Two Sri Lankan cities at the heart of a 25-year civil war are creeping back onto a tourist trail from which they were blocked until peace came to this South Asian country five years ago. The island that sparked the word ”serendipity” – describing happy discoveries made accidentally and derived from Serendip, an ancient name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon in colonial times) – is again tranquil.
Slightly smaller than Tasmania but with a population as big as Australia’s, teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka has an elaborate network of mostly narrow paved roads winding from the coast to its tea-growing hinterland.
Politics have proved both a curse and a blessing: a curse because war retarded economic advancement but a blessing because neither side targeted tourists and the war was almost totally confined to areas with little tourist infrastructure.
So, the important tourism industry warded off damaging blows. Holidaymakers kept coming – enticed by bargain-basement prices, high-quality resorts, cut-price shopping, good beaches and attractions ranging from ancient cities to wildlife parks with large populations of elephants and other animals.
Armed conflict pitted a Hindu Tamil minority against a Buddhist Sinhalese majority controlling the government. The Tamil organisations were finally defeated. (Small Muslim and even smaller Christian minorities were caught in the middle.)
Central to the conflict were the north’s main city, Jaffna, and its mainly Tamil surrounds, along with the northeast’s hub, Trincomalee. Neither saw many visitors.
Officials in both see economic potential and now want slices of the tourism cake. Both have many small hotels, with large resort-style properties set to follow as wait-and-see investors gamble that peace will hold. Already, Jaffna and Trincomalee are seeing trickles of tourists.
Jaffna, closest to India and a major centre of Hindu culture, bills itself as Sri Lanka’s ”final frontier” while Trincomalee touts rich history and some of Asia’s most alluring white-sand beaches. I feel tipped into a time-warp along Jaffna’s Hospital Road, the main drag.
Old Morris and Austin cars are everywhere. ”I’ll buy a few and ship them home,” confides a car collector from Canada as we admire an Austin Cambridge. More modern vehicles are increasingly seen but, as residents tell me, old British cars became workhorses during sieges – many as taxis and others as private cars.
Tables groan with fish and fruit at Jaffna’s municipal market. People are friendly. Even uniformed Sinhalese soldiers are unarmed. At the Rosarian Sisters’ Ashram, I meet Catholic nuns who buy grapes to make wine. But they don’t drink it themselves. ”It wouldn’t be proper for nuns to drink,” Sister Perpetua insists. Nearby, Rosarian monks make table and communion wine. ”I suppose they drink it,” shrugs the abstemious nun.
A taxi whisks me to the Church of Christ, a bombed-out shell. Downtown, the historic Jaffna Library – once again operating – is one of many restored buildings. The Clock Tower, a formerly derelict landmark, has been painted and is again keeping time.Colourfully decorated Hindu temples dot Jaffna. Day trips cross narrow causeways connecting Jaffna Peninsula to the islands of Kayts (with a busy fishing harbour and splendid beaches), Punkudutivu and Karaitivu.
More distant and reached by ferry is a popular backpacker destination, sparsely vegetated Delft – a windswept isle of defiant grasses and sandy beaches boasting an old Dutch fort.
Back on the mainland, I wander through a bizarre grove of palm trees: just trunks – with treetops blasted away by artillery as reminders of troubled times. Trincomalee is renowned for diving amid sunken ships and aircraft. Its other dive sites are similarly rich in tropical fish and colourful coral, including gathering places of moray eels and manta rays.
Diving locations are close to Trincomalee’s two best beaches, Nilaveli and Uppaveli. From Nilaveli it’s a 3km boat ride to Pigeon Island, most of which is Pigeon Island National Park. Upscale Pigeon Island Beach Resort has a beach ideal for lazing, with an adjoining Beach Bar spilling onto the sand.
Diving, snorkelling and swimming are on tap – as are excursions to nearby hot springs. An amble takes me to several Hindu temples, the most visited of which is Kali Kovil from where it’s not far to blue-hued and 162-year-old St Mary’s (Catholic) Cathedral. The cathedral proves serene prelude to the boisterous local fish market, a place of high-decibel haggling at the edge of what’s claimed to be the world’s second-biggest natural harbour.
Top of Trincomalee’s list of attractions is thick-walled Fort Frederick. Built by the Portuguese in 1624, it was captured by the Dutch and renamed Fort Frederick (honouring Prussia’s Frederick the Great) before falling into British hands until Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.
Outside Fort Frederick, I meet an Australian couple who visited Jaffna before their three-day Trincomalee stay. They found on-foot investigation to be both peaceful and ideally suited – a reality at odds with their preconceptions about former war zones. ”Both places seem poised to develop rapidly,” says the woman. Adds her husband: ”We wanted to be a few steps ahead of the crowds.”
Sri Lankan Airlines (03 8400 4353, srilankan.com) doesn’t serve New Zealand so connect in Asian cities with its Colombo flights. Or, low-cost carrier Air Asia X flies from Australia to Kuala Lumpur connecting with Colombo-bound non-stops.
Jaffna and Trincomalee have hotels, mainly small, in all categories. Check with Jetwing Hotels (+ 94 11 238 120l, jetwinghotels.com), a large operator with properties around the country, as to when their resorts in both destinations will open.
Meantime, Jaffna’s Bastian Hotel (+94 21 222 2605, bastianhotel.com) is a popular Jaffna option; Trincomalee’s top property is mid-size, beachside Pigeon Island Resort (+94 11 268 3383, pigeonislandresort.com), a link in the Jetwing EcoHolidays chain.
Don’t miss Sri Lanka’s World Heritage-listed ancient city ruins at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. (Anuradhapura, easily reached from Trincomalee, was occasionally off-limits during unrest but is now safe.) At Dambulla’s edge is Sigiriya Rock, the country’s top attraction, with mountaintop temple (reached by steps) and 1500-year-old frescoes. Arrange a car and driver through a Colombo hotel. (Yahoo)