Arugam Bay: Surfing Slum

Sri Lanka is – particularly for its small size – a dazzlingly diverse island in almost every way. The people, the culture and history, and the landscapes all change from town to town to the point where it only takes a couple of hours of driving to find yourself in what could easily be an entirely different country. When we travelled there in September we arrived in the capital city of Colombo and immediately experienced the crush of peak hour commuting in a developed city, but within four hours we were in the mountain town of Kandy (the country’s second city) which could not have felt more different. From there we toured the central plains which was again almost indistinguishable from where we had been with ruins set across dry, hot plains marked by ancient man-made lakes or Tanks that fed the Sinhalese kingdoms hundreds of years ago. Next we toured the mountainous tea fields of the highlands and experienced the colonial legacy left by Portuguese, Dutch and English empire building. The initial reason we chose to tour Sri Lanka, however was for the opportunity to surf.

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Fishermen wait for the tide to launch their vessels as surfers laze listlessly nearby.

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The swell was lacking as the season was waning, but there was enough for a fun session.

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Crowds on the Sunday were significant, but consisted mostly of locals on their day off.

Sri Lanka’s South West, and Eastern coastlines are known to hide some world class surfing spots and there is none more renowned in the country than Arugam Bay. As we’d planned our trip, the surfing element of the adventure seemed to get smaller and smaller since there was so much else to see, but I was determined to get some time in the sea. So on the seventh day of our trip we climbed onto a bus in the transport hub/backpacker town of Ella and spent the better part of a day riding from transfer station to transfer station down the mountains and across the coastal plains towards Arugam Bay. We knew that by heading to a known surfing town that we would come into contact with a few elements that did not usually feature on our travelling itineraries. Firstly, we knew that the clientele in such a place was likely to be more stereotypically backpacker-like and that we’d have to content with the beach party style of places like Kuta in Bali (although at a much lower level). When we arrived at the famous beach, however, we found what I immediately pictured as a beach-side slum.

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The view from the front of our accommodation.

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A wind-blown set as the afternoon breeze turned offshore.

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It wasn’t the thousand or so Sri Lankans enjoying their holiday on the beach, or the hundreds of fishing boats that were prepped and ready for the next day’s work (fishing is the lifeblood of Arugam bay once the surf goes flat in October). What really turned me off about the place was the way that many surfing travellers treated the place. Firstly, we noticed a steep dip in the goodwill, generosity and basic courtesy of the people who were visiting, along with a matching spike in rudeness and pushy sales approaches from many of the people in restaurants and rooms. The pinnacle of disappointment was Mambo’s, a franchised faux dilapidated surf shack that occupies prime real estate right next to the main break. We stopped there on three equally terrible occasions (firstly to enquire about a room only to be rudely told they were full – which was clearly not true judging by the deserted rooms and restaurant, secondly for a beer in said empty beer garden that took 45 minutes to be sullenly dropped at our table and finally for lunch which took almost an hour to arrive and featured our fifth choice thanks to lack of supplies). If you happen to be in Arugam Bay to surf, walk straight past Mambo’s and around the point to the accommodation further on, or head back around the lagoon and find somewhere else.

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The excellent view from the well located but otherwise disappointing Mambo’s.

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With a 5 metre paddle from the beach, this is not the most taxing spot in the world!

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The odd decent wave came through and the crowds usually meant that competition was not too fierce.

Staying in a Surf Slum was not without its charm, despite the sour first impression. The surf was indeed lovely. The sandy bottomed main break was forgiving and fun despite the tiny swell, and the larger break on the point had a few great sets if you could withstand the wind chop. I could see how this could be a fantastic spot in the right season (although in early October at the end of the season it was fairly busy – the high season crowds are said to be crazy, with people camping out on the beach). I surfed for five hours in the afternoon and finally headed in for dinner after the sun dipped over the horizon. I haven’t been game to surf after dark since I was a reckless grommet, but here it felt safe and – with the warm water – entirely pleasant.

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An evening storm as we left the surf after dark.

We spent 100 Rupee ($1 AUD) on a tuk-tuk into the main strip of Arugam Bay for dinner (out of laziness, it was about 800m) and found that the Surf Slum was significantly nicer by night. It was how I’d imagine Kuta Beach in Bali felt in the early 80s before it became Perth’s most far-flung nightclub. We stopped into The Hideaway and found a great little outdoor bar with some atmospheric mats to flop onto to drink our half price cocktails. The dinner was a bit fancy for our taste so we wandered down the main street, checking on Siam View which was atmospheric, craft beer friendly, but not quite what we fancied before finding a little pizza place that more than sated our hunger.

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I’d be interested to see the future of this spot. Hopefully it will not become another Kuta.

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Reclining at the Hideaway. Find it if you are in Arugam Bay!

The next morning we paddled out for an early surf – which considering the break is about 10 metres from shore was no great effort – before a leisurely breakfast (that may or may not have contributed to our illness over the next four days) during which we decided to move on in search of a less crowded stretch of beach.

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Siam View’s striking decor.

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Linh chilling at The Hideaway

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Breakfast by the beach. 

 

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