Post-civil-war Jaffna is now open to tourists, and with fab­u­lous food, friendly peo­ple and scenic spots, it is a must see.

Friday - - Society Living Leisure -

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

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