Our guidebook simply said, “be prepared to work a little to make it to the top”. A line that dramatically understated the mistake we’d made by leaving the beach to participate in a little conscience-salving culture. The Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara is an ancient Buddhist temple built on a 205 metre-high rock surrounded by lush forests. Sitting in the shade looking over the countryside from the top is a wonderful and relaxing experience, first though you have to get there.
The top can only be reached by leg-achingly and sweatily climbing up 500 of the steepest stairs humankind has ever carved into the side of a massive rock. Climbing those stairs in Sri Lanka’s hot and humid climate, it didn’t take long to begin regretting ever having read about the glories of this 1,700 year-old religious site. Had it been possible to climb and speak, recriminations might have done more than just hang in the torpid air.
As if the climb wasn’t bad enough, one of the seven caves that make up the temple complex is known as Cobra Cave. Local legend has it that it is home to many cobras and anyone who ventures there will not return. At the very top of the climb is an ancient stupa prayer mound that likely contains relics. It dates from the 5th century and is said to have been built at the instruction of King Datusena, during whose reign the Aukana Buddha was also created.
We’d arrived at Mulkirigala Rock Temple after a few days loitering on the coast. Eating delicious seafood, drinking cold beers, lounging on the beach, and swimming in the waters of the Indian Ocean to cool off have few downsides, but feeling guilty about missing important historic sights is apparently one of them. A cabana at the quiet Goyambokka Beach just outside Tangalle was our relaxing base. It was a mistake to leave.
The only other time we left Goyambokka was to walk to Tangalle. After several hours under a hot sun we were lost, without water. Spotting a tuk-tuk outside a small house we knocked on the door to see if the owner would be willing to drive us home. With no shared language we only managed to communicate what we were asking after we’d been invited into the house, met the family, had tea, and looked through the couple’s wedding photos.
It’s hard to imagine a more welcoming and friendly response to the frankly bizarre arrival of two desperate tourists on this family’s doorstep. In the end, and only after politely turning down more tea and food, we got a lift back. Initially, he refused payment for the trip. Deeply indebted, not to mention embarrassed, we had to insist he accept something for his kindness. We parted with laughter and handshakes all round.
Tangalle was once a small fishing village and, while it still has a couple of sights like the old Dutch fort, it suffers from modern nondescript sprawl. Today, it’s largely famous for the vast sweep of golden beach to the east of town. The small village of Goyambokka sits to the west and has two small crescent moon-shaped beaches next to each other that feel more remote. Silent Beach is particularly peaceful.
We were very happy in Tangalle, but eventually had to start making our way along the coast in anticipation of getting a flight home. The following morning we decamped for the village of Giragala and the fine sands of Mirissa Beach, where doing nothing much for a few days helped us come to terms with clambering up Mulkirigala’s rock.