Sri Lanka, from Colombo to Trincomalee
Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse country, both ethnically and ecologically. Majority Sinhalese, the rest of the population is also represented by Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Muslims, Burghers (descendants of the Portugese, Dutch and British colonials) and Malays. The Sinhalese have been in Sri Lanka since the 5th Century and are the earliest inhabitants of the country, with the Tamils arriving later as invaders and slaves brought by the British.
A violent secessionist and nationalist civil war had been raging on in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north of Sri Lanka. Post 2009 and post civil war (when the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the LTTE), large parts of the formerly inaccesible rebel controlled north were finally opened to visitors.
I was in Sri Lanka in 2010, just as the dust of the civil war was beginning to clear and Sri Lanka was rising from the ashes of her turbulent past to face a more optimistic and peaceful future. Much of the infrastructure was still very basic, with travel between cities mostly on difficult, bumpy, dilapidated roads or just dirt tracks. Despite Sri Lanka being a relatively compact country, travel tool a significant amount of time. Sri Lanka was like a treasure chest of undiscovered jewels, home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1330 kilometers of mostly pristine beaches, 15 national parks with an abundance of wildlife and flora, almost 500,000 acres of stunning tea plantations, 250 acres of botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, 25,000 water bodies and a rich and diverse culture that stretches back 2,500 years.
The de-facto capital of Sri Lanka, is also its commercial and financial heart. A riot of new and old, traditional and modern, Colombo is where we landed in Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Galle Face Hotel, which has hosted royalty, celebrities and world figures since 1864. I can best describe it as crumbling chic, steeped in heritage but could do with a lick of paint or two! We arrived during the Vesak celebrations, birthday of Lord Buddha, which is a major religious and cultural celebration as majority of the population are Buddhists. There was a distinctive festive spirit in the air and festive flags were flying everywhere in the city, as well as street celebrations.
Sunset at the patio, facing the Laccadive Sea, Galle Face Hotel. Photo courtesy of Claire Rowland
The place where I was most looking forward to visiting was Trincomalee, or Trinco as the locals call it. Formerly closed off rebel territory, it has newly reopened and hotels are starting to sprout up to serve the curious visitors starting to arrive. Predominantly Tamil, Trinco is home to the famous Koneswaram Temple, which has been at the site in various forms since the 3rd century. Trinco was also an important sea port significant in the maritime history of Sri Lanka, not to mention the headquarters of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Allied Southeast Asian commander during WWII.
History aside, Tricomalee is much quieter than the rest of the country, with some of the most scenic and picturesque beaches to be found in Sri Lanka, with whale watching to be had off the seas. The sea is also extraordinarily shallow, allowing one to walk over a hundred metres out to sea without the water reaching the chest.
Sri lanka is finally opening up its treasures to the more adventurous visitor, and I pray they strike a good balance between economic development and development of the tourist infrastructure and the preservation of the ancient culture and the unspoilt environment in the coming years.