I’m sorry, Sri Lanka.
For many years, I chose to ignore you, to shun you, to shrug my shoulders and say “Eh” whenever you were mentioned.
After a quick 3-day visit to Colombo back in 2002, I never thought about paying a visit to your shores again. This was despite 30 trips to India, your neighbor to the north, and despite rumors from other travelers that you really were an excellent and affordable beach destination.
Why did I treat you so?
Honestly, you just didn’t sound that appealing to me. You didn’t seem like the kind of destination I would enjoy or be interested in and so, I never found it justifiable to spend the money for a visit.
But today, I sit here and say, “I’m sorry.”
Back in January this year, after spending a month in Bali and after a couple of unexpected hiccups with our travel plans, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in East Timor of all places, unsure of where to go next.
We had two and a half weeks and nowhere to go.
We threw around some potential destinations – Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and so on – before deciding on Sri Lanka. My girlfriend told me that her friends loved their experience there and that was all it took as we really needed to choose a place.
We did some research. We chose the beach town of Unawatuna as our base. We booked our flights and accommodation.
The deal was done.
Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo, Sri Lanka arrived late at night and so we stayed at a guesthouse near the airport. The following morning we hired a taxi for the 3 hour ride down to Unawatuna, sharing it with two other travelers we had met.
Before long, we arrived in Unawatuna, coming in along the main road. And I began to get nervous. I simply didn’t expect there to be a heavily trafficked main road in this supposedly quiet town. But just as the sweat began dripping from my forehead, the driver turned right into a small lane, and the traffic instantly disappeared.
A few minutes later we were in front of our accommodation.
And just like that, we began to fall in love with Unawatuna and Sri Lanka.
Asia’s Perfect, Affordable Beach Destination?
It very well could be.
I’m honestly not sure if there is another affordable beach destination that offers the same value in terms of accommodation, food and activities along with such a high quality beach, lack of crowds and incredibly welcoming atmosphere. And I love my beaches!
Let me give you the run down…
The Town of Unawatuna
It’s a small town, with really one main lane that winds around from the main road, along the beach and then into the forest. There are smaller lanes that branch off here and there and then you have the 1 kilometer long beach. For the most part, nothing is more than ten minutes walk away from anything else.
Also, even though we were there in high season, the town was by no means crowded. You could easily meet other people if you wanted to but you could also have a quiet vacation as well.
The atmosphere is very laid-back, most of the travelers here are backpackers or mid-range tourists and while you can find some nightlife, it’s not a huge party place. I’d say this town has just a little bit of everything you could possibly want from an affordable beach destination.
It’s simple. For a beach town, Unawatuna is a great value. You could get by for as little as $35 USD per day if you stayed in a budget room at a guesthouse and ate at the local restaurants or food stalls around town.
Here’s what we paid for various things:
Beer – $1-2 USD
Coffee – $1-2 USD
Beach chairs – free if you order a drink or meal
Local meal – $3 USD
SUP rental (stand up paddle boarding) – $8 per hour
15 minute rickshaw ride – $2-$ USD
5 liters of water – $1 USD
Large, comfortable double room at a top-rated guesthouse – $45 USD
It’s pretty hard to spend money here since it’s the perfect setting to just relax on the beach and partake in some simple activities, but when you do have to open the wallet, it rarely makes much of a dent.
The Unawatuna Beach
Beautiful. Really beautiful. Unawatuna Beach is a long stretch of pinkish golden sand with clear, warm, turquoise water. As I mentioned, we were there in the middle of what was supposedly high season for tourists and the beach barely had any people on it. It was simply perfect, in every way. (I really was shocked by how beautiful this beach was and the fact that I had never heard of it before!)
Also, the entire village is within a few minutes walk of the beach, so you can always pop down for a quick swim or a breath of that fresh salty air whenever you want. There are very few vendors on the beach and the restaurants are set back quite a ways from the water, leaving the beach itself remarkably quiet and peaceful. In the evenings, several restaurants set up on the sand right as the sun sets, creating a pleasant atmosphere ideal for a drink or meal.
But at any time of the day, it always remains quiet, making it feel as if you’re in some far more remote and less affordable beach destination!
As a bonus, Unawatuna is only a 25 minutes walk (or 5 minute rickshaw ride) away from Dalawella Beach. This idyllic stretch of sand never had more than 4 or 5 people on it and while the sea was rough and swimming pretty much impossible, it’s a gorgeous beach worth visiting nonetheless!
There are dozens of options for all budgets – dirt cheap dorm rooms, well-priced private rooms in all kinds of guesthouses, nicer rooms in boutique hotels, simple shacks down by the beach, rooms for rent in family homes and so on.
We chose the Silva Rest Guesthouse, pretty much based on the photos of the room and the lush, tropical property. And it turned out to be one of my favorite places that I’ve stayed at, ever! It all starts with the young couple that owns the place, and their staff, all of whom are beyond lovely and helpful as they go out of their way to ensure that every detail of every guest’s stay is perfect.
The rooms are spotless, spacious and creatively decorated, with super comfortable beds, a sitting area and a great bathroom (weird to say but it was!). We had a front terrace with two chairs and a table and the building was set in a remarkably quiet plot of land that was full of lush trees, bright green grass, a garden and mini-jungle and a mountain backdrop.
The only noise we heard was of the colorful birds hanging around outside our room. There were also massive lizards wandering around the property and even the odd peacock flew by from time to time.
We had an outdoor communal kitchen to use, with all the equipment you could possibly need, and a covered seating area, ideal for enjoying the freshly made, local and huge breakfast the owners serve up every morning.
And to top it off, the Silva Rest Guesthouse is only a 3-4 minutes walk from the middle of the beach. As you can tell, we really loved this guesthouse.
*For accommodation, you can save up to $30 USD (and I’ll receive the same) by using this link to Booking.com
Unawatuna is full of dining options. There are cafes with sandwiches, large restaurants on the beach serving up all kinds of fresh seafood, popular hangouts with menus full of local Sri Lankan curries and other dishes and simple roti stalls. You can also find western food, pizzerias, bakeries serving great coffee and tea and best of all, fruit stands selling dozens of tropical fruits at very low prices. (We made a huge fruit salad every single day of our stay with rambutan, melons, coconut, lemon bananas, mangoes and more!)
Meals ranged from $3 USD for local curry and rice to $8 USD for a whole fresh fish or proper stone-oven pizza to $15+ for a full seafood meal on the beach.
Our favorite places to eat:
Happy Spice – fresh home-cooked food, local curries and western dishes
Me-nu Restaurant – always crowded, with excellent food and cheap prices
Baby’s Bistro – great seafood dishes in a relaxed setting
Shifting Sands Cafe – run by some nice local guys, diverse menu, tasty Sri Lankan curries
La Boheme – on the edge of the main road, very laid-back and good pizza joint
And be sure to visit this guy and his fruit stall, located right next to Jina’s Vegetarian Restaurant!
Right in Unawatuna, apart from strolling up and down the main lane and hanging out at the beach, there are also a handful of other options to spend your time.
You can rent stand-up paddle boards for about $8/hour. There are jet skis, too. A bunch of yoga teachers advertise their classes and there’s a meditation center. You can hike 45 minutes to the more remote Jungle Beach, visit the Japanese Peace Pagoda, go snorkeling or scuba diving, take cooking classes or even go whale watching at the right time of year.
You can rent scooters for a few dollars per day and cruise up and down the coast, stopping in dozens of villages and random beaches along the way.
And of course, you can hop into a rickshaw for the 15 minute ride up to the town of Galle, where you’ll find the Galle Fort. This old Portuguese, and then Dutch, fort is still a living, working town and we ended up visiting twice because it was such a pleasant experience.
You can wander the quiet lanes of Galle Fort, walk on top of the outer wall along the water and listen to live music or check out the local stalls in the park at Fort Square. You can step into one of the many cafes on Pedlar Street for an excellent meal and check out some of the free art galleries and free museums (the Historical Mansion Museum was especially interesting with it’s huge collection of antiques!). In the evenings the town becomes even more atmospheric once it’s all lit up and things quiet down a little.
Given its proximity to Unawatuna, it’s the best, and easiest, escape whenever you want to hang out somewhere different for a few hours. (The rickshaw ride to/from Unawatuna should cost around 350 rupees each way.)
And of course, you have the rest of Sri Lanka to visit as well. We were exhausted from a few months of traveling non-stop so we didn’t venture too far away from Unawatuna, but if you have the time and energy, there’s always…
– Tea plantations
– Dambulla cave temple
– Sigiriya rock fortress
– Udawalawe, Horton’s Plains, Yala National Parks
– Even more beaches!
…and plenty more than that of course.
So, on that note, thank you once again Unawatuna!
You gave us a brilliant two and a half weeks. Never did we expect to find one of the most perfect and affordable beach destinations in all of Asia. And we’re quite confident that you’ll feel the same if you choose to visit too!
Any questions about Unawatuna?