"Bentota versus Negombo"
I was never a big fan of Negombo but I’ve warmed to it a little recently, people do seem to be very friendly there and a lot of tourists like it because it gets lively and tourist orientated infrastructure. The beach is not so good, there are lots of touts everywhere and the nightlife can get a little heavy at weekends (a sort of Sri Lankan Blackpool) however it is only 20 minutes from the airport and has plenty accommodation in every price range so it is an ok place to rest after a long flight and to acclimatise before hitting the road.
If you are on a package deal and you ain't going to Negombo then there is a good chance you are going to Beruwala or Bentota which are different to Negombo, for a start the beaches are better (although swimming is not advisable at certain times of the year) and there is a little less hassle. There is also plenty of accommodation but it may be an idea to book in advance in peak season. Susantha is the only budget place I have stay and it is fine (the restaurant is good too). I have stay in several of the bigger places in Bentota and always enjoyed my stay, I particularly enjoyed Serendip but then I was one of only 5 guests due to a problem at the airport so I was incredibly spoiled.
"Using local bars beats staying in your hotel"
Bentota does not have as much nightlife as Negombo and what there is tends to be a little more laid back but it can be buzzing in the season and the bars will occasionally run beach parties if there are enough tourist around. Ask a three wheeler driver to take you to the well run and friendly Wunderbar (ignore him if he tells you its full of cholera because he is on commission from somewhere else).
There are several other small privately owned bars across the railway track from the Lihiniya Surf and Taj Exotica Hotel, the boys here may try and sell you the usual trips but if you make it clear that you are only here for the beer you will get along fine, having said this I have had good reports from people who have taken trips organised through these bars. The drinks here cost a fraction of what you will pay in hotels and the atmosphere is infinitely better. By the way, you may as well try the local arak (it is a spirit but is not as strong as is sometimes made out and tastes ok with coke) but it puts me in a bad mood so I don’t drink it and it doesn't seem to bring the best out in the locals either.
Bentota is on the west coast railway line and there is a small railway station but not all trains stop here, trains will stop at Aluthgama which is a 10 minute walk away and also has a bus station. I would not like to rely on the railway if I was in a hurry but for some travellers a journey by rail is much more of an adventure than a trip in the back of a private car. It is of course a matter of personnel preference, rattling along the west coast or down from the hill country, with the breeze blowing through the open window of a train is one of the pleasures of a Sri Lankan holiday for me, others prefer the comfort and convenience of an air conditioned car. If I have things to do, like a plane to catch, then I hire a car and driver, I would never attempt to travel by public transport with my all my luggage.
The train line run along behind the hotel and the trains rattle through from about 7am until maybe midnight, it’s never bothered but some people complain in the first few days of their holiday before they get accustomed to the noise.
Bentota has a Tourist Police Station and a bank but Aluthgama is where you’ll find the shops and the banks with an ATM machine. Aluthgama, a short walk across the Bentota River, is a hot noisy town with a smelly fish market and is not a particularly nice place but it’s here you’ll find shops, internet cafes and all the usual services.
Aluthgama is the nearest town, they are used to tourists here too and there is a tourist (read inflated) price for just about everything you might want to buy and a tout to lead you to the place you want to buy it. If you want to do any serious shopping get on a bus to Matugama which is tout free and so half the price and half the hassle even with the bus journey.
On the subject or touts, known locally as beach boys, Bentota is a tourist resort but don’t let them but you off getting out and about, be polite (losing your temper will gain you nothing but derision in Sri Lanka) smile and refuse, they’ll get used to you. A common one in Bentota is the teacher who introduces himself to tourists setting of towards the big temple and walks with you apparently passing the time of day. If you are not careful he will have you on a boat and up the river before you know it. Then there are the girls in white with official looking clipboard collecting sponsors for the orphanage, it is an art.
You will be directed to the famous Bentota crocodiles which are iguanas and now of course the tsunami is brought into play. Bentota was not hit so badly by the tsunami, if you have money to give keep it until you get further south.
I have stayed in Bentota several times and have never had a problem in fact I have had a great time so if you are booked in here relax and prepare for a good holiday.
There are tips on getting round and stuff attached to my Sri Lanka page