Welcome to Hambantota in Sri Lanka !
Hambantota is where the south coast of Sri Lanka takes an upward curve, marking the beginning of the west coast of the island.
Hambantota is home to Sri Lanka’s largest community of Malay Muslims. The town and its surroundings were hit very hard by the 2004 tsunami, the death toll of 4500 being the largest number on the west coast of the island.
Originally a small port, Hambantota has evolved into a major economic hub of the south. Although the salt industry and fishing are still the main activities, other economic and industrial development has started in a big way, providing employment for thousands. The recently inaugurated projects are an international airport, the second of the kind in the country, an international seaport, a cricket stadium, a wind-energy farm, a film studio complex, etc. Recently, Hambantota was unsuccessful in its bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
How to get Hambantota, Sri Lanka and how to move in and around
Hambantota has recently undergone many renovations as part of its Commonwealth Games bid. These intercity routes connect all major cities in the south by both private and public buses. A trip from Colombo is nearly 8 hours long.
There is no direct train service to Hambantota. The only way to get here by train is to reach Matara and then take a bus from Matara to Hambantota (approximately 2 hours).
The Mattala Rajapaksa Airport at Hambantota is Sri Lanka’s newest International Airport, making travelling to the south and coastal areas of the country convenient. Inaugurated in 2013, it offers flights to domestic as well as international destinations like Dubai and Bangkok. Airlines that fly to here include flyDubai, Cinnamon Air, Rotana Jet and Sri Lankan Airlines.
Top tourist attractions in Hambantota
Birds Research Centre & Resort
One of the newest attractions, the Birds Research Centre and Resort is a tourist must-visit in Hambantota. The centre aims to protect 38 unique bird species threatened with extinction in Sri Lanka. These exotic birds and visible to visitors at the large aviaries inside the complex.
Aside form being a tourist attraction, the Research Centre also offers an insight to the importance of conservation, especially to the younger generation. It is particularly children-friendly and well-equipped for little ones to learn something new and exciting about the natural world.
Hambantota Salt Pans
Salt is one of the major products that Hambantota is renowned for. Hambantota’s coast is lined with salt pans called “lewayas”. Driving down the A2 is a wonderful experience, as you follow the course of the Malala River. On your way, you can see many species of migratory birds in the open scrub vegetation. A large variety of waders and other majestic birds like the Greater Flamingo and the Spot-billed Pelican can also be seen. A visit to the salt pans can hence offer a great combination with bird watching.
Martello Tower, inspired by the Martello Tower in Corsica, is one of its kind in the whole country.
Built in 1804, it was used as a fort and garrison by the British during skirmishes with the Kandyan kingdom. As Hambantota was an important harbour and commercial centre, the tower was constructed immediately after the annexation of the town to keep it constantly protected. It bears a strong resemblance to other such towers in the world like Simon’s Town near Cape Town in South Africa. Incidentally, Simon’s Town is very similar to Hambantota.
In the past, the tower was an administrative building. After its restoration in 1999, it is now a fisheries museum.
Tombstone of Henry Engelbrecht
Henry Engelbrecht was a prisoner of the Boer War when he first came to Sri Lanka. Even as a detainee, he refused to profess allegiance to the British crown and was thus not allowed to return home. Instead, he was sent to Hambantota where the then governor took pity on his situation and appointed him as the first park warden of the Ruhuna National Park (part of Yala National Park).
A lover of animals, Engelbrecht served well at his post and was loved by all the locals. A talented hunter, he would use his skills to protect pilgrims from wildlife as they travelled to Kataragama. When he left the forests once a month to collect his salary, the monthly ritual would become a sort of procession in the area.
Accused of being a spy during the First World War, he died in infamy. His name was cleared posthumously and now he is honoured with a tombstone in his beloved Hambantota. A tall granite tomb at the Christian cemetery near the sea marks his grave.
Tourist spots for the curious traveler when in Hambantota
A small coastal town situated between Matara and Hambantota, Ambalantota is best known for its historical significance as the capital of the Ruhuna Kingdom. Today, it welcomes tourists and offers a variety of features for travellers like beaches along the coast (mainly Ussangda and Kochchama), temples scattered such as the Ramba Raja Maha Vihara, Madhunagala Raja Maha Vihara and Karadhulena Raja Maha Vihara.
Truly a marvel of yesteryear astute engineering, the Sithulpawwa Temple (meaning “The Hill of the Quiet Mind”) is quite a sight. Tucked inside the foliage of Yala National Park, the Sithulpawwa Temple is situated on top of a huge rock that is reached by climbing a steep staircase cut out of stone.
Near the main dagoba, there is a complex of caves that used to accommodate nearly 12000 monks during its heydays. The walls of these caves with frescoes and wall paintings, mostly from the Anuradhapura era, as quite a sight. There are also quite a few rock inscriptions dating from the Pre-Christian era that have not yet been deciphered. Excavations from this area have yielded many statues of gods and godesses.
The Sithulpawwa Temple still attracts many pilgrims despite the distance. You can reach it by taking a short tuk-tuk ride through the Yala National Park. There is no entrance fee to the temple and you also get to view the unique plant and animal life at the Yala Park on your way there. Parking is freely available. Near the entrance is a small museum explaining the temple’s history and historical significance.
Hambantota has two wonderful beaches on offer!
Keep in mind that the sea currents in Hambantota are very strong. Even if you are a very good swimmer, locals will advise against swimming at this beach. Locals even warn you of wading in the waters as strong waves can knock you down or even draw you in! So, if you are not a really good swimmer, it is just best to stay away from the sea.
A designated archaeological zone, Ussangoda is close to Ambalantota on the Colombo-Kataragama route. It is a patch of unusually high and barren land situated close to the sea. Ussangoda is quite popular with tourists because of the 20 acres of red soil that is bounded by the sea and jungles.
The colour of the soil combined with the barrenness gives the beach a Martian feel. Surrounded by thick foliage and scrub vegetation, Ussangoda attracts birds and animals indigenous to the area. Ussangoda Beach leads to Godawaya, famous for its leatherback turtles. It is also close to Kalamatiya, and thus, is a great place to start exploring the natural diversity of the south.
There are many theories about the origin of Ussangoda. According to Hindu mythology, it is believed that this is where the demon-king Ravana landed his chariot after abducting Princess Sita. Geologists believe that the soil formation is due to a meteor landing in prehistoric times. There is also evidence of cavemen inhabitation here.
Place to go admire wildlife around Hambantota
Bundala National Park
The Bundala National Park covers an area of about 62 sq.km. It is situated on the south coast of the island with the town of Hamabantota to its east and Yala to the west. Bundala was designated a wildlife sanctuary as early as 1969. In 1991, it was declared Sri Lanka's first wetland before becoming a national park in 1993.
In 2005 the park received international recognition, as it became the fourth biosphere reserve in Sri Lanka according to UNESCO standards.
Bundala is very famous for large flocks of Greater Flamingo that fly in here in at the end of the year. Numbers such as 2.000 have been reported here especially when food is aplenty for them. Bundala is also well known for migratory birds that arrive here in winter from regions as far as Siberia and the Rann of Kutch in India. The total count of bird species here reaches almost 200 out of which 60 are migratory species.
The best time to visit the park is between August and April when migratory birds settle here for the season.
South of the park, the coastal stretch of about 20 kilometres offers an interesting terrain made of scrub jungles, sand dunes, narrow beaches and rocky lagoons. The beaches serve as nesting grounds for four of Sri Lanka's five species of marine turtles. Between October and January, groups of Olive Ridley turtles, Green turtles, Leatherback turtles and Loggerhead turtles nest in the sands here.
The park office and entrance is on the road to Bundala village off the A2 highway. As in most parks, guides and drivers are available at the entrance.
If you are not keen on visiting the park yet are staying close by, check at your hotel or guesthouse if they can provide you with a bicycle. A bicycle tour around the park can be very rewarding. The surroundings are green and serene, the terrain is flat and there are numerous little paths around paddy fields that offer alternative scenic routes. Over and above, you are sure to get welcomed by locals for tea and get stared at by monkeys perched on fences!
If you are on the A2, stop by the numerous stalls all along the A2 to check out the local curd sold there.
Bundala is home to civets, giant squirrels and crocodiles. The reptile population here is quite varied and includes a sizeable number of snakes like pythons, rat snakes, cat snakes, whip snakes, etc. But the only reptiles you are really likely to come across are the larger ones like Mugger crocodiles, Estuarine crocodiles and monitors.
Kalamatiya Bird Sanctuary
Located close to the Kumana Bird Sanctuary, Kalamatiya is a small fishing village on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka best known for its rich diversity in bird life.
Originally declared a sanctuary in 1938, it was renovated and opened in 1984. It includes two lagoons with brackish-water and the adjoining marshy areas. You can see almost 150 species of birds here of which 54 are migratory. Additionally, four indigenous birds that are registered as threatened species are found here too: the Indian Reef Heron, Glossy Ibis, Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl and Black-Capped Purple Kingfisher.
Kalamatiya is also home to many reptile and fish species. Unique animal and plant life has also been recorded.
The sanctuary is just 20 km from Hambantota and is best visited from between late afternoon to sunset when you can see most species. If you are booking a visit in advance, it is best to request this timing from your agent.
Entry is Rs.3000 per person and includes a guided tour around the marshes and lagoons. A visit can last between 2 to 3 hours.
Kumana National Park
Kumana National Park was originally Yala East until it was renamed in 2006. The park is a popular destination to wildlife enthusiasts because of the multitudes of elephants, leopards and other mammals that are found here. As for birds, there is no shortage of them as over 225 species are to be spotted here especially during the migratory season when their chirps, hoots and calls ring through the foliage and across the lagoons and tanks they feed and nest in.
As for the flora, the large swathes of mangrove and marshes are a beauty in their own right. The 'Kumana Villu', a 200-hectare natural swamp lake, watered by the 'Kumbukkan Oya' river is one such beauty to be admired. During the period between April and July, tens of thousands of birds are to be seen.
Besides the fauna, Kumana is also reputed for its cultural heritage made of rock carvings and engravings dating back to 2nd Century BC. If you are keen on visiting them, you will have to ask your guide to take you to see the 9 metre long statue of the lying Buddha at Bambaragastalawa (beware the statue is in a very sorry state of preservation) or to Bowattagala where there are ruins of a monastery.
Two campsites on the banks of the Kumbukkan Oya are now open to the public, but must be booked through the Wildlife Department. Luxury options too are available for those who want to camp out in style.
Interesting things children can do when in Hambantota
Mirijjawila Botanical Gardens
One of the newest Botanical Parks in the country, the Mirijjawila Botanical Park is located between the new Mattala Airport and the Hambantota Harbour. Spread over 300 acres of land, it was commissioned specifically in 2006 to preserve the dry-zone vegetation of the area. Three reservoirs have been constructed to maintain the moisture of the land, while the display of plant life aims to promote ecotourism, give patrons an introduction to botany and facilitate research.
The park was opened to the public only in November 2013, and since then has welcomed visitors from all around the world. Although there is ample space for children to play around and the staff are knowledgeable, work is still in progress. Paths have not been marked correctly, and the weather is uncomfortably hot and dry. When completed, this garden will provide opportunities for eco-tourism and economic development of the area. Right now, most plants and trees are fairly new.
A visit to the park may be educational, but the true beauty of the area is yet to uncover itself. For now, you can take a small car with your guide around the premises and look around.
Unique things to see in Hambantota
Mahapelessa Hot Springs
Deep in the south, the Mahapelessa Hot Springs are a highlight of any visit to Hambantota. Mahapelessa is one of the only three natural hot springs in Sri Lanka (the other two being Kanniya and Maha Oya) that are known for their healing properties.
Ever since the first Buddhist monks settled here, the natural mineral springs here have been used to treat skin ailments and rheumatic ills. As a result, the surrounding areas also have cave temples and two hermitages, Madunagala and Karambagala, where monks of the highest order (Arahants) used to stay.
There are a series of wells and springs here, cut from stone. The first of the wells contains hot water, while the second well has tepid water. Thanks to a series of renovated highways, Mahapelessa enjoys renewed fame and is packed with visitors, particularly on weekends and public holidays. Mahapelessa is now completely tourist-friendly, with changing rooms, bathtubs and concrete seating. There are also shops where you can purchase local herbal remedies for various skin and muscle ailments.