By Indi Samarajiva
Yathra by Jetwing is a Sri Lankan houseboat that cruises down the Bentota River. It’s a beautiful experience full of birds and fish, and it’s also a pretty luxurious boat (hot water, A/C, etc).
It ain’t cheap at Rs. 37,700 per cabin for bed and breakfast, plus you’re on a boat, so you might as well pay 46,800 for full board. That said, you can pay as much to stay at someplace which doesn’t move, and this includes fuel and a captain to sail you up and down a beautiful river.
While Yathra seems to be inspired by Kerala-style houseboats, it is not imported or even copied. The boat is designed by architect Sunela Jayawardena and made locally (by Neil Marine). Everything is local except the engines.
The basic layout is that there are two cabins, divided by a sitting area. We’ll get into that later, under rooms.
The back (or stern) of the boat is where we spent most of our time. This is the dining area and there’s a well equipped kitchen (with fridge) attached. This is the main place to hang out.
The front (or bow) of the boat is also a good place for hanging out, especially when the boat is moving.
Finally, in terms of common areas, there’s the roof deck. This place is awesome but, during the day, a bit too hot to actually hang out in.
Now, the thing is that you can hire the boat for a cruise or to just stay in dock. We don’t know why you’d want to do the latter, but apparently people rent the boat as a space for parties or whatever. It can sleep four (maybe a few more if they’re kids) but it can comfortably support over a dozen for just hanging out.
The rooms are honestly nicer than most hotel rooms. There’s a comfy bed, writing table and a dresser. The walls are woven and the river is outside but beyond that it’s as well equipped as any hotel room.
There’s a private balcony (dope) where you can chill and watch the river go by.
The bathrooms are the most amazing thing. They’re full, normal bathrooms with hotter water and better water pressure than I’m used to at home. They also come with a tiny bathtub, which is out of frame here.
If you’re going to stay on this boat, we recommend taking it out for a spin. The Bentota River is beautiful and absolutely full of wildlife. The cruise we went on was about 12km but they’re planning on extending it to 20-something, including a place where they can dock. We stayed out for about five hours but that’s at cruising speed, the boat is actually pretty fast when it needs to be.
The best thing, besides staring at the ocean and thinking deep thoughts, was the sheer amount of life around the river. Fish were literally jumping out of the water and there were a lot of birds – Brahminy Kites, Black Eagles, Kingfishers, Cormorants, etc.
I’m not personally that into bird watching but we went with someone who was, and he had a (visual) feast. Brahminy Kites and Eagles are quite beautiful to watch fly and soar higher and higher into the air.
Closer to the waterfront there are Kingfishers, Cormorants and more. It’s a nice experience. The boat is much quieter than the other craft on the water and the wildlife is relatively undisturbed.
There are also lots of fish in the water, and they do have fishing rods. We went fishing and caught something like an eel, which was just scary. We let that go and didn’t fish anymore because we realized we wouldn’t know what to do with whatever we caught. If you are into fishing we think you could be quite successful here.
The food was the one area they could work on. The first rice and curry we had was OK and the western dish someone foolishly ordered (poached fish) was just bad.
By dinner however, they really got it together. String hoppers, purippu, pol sambol, chicken and prawns. Cannot go wrong here. We recommend sticking as closely to traditional Sri Lankan as possible.
Note that while there is a kitchen on the boat they don’t really cook there, food was brought in from the Dedduwa Boathouse (where the boat is docked). You can, however use the fridge and make drinks in the kitchen, which it is well suited for (blender, ice, everything).
Yathra (by Jetwing) is an experience. The boat is well-designed and comfortable and it’s a completely different way to experience Bentota, in this case the rich wildlife and scenery of the Bentota River.