Sri Lanka, a coun­try where "every prospect pleases "

The war is his­tory: re­turns to Sri Lanka

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - FEATURES -

Our guides couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us. We didn’t in­quire if they had been fight­ers them­selves. Eight years af­ter the war ended, it is still not a ques­tion that can be asked.

We had set off, shortly af­ter dawn, from one of the most in­ter­est­ing ho­tels I have ever stayed in. Jun­gle Beach is a col­lec­tion of 48 “cab­ins” clus­tered in trop­i­cal seclu­sion be­tween the jun­gle and the sea. It’s not just the lux­ury of the chalets. It’s not the beach, though that’s three miles long and the ho­tel has it all to it­self. It’s not the food, ex­ot­i­cally sourced (and the bar­be­cued Sri Lankan lob­ster and jumbo prawns be­side the surf un­der a dark vel­vet sky is my most mem­o­rable night of the year so far). It’s not the end­lessly oblig­ing ser­vice from friendly and cour­te­ous peo­ple that set it apart. It is the way it is help­ing to heal the gap­ing wounds of war

War is all most peo­ple here knew. It went on for nearly 30 years, the long­est civil war in Asian his­tory, and for much of that time the east was Tiger ter­ri­tory; a state with its own bor­ders, courts, even traf­fic po­lice equipped with radar guns. Much of the time, the army was banged up in the old Bri­tish naval base at Trin­co­ma­lee, 20 miles to the south, and only ven­tured out along the main roads, in day­light. For many here there was no work, no school, for two gen­er­a­tions. Par­ents wouldn’t let their chil­dren out for fear of mur­der at the blood­ied hands of both sides, or ab­duc­tion – the Tigers were al­ways short of man­power and made killers of thou­sands of women and boys.

Jun­gle Beach is a first prom­ise of change, bring­ing high-end tourists to this cor­ner of a tor­tured par­adise. Al­most half the staff have been re­cruited lo­cally. For all I knew, the waiter who brought us our eggs Bene­dict at break­fast was once in­ter­na­tion­ally de­fined as a ter­ror­ist with the Tigers’ trade­mark cyanide cap­sule neck­lace and striped camos, as ex­pert with a T-56 as­sault ri­fle and a bay­o­net as he is now with more do­mes­tic cut­lery.

The war wid­ows work mainly in the laun­dry and the kitchen. Shan­thi Ku­mari, 34, was left half-starv­ing with her two daugh­ters when her hus­band dis­ap­peared like so many oth­ers. Now she’s a kitchen ste­ward with a salary suf­fi­cient to build a house with a TV, a fridge and a fish tank. The war wrecked her life, she says. The ho­tel put it back to­gether again and means a fu­ture for her two girls, aged 15 and 10. She says the ho­tel man­ager, an in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure and a Tamil him­self, “is a god to me”. There are so many, she says, who would give any­thing for a sim­i­lar chance.

The guests need know noth­ing of the war. This is an ex­clu­sive re­treat, only five years old but al­ready well-sprin­kled with awards. There’s the jun­gle on the doorstep, the beach stretches for­ever and, just off­shore, is one of the world’s great whale-watch­ing sites. We spent a morn­ing fol­low­ing dozens of pi­lot whales as they gorged on the krill that fun­nels up where the seabed sud­denly drops two and a half miles to the deep ocean floor.

Soon, per­haps, the war might be just an­other at­trac­tion. “Dark tourism” is a grow­ing trend and the Tigers’ lairs may soon take their place along­side the Kh­mer Rouge killing fields, the Viet Cong’s tun­nels and Man­dela’s Robben Is­land on the world­wide cru­elty trail.

At its peak, the LTTE (the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam) con­trolled a third of a coun­try the size of Ire­land. All of that, and more, was off lim­its for vis­i­tors and missed out on the global tourist boom that in Sri Lanka was fun­nelled into the south-western beaches and the tea planta- tion hill coun­try around Kandy. Now, in some places achingly slowly, in oth­ers at a rush, ho­tels are spring­ing up in places where the hu­mans may be scarred but the land­scape is pris­tine.

Chena Huts is a new sa­fari lodge in the deep south, in a strip of pro­tected jun­gle be­tween Yala Na­tional Park and the In­dian Ocean. The “huts” are ar­guably big­ger, and more ex­pen­sively fit­ted out, than a lot of even rich peo­ple’s houses, with their liv­ing rooms, gi­ant bed­rooms, bath­rooms with fash­ion­able free-stand­ing baths, decks out­side and pri­vate plunge pools. The res­tau­rant is on the beach. One night, we had to put the lob­ster on hold be­cause a “tusker” was am­bling through the lodges on his way to play in the surf.

Yala, Sri Lanka’s old­est na­tional park, was closed dur­ing the war when the Tigers used it as a hide­out. Un­til then it was leop­ards that ruled the roost. They had no preda­tors un­til the guer­ril­las came and are big­ger here than else­where, with a denser pop­u­la­tion. In my years in Africa I only saw a leop­ard twice. I saw two on the first morn­ing in Yala. Sri Lanka’s parks don’t have the scale, or quite as much big beast sex-and-vi­o­lence ap­peal as Africa’s best re­serves. But the long war shielded them from mass tourism.

The cud­dly look­ing but vi­cious sloth bears are unique, there are ele­phants ev­ery­where and, if it is dan­ger you’re look­ing for, the wild buf­falo are fa­mously poker-faced and po­ten­tially lethal. Be­sides, the smaller stuff is more in­ter­est­ing than bone-idle big mam­mals. Birds par­tic­u­larly.

In the Wil­pattu Na­tional Park, we watched two tiny dusky blue fly­catch­ers at­tack­ing a huge ser­pent ea­gle that had perched too close to their nest. Time af­ter time, they flew straight into him, like kamikazes. He was rocked by each tiny, but fu­ri­ous, im­pact, yet for 10 min­utes or so af­fected not to no­tice, sit­ting there stiff with con­tempt, un­til he fi­nally flapped off into the trees. Wil­pattu was part of a swathe of cen­tral and north Sri Lanka that has many of the is­land’s most im­por­tant cul­tural at­trac­tions. We stayed at one of the is­land’s new bou­tique ho­tels, the Ula­galla, which has been cre­ated out of a lo­cal no­ble­man’s Dutch colo­nial-style house and estate. It had been com­man­deered by the army as a place to treat their wounded. Now you stay in one of 20 tra­di­tional-look­ing vil­las on stilts dot­ted among 60 acres of paddy fields and half­tamed jun­gle. The 150-year-old walawwa (man­sion) is where you eat (Sri Lankan cur­ries, with their char­ac­ter­is­tic use of co­conut in all its forms, must be the best in the world). The ser­vice lev­els are ex­tra­or­di­nary. They’ll cre­ate “pri­vate din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences” al­most any­where on the estate with your own chef and wait­ers in a bower at the end of a path of flares. At a price, of course.

From there, you can ex­plore Anu­rad­ha­pura, one of the won­ders of the an­cient world. For nearly 2,000 years it was the Sin­halese cap­i­tal, a civ­i­liza­tion built around the huge man-made ir­ri­ga­tion reser­voirs they call “tanks”. It spreads over 16 square miles, sur­rounded by monastery dagobas and, at its heart, the old­est recorded veg­etable in the world –a Bodhi Tree, that’s said to have been grown from a cut­ting from the fig tree un­der which the Bud­dha at­tained en­light­en­ment, which has ap­par­ently been tended since 245BC. This was, un­til re­cently, the army’s ma­jor stag­ing post for the war, which for a time turned the new town near the site into one of largest broth­els in south Asia. Now there’s a new fu­ture, based on old grandeur.

Sri Lanka’s war was a fam­ily af­fair, for them and for me. I was there for the BBC at the be­gin­ning, in the Eight­ies, as a cy­cle of vi­o­lence and reprisal reached an early peak. Colombo’s bus sta­tion had been bombed to smithereens with hor­ren­dous loss of life. The Tigers had just stopped a bus­load of monks and slaugh­tered them like sheep. The army was re­spond­ing with tor­ture and mas­sacres of their own.

My son, Roland, was the res­i­dent BBC correspondent there as it came to an end, when the Tigers, and thou­sands of civil­ians, were pushed into a last square mile, backs to the Nand­hikkadal la­goon, and blown to bits. Both of us saw Sri Lanka as a flawed par­adise. It’s even shaped like a teardrop, beau­ti­ful, deadly and sad. Not for the first time, it oc­curred to me how ter­ri­ble things hap­pen in the most beau­ti­ful places, to the nicest peo­ple.

Now, you can go to places like the city of Bat­ticaloa, a hotspot in the war but one of the most at­trac­tive parts of the is­land. If you do, I rec­om­mend stay­ing at the Uga Bay ho­tel, the best of those now lin­ing prob­a­bly Sri Lanka’s finest beach at Pas­siku­dah, north of the town it­self.

The war spent decades ru­in­ing a com­mu­nity there that was then de­mol­ished in sec­onds when the 2004 tsunami sent a 40ft wall of wa­ter miles in­land, killing 500 in this tiny dis­trict alone. The fish­ing pros are back on the beach now, and the tourists are start­ing to re­turn.

You can go now to the for­bid­den places in the cap­i­tal, Colombo, which the Tigers once at­tacked a dozen times in a sin­gle day, and where anti-air­craft guns were set up around Galle Face Green to counter the Tigers’ home-made air force.

Stay some­where like the Res­i­dence, cre­ated out of a Vic­to­rian town house. Go on one of Mark Forbes’s fa­mous walk­ing tours through the Fort, the old colo­nial out­post that be­came Sri Lanka’s govern­ment and fi­nan­cial cen­tre. It was prob­a­bly the most guarded city dis­trict in the world, es­pe­cially af­ter a sui­cide bomber man­aged to blow up the cen­tral bank in 1996, de­stroy­ing 12 build­ings, killing 91 peo­ple, in­jur­ing 1,400 and paint­ing him­self into the pave­ment in the process. Now it is open. The old colo­nial build­ings are be­ing re­stored, and the army bar­racks is a chichi col­lec­tion of restau­rants.

Thai­land gets 15 times as many tourists as Sri Lanka with, ar­guably, far less to of­fer. The in­ter­na­tional ho­tel chains are said to be queu­ing to open up in Colombo to cater for a new wave of tourists, where im­pe­rial ser­vants once took tif­fin in their topis. Be op­ti­mistic. It could be Par­adise Re­gained, af­ter all. As Bishop Heber’s fa­mous hymn about the place says: “every prospect pleases” and, now the war is his­tory, you can see it all for your­self.

(The Tele­graph)

Buerk was in Sri Lanka for the BBC at the be­gin­ning of the war, in the Eight­ies

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