Post-civil-war Jaffna is now open to tourists, and with fabulous food, friendly people and scenic spots, it is a must see.
It’s the moment we stop at my first-ever military checkpoint that I realise Jaffna’s not going to be just another beach town on my month-long Sri Lankan holiday. We were about two hours into the six-hour journey when the highway began to look different, with Red Cross posters and bullet-riddled buildings slowly replacing the pretty coastline and crowded markets that dot most of southern and central Sri Lanka.
During Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, the north was off-limits to tourists, its spectacular islands and beautiful beaches hidden behind kilometres of barbed-wire fencing. After the 2009 ceasefire, the region was declared safe again and now it’s almost like there’s a brand new country to explore.
I’d met my driver Mutalif that morning, piled my backpack into his van and set off with him telling me we’d be on the road for the whole day – just us and his CD of Sri Lankan pop.
Now, as I’m waved over to the makeshift passport control desk by more members of the military than I’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to feel a bit intimidated. My only experience of checkpoints like this comes from old war movies, and anyone who’s seen one knows handing over a passport to strangers never ends well...
I needn’t have worried. Everyone’s friendly and courteous here, with one army officer even holding an umbrella over my head to shield me from the sprinkling rain as I run to a small wooden table with ‘English’ written above it. While my passport is photocopied, officers chat to me about my trip before handing me a form to fill in. Even though I only write my name, the name of my hotel and the date I’ll be leaving Jaffna, by the time I get back to the van I feel a surprising sense of accomplishment.
My breezy Sri Lankan holiday just got interesting.
The road to Jaffna
“You’re lucky to be seeing this part of the country,” says Mutalif. “The first time I came here was one year ago. I brought my son and said, ‘Look around, you are a very lucky boy. You’re 12 and you’re going to see Jaffna for the first time. I’m 34 and I’m going to see Jaffna for the first time!’”
Indeed, while I’d spotted a few Western tourists at the checkpoint, there were plenty of Sri Lankans making the journey, no doubt excited to see the part of their country that was inaccessible for so long.
“There’s the new railway,” says Mutalif, pointing towards a group of workers clearing land for the new Colombo to Jaffna train line. “Before the war, many people travelled to Jaffna by train. The old tracks are behind those trees, but the line was ruined during the war and they couldn’t fix it, so the government decided to build a new one.”
We’re jolting along, past overgrown green fields, complete with grazing cows, slushy mangroves and spiky palm trees – a completely different landscape to the wild southern regions. It looks like a tropical version of the set of The Sound of Music, until I notice a series of white, red and black flags sticking up from the grass.
“Landmines,” says Mutalif, confirming my suspicions. Some flags have crosses on them, and there are more black flags than white ones, which Mutalif tells me means most of these landmines are active. It makes me feel sick just thinking about it.
We’ve almost reached Elephant Pass – a causeway that links the main island of Sri Lanka and the Jaffna peninsula – when Mutalif brakes. Two young women in polka- dotted skirts are crossing the road, flak jackets and fresh curries in their arms. They walk to a black-flag field, pulling their flak jackets on.
Between 1983 and 2009, more than one million landmines were scattered across the north of Sri Lanka and when the war ended, the landmines stayed. Now, NGOs are educating locals about their dangers, and employ some of them to help with the demining process. The girls have settled on the grass beside the road to have lunch. Nearby, workers wearing protective clothing are walking carefully into the flagged fields.
While abandoned buildings and crumbling statues along the side of the road are stark reminders of the fighting that took place here, it’s the signs of busy progress that impress me the most. This is a region rebuilding itself and looking to the future, not dwelling on the past.
It’s dark by the time we reach Jaffna and no one, it seems, has heard of my hotel. The roads are nearly empty, with shopkeepers
and restaurants locking their doors. I feel like I’ve driven into a city that’s bunkered down, waiting for something to happen – they’re just not sure what. “Hotel Lux Etoiles?” I try in my best French accent. My answer is in the three blank faces staring back at me. We ask a man in a tuk-tuk a bit further up the street, but he has no idea what I’m talking about. I’m starting to wonder if the place exists when a friendly face appears in a car beside us.
“Ms Manara? I’m Nihal from the Lux Etoiles. We thought you might have trouble finding us. Just follow me and we’ll be there in a few minutes. The hotel is near the main temple in town.”
I have no idea how Nihal knew who we were, but we follow him and, remarkably, arrive five minutes later. Lux Etoiles is more of an inn than a hotel – a plain building wedged between gated mansions in Jaffna’s wealthy suburb of Nallur. Inside, dark 1970s-style rooms are more like a war reporter shelter than the cosy French bed and breakfast I was expecting, but the staff are cheery and they’ve certainly got the best concierge service I’ve ever encountered.
I haven’t eaten all day, so when Nihal asks if I’d like some food, I tell him I’ll eat whatever the kitchen can prepare. As I open a door with a torn mosquito net and cautiously step into the empty dining room, I wonder what I’ve got myself into. But I’d heard great things about food in Jaffna, which is a mix of Sri Lankan, southern Indian and Malay cuisine, so I sit down.
When the waiter appears with a tray of dishes, including three types of rice, onion sambol, a teetering pile of coconut roti, steaming chicken soup and an enormous bowl of Jaffna crab curry, I’m embarrassed that I’m the only person eating. They’ve prepared a banquet – and it smells irresistible. I happily spend the next hour dipping thick chunks of roti into the peppery curry, crunching crab legs and mopping up all the sauces with perfectly cooked rice. By the time I make my way out of the restaurant I’m a kilo or two heavier – a small price to pay for the best Sri Lankan food I’ve ever eaten. I go to bed with a full stomach eager to discover the area early the next day.
Exploring the islands
“This is where I grew up,” says my tuk-tuk driver, Paramanathan, the following morning as we go rattling down a gravel road towards Jaffna’s most talked about attraction: a chain of islands linked by a series of causeways.
I’d packed my swimming costume and a towel, but as Paramanathan steers us on to the first island, Kayts, I quickly realise these aren’t tropical holiday spots. On each side of the causeway, fishermen wait for the day’s catch, their legs dangling over the murky brown sea, as abandoned fishing boats bob on the water.
Not far from them, a seagull pecks at the roof of what must have been Kayts’ most commanding estate. Hidden by overgrown trees, the
cracked garden path and peeling pink walls tell me it’s long been forgotten by its inhabitants – much like the rest of the island.
We reach the dusty main road, where a few stores offer sacks of rice and bags of herbs and spices for exorbitant prices.
“Life is hard here; it is expensive,” says Paramanathan. “A bag of rice costs 10 times what it would cost in Jaffna. Most people left during the fighting, but now a few are coming back to their homes, despite the cost.”
Each time we cross the causeway to a new island, I’m amazed by the different landscapes. Some have marshland; others are covered in green fields with ponies and cattle. I’ve spotted a few people swimming and many of the village women are outside, collecting fresh water from the island wells.
Now, with only water in front of us, Paramanathan pulls over and says he’ll pick me up in a few hours. We’ve reached the ferry terminal, which takes visitors across the sea to Delft, the last of Jaffna’s islands. I’m not alone – hundreds of Sri Lankans are walking up the pier with me, the women and children in beautiful dresses and wide-brimmed hats they’ve picked up from savvy roadside sellers opening shop near the pier.
Everyone’s smiling at me, and I smile back. I’m about to join hundreds of strangers who suddenly feel like friends on a ferry to visit a place that five minutes ago I’d never even heard of. I clamber on to the boat, which is so full it’s teetering. My knees are pressed to my chest, a bag of bananas squashed by my feet, a seagull swooping overhead. The captain guns the engine and we edge across the water.
At first, Delft looks a bit like the rest of Jaffna’s islands: sparse and a little bit forgotten. I wander off the boat with everyone else, hire the world’s oldest bicycle and clang my way past temple ruins, an old fort and a herd of wild ponies. It’s hot and I’m tired, but just as I think I’ll make my way back to the jetty to wait for the boat, I see something sparkling.
Ahead of me is a beautiful, empty beach, with crystal clear water and white sand. It looks a bit like the Maldives, and I’m so surprised I nearly run into a rogue wild pony.
After being closed off to tourists for so many years, Jaffna really is Sri Lanka’s most intriguing destination.
Sangupiddy Bridge takes you across the Jaffna Lagoon into an area of the country even many Sri Lankans have yet to visit
The Elephant Pass, on the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, has been the site of many battles during the country’s violent past. The Jaffna Fort, below, bears the scars of war
Be ready for frequent military checkpoints amid the colour and bustle of everyday life in northern Sri Lanka
More than one million landmines were planted during the war and demining
is still in progress
Clear blue waters will tempt you; take to the waves on a ferry and explore the islands