Sri Lanka: Perahera Festival Second to One

My godparents, who later taught my kids at their Montessori school in Phoenix, are from Sri Lanka, so I’ve long had a fascination for this island of spices. I imagined the palm-lined beaches and elephants tromping through jungles. So, it was crazy when those visions came to life…well, sort of.

Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka

Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka

When we originally planned Sri Lanka, we were going to do one night here and one night there, moving quickly around the island as we had less than a week to explore it. But, a couple things changed that. One, we had been traveling for three weeks, two of which had been leading a tour, so we were tired. Two, when we arrived to our first destination, there was a party going on, literally on our doorstep!

It was the July Poya, or full moon. I had heard these full moon days were celebrated with vigor throughout Sri Lanka, the biggest being the July/August Perihera in Kandy (OK…my headline fudged a bit…this festival is second to one…Kandy’s, which I knew we were going to miss by less than a week – but we were meeting families in Ireland, so we couldn’t stay). Good news for me…the Unawatuna Perahera was the second largest and it was happening now in Unawatuna on the street behind our hotel…what fortune! The festival would last five days…we had five days in Sri Lanka…so, why go somewhere else? So, we hopped a train from Colombo to Galle…

 train from Colombo to Galle, Sri Lanka

Nathan in doorway of train from Colombo to Galle, Sri Lanka

where we enjoyed a quick look around the old Dutch port city…

old fort walls near lighthouse in Galle, Sri Lanka

Nathan and Seamus on old fort walls near lighthouse in Galle, Sri Lanka

where they were fascinated by a snake charmer…yes, that’s right…a snake charmer!

Snake Charmer, Galle, Sri Lanka

Nathan watching snake charmer lure cobra from basket in Galle, Sri Lanka

and then we arrived at our hotel in Unawatuna where the festival was already in full swing…and this was definitely an event for locals. The street-side of our hotel was packed with vendors selling housewares, cooking supplies, shoes, clothing, snacks, and offerings for the Buddhist temples and we were just about the only foreigners there!

July Poya, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Nathan wandering the narrow alley behind out hotel during July Poya, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

While the beach side was fairly wide open (except for occasional waves of devotees heading for the temple down the beach) and the kids loved playing in the huge waves (we went during monsoon so the waves were bigger than normal) with local boys!

Wave jumping, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Wave jumping, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

And the festival was always there for entertainment. One night was the Sri Lanka perahera where locals danced and sung, paid respect to the tusker elephant, walked on stilts, and men with fish hooks in their backs were swung around by ropes!

Another night, there were firewalkers and a priest who rolled in glass without getting cuts!

Fire walking, July Full Moon Festival, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Fire walking, July Full Moon Festival, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

One day, Seamus spent a good part of the day helping a local vendor sell his rambutan.

We met the seller, Manesh’s, whole family…mother, sister, wife, children…who are all there with him.

Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Nathan and I sitting with Manesh’s family

Seamus drew a lot of attention to his booth, so they were very grateful. They invited us to dinner at their house that night. Another example of how kids can break down cultural barriers when traveling!

Another day, the men of the village brought huge pots down to the beach to clean. These would be used to make milk rice to hand out to all the festival attendees…something they bring home to eat for good luck.

Men washing pots for July Poya Festival, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Men washing pots for July Poya Festival, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Locals waited for hours in line to bring this auspicious meal home to their families. We tasted some…it’s very salty! Sri Lanka’s friendly people and colorful festivals make for easy immersion in the culture, and is a highlight from our around the world family journey this summer!

Getting There and Around:

Sri Lanka is connected to Asia, Europe, and Africa with frequent flights. We fly Air Asia, a low-cost carrier with flights around Asia. There was once a ferry service from India, but it has been discontinued. Sri Lanka has a substantial train system with some of the most beautiful train rides in the world – especially the journey between Kandy (station about 1/2 hour south of town) and Ella and the seaside route between Colombo and Galle (the one we took and chronicled above).

Where to Stay:

We stayed in Unawatuna, a beach town with a cool vibe. You will read about the degradation of the beach here due to the tsunami; however when we were there it was not in evidence. The sand on the east side of the beach is not as good (the landfill people talk about due to tsunami). The waves were big when we were there in summer, but outside the rainy season it is said to be calmer. We stayed at Tartaruga Beach Restaurant and Hotel, which is on a great part of the beach, center to most restaurants and activities.


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