Rest. Restaurant. Inn, Cabana, Guest House. Hut. Hotel. Diner. Lodge. The signboards read like hashtags.
Picture a single road that curves from Pottuvil to infinity, lined on both sides by all manner of shops and watering holes built out of the ghosts of wattle and daub huts. Me! Me! Me! they all scream, like an ersatz Pettah, promising Fride Rice, Huthentic Thai Foods, Local Seefood, Rooms for Rent, Surfing Boards and Lessons.
Beyond this madness, beyond the erratic displays of Coke and Sprite and rooms for rent, beyond the road that curves forever onward, is a soft, steady roar: the ocean.
This is Arugam Bay.
The road less traveled
Much has been said about the Bay itself, but little about the journey there. It’s 320 KM from Colombo: from the west end of the island clear to the east – literally, shore-to-shore. You start off amidst a haze of traffic, which thins as the miles fly by: hot, scorched, dusty roads lined with buildings give way to trees, then more trees, then mountains. It’s a scenic drive by our standards, especially if you’re not the poor soul who happens to be driving. The long road unwinds through Ratnapura’s mountains, past acres upon acres of paddy fields bathing in the sunset – a little bit of Glitch Mob and it’s downright trippy.
Past Monaragala, things change. The road, formerly dusted and dented with the travels of countless vehicles, turns into one long, smooth string of asphalt that cuts relentlessly through lowland scrub and jungle. There’s no traffic to slow you down, no other humans save for the occasional motorbike that blat-blat-blats past you: just miles and miles of the road less traveled.
As you fly down the road at eighty kilometers and hour with no end in sight, the definition of distance changes. “Far away” goes from being, say the distance between Ragama and Wellawatte to the distance between two houses on the road. A kilometer becomes about as significant as a single strand of hair on your head. Three thousand rupees (yes, three bloody thousand) for a tuk-tuk ride from Monaragala starts feeling reasonable.
If it’s night by the time you get here, you see what I saw – rows upon rows of sentinel trees, interpersed with road signs, brooding above you, morphing slowly into a sea of endless gray fields. A hut sprouts here and there, a little wattle-and-daub shrine to loneliness.
According to Google Maps, you can make this entire journey in 5 hours: in real life, expect anywhere between 10 and 12 hours, including the mandatory minimum of two stops for tea and wade. And then you roll into Pottuvil, which looks less of location than a sort of checkpoint placed there by the Almighty to show that yes, you are actually getting somewhere and this isn’t all in your head.
Nevertheless, Pottuvil, despite its one-horse nature, is home to all sorts of niceties. A glass of fruit and sherbet for Rs 40 from the roadside vendor near the bus halt: decent food at acceptable prices in any one of the roadside kade’s: a Commercial Bank outlet complete with ATM: a bus that goes to Arugam Bay – good news for the fuel-conscious. There’s tractors going back and forth at odd intervals: flag one of these down and chances are very high that the driver will let the whole lot of you scramble on board while whooping and taking #tractorselfies.
Arugam Bay is fishing territory. That’s apparent from the row upon row of fishing boats lined up neatly on the curve of the beach. It’s also heavily commercialized. There are almost no houses here, only shops and restaurants and guesthouses: anything and everything that can be converted to make money has been converted.
Anything with four walls and a roof is either a restaurant, cabana, inn, hotel (something all of the above at the same time). Being a mud-hut is very chic here. The beach itself is fronted with cabanas, offering a place to lounge, enjoy the breeze and perhaps enjoy a beer or two.
These shop-things make up a small village of sorts – a small area, one you can cross easily on foot. Places to stay are readily available, ranging from the cheap (room+lightbulb+tap+toilet) to grandiose and hotel-style. Interspersed between these are gift and novelty shops, carrying everything from (overpriced) wooden turtles to overpriced but amazing art from an artist from Hikkaduwa. There’s no cohesive industry as of yet – no major franchises moving in – but I wouldn’t wonder if they did soon.
The place comes alive during the night: lights, music, retro beach pop, hot ladies strolling about – not a very glitzy nightclub kind of alive, but more of a hangout vibe. Being us, we made a beeline for this small teakade behind all this wattle and daub fanciness: a small shack with proper tea, a radio nailed to wall and hot parata and parippu in the morning. In the day, it was rice from Pottuvil: at night, booze and supplies from the supermarket-ish place. You find open shops from morning till midnight. One thing Arugam Bay could really use is a decent Pilawoos clone: there’s a lack of kottu around.
Being a penguin: the beach, the waves and more
The Bay itself is a world-famous surfing destination. I’ve seen some pretty amazing photos of surfers (mostly foreign) riding the waves in epic style. As I found out (courtesy of Priyal Kiramage, a very knowledgeable friend, businessman and pro surfer), there are three main parts to Arugam Bay: the Main Point, to which the surfers flock: the Baby Point, the beach lined with fishing boats and, between them, the usual swimming areas, which is actually kind of boring.
Unless you’re a surfer (which I’m not – I can do a passable job of swimming, but that’s just about it) Baby Point is the best. We happened to have near-perfect timing: we rolled in at the start of the surfing season, when the really big waves had yet to come to Main Point and Baby Point instead has genteel waves constantly pounding the sand. This is where you do bodysurfing. You wade out into the sea, waiting for the bigger waves to build (judging by what I saw, these can be between six and twelve feet high); just as the wave breaks, you jump with it and ride the heart of the wave all the way to the beach, looking for all the world like a cross between a penguin and a clump of debris.
I’ll confess: I suck at this. The one time I managed to catch the wave perfectly, it bounced me head-first into the water, where I hit the bottom twice before being unceremoniously dragged butt-first towards the beach. Most of us settled for making a neverending series of last-man stands in the sea, letting the waves slam into us and throw us backwards with their sheer power. It’s insane fun.
You really have to watch out for the backwash, though. Often, a wave returning from the beach will knock you off your feet; sometimes, it will head back out into the sea, meeting an oncoming wave and merging to create a foaming monster that curves above and slams onto your head like a hammer.
It’s a crazy feeling, seeing that tunnel build over your head. There’s no time to be scared – only enough time to suck in your breath and prepare for a dunking. The salt water burns: it gets into your eyes, your ears, your nose: you pick yourself up, coughing, and swim back, waiting for the next one. Sometimes you’re caught between a particularly massive backwash and an oncoming wave – right in the middle – and if you’re anything like me, you emerge coughing up great gobs of seawater and screaming obscenities. Sometimes you get the urge to fight the wave. Sometimes you win.
You can do this for hours. We did. This part of the bay’s empty in the morning and at night, save for a coupla foreigners around: it’s during the day that the beach becomes infested with swimmers. Relatively few fun-loving souls challenge the waves this way, so despite the crowd, there’s little chance that you’ll actually smash into anyone while riding/being ridden by the waves.
Don’t leave Arugam Bay without doing this.
No, seriously. If a dip in the water is all you need, then there are plenty of places much closer to home, and even with better views. Arugam Bay is for wave action. It’s raw, it’s epic, and it’s far, far away. If you really want it to be worth all those hours on the road, get into that ocean – and wait for the next wave.
And remember to take a deep breath.