Exploring North Sri Lanka: Jaffna & the islands

As we’ve worked our way up the island of Sri Lanka, we’ve noticed how the country changes as you make your way north. Southern Sri Lanka was very laid back, full of long haired surfers, sandy beaches and scenic tea plantations. As we’ve made our way up past Sigiriya, the jungle has become more intrusive, there’s more traditional clothing to be seen and everything seems to be far more centred around farming and agriculture.

Despite small differences, though, we haven’t been anywhere in Sri Lanka that felt strikingly dissimilar to the last place – particularly when we compare it to the variety of the places we visited in India, each of which felt like an entirely different experience. Jaffna is the first place in Sri Lanka that feels completely different to the rest of the country – the language, food, culture, religion and people feel more South Indian than Sri Lankan.

On our first afternoon here, we took a stroll into town, heading towards the old Dutch fort. Given that most of the fighting during the civil war took place in Jaffna and the north, we were expecting to see some signs of military presence and possibly some visual reminders of the war, but we had no idea of the scale of destruction here. Every street has at least one destroyed building on it and you can see bullet marks even on the houses that are still standing. It’s probably naïve that we weren’t expecting to see such so much damage, but it’s just such a shocking contrast to the rest of Sri Lanka where there’s very little to remind you that the country was at war until relatively recently.

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The government still owns a lot of the land they seized here and many families have been driven out or chose not to return, which explains why so many family houses stand in ruins. There are also visual signs of sites where extensive fighting must have taken place – there’s an old colonial building in the centre of town that has been completely shattered by bombs and bullets.

Even the old fort, which was (obviously) already in ruins, has been further destroyed. It was used as a centre for the LTTE during the fighting and although some of the old walls have been rebuilt, there’s still rubble everywhere.

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Despite the destruction, the city itself is lovely and some of the wide leafy streets with big colonial buildings intact show what it must have looked like in its prime. It did make for quite an eery afternoon stroll, however, especially as the clouds loomed ominously on the horizon and the horrible black crows that seem to be everywhere in Jaffna gathered around. We retreated to a local restaurant for Jaffna style curry – fresh crab in a richly spiced thick sauce, far more like an Indian curry than the other Sri Lankan curries we’ve had and one of the spiciest of our trip so far.

Unfortunately, the clouds were here to stay and we had to postpone our trip around the islands the next day as a result of a weather warning issued for Sri Lanka. The warning forecast winds of 80-90kmh, with 80-100mm of rain in some areas. It didn’t quite hit us, but still every time we tried to go out and do something we’d end up rushing back a few minutes later, drenched by the storm.

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This is us setting off eagerly for a bike ride to the temple…
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…And five minutes later, not a success

We eventually managed to seize a break in the rain to cycle to the Nallur Kanthaswamy Temple, a beautiful golden Hindu temple in the centre of the city. It’s strange to be back amongst Hindu religious sites after three weeks spent in predominantly Buddhist areas. One thing we hadn’t experienced yet was that, whilst the women still had to cover up, Jamie had to join the men in stripping down to bare chest to enter the temple.

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We were there during the morning puuja, with the music and singing echoing around the whole building. The temple itself is amazing, although unfortunately we couldn’t take any pictures inside the temple, so we can’t show you the striking paintings and carvings depicting a range of different stories from the Hindu epics.

The temple was the pinnacle of our achievements for that day and we resigned ourselves to a rainy afternoon, heading for an egg biriyani and paneer korma instead. Not ready to give up on Jaffna yet, we decided to extend our stay by a night so that we could head out to the islands the next day before making our way back to Colombo for our flight.

We borrowed a scooter from Raj, our guesthouse owner, and set off on the road north of Jaffna.

First stop was the Kantarodai Ruins, which were underwhelming after the ancient cities but interesting in the context of the whole ‘who got to Sri Lanka first’ debate. Apparently the domes when they were first excavated were flat topped, but they were reconstructed by the Central Cultural Fund in the style of Buddhist dagobas. Some of the Hindus in Jaffna have argued that this doesn’t make any sense historically and have accused the government of attempting to impose a Buddhist history that doesn’t exist in the area. We’ve seen a few dagobas and none of them have been gathered together as closely as these ones, but then we’re no archaeologists so who knows!

From there we headed up to the very northern tip of the island to check out the sacred Keeramali Springs. We didn’t bother going in (women had to bathe in a separate shielded pool and I didn’t fancy a fully clothed swim), but it was worth heading up that way for the scenic coastal drive to the islands.

There is a big military presence north of Jaffna and we almost took a wrong turn into a high security area, much to the horror of the soldier on duty, possibly because we interrupted his afternoon relaxing in the shade. To get back on track, we had to drive past the destroyed KKS cement factory and through an area where there have been some attempts to resettle displaced local families in newly built accommodation, in amongst the ruins of the pre war buildings.

We found the right route eventually – a beautiful palm tree lined track through the forests, not another tourist in sight and just the odd guy on a bike driving past us.

The landscape in Jaffna is also completely different to the rest of Sri Lanka, and the surreal causeways connecting the islands were a particular highlight. The water is extremely shallow, no more than ankle deep in some places, and it’s so flat that you can see for miles in each direction, past shrimp fishing nets and storks who look like giants in the shallow water. The sandy bottoms also create some incredible reflections, which made for a trippy drive across the narrow causeways.

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Waiting to cross the drive on drive off chain ferry

The islands themselves are idyllic tropical oases, although sadly the beaches aren’t that great. There’s also a lot of litter around the whole of Jaffna – we’d been struck by how clean Sri Lanka is in comparison to India, and it was yet another way that Jaffna feels more Indian than Sri Lankan.

The destruction was even more evident on the islands and, while there is a lot of ongoing building and repair work in Jaffna city, some of the houses on the island had clearly been left­­ abandoned for years and are now entirely overgrown.

There are very limited options for food and drink on the islands – probably because there are very few other people to be seen! There is one swanky resort in Karaitivu, however, that is bizarrely based inside a naval base on the old Fort Hammenhiel. The main restaurant is based on land, but there’s a tiny four room resort just off shore which is owned and operated by the navy, although anyone can stay. It looked amazing, but just a tad out of our price range. Maybe next time…

After a happy afternoon scooting around the islands of Karaitivu, Punkudutivu and Velanai, we headed back to Jaffna and the so-called ‘Cosy Restaurant’ for another dose of Jaffna cuisine. I didn’t think it was possible to beat the heat of the crab curry we had on our first night, but the cuttle fish curry here is eye-wateringly hot. We both had tears running down our faces by the end of the meal. Tasty, but not worth the pain!

It was a long slog to get back to Colombo from Jaffna yesterday and we’d done a good ten hours travelling by the time we arrived (on the train, thankfully, not the bus). But it was worth the distance – it’s not somewhere you’d spend a large period of time, but the islands are beautiful and it’s so interesting to see a different side of Sri Lanka.

I’m writing this on the plane on the way to Delhi now. We’re very sad to leave Sri Lanka, but we know we’ll definitely be back to explore some more of the southern beaches and to check out the east coast.

We’re so excited to be heading back into the magical and surreal world of India, despite fully expecting to find it just as confusing and chaotic as last time. When we landed in Colombo a month ago, we were struck by how calm it felt in comparison to Madurai, so we’re bracing ourselves for the opposite effect this time. Luckily we only have a week of budget Indian hotels before my parents arrive and we do the golden triangle in style. Can’t tell you how much we’re looking forward to air con after the last week’s humidity!

We have a long day ahead of us today – after we land in Delhi, we have a few hours to kill before our 11pm overnight bus to Amritsar, but we should make it there by mid morning tomorrow. A long couple of days of travelling from Jaffna to Colombo to Delhi to Amristar, but we’ve been looking forward to experiencing Punjab for months and we can’t wait for 48 hours in the home of butter chicken, tandoori chicken and Punjabi dancing!


4 thoughts on “Exploring North Sri Lanka: Jaffna & the islands

    1. Thanks! Mirissa was our favourite and it’s a great location for beach hopping the quieter beaches nearby. Weligamma is great for beginner surf and Midigama for more advanced. Have a great trip!

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