Two places in Sri Lanka have the privilege of being my least favourite towns in this beautiful country: Hikkaduwa and Tissa. If you’re a certain kind of traveller, don’t waste your time and don’t bother with these places.
As a traveller, I like to go by instinct and as we drove down the main strip in Hikkaduwa, my gut told me I was not going to like it there. And I didn’t. The main coastal highway runs along Hikkaduwa and that’s my first problem with the place. You’re constantly avoiding giant monstrous buses which are basically the automobile version of your high school bully. Everyone MUST get out of their way. In my first 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, I’d already met two motorcyclists who’d had head on collisions with buses driving on the wrong side of the road. Both of them landed in hospital for months, inches from death and now have iron rods in their body as reminders. One hasn’t touched a motorcycle and the other never drives to this day nearly 5 years after the accident.
Good views with not so good a vibe in Hikkaduwa
As though the buses aren’t enough to contend with there is the vibe of the place itself….it feels too “resorty” and everything seems to be built around tourists with tourist prices. But hey, some people love the whole resort thing so for them Hikkaduwa might be great. For the locals in Hikkaduwa, tourists seemed to be walking-talking dollar signs. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off of tourists .. that’s the way the economy works but no one likes being extorted. And a monetary relationship is as far as it goes with most people in Hikkaduwa. There was not much conversation without being constantly sold something or being overcharged. It was hard trying to get a decent local meal. Even when we did find a place that seemed reasonable they too eventually charged us double the amount we were initially quoted. “You are special guests so we used special double chicken”, we were told. Really?
My fondest memory of Hikkaduwa (other than the turtles from the conservation centre) is one guy who didn’t share the aggressiveness of the rest of the town. His name is Ruwan and thank god for him. If you want to find him, he runs a little shack right on the beach next to Hotel Pearl Island. It’s literally just a tarp with some tables and chairs under it and in the evening it’s all lit up with candles and lanterns. Meeting him was such a refreshing change. His prices weren’t any lesser than the other restaurants in the area but he served us with a smile, happiness and we shared a conversation that wasn’t based on how much or what we bought from him. That’s basically all you need and it was hard to find in Hikkaduwa.
Hikkaduwa felt more taxing than relaxing and I was convinced this was as bad as it got in Sri Lanka. That was until I went to Tissa.
The aggressive touts in Tissa make the touts in Hikkaduwa look like little ballerinas in tutus. The only reason we were in Tissa was because we wanted to visit Yala National Park and Tissa is the closest town to the park. You can avoid Tissa altogether by staying in Kirinda, a coastal fishing village also very close to the park and much nicer than Tissa. We were just too tired of all the driving and decided to set up camp in Tissa instead of Kirinda. It was easily the worst decision of our entire trip.
As soon as we entered the town we had jeeps driving along us asking if we wanted to go on a Safari with them the next day. One of the Jeep drivers was nice enough to stalk us all the way to our hotel and camp outside until we talked to him. Tempted as we were to go on a safari with this aggressive pushy man, we declined. All through dinner , we had a million people push Safari tours down our throats. Six hours in Tissa and we’d already decided to leave the next day after the Safari and that is exactly what we did. After a fairly successful Safari the following day which involved crocs, leopards and elephants we didn’t even wait to eat lunch in crappy Tissa and were out of there by noon.We hadn’t even been there for a full 24 hours. It’s the sort of place you don’t feel like giving a chance because it would be at the cost of your sanity and mental peace.
Sri Lanka is home to some truly utopian places but neither of these towns is one of them. This is a country on the cusp of global exposure and we can only hope that doesn’t lead to more Hikkaduwas and Tissas being created. Get there while there are still plenty of idyllic spots to explore that the world doesn’t know of… yet.