A sprawling urban town & tour guide to Matara Sri Lanka !
Matara, a sprawling urban town of the south, is both administratively important and commercially significant. Although Matara does not have any exuberant attractions to offer to travellers, it has a rich history and a marked colonial influence.
Historically part of the Ruhuna kingdom, Matara has always been commercially significant thanks to the Nilwala Ganga (Blue Clouds River). The river runs through the district and bisects the town.
Matara is also famous for its forts. It was under the Portuguese that the town got its first fort, Matara Fort. Under the Dutch, Matara got its second fort, Star Fort, built in 1765, to the shape of a six-pointed star with space for 12 large cannons to cover approaches from all directions. The Dutch also built one of the oldest lighthouses in Sri Lanka at the outskirts of Matara, at Dondra Point. In 1796, Matara fell under British influence. Today, some areas of the town are a mixture of Sri Lankan and European heritage.
The population in Matara today is predominantly Sinhalese. As the weather is always mild (28°C), it is one of the more desirable places to live in this part of Sri Lanka.
A visit to Matara will give you a good insight into the normal lives of Sri Lankans like children walking to school or groups of college students shuttling to one of the three universities here.
How to get to Matara and how to move in and around
As it is an important commercial hub, Matara is very well connected to all surrounding areas and can be reached by rail and by road.
The bus station at Matara is a huge complex with many levels. Matara is connected to Colombo (around Rs.150 for a 4 to 5-hour journey), Galle (Rs.26 for a journey lasting about 2 hours), Ratnapura (Rs.105 for a long trip that can last over 5 hours), and Tangalle (that you reach in around 2 hours for under Rs.25).
The train station at Matara is the last stop along the coast. Trains travel to Galle (in 2 hours for Rs.23), Colombo (in 4 hours for a ticket costing between Rs.79 and Rs.270 depending on your class). A train trip to Kandy can take up to 7 hours while Vavuniya is some 10 hours away.
Although accommodation is easy to come by inside the town, you will be tempted to enjoy the hotel facilities on Polhena Beach.
Top tourist attractions in Matara
The Star Fort, built by the Dutch colonizers of Sri Lanka in 1765, is located on the east bank of the Nilwala Ganga river is just 350 metres away from the main Matara Fort. It has a 6-pointed star plan, an architecture feature also seen in many forts in the Netherlands around the same time. It was built after the construction of the main fort in Matara and was well equipped for launching cannon attacks. The walls are made of granite and embossed with the Dutch East India Company seal. The fort is said to be the last major defence post built by the Dutch but never had the chance to prove its effectiveness. The entrance commemorates Redoubte van Eck, the Governor of Sri Lanka at the time.
Today, you can enter the Star Fort just like in those times – using a drawbridge to cross over a moat. Inside, there is an archaeological museum that explains the cultural and commercial history of Matara and the adjoining areas. You can see weapons, uniforms, currency and photographs taken around the time the fort was built.
The Star Fort is in a good state of preservation. Sadly, the information provided at the museum is not much in detail and some of the guides during our visit did not speak English well.
Located on the Matara-Akuressa highway at Wilmot Balasuriya Mawatha, the old Nupe Market is a site of historical importance to the town. Built by the Dutch in 1775, it is considered to be one of the oldest surviving Dutch structures on the island. A blend of Kandyan masonry and Dutch architecture, the Nupe Market is however no longer operational.
The structure is a T-shaped building with flat roof tiles (peti-ulu) typical of Kandyan times. With large timber porticos and stone floors, Nupe Market was an important city junction in British times as it was located in the centre of the city and catered to the daily needs of all inhabitants.
Unfortunately, the building is now in a state of disrepair despite some efforts by the Archaeological department.
The town market, opposite the bus stand, gets quite busy in the mornings. A trip to this place is sure to offer you colourful sights of vegetable vendors and fruit sellers selling their products by repeatedly calling out the same names and prices.
Sri Madura Music Instrument factory
The name says it all. If you wonder how and where all the percussions, ever present at processions, come from, you need to look no further. This factory located on Anagarika Darmapala Mawatha produces quite large quantities of them in all shapes, sizes and colours. If you are interested in taking one back home, this is probably one of the best places to buy one, instead of getting one at a souvenir shop at a higher price.
Art Batik Showroom
The batik art form, often considered to be indigenous to Indonesia, is also rooted in Sri Lankan culture. Fully integrated as a Sri Lankan artistic way of expressing culture, tradition and religiosity, batik artworks also depict scenes from daily life and natural patterns.
Very close to the Matara bus station, Art Batik is a fairly well known art showroom located in the heart of Matara. Run by artist internationally famous Shirley Dissanayake and his wife, Art Batik aims to make the art form accessible to tourists. Each piece of batik work is handmade and requires talent, time and patience to achieve a particular set of colours on a piece of fabric by using wax and dyes.
Built as an underground temple where people used to worship, the place has emerged as a converging centre for worshippers seeking blessings from the Buddha. The statue, completed in 1976, is about 36 metres high but not of any important artistic significance. If you stop by, be sure to visit the underground passage to take a look at the wall paintings that depict various scenes from the Jataka stories.
Although the Weherahena temple is not popular with tourists, it is well maintained and easily accessible. You do not need to pay an admission fee but travellers often leave a small donation.
Tourist spots around Matara
The Dondra Point or Dondra Head is located at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. It faces the Indian Ocean and is just 5 km southeast of Matara. The best thing to see here is the Dondra Head Lighthouse. It is a 200-step walk up to the top and the view from up there is breathtaking.
Dondra is the point where you can see the waters of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Laccadive Sea meet. Strong swimmers and surfers can paddle out and cross three seas under five minutes. In the east, there are reef breakers, but they not too consistent. Rip tides are a serious concern and hence water activities are not recommended for novices.
Dondra is most famous for whale watching opportunities in December, January and April. Blue Whales and Sperm Whales can be easily spotted during these months. If you are lucky, you will also enjoy the company of Spinner Dolphins during your whale-watching trip. For more information, check here.
A visit to the Dondra Lighthouse should cost you normally around Rs.500 per person (children pay half rate). If you are asked for more, it is advisable to be firm and pretend to leave. This charge includes photography and a climb to the top to admire the view.
Dickwella is a tranquil beach town that is perfect for unwinding after a hectic cultural tour of the country. No matter when you go, Dickwella has something to offer: postcard-worthy views of the Indian Ocean, a chance to laze on the beach, an opportunity to learn about and support local handicrafts or mingle in the crowds during Buddhist feasts.
Dickwella is best known for its colourful, lively and large street market held on Saturdays (8 am till dusk) right next to the beach. Although it is mostly centred on fruits, fish and vegetables, it gives the traveller an opportunity to shop for pottery, basketwork and other unique souvenirs.
Dickwella comes alive from May to July when three Buddhist festivals, Wesak Perahera, Poson Perahera and Esala Perahera are celebrated. The atmosphere here gets electric and colourful with vivacious processions that include caparisoned temple elephants, dancers, musicians and entertainers.
At Dickwella you can enjoy the long sandy stretch of beach. The sea, protected by reefs and sandbars, is rich in aquatic diversity and a great place to enjoy a safe swim or snorkel around to spot colourful tropical fish.
If you would like to help support local families by buying fair-trade products, you might want to consider visiting the Dickwella Lace Centre. The centre, founded to re-build the livelihood of women affected by the Tsunami in year 2004, helps revive the dying art of beeralu (traditional lace making). Besides shopping for lace products, you can visit the production unit, a traditional lace museum and the training facility. Visitors can also learn about the history of the craft and experience real time bobbin lace production. In all, the centre helps sustain over 100 families.
Not far from Dickwella is Sri Lanka's largest seated Buddha statue at the Wewurukannala Temple (see below).
Located in Dickwella, a short tuk-tuk ride away from Tangalle, the Wewurukannala Vihara houses the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. Being a functioning monastery, the site is different from other ancient ruins on the island.
The main attraction here is to climb the eight floors to reach the head of the Buddha by taking the staircase covered with a series of comic strip like frescoes narrating the life of the Enlightened one. The most impressive part of the temple are the halls containing real-life size portrayals of demons torturing humans in what could be a horror movie version of hell. The statues are quite graphic and shocking, but almost unique to the island as most Viharas around the country do not hold them. You will also be curious to pop into the temple museum that holds a large clock made by a Sri Lankan watchmaker in 1926 that still serves to mark the hours of service at the temple.
Entry fee: Rs.200 for foreigners. You do not have to pay the extra donation.
Kudawella Blow Hole
The Kudawella Blow Hole, locally called the Hummanaya, is a natural feature located some 7 km from Tangalle. It is a short tuk-tuk ride away from Dickwella (for about Rs.200). Reaching the place is quite a trip as the roads are almost always muddy and at one point you will have to park and cover the remaining distance on foot. There is parking available and some locals will offer to take care of your car for a fee. From the parking area, it is a 15-minute walk to the blowhole. The road has recently been made into shallow steps, which makes it a bit easier for visitors. If the smell of dried fish is something you cannot bear, this is not an outing for you.
On your way, if you lend a careful ear, you can hear the sound of the blowhole in the distance. Once you reach the end, you will see a long crack in the ground. This can seem a bit boring at first, but every 15 minutes, depending on the tide and the swell at the sea, water shoots out of tiny crevice between rocks up to 120 feet high in the air with a loud sound.
Please note that if the sea is calm or if there is no wind, give this outing a miss as you are bound to be disappointed.
From here, you can also take a short walk to the beach and the surrounding rock pools. The rock pools are great to dip your feet in as they have warm water, colourful fish and bright green seaweed.
If you are of the adventurous type when it comes to tasting food, you can sample some fish snacks and ginger beer on your way!
Matara in Sri Lanka has three great beaches!
Matara’s beachfront gives the town a glamorous edge. Unlike most sandy beaches, the approach to Matara Beach is lined with shady trees and dense foliage. During your stay here, you will rarely venture to Matara town and hence avoid being overwhelmed by the bustle. The sunsets here are wonderful, so are the groups of local youths who gather here for some splash and fun.
Polhena Beach is the most well-known of Matara’s beach areas, just a few kilometres away. A natural barrier made of corals and rocks, it is safe from waves and currents all year round. This makes it a popular spot for visitors and locals with children. Nothing very culturally interesting around, however. So, plan to spend a day off in the warm waters doing nothing else but spotting colourful fish in the clear waters or watching the locals revel in the popular attractions as the sun goes down over the sea.
Madiha Beach is just a few kilometres north of Matara. Secluded and laid-back, it is a great choice for tourists who want to bask in the sun and enjoy the natural beauty of the area in peace. All accommodations at Madiha face the sea.
Things for your kids to do in Matara
Snorkel in the shallow waters of Polhena
Polhena Beach is a perfect mix of coconut groves, popular atmosphere and warm waters. Close to Matara, the shallow sea here is separated from the great depths by a natural line of corals about 100 metres from the shore. This makes it secluded and safe from big waves providing a natural swimming pool experience. A number of hotels offer to arrange boat rides up to the coral barrier.
Wonderful sights await you provided the sea is not rough (this is the case during high tide or on full moon day). If conditions are optimal, you may end up spending hours on end admiring the sea world around you.
As for the beach, the best moment to spend time depends on what you would like to during your day. Quite deserted in the mornings, the beach tends to get more visitors in the afternoons and evenings. There are inflatables on rent for those of you interested in paddling. During the weekends, it is a great opportunity to mingle with the local population that is attracted to the fun stalls and games.
Please note that there are no designated zones for sunbathing on this little beach except for the sunbeds on rent.
Taste kitul flavoured Yoghurt
Matara is famous in Sri Lanka for the authentic buffalo-milk yogurt served over kitul syrup. The syrup is totally natural, extracted from the flowers of the locally grown kitul plant. When boiled, it looks dark brown and tastes like fruity caramel. This is used as a topping over yogurt made from buffalo milk which tastes quite similar to Greek yogurt, but with a smoky flavour.
Versions of kitul-yogurt are available as packages in Sri Lankan supermarkets but they are only pale approximations of the real thing. For generations, families in Matara have made full fat buffalo yoghurt and smoked it over wood-fires to give it a smoky and creamy taste that pairs perfectly with the sticky kitul syrup.
When in Matara on a hot sunny day, ditch your ice cream habit for some yogurt with kitul. An experience to remember.
Great things to do in Matara!
From end October to early April, if you come by this coast, you will be treated to ample opportunities to ride the waves. Just south of Matara, Polhena offers two surf breaks, the Polhena left hander and Polhena right hander. Both of them are reef bottomed. Waves here are fast and as big as in Hikkaduwa albeit a bit less crowded.
Nilwala boat ride
If you get hooked to boat rides after a trip to admire whales off the south coast and you would like to sail inland, the Nilwala, also Sri Lanka’s third longest river, can offer you the opportunity to take a three to six-hour long ride. An excursion up the river will allow you to catch wonderful glimpses of unspoilt mangroves, rice fields and quite a few endemic birds. If you keep you eyes wide open, you can spot a few crocodiles in the river. Your hotel can arrange to book a trip for you.
Prices start at Rs.4000 for a three-hour trip.
Matara Snake Farm
The Matara Snake Farm, just 45 minutes from the main city centre, is a little attraction that you cannot miss. As it is off the main roads, you may have to ask your way around to reach it. The Snake Farm is more of a conservation centre and has been operational for over 20 years.
As soon as you enter the small premises, the proprietor greets you with a white cobra curled snugly around his neck. His enthusiasm is contagious and soon even the most reluctant of all may find thrills in gazing at cobras, vipers and spiders. The reptiles are not in cages and it is a thrilling (but safe) experience when they are taken out and shown to you.
Children will enjoy handling and learning about these exotic creatures. It is a great way for them to learn about snakes and get photographed with them around their neck. The owner, a self-taught herpetologist, works with herbal remedies for curing victims of snakebites and is quite informative about anti-venom medicines.
Entrance to the Snake Farm costs about Rs.800 per person and is definitely worth every paisa. The money you pay goes into making the anti-venom compounds. As mentioned previously, you are free to take pictures during the tour.