Desolate Beach Sri Lanka

As a teenager growing up in Colombo, the eastern coastline of Sri Lanka had always seemed distant and remote. The annual family holiday, when we packed ourselves into the family car and escaped the heat and humidity of Colombo for a fortnight, was always ‘upcountry’ in the cool and misty central highlands. As I grew older and travelled to other parts of the country, places like Kandy, Dambulla and the popular beach resorts to the south were more attractive and accessible.

On this trip, without actually planning for it to be that way, we drove up and down the entire east coast of Sri Lanka, from Point Pedro in the north to Pottuvil in the south east. During this journey we traversed the country when it took our fancy, visiting locations we had heard about but never visited. On our way north to Jaffna we drove up the A9 highway from Anuradhapura, turning towards Mullaitivu on the north-east coast at the junction at Puliyankulam. The road took us through the arid shrub jungle of the eastern Wanni. The road had seen fierce fighting towards the end of the war but showed little signs of the conflict, having been completely resurfaced the entire distance. Almost every major culvert and bridge we crossed had been rebuilt by army engineers and army camps every few kilometres showed that that the military had firm control of the area.

peacock

The road was long and empty, thick jungle only a few metres away on either side of the road kept us from seeing much. The only signs of life were the occasional vehicle travelling in the opposite direction and wild cattle straying on the road. Occasionally the jungle would give way to swathes of thick grassland bordered by lush jungle where colorful wild peacocks and families of grey langurs watched us pass.

The town of Mullaitivu located on a spit of land between the Nanthi Kadal Lagoon and the sea, looked just like another Tamil town. Other than the occasional desolate bullet-scarred house there was no signs of the war that ended just a few kilometres away. Crossing the narrow causeway which zigzagged across the lagoon entrance, signs of the recent conflict was more evident.  The headless trunks of coconut trees severed by shelling dotted the landscape and a war museum of captured Tiger sea craft stood next to a large statue of a victorious soldier carrying a Sri Lankan flag.

After spending a couple of hours looking around we drove north-west, joining the main road to Jaffna south of Elephant Pass, the isthmus of the Jaffna Peninsula. On the left dominating the entrance, stood a memorial to a soldier of the Sinha Regiment, who had single-handedly destroyed an armored bulldozer used by the Tigers during a human-wave attack on the Elephant Pass army camp. This is the only place on the island where you can watch both the sun rise and the sun set on the both horizons.

Sri Lanka

Crossing into the Jaffna peninsula was like entering another world. Its palmyra fringed lagoons, coconut plantations, open grasslands, crowded vegetable gardens, busy fishing villages with fish drying on gunny sacks in the hot sun and women in colorful saris riding bicycles was a world away from the crowded and noisy areas of the south.

After spending a few days in Jaffna and then in Mannar, we headed east and joined the coast road south of Mullaitivu, near the bird sanctuary at the Kokkilai Lagoon. Pulmoddai, well known for its dark mineral sands, had many mosques dotted throughout the town. We found this a characteristic of the entire east coast where large communities of Moors had settled over hundreds of years. We followed the east coast road south, passing beautiful beaches pounded by rough seas caused by the prevalent north-east monsoon. The beach resorts at Kuchchaveli and Nilaweli looked empty during the off-season, a few hardy tourists wandering around their desolate beaches.

The magnificent harbor town of Trincomalee with Fort Frederick guarding the deep inner harbor was a major staging point for the British during WWII and was one of the frontline towns during the civil war. It’s sleepy backstreets lined with colonial villas dotted with mosques, churches and dozens of little Hindu temples showed the diversity of the people living there. Circling the enormous natural harbor which could hold the largest ships in the world, we crossed over a number of new bridges built over the headwaters of  the Mahaveli Ganga and headed south towards Batticaloa.

Vanni

The road took us past shallow tranquil lagoons and vast acres of green rice paddies stretching as far as the eye could see. Fishermen in their narrow canoes sold freshly caught lagoon fish and crabs directly from their boats to passersby’s on the road. Further south, we passed the beautiful clean beaches of the fast-growing resort town of Passekudah where the flat sandy bed of the bay extends 150 metres from the shoreline.

Further south was the town of Batticaloa, located on a narrow peninsula surrounded by a large winding lagoon. Many bridges connect it to the main landmass, the biggest bridge being the Lady Manning Bridge located at Kallady. This bridge is also famous for its ‘singing fishes’ which is a local phenomenon caused by the incoming tide running over shells buried in the sand. Remnants of the towns colonial past were evident by the 6m thick walls of the old fort which commanded the entrance to the lagoon. It was first built by the Portuguese and then captured by the Dutch in 1638. The isolated beach-edged peninsular still showed signs of the tsunami which devastated the area not so long ago.

Lagoon fishing

The road past Batticaloa towards Pottuvil was one long stretch of bustling enterprise with town after town filled with shoppers and traders. When Muslims in Colombo were expelled by the Portuguese in the 17th century, they fled to Kandy and sought refuge with the king in Kandy. The king resettled these Muslim refugees in the royal farm in Kalmunai and other coastal towns around it. The one and only Muslim-majority municipality in the country is found in this area.

We completed our journey down the east coast of Sri Lanka at the lush coastal town of Pottuvil located just north of Arugam Bay, famous for its surfing and unspoilt beaches. On one side of the small town was a large lagoon while the other the magnificent Indian Ocean. This area bore the brunt of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and residents still talk about the wall of water that took many of their friends lives.

After a night spent at a wonderful little resort on the bay we turned away from the coast towards Monaragala and the central highlands to the west. The trip down the beautiful east coast with its pristine beaches and serpentine lagoons, vast acres of green rice paddies and a string of Tamil and Muslim towns that line the coast was unforgettable.