Cycling in Sri Lanka 1 – Colombo to Jaffna

#1  Colombo

May 7: I arrived in Colombo early in the morning and headed to Hotel Venue in a taxi, located in district 8, which was located a bit outside the city center. While the hotel was compact, the rooms were tidy and clean, it lacked windows, resulting in a stuffy atmosphere and a musty smell. Nonetheless, it offered the convenience of a storage room where the gracious staff readily agreed to safeguard my bicycle box for the entire two months until my departure.

My arrival coincided with Colombo’s vibrant celebration of Vesak Poya, a Buddhist festival that commemorates the three crucial milestones in Buddha’s life: birth, enlightenment, and nirvana, leading to the closure of most establishments for the long weekend holiday. During the first two days, I explored various historical and heritage sites that the city had to offer.

Once I successfully assembled my bicycle, Sunday, May 7th marked the day of my first riding adventure in Sri Lanka. My journey commenced at Independence Square with the company of my friend, Nuwan Kumara. Due to the holiday, the streets remained relatively free of vehicles, granting us the perfect opportunity for a peaceful ride as we meandered through many of Colombo’s renowned landmarks. To our amazement, we even encountered a gigantic monitor lizard in the heart of Colombo. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing revelation was finding the presence of mailboxes still adorned with the British Royal cypher, serving as an enduring testament to the city’s colonial past.

Stay: Hotel Venue, Colombo 8
Distance 33.66 km
Elev Gain 87 m
Time 3h 3m

#2  Colombo to Negombo

May 9: My first ride along the planned coastal route commenced in Colombo and concluded in the charming coastal town of Negombo. The journey began on a Tuesday morning, and as I ventured beyond the bustling streets of Colombo, I soon found myself on tranquil roads with sparse traffic.

It was bright and sunny as I embarked on the roughly 50-kilometer journey, setting out at 10 am. However, as I neared Negombo, ominous rain clouds began to gather in the sky. Anticipating the impending downpour, I quickly secured my belongings in plastic wraps. Just a few kilometers from my destination, the heavens opened up, and I found myself completely drenched. Nevertheless, I rode on and finally arrived in Negombo, where I checked into Hotel Topaz.

Situated right on the beach, Hotel Topaz holds the distinction of being the second oldest hotel in Negombo, offering a picturesque view of the coastline. Negombo, a renowned holiday destination, boasts a plethora of accommodation options along its sandy shores, catering to a wide range of budgets, from economical to luxurious five-star establishments. Additionally, the town boasts excellent restaurants, making it a delightful destination for both relaxation and gastronomic indulgence.

Stay: Topaz Beach Hotel, Negombo
Distance 24.21 km
Elev Gain 32 m
Time 1h 43m

#3  Negombo

May 10: I extended my stay in Negombo by an extra day and cycled around the town. Negombo boasts many interesting churches and temples, each with its own unique charm. I couldn’t resist visiting the bustling fish market, where the vibrant atmosphere and the sight of fishermen at work provided a true taste of Negombo’s daily life. I also made my way to the ruins of the old Dutch fort located in close proximity to the prison. While cycling the streets, I stumbled upon a couple more antique mailboxes adorned with British royal cyphers.

Regrettably, I missed the renowned St. Mary’s Church, celebrated for its historical significance, exquisite ceiling paintings, and the captivating statues adorning its altar. However, I did visit the church when I returned to Negombo, in a quest to find a Goan priest whose mortal remains are buried in the Bolawatta church.

Stay: Topaz Beach Hotel, Negombo
Distance 29.25 km
Elev Gain 29 m
Time 3h 15m

#4  Negombo to Anawilundawa

May 11: My next destination was Chilaw, and along the way, I encountered a variety of interesting sights. The journey took me past numerous factories engaged in the production of clay roof tiles, as well as small home-based workshops where local artisans crafted iron items such as knives and farm tools. Additionally, I came across my first ‘Choon Paan,’ a musical three-wheeler that carried fresh bread and pastries for sale.

Much of the route followed the picturesque seashore, offering stunning views of the vast ocean. The route also passed through many large coconut estates. Along the way, I observed toddy tappers skillfully collecting toddy from coconut trees. The area also had many prawn hatcheries and farms.

For the night, I stayed at the charming ‘The Peacock Village’ resort in Anawilundawa. The resort has quaint cottages nestled amidst lush fruit and flower gardens, and I had the pleasure of spotting a few wild peacocks gracefully roaming the premises.

Stay: The Peacock Village and Spa, Anawilundawa
Distance 60.76 km
Elev Gain 127 m
Time 4h 24m

#5  Anawilundawa to Kalpitiya

May 12: Today’s plan was to cycle to Kalpitiya, a place famous for kite surfing. Along the way, I saw a thought-provoking mural painted on a wall with the words ‘One flag, One nation, One country.’ Shortly thereafter, I came across a temple, a church, and a mosque, all situated closely together, showcasing the diversity and harmony of Sri Lanka.

During my journey, I passed by many large coconut estates, which are plentiful all along the west coast. Additionally, I caught sight of the first of many windmills I would encounter on my way to Jaffna, all spinning diligently to generate clean electric power.

Upon reaching Kalpitiya, I stayed at Kitekuda, which has a kite surfing training center onsite. Unfortunately, mastering kite surfing requires several days of training, and due to time constraints, I was unable to try my hand at it. Nevertheless, someday I might return and learn to kite surf.

Stay: Duotone Pro Center at Kitekuda, Kappaladi – Kalpitiya
Distance 85.41 km
Elev Gain 207 m
Time 6h 20m

#6  Kalpitiya to Puttalam

May 13: After spending the night at Kitekuda, I decided to visit the nearby St. Anne Shrine at Thalawila and the Dutch fort in Kalpitiya before heading to Puttalam.

The St. Anne Shrine holds great spiritual significance as one of the oldest Christian pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka, frequently visited by devotees. On the way, I met a Volkswagen owner, and during our conversation, he told me about the Goan priest, Fr. Jacome Gonsalvaes.

As I cycled northward to the fort, I passed the westernmost point of the Sri Lankan mainland. Regrettably, visiting the fort requires permission from the Sri Lankan Navy, and obtaining it is a lengthy process. Consequently, I was unable to explore the fort, and I ended up cycling an additional 30 kilometers, battling strong headwinds blowing from the west to the northeast, before finally heading to Puttalam.

Finding suitable accommodation in Puttalam posed a bit of a challenge. Eventually, I came across a hotel situated within a coconut estate. While the room was adequate, the establishment lacked a restaurant. Fortunately, the caretaker prepared some chapatis for me to savor with jam.

Stay: Hotel Green Park, Puttalam
Distance 61.12 km
Elev Gain 168 m
Time 5h 2m

#7  Puttalam to Anuradhapura

May 14: On my 90 km journey to Anuradhapura, I passed through several charming villages. Although the road was predominantly flat, there were a few rolling hills along the route. I also traversed a tranquil wetland teeming with migratory birds and crossed an elephant corridor, though I was not fortunate enough to spot one. During this ride, I couldn’t help but notice the enticing variety of fruits available for sale along the roadside, including succulent mangoes, crunchy cashews, and refreshing watermelons. Additionally, fresh boiled corn was a tempting option at many places. And as I cycled, I came across impeccably dressed schoolchildren donned in pristine white uniforms, making their way to school.

Stay: Liyana Holiday Resort, Anuradhapura
Distance 88.46 km
Elev Gain 579 m
Time 6h 28m

#8  Sacred City of Anuradhapura

May 16: Anuradhapura, a city that thrived for 1,300 years, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It was built around a cutting from the ‘tree of enlightenment,’ where Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. In the 3rd century B.C., Sanghamitta, the founder of a Buddhist nuns’ order, brought this sacred tree to Anuradhapura, transforming it into a pilgrimage site and a symbol of Buddhism.

As the capital of Lanka from 377 B.C. to 1017 A.D., Anuradhapura served as the royal residence for 130 monarchs during a golden era of political and spiritual prosperity. Following a 993 A.D. invasion, it was abandoned and concealed in dense jungle for centuries. Today, it welcomes travelers and history enthusiasts to explore its preserved heritage. The cityscape boasted palaces, monasteries, colossal stupas, and the once-tallest-in-the-world Jetavanarama Dagoba, while monastic complexes provided solace to monks and pilgrims, and the royal palace symbolized regal grandeur. The city’s layout, featuring well-planned streets, reservoirs, and irrigation systems, reflects advanced ancient urban planning.

Recognized for its profound historical significance, Anuradhapura has earned the prestigious status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

NB: Within a significant portion of this religious complex, visitors are required to walk barefoot. However, due to the intense heat of the sun, the paved roads and tiled areas of the complex can become scorching and unbearable to walk on.

Stay: Liyana Holiday Resort, Anuradhapura
Distance 21.27 km
Elev Gain 129 m
Time 2h 59m

#9  Anuradhapura to Mannar

May 17: My ride from Anuradhapura to Mannar Island didn’t go as planned. I attempted to take a shorter route through Wilpattu National Park, relying on Google Maps, but it turned out to be a BIG mistake. The paved road turned into gravel and sand for approximately 40 km once I entered the forest area, making cycling impossible. I had to walk and push my bicycle through this challenging terrain for most of the journey until I finally got out from the forest area.

During this arduous ride, I encountered neither houses nor people. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a guest house for forest guards halfway through, where I could refill my water bottles. The only individuals I met were the forest guards who used this rough road. Surprisingly, I didn’t encounter any animals during the ride, only some elephant droppings.

The final stretch of about 7 km led through a sprawling cashew plantation. Exhausted from pushing my bicycle through the sandy terrain, I decided not to continue all the way to Mannar Island. Instead, I chose to stay at a hotel located 20 km before reaching the island.

Just before reaching the hotel, I came across the ruins of the Doric Bungalow, which once served as the residence of the first British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Frederick North (1798-1805). It was originally constructed for supervising pearl fishery operations in the region. Nearby stood the Arippu Tower, also known as the Doric Tower. This peculiar cement structure is believed to have functioned as a kind of lighthouse, with a fire burning at the top to guide pearl vessels safely to land. This stretch of sea had been renowned for producing the finest pearls in the world for thousands of years.

Stay: Oasis Wings Hotel, Mannar
Distance 89.74 km
Elev Gain 283 m
Time 7h 22m

#10  Mannar Island

May 18: On my short ride to Mannar Island, I had the opportunity to explore the ruins of a fort. Originally constructed by the Portuguese in 1560, the fort later fell into Dutch hands in 1658. Subsequently, in 1795, the British took control of the fort following the Dutch surrender. Today, the fort lies in a state of disrepair, although a conservation effort was initiated a few years ago, which unfortunately has since come to a halt.

During my journey, I also made a stop to admire a remarkable baobab tree. This ancient tree, estimated to be over 700 years old, boasts a circumference of more than 60 feet, making it the oldest and largest baobab in Sri Lanka. According to local oral history, an Arab merchant once brought a herd of camels along with a supply of baobab fruit as fodder to the shores of Mannar. A seed from this fruit found its way into the soil, took root, and eventually grew into the magnificent tree we see today.

Near the stadium, I came across a statue erected in memory of Yogendran Duckson Puslas, a Sri Lankan football player. After considering my lodging options, I opted to stay at Hotel Agape, where I had the pleasure of meeting fellow cyclists Crystal and Thinuwan.

Stay: Hotel Agape, Mannar
Distance 32.57 km
Elev Gain 69 m
Time 2h 57m

#11  Thalaimannar

May 19: I cycled from Mannar to Talaimannar, the island’s northernmost tip, which once served as a passageway connecting Sri Lanka and India at Dhanushkodi on Rameswaram Island via ferry services. Today, the pier is in a deteriorated state and is inaccessible to the public as the area is used by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Talaimannar Pier, spanning approximately 960 feet, supported a double railway track and served as the terminus for the Indo-Lanka Railway’s ferry service. This pier and station provided an economical means of transportation between the two nations until December 1964 when a catastrophic cyclone damaged both piers. After repairs, ferry services resumed but were discontinued again in 1983/84 due to Sri Lanka’s civil war. The Thalaimannar railway station reopened in March 2015 following the end of the war. Currently, the northern section of the Sri Lankan railway lines is closed for major upgrades.

The lighthouse is located near the dock and was constructed in 1915 during British rule. Its primary function was to safely guide ships through the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Mannar. This lighthouse stands at 62 feet tall and features a lantern and a gallery at the top.

Later, I visited a site revered by the local Muslim community as the grave where the giant bodies of Adam and Eve were supposedly buried. According to legend, two tall siblings had landed in Mannar on a boat. No one knew where they came from, and when they died, they were buried at this location. Over time, these tall siblings grew to become 40-foot-tall giants, and the Muslims in the area developed their own version of the lore surrounding the two tombs.

Stay: Hotel Agape, Mannar
Distance 79.83 km
Elev Gain 145 m
Time 6h 15m

#12  Mannar to Jaffna

May 21: The journey from Manar to Jaffna was the longest one yet on this adventure, winding through small villages and mostly flat landscapes along an extensive highway, with few interesting sights to see. Additionally, persistent strong winds hindered my progress, resulting in a slower pace.

Stay: Valampuri Hotel, Jaffna
Distance 128.82 km
Elev Gain 324 m
Time 9h 19m

Cycling in Sri Lanka 1 – Colombo to Jaffna
Cycling in Sri Lanka 2 – Jaffna and around
Cycling in Sri Lanka 3 – Jaffna to Arugam Bay
Cycling in Sri Lanka 4 – Arugam Bay to Colombo
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