Situated about 40km south of Colombo, Kalutara is a stop for many tourists - but sadly for many this only lasts as long as it takes their driver to leave a coin at the temple and pray for a safe journey. What those people miss is a very special and unspoiled place.
The town gets its name from the Kula Ganga (“Black River”). This is the fourth longest river in Sri Lanka, and is now a centre for white water rafting and other water sports. The 38m Kalutara bridge spans the river and takes the main road across the boundary between the west and the south of the country.
The Kalutara Vihara lies at the south end of the Kalutara bridge. This is a recent Buddhist temple dating from the 1960’s but well worth a visit. The temple is three stories high and it has a hollow stupa. A stupa was originally a mound of clay designed to cover the relics of the Buddha, and these have evolved into hemispherical mounds. The Kalutara one is hollow, and possibly unique in the world because of this. Building a stupa gives a positive karma and is said to result in fortunate rebirths.
The area was once an important spice trading centre. It is now extensively planted with coconut trees and the byproducts are commercially important. I recommend that you try a little – not too much – of the most popular local spirit called “arrack”. The taste is somewhere between whisky and rum, and you can enjoy it with water, a mixer or in a cocktail.
There is a weekly market on the side road leading to the Ramada resort, but the town shops are only a short trishaw ride away. There is a wide range of produce – both international and local. The town is famous for its basketware, so bags and mats woven from palm leaves are good quality and excellent value. You will find there is no lack of advice available. Even your trishaw driver and his friends may try to direct you to certain shops, and it does no harm to take a look. But always remember to consider whether what you are buying is value for money and don’t forget to haggle. The price you are first quoted is not the price you are really expected to pay.
To the North
The capital Colombo is just 30km to the north, but how long it takes to get there depends on the traffic, which varies enormously. The capital’s Fort area now houses the big offices and hotels. The Pettah bazaar has narrow streets lined with stalls and a dazzling array of fabrics and clothes. If you are looking for jewellery or books, it can be the place to go. There is a zoo, and a national museum with a vast collection of books. And churches and temples and parks. There are grand hotels or more modest lodgings available, if you want to stay and sample the nightlife.
To the South
South of Kalutara and within easy reach are Bentota and Galle. For many people the local highlights are the Bentota turtle hatchery, a river safari and trip to cinnamon island, and strolling along the fort walls at Galle world heritage site. For more details, see the Yala and Galle pages.
But whether you have been dashing to the shops in Colombo or Kalutara, white water rafting down the Black River, or strolling along the shore and relaxing by the pool, there is one things you have to do in Kalutara. And it doesn’t cost anything – not even 100 rupees. Take a minute or two – on the hotel roof or on the beach. And watch the sun go down. And before you know it you will promise to return to the small miracle that is Sri Lanka.