Most who travel to Sri Lanka never reach the east, instead beating the well-trodden path to the Cultural Triangle, Hill Country and sweeping south coast. This relatively undiscovered area holds many cultural gems and national parks, stunning stretches of coastline which rival the Maldives, and is extremely ethnically and religiously diverse. The east coast is a cultural microcosm: from the food to the industries, the colors to the traditions, this region is seemingly utterly independent from the rest of the island.
Batticaloa is a coastal town which sits at the eastern edge of the island, south of Trincomalee and above Arugam Bay. Life moves at an easy pace here: most of the locals travel by bicycle, and fishing on the lagoon or in the sea is the main source of income for many families. Handloom weaving is another traditional industry: it is mesmerizing to watch the vibrant threads being made into beautiful sarongs and saris. Cuisine is rich in flavour, influenced by the spices used in curries from southern India, and the landscape is flat and sprawling, punctuated with spectacular stretches of coastline.
We spent a few days exploring Batticaloa’s backroads by bicycle, meeting local families, fishing on the lagoon and eating some of the most delicious seafood we’ve ever had. All of this inspired us to create four new experiences which will give travelers the chance to connect intimately with the local people and unique culture in this area – see below.
(To see full descriptions of these experiences, click here).
Batticaloa by Bike
Undoubtedly one of the most culturally interesting and authentically off-the-beaten track places you are likely to see in Sri Lanka, the beach town of Batticaloa wraps around a picturesque lagoon and has several iconic landmarks, including a Dutch-period Fort. The flat terrain, small village pathways and windswept esplanade are ideal places to cycle: this secret and special city will quickly steal your heart. You will be accompanied by a local guide who will narrate and translate as you go, leaving you free to absorb the sights, smells and sounds of this fascinating region. Visit a kaleidoscope-colored Shiva Temple and an organic farm before heading towards to ocean, where you’ll cycling for several kilometers with the salty breeze in your hair, bypassing local fisherman sorting their catch. The ride finishes at a handloom factory, where you will meet various handloom experts and see this mesmerizing ancient craft in action, watching the colorful spools of thread be spun into distinctive sarongs and saris. Afterwards, head to the home of a local Muslim family for a sumptuous feast of rice and curry served straight onto mats laid out in their beautiful, shaded garden.
Fishing by Catamaran on the Batticaloa Lagoon
It is impossible to pass through Batticaloa without being drawn to the impressive beauty of its largest lagoon. This body of water makes an appearance in local folklore – it is said to be home to ‘singing fish’ which lead fisherman to their catch on dark nights. You can’t leave Batticaloa without some talk of fish: fishing is big business in Sri Lanka’s coastal areas, a trade that has been going for thousands of years with little change. Using techniques passed down from generation to generation and setting out on traditional catamaran boats, the fishermen of Batticaloa can be seen everywhere setting out into the sea or lagoon in a traditional catamaran. Get stuck right into the local livelihood as you join the fishermen for a fishing trip out on the lagoon. At sunset, you will take a short 5km bicycle ride alongside the lagoon to visit the lighthouse area and the Mamangam Hindu temple before making your way to meet the fishermen. The boats are just big enough to squeeze your legs into – the fishermen usually stand and you can join if you’ve got good balance! Have a good laugh trying to copy the fishermen’s expertly crafted techniques and relax as you delve into this iconic local livelihood.
Garden Kitchen Cooking Class
Sri Lanka is an ethnically diverse and multi-religious country, so it comes as no surprise that Sri Lankan cuisine is equally eclectic, drawing from a wide range of influences. The mostly Hindu population of the North and East Coast have a distinctive style of cooking influenced by flavors from southern India. Begin with a trip to Batticaloa’s colorful food markets to collect your ingredients and gain valuable insight into the day-to-day life of the locals in this region. If you spy some alien fruits and vegetables that you’ve never tried before in the stalls, this is your chance to try them: buy any weird and wonderful ingredients that take your fancy and your host can cook them up for you. From the food market, you’ll make your way over to your host’s garden kitchen for a cool drink before the class begins. Having spent several years working abroad, your host speaks fluent English. Under her expert guidance, you will learn how to scrape coconuts in the traditional way, pick herbs from the garden and learn about chili varieties that make Eastern cooking unique. Finally, down to a delicious home-cooked meal with the family at a dining table nestled amongst the flowers of the garden.
Lunch with a Local Family
If you’re looking for a totally authentic, unique and intimate experience, we’re about to serve you just that. Step off the typical tourist track and join a local family in their home for a simple but delicious lunch, accompanied by a local guide with a reasonable level of English who will be able to translate snippets of conversation for you. The rest of your communication will be through a system of smiles, nods, and hand gestures. You will have the option to cycle a short distance to the experience, which gives you further insight into the daily lives of the locals (who also commonly travel by bicycle). Your meal will be served onto wicker mats on the floor, usually in the garden under the palm fronds where it is cooler. If you like you can even try to eat the local way – with your hands. Expect local delicacies such as beef curry, eggplant curry, tempered prawns, and deep fried eggs. Finish off with a cup of sugary sweet tea and swap stories for the remainder of the afternoon. This is a non-linear experience that is at once both humbling and eye-opening. This is a perfect way to really get under the skin of normal family life in this remote and reasonably undiscovered part of the island.