Matara - Abbey Travel, Ireland

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Welcome to Matara


Matara is the largest town on Sri Lanka's popular south coast, hosting the terminus of the railway line from Colombo. Today it is a quiet town, but in past centuries was a thriving port central to the spice and gem trade with the East and Holland. The original town was established on a narrow peninsula in the estuary of the Nilwala River, which was fortified by the Dutch. The original walls still stand, containing some rather dilapidated old buildings dating from the Dutch colonial era. Matara is scenically attractive, surrounded by paddy fields and tea estates on the fertile river floodplain. The area also boasts some sandy, safe beaches. These assets have ensured that the town is a popular tourist destination removed from the trouble spots in the north of the island, where civil unrest remains a threat.

Information & Facts

Most people speak Sinhala, which is the national and official language. Tamil is also spoken, and English is spoken at most tourist establishments.

The unit of currency is the Sri Lanka Rupee (LKR), which is divided into 100 cents. Major credit cards are widely accepted, and travellers cheques in US Dollars are recommended. ATMs are becoming more common, but outside the main cities they are unlikely to accept international cards. Credit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud. Foreign currency can be exchanged at bureaux de change, banks and hotels, but exchanging cash is more expensive than exchanging travellers cheques. Banks are closed on Sundays.

Local time is GMT +5.30.

The southern beaches of Sri Lanka are the most popular for tourists, the main season extending from October to April when the monsoon has moved on and the sea is calm and tranquil under bright blue skies. Bentota is one of the loveliest resorts on the coastal road, featuring good hotels, watersports and a beach at the river mouth. Divers enjoy Hikkaduwa, where there is a marine sanctuary abundant with coral and tropical fish. Close to Galle is Unawatuna with its beautiful stretch of safe sandy beach. At Kudawella a novel feature is a blowhole that throws huge columns of water into the air when ocean waves break on the rocks. The Kirinda beach just south of the town of Tissa is renowned for offering spectacular scuba diving opportunities.

The port town of Galle, about 60 miles (100km) south of Colombo and a short distance west of Matara, is steeped in the heritage of the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka, dominated by the 36-hectare (89-acre) Dutch Fort, built in 1663, with its massive ramparts on a promontory. Inside the walls of the fort is the old part containing Galle houses, Dutch homesteads, museums and churches, as well as the New Oriental Hotel, originally the home of the Dutch governors. The town has a small beach but most sun-lovers find better beaches a little out of town along the coast road.

During their occupation of Sri Lanka the Dutch built a small outpost fort on the north bank of the Nilwala estuary at Matara in the form of a five-pointed star, in order to guard the river crossing. The fort, dating from 1763, now contains a museum featuring a collection of historic paintings and frescoes on wooden panels.

Not all Buddhist temples are ancient, nor are they all conservative affairs. The colourful, somewhat garish, modern Wewurukannala Temple at Dikwella village near Matara is quite an eyeful, featuring hundreds of brightly painted and gilded models depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, and numerous murals, some of them rather ghoulish. There is also a Buddha effigy that is one of the world's tallest, equalling the height of a five-storey building, which visitors can ascend on the inside to enjoy the view from the top.

Elephants are the most often-spotted inhabitants of the vast Yala National Park in the southeast of Sri Lanka, east of Matara, but they share the reserve with 130 different species of birds and other creatures like sambhur, spotted deer, sloths, crocodiles, monkeys, wild boar and porcupines. There is also a large concentration of leopards in this, the country's oldest protected area. Most of the reserve is open parkland, but it also contains jungle, beaches, lakes and rivers. Areas of the park were badly damaged by the 2004 tsunami, but most parts are open to the public. The park is somewhat remote, the nearest town being Tissa, and is situated about 190 miles (305km) from Colombo. Yala is also dotted with a number of fascinating archaeological sites, like the Magul Maha Vihara ruins, dating from the 1st century BC.

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