After 30 war-torn years, northern Sri Lanka is opening up to tourism. Is it too soon to visit its friendly villages and unspoilt beaches?
Beautiful, yet horrible. For much of the past 30 years, it seems to me, the island of Sri Lanka has lived in a similarly sour-sweet atmosphere. There is a smiling side to the place: a land of coconut-fringed beaches, jungled hills and a colourful culture that varying numbers of tourists have been prepared to visit, the variation depending on how much the other, much darker, side has intruded. And the other side has certainly been dark: suicide bombings, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, tales of death squads and unmarked mass graves; most of all the relentless, apparently endless, horror of a big bad war in the north.
But now that war is over. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are defeated and their hopes of a separate Tamil state crushed. And with that defeat, millions of acres of pristine beach and jungle in the northern third of the island have opened up to the kind of tourism enjoyed by the southern part of the island for the past three decades.
A glance at a map of the north draws the eye to two obvious protagonists in the coming battle for the tourist dollar. In the far north there is Jaffna, with its huge lagoons and beaches, but that area is still tricky to access, requiring a permit. On the west, there is Mannar island, a 35km spit of sand and coconut trees connected to the mainland by a causeway. Mostly inhabited by Tamil Catholics, it was always government-held during the war, but often surrounded by Tigers territory. Both sides in the conflict committed atrocities: in June 2006, after an attack by the Tigers left 30 sailors from the Sri Lankan navy dead, the church in a nearby fishing village called Pesalai came under a hail of gunfire that killed six people. Locals and independent witnesses held the navy responsible.
It is to Pesalai that I am heading with Sidantha, for a homestay arranged by Sri Lankan specialist tour operator Experience Travel. Homestays are still a rarity in these parts, where tourism is starting from almost zero.
No tourists for 3 decades
“There haven’t been tourists in Mannar for three decades,” says Sid. “Someone said two Dutchmen turned up on bikes last year, but apart from that, nothing, till you.” Watch out for new editions of guidebooks because change will come quickly.
It is late at night by the time we rattle across the causeway and pass Mannar town, a dilapidated former colonial outpost and the main settlement on the island. The Portuguese built a fort here in 1560, no doubt drawn by the presence of rich pearl beds in the shallow seas nearby. It’s not pearls we want, however, but cold beer, something not easily found as there are no bars, only unmarked beer shops tucked away down darkened lanes. Eventually we locate one by the crowd outside: boys selling roasted chickpeas wrapped in scraps of newspaper, and tipsy fishermen who shout good-natured greetings.
We buy supplies, then negotiate the last 15km to Pesalai. Our house is a simple bungalow in a sandy lane surrounded by coconut palms. We wash in delicious cool water hauled up in a bucket from the well, say a brief hello to our hosts, who live opposite, and fall asleep in seconds.
Everyone has a story
Rohan wants me to try a local favourite, curried squid, and goes off in search. Sid and I get some breakfast: tea and rotis, all the time saying hello to people eager to talk. One man takes me to see the church: a pink wedding cake of a building pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel wounds. Everyone here has a story: a house flattened by explosives, a family member abducted and never seen again, or – more often – the urban-legend-tale of the man who got away and is now sending money back from Europe or America.
Out on the other side of the island, a few miles away, we find the fishermen working with beach nets: singing and hauling together on long lines to pull in a vast silvery bag of fish. I join in, at least for the pulling, not the songs. These people look wiry and fit: products of a lifetime eating just fish and rice. There has not, to be honest, been a great deal else for a long time. The beach is perfectly clean and natural, the waves gentle – unlike on the east coast of Sri Lanka, which can be dangerously rough.
Further along the broad beach we meet a community of Singhalese fisher people who spend a season here every year, living in palm thatch huts and catching the seasonal fish runs. Everywhere I’m made aware of how intertwined and interdependent the people are. There are Tamils married to Singhalese, Hindus to Christians or Buddhists. Our host family are Singhalese who came from the south 60 years ago, settled on Mannar and became – linguistically and culturally – Tamil. In a war that was driven by ethnic mistrust and racist propaganda, they suffered. Now, however, they look like a hope for the future.
Untouched by tourism
A couple more days on the island are spent eating seafood, visiting sites such as the ancient baobabs brought by Arab seafarers from Africa in the 15th century and the supposed graves of Adam and Eve at the tip of the island, near what is known as Adam’s Bridge – a series of sandbanks that lead all the way to India 20 miles away. If and when a promised ferry service from Mannar to India begins, the island will undoubtedly clamber aboard the backpacker trail, losing perhaps a little of its charming naivety. For the moment, it is untouched by tourism: I’ve only been here a short time, but people wave and shout greetings like I’m an old friend. It’s this sense of being absorbed, easily and comfortably, into a community that creates the magic in this place.
On a long beach we find the ruins of a house built by the first English governor, Sir Frederick North, in 1804. It has now mostly tumbled into the waves. In the nearby village of Arippu there are further poignant reminders of former times in the 17th-century Dutch fort. First is a grave – “Charles Lays – died of sunstroke 1878” – and then a plaque for Robert Knox, an English sailor who was held captive on the island by the Rajah of Kandy for 19 years before he managed to escape to this lonely Dutch outpost in 1679. Back in London he wrote a bestseller and the first account of the island in English, incidentally introducing the word Buddha to the English language. Knox’s experiences also helped feed the newly coined ideal of a tropical island as a paradise, the very ideal that drives much of Sri Lankan tourism today.
My time on Mannar is over and I head across the island, dipping south into what is, and was, tourist territory. The contrast is marked: less military and police, more traffic and bustle. The people are certainly more accustomed to visitors. I stop at two lovely eco-retreats: first the Mudhouse, a place that is gathering a reputation for superb service matched with total simplicity. I sleep under a thatched shelter and mozzie net in the middle of the jungle, waking to birdsong and a man on a bicycle with a tea tray. The second is Back of Beyond, a good wildlife and bird-watching jungle retreat at Pidurangala, equally simple and handy for visiting the mountain fortress at Sigiriya and the superb cave temples of Dambulla.
Heading north and east to the coast, I’m back into what were Tigers danger areas, but now the problem is flood-damaged roads after a particularly heavy monsoon season. Nevertheless, freedom from war has brought big ambitions for tourism. Many hotels are being proposed, some of them vast and costly. Despite the fact that most development is coming from Singhalese businessmen, often with political connections, local Tamils that I spoke to did not mind. Even at Santhively, near the east-coast port of Batticaloa, where fishermen are being evicted from the beach, ostensibly to prevent tsunami losses, but coincidentally to make way for a hotel, they are welcoming the construction. “It’s good,” they tell me. “We want progress.” What benefit they will ever get remains to be seen.
At Trincomalee, a vibrant port city possessed of a magnificent anchorage, I bump into Mark Davis, gardener with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “We couldn’t get in here for 20 years,” he tells me. “It was just too dangerous.”
The cemetery holds 362 graves from the second world war. Mark’s workers are young men, the sort who not so long ago might have expected to be fighting themselves on one side or the other. Now they are eagerly learning the trade of gardening, discussing plantings and turf types. For all the talk of tourism development, it seems appropriate that the most peaceful and uncontroversial first steps in economic progress that I have found are taking place here, in a war cemetery. (The Guardian)