On the beach with hammer and thongs

On the sandy beach at Arugam Bay calm turquoise waters lap white sands fringed by palms heavy with coconuts. Painted fishing boats lie idle on the sands, though at certain times of day you can see the men dragging in their catch. Here on the east coast of Sri Lanka, nine hours by road from Colombo, the sea has always been a provider. Arugam Bay felt its fury though, when the tsunami struck.

On the sandy beach at Arugam Bay calm turquoise waters lap white sands fringed by palms heavy with coconuts. Painted fishing boats lie idle on the sands, though at certain times of day you can see the men dragging in their catch. Here on the east coast of Sri Lanka, nine hours by road from Colombo, the sea has always been a provider. Arugam Bay felt its fury though, when the tsunami struck.

The community - a mix of Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists - lost more than 300 people, as well as homes, boats, and the cabanas used to house tourists. And although the surfers are returning - Arugam Bay is one of the top 10 surfing destinations in the world - the number of tourists is down. Of course, they face a double dilemma: uncertainty about how easy it is to get here, but also the questions of how ethical it is to holiday in a place that has suffered so much.

Yet, just choosing to visit Sri Lanka is a good start for anyone wanting to spend money ethically. And those who want to make a practical difference can take a holiday that incorporates volunteer work, courtesy of TTAL (Travel & Tours Anywhere Ltd).

Using their links with the Arugam Bay community, the company's founders, who describe themselves as "Sri Lankan-born Englanders", are offering flexible holidays at a minimal price that encourage travellers to invest some time in restorative work. Packages include all travel and bed and breakfast, in beachside caban-as. Although some of these now have fewer rooms, and new kitchens are still under construction, they are open for business, offering beds and serving delicious food for less than a couple of quid.

At the beginning of the TTAL trips, the guides explain the projects in hand - the rebuilding of a home, someone trying to restructure a cabana, help needed to purify water. Guests are not pressured or supplied with itineraries; they choose what they want to do to their own schedule.

I joined the first TTAL trip of this kind this month. Our group of six used funds raised by the British Surfing Association to help a local family begin to build a cabana and a surf shop which they had lost in the tsunami. We were put to work breaking rocks with a hammer to make foundations, mixing cement, collecting buckets of water from the pump and weaving grass for the roof, our labours punctuated by breaks for hot sweet tea - Sri Lanka's speciality.

The work finishes around midday, as the sun's heat reaches its peak. The sea beckons and tools are downed - the rest of the day is yours to do with as you please. And there is plenty to do. The packages include a number of trips. While Arugam Bay is small, the areas around it are rich with history and wildlife. A Buddhist temple more than 2,000 years old is a short drive away and open to visitors.

Further south lies Panama lagoon, a good place to spot crocodiles. The drive there by tuktuk takes an hour, but it doubles as a sightseeing trip, passing below trees filled with monkeys and skirting lakes covered with lotus flowers and paddy fields, the scent of rice wafting through the hot air.

Hiring tuktuks, paying teenagers as translators for a day, or buying water from smaller shops, are all ways of helping to regenerate the area. Despite the tsunami, this remains a beautiful country and it desperately needs tourists to return.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled with assistance from Etihad Airways (0870-2417121; www.etihadairways.com). The airline offers return flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Colombo via Abu Dhabi from £490.

Where to stay

Clare Dwyer Hogg was a guest of Travel and Tours Anywhere (0800-093 1411; www.exploresrilanka .net). Two-week itinerary from £699 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights on Sri Lankan Airlines, B&B, transfers and project management. Minimum party of four though solo trips can be arranged.

Further information

The Sri Lanka Tourist Board (020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.org).

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