© Andrey Burmakin
‘This area not coming tourists many,’ my driver, Jagath, said as we bounced along an unmade road with a vista of mountains in the distance looming over paddy fields glistening in the sunlight. He was right. Although Bentota has been home to a National Tourist Resort for 30 years, few are the tourists who venture inland to discover the beauty and traditions of the Sri Lankan way of village life. He told me that few tourists want to explore the village environs just a few minutes’ drive from their hotels. ‘They prefer to go on organised round-trip tours, yet we have tea and rubber, traditional crafts, wildlife, historical temples and …’, he paused as though overwhelmed by what he was saying, ‘… everything!’
I met Jagath when I decided to explore beyond my beach hotel. He is the owner of one of the ubiquitous three-wheelers (or tuk-tuks as they have become familiarly known). A tuk-tuk might not be the best vehicle for seeing the scenery because of its low roof and rolled-up blinds which means having to crane forward to peer out. It was also a bumpy journey due to the amount of pot-holes on the country lanes. The advantage is that tuk-tuks can go anywhere, and that’s how I found places inaccessible to motor vehicles.
We paid a visit to the obligatory temple, Galpatha, 1km inland by an offshoot of the river. A carved gateway and an inscription recording the gift of lands and slaves to the monastery on the site recalled its 12th-century origins. I was fascinated by the different architecture in the villages, ranging from crumbling mansions over a century old, 1930s Art Deco houses, squat residences from the 1960s and pretentious villas built by the newly rich. Alongside them were village houses, some made of mud, and tiny wooden shops with platforms displaying shiny vegetables.
There were vast open plains, which Jagath explained were abandoned paddy fields where saltwater seepage had made paddy growing impossible. Instead the reeds used for mats and baskets were grown there and dried on the roadside before being dyed and used for weaving. Paddy is still grown in Bentota and is threshed and dried beside the road before being taken to the mill and emerging as rice.
The buffaloes in the paddy fields each had a white egret to groom them. There were cormorants perched on branches over shallow ponds, where kingfishers swooped and purple and white lilies grew in profusion. There were black monkeys gambolling in the trees while dragonflies hovered and butterflies flitted over tea bushes. Tea? Yes, there are small tea gardens close to Bentota so tourists don’t have to go to the hill country to see how it is grown. One smallholding we passed had rubber trees, coconuts, coffee, cocoa, breadfruit, jak-fruit, pepper and cardamom growing beside the road.
In season toddy is tapped from the tops of coconut trees, and wooden barrels of this effervescent beverage beloved by villagers are mounted on stands awaiting collection. Sometimes a toddy tapper can be induced to let visitors try toddy as it comes fresh from the tree. Driving along a footpath through the vegetation we came to a cinnamon garden where the workers were happy to demonstrate cinnamon peeling and how the oil is made. At a coir factory close to the river, coconut husks were being transformed into rope and mattress stuffing. I saw the balsa trees used for mask making and witnessed the village mask carver at work. I spotted an abandoned granite mill used for making coconut oil from copra. The smell of freshly baked bread enticed us to stop at the village bakery where bread is baked in the traditional manner in an old wood-fired brick oven.
The highlight of the hinterland tour was the journey on a hand-pulled ferry across the Bentota River. Only pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycles and tuk-tuks can use the ferry – motor vehicles have to cross the river by the bridge on the Galle road at Bentota. Passengers helped the ferryman haul on the rope that pulls the raft across the broad sweep of the river. On the southern bank there is a shelter for passengers to wait out of the sun. It was built as a memorial to a villager, a soldier who died in 1995.
There are crocodiles deep in the river, but we saw shaky, single-hull canoes drifting along it, each with a fisherman perched in its stern. The atmosphere was serene and timeless and evocative of real Sri Lankan village life. For me, the tuk-tuk tour added a new dimension to my holiday in Bentota that an organised coach tour could never match.