Jul 20, 2011

Surf's Up, Arugum Bay

After the coolness of the Hill Country, and the hot and dusty Yala National Park, we were well and truly ready to sample some of the nice beaches that Sri Lanka is renowned for to relax for a bit.  Initially our plan was to head south to the post-card beaches of Tangella, Mirissa, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, but then we heard that the southwest monsoon was indeed affecting this area, bringing rough and cooler seas and constant heavy rains.  Everyone we met was either heading for the East Coast beaches or returning from them and raving about their time there.   But in addition to the extra travel required to get to the East (from our location in the south central), this area was one of the hardest hit by the tsunami and was also caught up in the recently ended 30yr war between the ‘Tamil Tigers (LTTE)’ and the Sri Lankan government.  The area is rapidly changing and current information available was only via word-of-mouth.  As such, we really didn’t know what we would find there.

Anyway, our first stop was to Argum Bay, touted as one of the top 10 best surfing spots in the world and certainly the best in Sri Lanka.  Although nearly everyone we met seemed to be headed there, we were still surprised at how many foreign tourists that were there, most of whom seemed to be English, French and Australian.  And the surfers, who made up the majority, all seemed to be there for 1-3 months.  Finding a place to stay was a bit of a nightmare at first—places were either full or very over-priced and air-conditioning was out of the question at a starting price of $50 USD/Rs5,000 per room.  Eventually we found ‘Sam’s Hut’ and it was there that we started to learn about the ‘real’ side of Argum Bay and to appreciate what it had been through.
That's Sam (right)

Sam himself is originally a fisherman, married with 4 children.  He had a house about 40meteres from the beach which also had 4 modest ‘cabana’s’ (huts) on it which he rented to tourists.  On the morning of December 26, 2004, he went fishing as usual.  Then the tsunami hit.  While he was not hurt, he quickly returned home but found his family were not there and his entire neighbourhood virtually ‘wiped out’.  After many hours of searching, he eventually located his wife and 3 of his kids, together with the body of his youngest son, who was 6yrs old at the time.  He lost all his possessions and his house while mostly intact, was otherwise destroyed.  They all went to live at his mother’s house, which was located on higher ground while the rest of Argum Bay was evacuated by order of the military.  

After approximately 3yrs the 6,400+ families of Argum Bay and nearby Pottuvil each received $2,000 USD/Rs200,000 from the government and a further $4,000 USD/Rs400,000 from the international ‘tsunami relief fund’.  This was all the aid that they received, regardless of the actual individual loss.   There was talk of corruption too regarding the distribution of funds, with many new ‘tsunami motorcycles’ and ‘tsunami houses’ coming into possession by individuals who were not even affected. 

In the meantime, Sam along with many of his former neighbours purchased land inland; he used all his aid money to build another family home on it.  On his original beach-side property, he now has 6 concrete bungalows for tourists which have just been completed at the beginning of this month.  He reminisced about how much he lost in the tsunami, but although he said that he can’t worry too much as to whether it will happen again, interestingly he and his family don’t live too close to the sea anymore. 

In fact, most of the properties on the beach-side of the main road which runs through the bay are all hotels and guest houses; the local residents all live further inland now.  Before the tsunami Argum Bay only had 22 guest houses.  Since last year, 100 more rooms have sprung up and now he estimates that there are some 50+ establishments around.  Who knows what it will look like in a few years time.
Argum Bay itself is really still a fishing village doing double duty as the main tourist hub in the east coast.  It reminded us of what Koh Chang in Thailand was like 10yrs ago—quiet, with foreigners wandering around barefoot, eating, swimming and sleeping, while local fishermen went about their business as usual.   Local eateries and fishing supply shops can still be found among the surf board rental shops, the ‘tourist restaurants’ and internet cafes.  The beach was ‘ok’ but the surf was strong.  Luckily there was a tidal lagoon right next to the ‘point break’ so that is where we spent most of our 4 days.  The girls loved it in the calm warm waters of the lagoon, with Maddy able to practice her swimming and Yasmine gaining confidence in the water.  It was also fun to watch the surfers--unusually they were able to ride their waves practically onto the beach.  In the evenings we often spent our time speaking with Sam.  We spoke not only of the tsunami but also of his dreams and concerns for his guest house.  His ‘huts’ were a really comfortable place to stay—he took a lot of care to ensure that they were, and his hospitality (and his cooking) was what kept us there in Argum Bay for as long as it did.   After helping him layout a menu for his restaurant, it was time to bid him good luck and farewell.


  1. We live in Melbourne Australia, but I (Jess) grew up in Vancouver, Canada--info is in our bio. Why?

  2. Hi my wife and I were in Arugam bay on boxing day 2004 at Aloha on the beach.
    Glad to see that things have improved for the locals. Cannot give enough praise to the local people that working with quite resolve the day after the tsunami. I will never forget our early morning walk that day along the beach as hundreds of fishermen sorted their catch and nets and then moments later the beach was clear.