Exploring Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula
Having been herded into a spluttering Tata bus and driven to the ‘terminal’, we are shepherded through a process that involves the weighing of our bodies as well as our bags. Red-faced, we board our plane – a twin-engine Antonov AN-32 military aircraft – only to be coastalcoastwelcomed by boxes of stinking Jaffna prawns sweating it out in the searing 35°C heat of the unpressurised cabin.
Back when we’d been planning our trip to the Jaffna Peninsular, we were looking to experience exactly this sort of extraordinary. We wanted to travel, and to taste an adventure of the flavour you don’t usually find in Sri Lanka.
We hoped that by visiting the north – untouched by tourism and branded by 26 years of civil war – we would experience Sri Lanka at her most raw. Since the conflict’s dramatic climax in May 2009, thousands of locals have made the bone-crunching pilgrimage to the north, but few foreign travellers have followed suit. I was keen to be amongst the first to visit Sri Lanka’s final frontier, a region deemed to have more cultural similarities with India’s Tamil Nadu than with Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-dominated south.
So, after enlisting a group of like-minded friends and renting a van and driver, we finalised our route: we would head up the seldom-visited north-west coast to the island of Mannar, then voyage east to Vavuniya and north again along the A9 highway to Jaffna, via Elephant Pass. Instead of repeating our outbound journey, we’d fly back to Colombo.
Setting off from the lush capital at dawn, we drive up the A3, passing by the fishing town of Chilaw and pushing into the dry zone. Just eight kilometres shy of Puttalam, curiosity sends us hurtling up the Kalpitiya Peninsula – a crescent-shaped landmass arching around the Puttalam Lagoon. The epic panorama of this arid, windswept landscape assaults our senses. The murky mangrove-pocked salt flats fringing the expansive grey-white lagoon have a raw, eerie beauty, whilst the pointed leaves of palmyrah palms crackle menacingly overhead. Kites dot the azure skies, and a line of wind turbines spin silently on the lagoon’s far eastern shore.
Kalpitiya’s beaches prove every inch as arresting. Given their relative proximity to the airport (just a couple of hours), we are surprised to see only a sprinkling of eco-resorts set back from Alankuda’s fir-fringed, near-deserted beach. Wandering along the sand, we encounter a gang of sarong-clad fishermen dragging a huge net onto shore, watched by a growing gaggle of villagers. Nearby, an earlier catch of fish lies shrinking and drying under the hot tropical sun. Kattawa (dried fish), a rather pungent delicacy used to flavour curries and sambals, is a particular speciality of the northern coastal regions, and we are to see many more of these hardened leathery hides dangling from the beams of shops.
Beyond Kalpitiya and Puttalam, the rust-red road pierces Wilpattu National Park and continues to Mannar, where we spend the night in a simple guesthouse eight kilometres east of town.
Mannar sits at the eastern end of a thin island attached to the mainland by a two-kilometre bridge. The island boasts a Portuguese fort and baobab bottle trees introduced by Arab traders from Africa 700 years ago, but the most interesting feature lies just beyond the far western tip. Adam’s Bridge is a chain of limestone shoals that extends to India, some 30 kilometre distant. Thought to be the route by which the earliest human settlers reached Sri Lanka 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, this was also the perilous pathway many displaced Sri Lankan Tamils used to flee the country during the war.
After a delicious breakfast of curries laid on by our generous hosts, we jump into the van and travel east towards Vavuniya. The journey is punctuated with stops at the serene Ketheeswaram Kovil, ringed by an iconic red-and-white–striped wall, and the huge, late nineteenth century Portuguese-style Madhu church, home to a 300-year-old statue of Virgin Mary.
Beyond Vavuniya, snaking along the infamous A9 through the sparsely populated northern landmass that is the Vanni, we are soon confronted with remnants of the war: desolate bullet-ridden houses, ghost towns, the headless trunks of palms severed by shelling, and yellow tape depicting the presence of mines.
The mood lightens as we reach the town of Kilinochchi. As the de facto capital of the rebel Tamil Tigers, this town was shelled repeatedly during the war, yet the scars of its casualties are harder to decipher, as buildings have been patched up or rebuilt, or lie hidden behind new, vibrant coats of paint.
A bombed water tower lying where it fell is the exception, and this is the first of a handful of war memorials we encounter on our 16-kilometre journey up towards Elephant Pass, the isthmus of the Jaffna Peninsula. Others include a grenade-charred armoured bulldozer, a bullet-scarred open-top jeep and, at Elephant Pass itself, a huge mounted map of Sri Lanka supported by four hands and topped with a blooming a lotus flower.
Here we begin chatting to local tourists. They’re interested to know our reasons for visiting a region with few obvious charms, and we are keen to know theirs. Thirty-six-year-old Dilhan Liyanage, a Sinhalese pharmacist from Dondra, in the southern district of Matara, echoes the majority sentiment: “I wanted to revisit a part of my country that was off limits for years,” he says. “Now we can safely travel here, I’ve brought my wife and children to see it for the first time.”
Others have come to visit the land where their loved ones fought and fell, and a few are paying visits to relatives and friends.
After finally crossing Elephant Pass, we arrive on the Jaffna Peninsula and travel towards town. On its quiet eastern fringes, we notice colourful bougainvillea and the fruit of karthacolomban (mango) trees draped across the spacious front yards of elegant Dutch period homes, gracefully adorned with pillared verandahs, carved roundels and engraved teak shutters. We encounter many more houses like this across town, although sadly most of them are abandoned, their owners having fled overseas at the advent of the war.
Driving straight into town, we pass the dome-crowned public library and stop off at the pentagonal Jaffna Fort, built by the Portuguese and extended by the Dutch. From its thick ramparts, we scour the views across to Kayts, an island connected to the Jaffna mainland by a narrow causeway topped by buses and bikes. Later, we pluck fruit from the vibrant yellow market stalls, pose beside a fleet of evocative Austin Cambridge taxis and stray up side streets in search of midi vedi, an explosively hot samosa whose name translates as ‘land mine’.
A visit to the Nallur Kovil, Jaffna’s biggest Hindu shrine, is a priority and our trip happens to coincide with Lord Skanda’s birthday. Leaving our sandals at the entrance, we keenly follow the rapt throngs of barefooted devotees as they offer prayers, flowers, incense and fire to their chosen gods. The frantic beating of the drums combined with the acoustics of the nadaswaram are atmospheric and strangely affecting. Afterwards, we devour toe-curlingly sweet sundaes from nearby Rio’s, one of Jaffna’s best loved ice cream parlours, as the rhythmic beats of Hindi music blare from the radio and the rapid dialogue of young Tamil families erupts excitedly around us.
We explore the peninsula by bicycle, an iconic form of local transport, pedalling through farmland up to Point Pedro where a white flag on the beach marks the island’s northernmost point. The narrow, dusty streets of this sleepy backwater are lined with stalls selling live chickens, basketry and spices, and its lighthouse-fronted beach is prettified by a litter of jewel-hued fishing boats. Heading east, we visit Manalkadu’s sand dunes and the partial remains of St Anthony’s church, before returning to Expo Pavilion’s serene Margosa hotel. A dinner of succulent sweet Jaffna crab curry follows and sends us quickly to sleep.
On our final day, we set out to explore Jaffna’s islands. Choppy seas prevent us from visiting Delft, the peninsula’s furthest flung islet, but simply driving across such hauntingly beautiful open terrain feels escapist enough. Being a weekend, the popular golden-sand beaches of Casuarina and Chatty are busy with local families and groups bashing cymbals and drums, so we grab some deep-fried crab legs and head for the temples of Nainativu Island, a claustrophobia-inducing 15-minute ferry ride from Kurikadduwan dock.
In a region scarred by years of racial tension, it’s awe-inspiring to see a Buddhist temple and a Hindu kovil situated just 500 metres apart – two utterly different religions sharing such a small landmass. We watch as throngs of pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka pad barefoot between the two in apparent unity, and as they pay their respects to each temple, they stock up on the same goods (palm leaf-wrapped sweets, shells and toys) to take back home.
As we too head home – aboard our twin-engine bug basher of a plane, with its precious cargo of pungent prawns – I contemplate our trip. While, at times, Jaffna feels like an outpost of India – or certainly a very different place to the rest of the island – the curiosity, warmth and smiles of the resilient people we meet confirm it is part of the intoxicating story of Sri Lanka.
The nearest international airport is Colombo. There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka from Australia, but Singapore Airways offers one-stop flights from most major airports. Jaffna is 360 kilometres from Colombo, and can be reached by bus and domestic air services including Helitours. Private vans can be hired from the airport.
The region has no luxury hotels, and guesthouses are generally basic. See www.alankuda.com for Kalpitiya’s luxury eco-resorts.
AirAsia flies to Comobo via Kulu Lumpa for US$170 one way.
Words Emma Boyle
Photos Hiranya Malwatta and Emma Boyle