We had been on the road for almost 6 hours and although this stop was only brief – just long enough to drop off a couple of passengers and take on another collection of travelers and commuters – it was nice to see the ocean again. As it happened, my view out over the small harbour uncovered a beautifully peeling right hander that carved its way across the channel, both unridden and unheeded by anyone but me. Cruel punishment it was to be trapped in a bus that had more than two crowded, perilous hours between our current vantage and our destination Matara. With the memory of the last decent wave I’d see in Sri Lanka seared into my mind the bus hurtled on under the questionable control of the driver, who seemed to think the extra oncoming traffic that had appeared as we rejoined the coast was an obstacle challenge rather than a cause for caution. So it was that we pulled in to Matara just before dusk.
From Matara, we intended to take a short tuk tuk to the beach resort town of Mirissa to enjoy the beach dining and accommodation which we were told was worth the stop. Having endured the most hair raising bus journey we’d experienced in Sri Lanka, however, we decided that a short break was in order. As luck would have it, the coast in front of the bus depot afforded the perfect distraction from the discomfort of transit. An enticing island temple complete with suspension bridge lay before us – what better way to pass a little time as our backsides regained the feeling that had been robbed by so many hours on a public bus.
We walked across the road and along the esplanade towards the bridge, but we’d hardly stepped off the tarmac when a local entrepreneur assailed us offering his portage services. Despite continued rebuffing of his offers to safely look after our bags and to sell flowers to be offered at the temple he seemed to think we hadn’t really appropriately considered the value of such services, and it took the regrettably harsh tone of a traveler who has spent too much time looking at the back of a random stranger’s head to discourage his increasingly insistent advances.
Before long we reached the relative safety of the suspension bridge and the sales pitch was blown away by a stiff evening breeze which had whipped the sea into turmoil (not a tempest, just a slight agitation – the type that makes an island temple look far more rugged and remote than this one was). We lugged our un-ported luggage across the span and paused to remove our shoes on the other side, as is customary at Buddhist temples. The first thing that caught my eye was an alcove on the edge of the island where ripped cloth that had presumably been used for protection of an image of Buddha had created the atmosphere of a pirate stronghold. I hardly need to stress that this did nothing to harm the appeal of this particular island hideaway.
From the pirate’s keep (as it shall now be known) we walked up the stairs towards the main complex, which turned out to be the monks’ quarters. These were protected by two stone lions, which seemed to simultaneously affirm and refute the island’s piratical nature.
We paid our respects and left our donation to the upkeep of the site before holding court with the resident hen and before long we were on our way again. The whole affair – from alighting from the bus to returning to the depot looking to board for our next (mercifully shorter) leg – would hardly have taken 30 minutes, but it left a lasting impression on me. It is strange how unlooked for gems like the Matara temple (or Weherahena Poorwarama Rajamaha Viharaya as it is known by those more linguistically gymnastic that this travel writer) can have such a disproportionate effect on a trip, despite the short time spent exploring them. Perhaps it is the fact that they fall outside the itinerary of the journey that makes them so satisfying, maybe it’s the buccaneer spirit we felt, or maybe it was just the relief of not being on the bus of doom.