The far north of Sri Lanka – Jaffna and the Jaffna Peninsula

Whilst it is becoming more popular with tourists, Jaffna can still be considered to be off the beaten track and it has a very different feel to the rest of the country. There is a noticeably greater Hindu influence and a lot of the key sites are temples. There is also a more conservative attitude towards dress, Caro felt more comfortable in trousers and loose tops than anything else, and white people do seem to be more of a novelty so there was a fair bit of staring. It was in no way aggressive however and we would definitely recommend going to Jaffna now, whilst it is still a truly authentic experience.

We caught the 3.35pm train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna, somehow managing to get reserved seats at the last minute, and settled down for the 4-hour journey. This would eventually turn in to a 5-hour journey with long unexplained stops between stations. The train was fairly busy and we were very glad of the seats on what was a hot and sweaty train. The chap sat opposite us devoured a mouth-watering smelling curry whilst we nibbled on cream crackers, a staple snack in Sri Lanka for some reason. When he was finished he neatly tied up all of the packaging and then casually flung it out of the window. Sadly, this was not out of the ordinary, there is little regard for the environment and litter is a big problem across the country.

The further north we went, the sparser the population became and the more rice paddies and scrub we saw. As you approach Jaffna you pass across a lagoon/wetland area known as Elephant Pass and we watched a beautiful sunset over the water from the train window.01We eventually staggered out of Jaffna station, haggled unsuccessfully with a tuk tuk driver and made our way through eerily quiet streets to our homestay, D’Villa Guest House, run by Dilon, who is extraordinarily tall. We noticed over the next two days that Jaffnese do seem to be considerably taller than southern Sri Lankans.

Our first day in Jaffna was dedicated to seeing the town and we were dropped off at Jaffna Fort as a starting point. Unlike pretty much every other built up area in Sri Lanka, there is a wonderful feel of calm and quiet at Jaffna Fort, there are some spots where you can escape the road noise entirely and there are barely any tourists around. As we entered we passed two tourists with their guide, one turned to him and asked him if “everything is good now, after 2009?”, the man hung his head and said quietly “yes, it is good”. In a totally non-Fawlty Towers way; you don’t mention the war, it is very raw and terribly upsetting to most locals who can, of course, remember it vividly.02All over the city you can see reminders of the ravages of civil war; some buildings reduced to piles of rubble, others riddled with bullet holes. There is a noticeable military presence although this was no way near as great as we had expected it to be from reading blogs, times are obviously changing quickly. For us, nowhere were these reminders more poignant than at the fort. Whilst large sections of the walls remain intact, many of the interior buildings that had stood the test of time for nearly 400 years were reduced to rubble during the war.03There are concerted efforts to restore the fort to its former glory and there is a sense of stoic grandeur about the place that is really quite moving. In the corner overlooking the town, a large tree has survived the trials of war and hundreds and hundreds of swallows swoop under and around its branches whilst eagles circle higher in the sky. It was Caro’s favourite spot in Sri Lanka.04The fort houses the first information centre that we have seen that is actually fit for purpose. There is a huge amount of information about the fort’s early history, the impact of the civil war and its restoration.05After the Fort, we took in some of the other key sites of Jaffna, or at least we tried to. The library, according to a rather grumpy security guard, was closed, which we doubted but he had a gun so we moved on. The clock tower with its four guardian statues is worth the short detour off the main road. The main market in the middle of town is a real experience; a rabbit warren of narrow streets occasionally opening up on to a fairly modern looking courtyard with air conditioned shops.06The traders were clearly not geared towards tourists yet and rather than shouting to us and encouraging us to enter their shops and stalls, they fell silent and watched us walk by, the cacophony of local voices resuming once we had passed. It’s only a matter of time.07After a quick lunch at the Rolex Hotel, a favourite café amongst the locals, we spent the afternoon in the air-conditioning. We ventured back out again just before sunset to watch puja at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, an enormous and beautiful temple in the northern section of the city. It was extremely popular, with hundreds of Hindus piling in to the temple. Men have to remove their shirts to enter and James joined the small number of awkward looking topless white men, all wearing sarong skirts and pretending like this was a normal afternoon for them.08Puja is rather difficult to describe and it involves much banging of drums and lighting of candles, all of which is dramatic to watch. There is also a lot of walking between what we assumed were shrines to different gods and we were struck at the speed at which people had to move around the temple, most of them were practically jogging around to keep up. Tip: wear your Fitbit to Puja.09There were a few places in the Lonely Planet that we had yet to visit so we decided to tick these off our list before dinner. The remains of an entrance to a palace sits forlornly on the side of the road, under a corrugated iron shelter and bearing the tell-tale bullet holes of the civil war.10

Just across the road sits the far more inspiring site of the former Minister’s house.

11This is also a ruin but seems to be aging far more gracefully. We would have loved to explore the inside but it all looked a little unsafe. We satisfied ourselves with enjoying the outside at sunset, and would recommend that any other potential visitors chose this time of day to see it.12We had dinner that evening at Mangos which is a very popular restaurant with tourists but, despite this, also attracts a large number of locals and the food definitely lived up to the reputation.

The next day we had organised to take a tuk tuk tour of the Jaffna Peninsula and Islands. We duly set off bright and early and after winding through the traffic emerged very quickly in to the quiet of the countryside, largely made up of small plots of farmland growing onions or tobacco. We saw so much on this tour that it would take a long time to go through it all, in particular there were a lot of temples so we will call out just a couple here. They were all spectacular in their own ways, the huge amount of detail and colour is quite incredible, particularly in the context of the sand and ramshackle dull buildings that surround them.13

The first temple that we visited, Maruthanamadam Anjaneyar, has an enormous statue of the god Hanumn outside, which is quite an eye-opener to the first-time temple visitor.

14Most striking was Maviddapuram Kandaswamy where they are still working to rebuild the temple after it was all but destroyed in the civil war. The priests there will welcome you warmly and are happy for you to explore in depth. You become so used to the bright colours that seeing a work in progress, an exquisitely ornate column not yet painted, does feel as though it is lacking something.15

We were taken to, hands down, the most terrifying church we have ever seen. It looked like a parade float built from violently blue plastic bags.


This was flanked by 12 large gold statues depicting the crucifixion in grotesque detail which were really quite shocking.

17It was a relief to move on to the unexplained stupas at Kantharodai Viharaya archeological site. There is a dispute about their origin but we can all agree that they are odd looking.18We were taken to the beach at a couple of points, one being the popular Casuarina. We declined to go in the sea, women have to swim in shorts and t-shirts and it just seemed a bit of a palaver. Also, whilst touted as one of the best beaches in the area it, like everywhere else, is blighted by piles of rubbish and the water was just not appealing.19We were also taken to KKS beach, a resort with a decidedly colonial feel which is completely empty and therefore lacking in atmosphere. It is also run by the Sri Lankan navy so the military security made it even more odd.20We had been wondering most of the day how we would cross to the islands. After lunch, we were taken to an incredibly dodgy and therefore wonderful rope ferry across to Kayts. It was powered by a 40 HP boat engine. We were there half an hour early and had time to watch as the fishermen prepared to head out to sea in boats that didn’t look all too seaworthy.21

This feeling was intensified as the chain ferry started up and we passed something of a boat graveyard just offshore.

2223The islands were even quieter than Jaffna city and it was all a little eerie. The drive back to the city took us across the causeways, which look beautiful with their extensive systems of fishing nets but, sadly, also smell pretty unpleasant.24Back in Jaffna we headed to the recommended Cosy Restaurant for dinner. It turns out that Friday night is boys’ night in Jaffna and the restaurant was filled with local guys eating curry and drinking whiskey. The food was good although we think the night before was probably superior. We jumped in a tuk tuk outside the restaurant and the driver was very anxious to get us back to our guesthouse before 9pm for some reason. He tried to communicate to us why this was in broken English but we couldn’t make sense of it until he pulled up outside the wine shop and hurried in. The shop closed at 9pm and he needed to buy beer.

We are definitely glad that we extended our trip to the north. It showed a real contrast to the south of Sri Lanka with its well-developed (though still developing) tourist industry, busy beaches and lush green hills. Tourism is evidently on the up in the north but it is still in its infancy and there is a huge amount to be enjoyed there now.25

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