Sri Lanka’s emerg­ing east

Af­ter war and a tsunami, the less-trav­eled coast is re­cov­er­ing

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By Henry Wis­mayer

Be­side the tem­ple on Swami Rock, amid the heady swirl of col­or­ful deities and burn­ing cam­phor, one ob­ject caught my eye. It seemed that a spe­cial rev­er­ence had been re­served for a statue of a holy cow. Cen­turies ago, a plac­ard be­side it ex­plained, this Chola-era fig­urine had been buried by con­cerned priests as the Por­tuguese colonists sailed into har­bor. There it had re­mained in­terred, through cen­turies of colo­nial oc­cu­pa­tion and decades of civil war. But in 2013 it was re­dis­cov­ered and dusted off — re­turned to its Hindu shrine af­ter al­most 400 years. And as I watched the pil­grims queu­ing to leave of­fer­ings at its base, it seemed a fit­ting sym­bol for this part of Sri Lanka, where an air of res­ur­rec­tion is pre­cisely what brought me here.

Sri Lanka’s east coast, run­ning from Trin­co­ma­lee in the north to the grass­lands of Yala in the south, has good rea­son to feel op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. Twelve years ago, when my part­ner Lucy vis­ited the re­gion on a teach­ing ex­change, her minibus had to pass through dozens of army check­points to get any­where near this re­gion. The Tamil in­sur­gency, which blighted Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years, made travel haz­ardous. A few months later, the east was dev­as­tated along with much of the south coast by the Box­ing Day tsunami. The natural dis­as­ter claimed 40,000 lives on the is­land alone.

To­day, how­ever, with the civil war ended and the tsunami a

fad­ing — but still trau­matic — mem­ory, the east is fi­nally open­ing up to tourism. While Sri Lanka’s south­west coast starts to strain un­der the pres­sure of dou­bling tourist num­bers and ra­pa­cious de­vel­op­ment, the east’s smat­ter­ing of new re­sorts and im­proved road ac­cess have grown to of­fer a be­guil­ing al­ter­na­tive. And so Lucy had come back, this time with me and our two young kids, fol­low­ing a grow­ing num­ber who are drawn to­ward the is­land’s less-trav­eled coasts in pur­suit of sanc­tu­ary.

A beach­front indulgence

Keen to see how much has changed since those more tur­bu­lent days, and no less keen to re­cover from a hot seven-hour drive across the in­te­rior from the cap­i­tal, Colombo, we started with some­thing in­dul­gent. Jun­gle Beach, in Kuchaveli, was the only ho­tel on its un­tamed stretch of coast­line, but as lim­ited choices go this pre­sented lit­tle hard­ship. A 20-yard walk from our airy, teak-filled ca­bana, the beach felt re­mote and wild, its shal­low curve backed by drift­wood and scrub­land. A cashew-shaped pool was shel­tered from the sun by ram­bling trees; a fine restau­rant served up won­ders un­der whirring fans.

At times, it felt like a place barely re­claimed from the na­ture that sur­rounded it. Wad­ing birds swooped down to the pool­side ponds to lance tiny fish from among the lo­tus flow­ers, spiny lizards sunned them­selves on the trees and mouse deer roamed the grounds. Such wild di­ver­sions were noth­ing com­pared with the beasts that fre­quented the neigh­bor­ing sea. Though the waters were too rough dur­ing our visit, this is one of many spots on the Sri Lankan coast where a boat trip prom­ises sight­ings of blue whales.

It was all too easy, lap­ping up the de­lights of Jun­gle Beach, to for­get the back­drop of dam­age, both natural and man-made, dur­ing a trip to east­ern Sri Lanka. But you didn’t have to stray far for re­minders. When I vis­ited Nilaveli, the next bay south, the tes­ta­ments were there — in the bul­let-pocked wall of an aban­doned house, or a dole­ful con­crete husk of what was once a beach­side ho­tel, chafed to its foun­da­tions by the wave.

With me on these ex­cur­sions was driver Roobens, a lo­cal-born Tamil, an eth­nic­ity he be­trayed with his habit of swal­low­ing the end of sen­tences with a head-wag­gle and a hail of words. Like many young Tamils, Roobens was forced to leave this area in the 1990s to avoid run-ins with a venge­ful Sri Lankan army — “I would have been ar­rested,” he said mat­ter-of­factly — but came back to Nilaveli in 2007, af­ter the Tigers were pushed north. Like many here, Roobens now sees tourism as part of the re­gion’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

As we headed fur­ther south, his hopes found af­fir­ma­tion in scenes of hu­man joy. It was Tamil New Year, hol­i­day sea­son, and ev­ery­where we went we met Sri Lankan hol­i­day­mak­ers, many of them ex­plor­ing the east coast of their coun­try for the first time.

The hot springs of Kan­niya, where crowds thronged to anoint each other with buck­et­fuls of geo­ther­mal water from brick­lined wells, re­sem­bled noth­ing so much as a gi­ant water-fight, and later, when we ar­rived in Trin­co­ma­lee, east­ern Sri Lanka’s prin­ci­pal city, the whole pop­u­la­tion seemed to have de­camped to Swami Rock, a gi­ant head­land just south of town.

The rock’s lower reaches are still dom­i­nated by Fort Fred­er­ick, a vast bas­tion built by Dutch colonists in the 1670s. But its ram­parts, now home to an army bar­racks, also guarded one of the re­gion’s most holy Hindu tem­ples. At the base of the fortress, an arched por­tico buzzed with tuk­tuks, and up on the point we found thou­sands of cel­e­brants walk­ing bare­foot past gaudy puja stalls.

From the pin­na­cle, look­ing past the wor­shipers milling about the tem­ple, you could see north­west to­ward the town and the bay be­yond, where a sin­gle tanker sat low in the water, hint­ing at the hid­den depths that made it a key strate­gic har­bor for Bri­tish forces dur­ing World War II. But the view might have been very dif­fer­ent were it not for Swami Rock. In 2004, when the tsunami thun­dered up the coast on its mur­der­ous ram­page, the rock’s sa­cred flanks blocked its path, sav­ing Trin­co­ma­lee from de­struc­tion and heed­ing a mil­lion prayers.

In tran­si­tion

A cer­tain spell broke as we trav­eled south.

It wasn’t that our next stop, the vil­lage of Pas­siku­dah, which sprawled along a par­a­bola of In­dian Ocean coast­line, didn’t have its ap­peal. But where Kuchaveli had felt like a se­cret, this felt like a place in flux. Pas­siku­dah is one of Sri Lanka’s 45 tourism-de­vel­op­ment zones, once-sleepy vil­lages opened up to for­eign investment as Sri Lanka looked to cap­i­tal­ize on the rush of for­eign tourists that fol­lowed the end of the Tamil in­sur­rec­tion. How­ever, these zones have proved con­tro­ver­sial, seen by many as a way for for­mer pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa and his broth­ers, de­throned and dis­graced dur­ing demo­cratic elec­tions in 2015, to spread pa­tron­age among their cronies.

Un­like the wild beach of Kuchaveli, which shelved steeply into the sea, Pas­siku­dah’s coast was shal­low, calm and much more pop­u­lated, though this held charms of its own. At dusk, the south­ern end of the beach filled with Sri Lankan fam­i­lies, the water so stip­pled with splash­ing sil­hou­ettes as to re­sem­ble a holy river at puja time.

We headed south again, and while the land­scape re­mained fa­mil­iar the tem­per­a­ture con­tin­u­ally rose. With my op­ti­mistic dreams of trav­el­ing by lo­cal bus de­railed by the un­for­giv­ing heat, we de­scended the east coast in an air-con­di­tioned taxi. While the fam­ily slept, I watched the east’s cen­tral coast whiz by in a haze be­hind the car’s tinted win­dow. We passed grid­dles of salt pans, small­hold­ings of to­bacco, and som­no­lent la­goons stained white and pink with flow­er­ing wa­terlilies.

We ex­plored the coast, then delved in­land, where wild ele­phants bathed in shim­mer­ing la­goons and croc­o­diles lurked among the lily pads in tanks, the huge reser­voirs built as part of the great ir­ri­ga­tion projects of Sin­halese kings. At the for­est her­mitage of Kudim­bi­gala, we walked up steps cut into great boul­ders. At the sum­mit, views over the for­est, un­in­ter­rupted by moder­nity, stretched to the hori­zon.

Change was al­ways in the air, though, here in the east. A few years back, I learned from con­ver­sa­tions with lo­cals, one of the most idyl­lic beaches we vis­ited, called Peanut Farm, had been an­nexed by the gov­ern­ment de­spite lo­cal op­po­si­tion. But the plan had been in­ter­rupted by the elec­tions last year. The new gov­ern­ment had re­turned it – now the lo­cal vil­lagers were busy build­ing a guest­house of their own.

For the time be­ing, at least, the at­mos­phere that sets east­ern Sri Lanka apart looks set to en­dure.

Top: Sun­set over the bay at Pas­siku­dah, home to some of east­ern Sri Lanka’s most luxurious beach ho­tels. Mid­dle: An enor­mous statue of Shiva wel­comes vis­i­tors to the Koneswaram tem­ple com­plex, Trin­co­ma­lee. Bot­tom: Fish­ing boats line the beach in Arugam Bay. Pho­tos by Henry Wis­mayer, Spe­cial to The Washington Post

The Washington Post

Pho­tos by Henry Wis­mayer, Spe­cial to The Washington Post

A hand rail guides vis­i­tors and pil­grims to the sum­mit of the huge gran­ite out­crops of Kudim­bi­gala, an an­cient for­est her­mitage 20 miles south of Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka.

Surf­ing in­struc­tor Ja­cob Siril trans­ports his surfboard to Peanut Farm, a surf spot out­side Arugam Bay, on the roof of his tuk-tuk.

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