spend the afternoon listening to the story of it. And of course, eat the amazing street-food. That’s maybe the best thing anyways. Because of so much surfing, you are always hungry and the food is cheap and delicious. All kinds of curry, fruits, seafood and of course, ROTI! Look for it and you’ll find out. Roti with chicken, cheese and egg for lunch and with chocolate and honey for dessert!
About surfing Sri Lanka in general. The vibe in the water is mixed. The majority of the waves are really easy to surf and mellow compare to other parts of the world. That keeps most of the big surf nations away ,as they prefer to surf heavy waves and that’s one thing that is difficult to find here. You won’t meet a lot of Aussies, Brazilians or Hawaiians, but many Europeans. A lot of German speakers, Italians, Scandinavians and Israeli. Most of these people, generally speaking of course, aren’t super good or super fit surfer, as they surf only a couple of weeks a year. That makes it easy for the locals to have all the waves they want to them self. But some of the people here seem to forget that they are guest and should behave like guests. It’s a cheap country and if you come here to spend a few months, becoming fitter than the 2 weeks holiday taker, what places you higher in the picking order, try to keep in mind how to behave in the water nonetheless.
One thing you can’t miss, doesn’t matter how much the surf is pumping, is the highlands. There is a train that goes from Weligama through Hikkaduwa and Colombo, all the way to Kandy. Pay the ticket, doesn’t matter what class, they are all super cheap, and jump on. The cheaper the ticket, the more interaction with the locals, and the less space. But just because you pay more doesn’t mean you have any space at all! Sri Lankans are not shy and they don’t mind body contact. Try to act the same way, and you’ll get a good insight into their culture and behaviour.
Another thing we often don’t know is that the open door of a rolling train is a
seat as well! And it became my favourite one. Train rides in this country are cheap, slow and one of the best thing if you don’t just travel to come from one place to another, but for the sake of it. And this particular trip is even better because of the nature you go through and the low speed to see it all and soak it in. Along beaches up to Colombo, passing through the jungle and up towards the highlands. Rolling around mountains, through valleys and towns, to make it to the train station of Kandy. Kandy is a nice and surprising city up here, where you find American fast food chains, casinos, little dinosaurs in the lake, and more big statues. To top it all is the tooth temple, where they have one of Buddha’s real tooth, so they say. From there it’s well worth to take another train to Haton or even further. This short 40km train ride takes you three hours, or maybe five… who cares about time here anyways? Here is the region where all the tea comes from. And most the big companies, such as Lipton, have some of their factories here and offer tours. I highly recommend to do this. It’s beautiful.
Sri Lanka is definitely an amazing island! It has so much to explore, good and consistent surf all year round, friendly people and amazing food. It’s easy to travel cheap for the ones who are on the road a bit longer, but you also find some nice and more expensive hotels if you’re just looking for vacations.
For what season I would come back? When ever I find time. The South and the East are really different, not only looking at the waves, but everything. How ever, I couldn’t pick one I like more. The are both fantastic and have there advantages.
Surfing Sri Lanka was, and still is a dream like destination and a paradise.