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How to get to Arugam Bay

The Spice Trail guide to making the most of your journey East.

The journey from Colombo to Arugam Bay is one of the best ways to experience Sri Lanka. It takes you from the West Coast to the East, through a literal cross-section of the island, making you understand exactly why they say Sri Lanka is a small island with a big variety. Everything—from flora and fauna to the landscapes, people and their faiths and livelihoods—transforms in your wake. If there’s anything like a self-learning crash course on Sri Lanka, this is it.

Over the years, we’ve perfected this journey from the West Coast to the East, collecting little details about the best ways to do it, places to stop and explore, and the possible routes to take. Here’s the Spice Trail guide to making the most of your journey East.

How long of a drive is it, really?

In our experience, it mostly depends on your lunch choice, tendency to shop at random street markets, street food curiosity level, and bladder capacity…

If you’re driving, there are 3 routes to choose from:

  1. Our first choice is the Southern Expressway (E01 + A2, 7-8 hours) route because it offers a smooth and relatively fast journey from Katunayake Airport or Colombo, all the way to Mattala, with the option to stop at scenic little towns as it joins the coastal road (A2) before reaching Arugam Bay. It’s the one for the on-a-mission traveller.

  2. If you’re a true pilgrim of life, taking the coastal road route (A2, 9-11 hours) all the way might be for you. It’s a beautiful, long, and leisurely journey with views of the ocean, fishing villages, markets, and countless roadside snack vendors and food stores. It’s packed with opportunities to explore beaches, historical sites, and local cuisine. This route passes through scenic countryside and small towns, offering a glimpse into rural Sri Lankan life and plenty of opportunities to people-watch and learn how life unfolds on this island. Pro-tip; split your journey into two and stay overnight on the South Coast where there is a lively travel scene (perhaps a stray wave to catch if you’re travelling around April or October when surf seasons switch between the South and East Coasts). Our South Coast villa, Spice Trail Ahangama, is a perfect place to stop over, with quietly nested rooms and a fantastic pool to soak your journey.

  3. The inland route via Ratnapura, Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Kataragama, and Yala is for the wildlife lover ( A4 + A18 + A2, 10-12 hours). This route, although longer, touches on three national parks, Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, and Yala, frequented by wild animals including many species endemic to Sri Lanka. This route has the highest chance of spotting elephants, peacocks, wild boar, deer, and even the elusive leopard. If the wilderness is what you’re here for, this road has your name on it.

All these routes head east towards Pottuvil—the gateway town to our surf village Ulla, popularly known as Arugam Bay.

Alternatives to driving

The public transport systems in Sri Lanka are quite affordable. Taking the train from Colombo to Ella, you can enjoy panoramic views of tea plantations and rolling hills with waterfalls, before hopping on a bus or a tuk-tuk (trishaw/three-wheeler taxi) to Arugam Bay. There is a convenient overnight express bus from Colombo, which will take you to the Pottuvil bus stop where a line of tuk-tuks awaits travellers getting off the bus.

If you want to splurge a bit, skip the road altogether, consider flying with Cinnamon Airlines from Colombo to Batticaloa Airport, followed by a short drive to Arugam Bay. The best part about this journey is that you get to see Sri Lanka from a bird’s eye view, with incredible scenery of mountains, jungles, and several historic shipwrecks scattered along the Eastern coastline; there’s nothing quite like it.

Stop and explore

Along all the driving routes there are many things worth exploring; these are our picks from a long list.

There are roadside food joints in Lunugamvehera, Tissamaharama, and Buttala where you can experience Sri Lanka’s favourite lunch meal and dessert—rice and curry followed by curd and treacle. Some have all-you-can-eat setups and others give you a plateful of red or white rice with several curries of vegetables, fish, or chicken cooked in coconut milk, with a few fried chillies or papadums (gram flour thin crackers) on the side. Make sure to stop at a place where you can grab some curd and treacle for dessert (a local dairy product similar to Greek yogurt, eaten with sweet kitul palm syrup) because this region produces the country’s best curd. If you’re taking the coastal route, stop by our resident eatery LBK and coffeehouse Kaffi for something delicious; we’ll sort you out with ramen, cakes, and the best coffee on the South Coast to keep you buzzing all the way to the East.

If you’re into legends and mythologies connecting to history, the ancient pilgrim town of Kataragama is a great place to wander through. Googling the many stories connected to the Kataragama sacred town will give you some context on why people from many faiths gravitate towards this spiritual melting pot. But, that’s not all; the routes to Arugam Bay are dotted with ancient ruins and archaeological sites connected to the long history of this island. Muhudu Maha Viharaya, Lahugala Kotawehera, and Magul Mahaviharaya are just a few of the many roadside archaeological sites you can easily stop at; they’re full of stories. Look out for the archaeologically protected site sign, and be ready to explore, keeping in mind that although most sites are not fenced or protected as they should be, exploring them calls for caution; be careful to not sit or step on, move, remove, scratch or mark on what just might be a link for a two-thousand-year-old story that the local archaeology department is still piecing together.

The lakes and National Parks on the way are always worth a stop too. Many water bodies along these routes are straight out of a postcard and often host herds of birds and elephants scavenging for food or cooling off. Consider a break near the Tissamaharama or Lahugala tanks, that are just along the route. Don’t swim or walk into them; because…crocodiles. If you visit the Yala, Lunugamvehera, or Udawalawe National Parks, it's important to note that entrance requires separate entrance fees and permits, and visitors should follow all regulations and guidelines set by authorities to ensure the protection of the natural environment and wildlife.

Bathroom breaks and packing for the road

Let’s face it; it’s a long journey, even if you gun down the shortest route. Your bladder will thank you for including a bathroom break or two. If you’re taking the Expressway, the Canowin Arcade rest stops have nominally priced, clean bathrooms. Along any of the routes, if you stop at one of the supermarket outlets belonging to Keells or Cargill's chains, you’ll be able to use their clean bathrooms for free. Also, jungle pee stops are not frowned upon in Sri Lanka (unless it’s a National Park with restricted entry); just keep a civil distance from pedestrian eyes without going too far into the wild and watch out for those bugs and critters.

Snacks are always recommended, and drinking water is absolutely essential. When you’re considering your bottled water options, remember to minimize disposable plastic water bottle use as it’s a serious problem in Sri Lanka; bring a reusable bottle and most roadside restaurants with a stove will refill boiled water or filtered water for a nominal fee.

We highly recommend buying king coconuts along the way for super hydration; they’re available throughout the island, affordable, delicious, and full of electrolytes, keeping you cooled and hydrated through the even worst of tropical temperatures.

If you’re taking a taxi or an AC bus, anticipate being in cold air conditioning for several hours despite the blistering heat outside. Most taxis, vans and buses set their ACs to surprisingly low temperatures and it can get quite chilly inside; have some layers at hand. Have the option to remove layers if you choose to explore outside, as temperatures can be high, especially in March and April.

Whether you're honeymooners looking to make memories in paradise or a family ready for bonding moments, follow this Spice Trail guide to get to Arugam Bay, and your voyage will be as memorable as your destination. Thank us later, when you come to stay at the Spice Trail.

See you in the East!

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