Sitting at Anuradhapura Railway Station just after sunrise, I thumb through the few pages in my guidebook devoted to Sri Lanka’s least-visited region one more time. I have almost no expectations for Jaffna, despite having researched this trip for nearly a year.
I know it will be different from the rest of Sri Lanka, but I’m not entirely sure how. I expect it to be hot, and I expect there to be some remnants of the decades-long civil war that ravaged the city, its residents, and the north in general.
There has been precious little written about Jaffna and the north of Sri Lanka compared to the rest of the island. Until recently, this was not a stop on any western tourist’s itinerary, and unlike the well-trodden southern surfer trail, I don’t anticipate hordes of backpackers cramming into endless juice shops and souvenir stands.
But what do I actually know? Next to nothing. And it’s a marvelously adventurous feeling.
Most foreign visitors to the north of Sri Lanka arrive by train, now that the new railway line connects Jaffna to Colombo and the cultural triangle.
I’ve booked a first class ticket (for a whopping 500 rupees or $3.25 USD) as I was used to the standing-room-only trains of the south, but I needn’t have worried. Only four other travelers board the train with me and I have an entire car to myself. The solitude of the empty train is enhanced by the barren landscape as we chug north through the Vanni, the vast expanse of hazy white salt flats that call to mind an alien landscape.
If you dropped me in the middle of Jaffna without telling me where I was, my first guess might be North Africa. Maybe Algiers. The small skyline is dotted with spires and onion domes, the salty sea air is hot with spices and the unrelenting sun. I would never guess Sri Lanka. Although I’ve been on the island for over two months already, Jaffna looks nothing at all like my beloved Ceylon. Even the language on the street signs has changed, to angular Tamil from the curvy flowers of Sinhalese.
Arriving at my hotel by tuktuk, I’m greeted by an impeccably dressed young man in a black and gold silk suit and matching turban. He takes my bag and opens the lobby door in one swift movement. Two sari-clad women glide forward to usher me into a plush armchair while another brings me a cool glass of tart wood apple juice and a chilled face towel. An ornate brass tray is placed in front of me and the ladies recite a Hindu blessing as one of them dabs a bit of fragrant tilaka paste on my forehead. This sandalwood-scented paste is a traditional Hindu sign of welcome for an honored guest.
This is the perfect introduction to what was once one of the most sophisticated and refined places in all of Sri Lanka. After spending a week exploring Jaffna, witnessing the dignity and determination with which its citizens are rebuilding their lives and communities, I feel confident in saying that one day it is sure to be that elegant enclave again.
For most of the few intrepid wanderers to the north, Jaffna is where the story begins and ends. And maybe for good reason; this compact city that has been both kingdom and battlefield is an enchanting and seductive place, once you start exploring beyond the surface. The more you see of this hidden jewel, the deeper you’ll want to dig.
Once I started wandering down random streets and discovering the crumbling facades of once-magnificent structures, I found myself staying up late into the night, Googling everything I could find on the history surrounding them and the people who built and fought over them.
I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: there’s precious little information out there. Decades of war and struggle have left an inevitable (and heartbreaking) gap in the recorded history of the region. The only written copy of the history of the city was destroyed in an act of terrorism at the start of the war in 1981.
The good news is, the city’s magnificent library was rebuilt to its former splendor and there are people tirelessly advocating for the preservation and renovation of other important historical sites.
It may be tempting to spend all of your time in Jaffna, treasure hunting for more and more hidden clues to the city’s storied past. But if you can drag yourself away, you’ll find even more opportunities to explore the wild north in Jaffna’s islands.
Most can only be reached by ferry, which adds to the I’m-discovering-a-new-world feeling. The ferries themselves are part of the adventure, and should be approached with a sense of humor (and a healthy dose of sea sickness medication if you’re prone).
Why go now?
26 years of war has taken an undeniable toll on the entire region. Battle-scarred, yes, but most of the military presence has gone, leaving the people to come home and rebuild in peace.
It’s easy to see the remnants of what Jaffna used to be. Wide, tree-lined streets dotted with elegant, ornate homes and lush, flowering courtyards. The crown jewel library on the waterfront, a gleaming beacon of Tamil literacy and scholarship. Green parks, lively markets, and sacred Hindu temples providing a riot of colors in beautiful contrast to the sun-bleached coast and salt flats that blanket much of the region.
Some people might question the wisdom of visiting a former war zone that is still hard at work rebuilding itself. Personally, I can’t think of a better time to visit Sri Lanka’s northern province than right this very minute. If you’re a history buff like I am, a lover of off-the-beaten-track travel like I am, and someone who appreciates being able to see things that won’t be around forever, this is the perfect time to see more of this tiny island nation than the surf breaks and the tea plantations.
The war is over, there are new hotels and restaurants opening all the time, and a shiny new train is bringing visitors further north than they have ventured in decades. Progress is marching forward and one day this part of the country may look much like the rest of it; well-trodden tourist trails lined with backpacker hostels and smoothie shops.
But for now, the north is as wild and unexplored as it gets on this tropical paradise.
Ready to explore the delights of Northern Sri Lanka and more? Check out Intrepid’s 12-day ‘Sensational Sri Lanka’ trip.
(All images c/o Leslie Price.)