EVERYBODY out, the military officer ordered us, as we pulled off the bumpy road linking the Tamil-dominated eastern province to Sri Lanka’s hill country. My driver motioned to the back seat, where a police officer we picked up a few miles back was sitting. His presence lent an air of authority, and we were promptly waved through. But the busload of European shutterbugs in front of us — unloading their suitcases and filing out in a single column — was not so lucky.
Such are the inconveniences of visiting a postwar country like Sri Lanka. I traveled there last October with fresh memories of what had befallen this teardrop-shaped island off India: a brutal decades-long conflict between the Sinhalese majority government and a band of separatist rebels called the Tamil Tigers.
Postwar societies, no matter how peaceful or picturesque on the surface, are inevitably complex places that still bear the scars of war, though some less overtly than others. Sri Lanka is no different. Visitors will discover a tropical island teeming with exotic wildlife, white beaches and stylish boutique hotels. Yet they will also find internment camps, military checkpoints and a government accused by watchdog groups of undermining democratic principles as it tightens its grip on power.
Remnants of the war can be found practically around every corner. As our van sped along, I spotted rows of abandoned huts lining the road, which my Tamil driver said were used by snipers. In Trincomalee, a busy port in the northeast, fishermen with missing appendages hawked the day’s catch. Conversations with locals almost inevitably drift back to war.
The wounds are still fresh, as The New York Times found out after listing Sri Lanka as its top travel destination for 2010 (as the author of the entry, my e-mail in-box was bombarded with angry letters). The anger stemmed from the brutal way in which the Sri Lankan military ended the war last May. By some estimates, about 7,000 civilians, and possibly thousands more, were killed during the final battle. Hundreds of thousands were put in camps. The government remains in the awkward position of defending itself against accusations of war crimes while also trying to open up the country to foreign investors and vacationers.
Because of the war’s tense aftermath, the State Department has issued a travel warning on Sri Lanka (travel.state.gov/travel). But to date, I have heard no reports of Western tourists killed or kidnapped in Sri Lanka. In recent months, tourism has steadily inched upward from past years, thanks to efforts by the government and local entrepreneurs to redevelop the eastern coast and to build an airport down south near Hambantota. The tourism ministry has also begun a “Visit Sri Lanka 2011” public relations blitz to rebrand itself after the war.
Sri Lanka has always held a fascination among wayward foreigners. Long after Marco Polo stumbled onto its palm-fringed shores, the British futurist Arthur C. Clarke made Sri Lanka his adopted home to gaze up at the universe. Some literary historians suspect “Robinson Crusoe” was inspired by the island’s remoteness. Real-life castaways — Aussie filmmakers, German graphic designers — are relocating here to snap up centuries-old homes and convert them into attractive spaces that blur the line between modern art gallery and Moorish guesthouse, fusing colonial décor with Asian motifs.
But it is the country’s tranquil beauty that draws most visitors. “You don’t need to do a great deal to have the good life here,” said Ivan Robinson, a British real estate developer who refurbished a colonial manor in the south. “The rivers are full of fish. Fruit falls off trees.” Water buffalo graze beside Buddhist stupas. Elephants roam freely. And innkeepers warn guests to keep their windows closed to avoid pickpockets — not people, but monkeys swinging from the trees.
Then there are Sri Lanka’s famed beaches, crescent-shaped coves of white sand framed by colorful bungalows and bamboo groves. An unintended consequence of the war is the coastline’s lack of development. You can stroll past beat-up outrigger boats, which look like showpieces from a maritime museum, and past fishermen on wooden stilts. Or hike inland to discover hideaway guesthouses carved from old gem merchants’ homes, with mango gardens and infinity pools tucked into their courtyards.
In Trincomalee, make your way to the Hindu temple atop Swami Rock, perched over one of the world’s deepest harbors (it’s called Lover’s Leap; legend has it a lovelorn Dutch girl once flung herself off the ledge). Or head just north of town to Nilaveli Beach, a deserted stretch of sand that calls to mind the TV show “Lost.”
But it is the southern town of Galle that is the coast’s biggest draw. The city feels more European than South Asian, owing to the fact that its center — a jumble of quaint gem shops, cafes and guesthouses — sits within the weather-beaten walls of a Dutch-built fort.
After dining on crab cakes in the colonial Galle Fort Hotel, stop by the ramparts to watch kids dive Acapulco-style into the Indian Ocean. Cap it off with a cocktail at Dick’s Bar, found within the Sun House, the former digs of a Scottish spice merchant that now caters to artists and architects.
High up in Sri Lanka’s hill country, the feeling is more authentic, less touristy. To get there, hop on the train that rattles past rain forests, tea plantations and elephant orphanages. The final stop is Kandy, famous for its lakeside shrine called the Temple of the Tooth.
Swing by Kandy’s botanical gardens before checking out the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, about 90 minutes north of town. Designed by Geoffrey Bawa, a native son, the hotel sits on the edge of a cliff, camouflaged in a thick coat of jungle foliage. Another showcase of the island’s architectural renaissance is Kandy House, a 400-year-old manor converted into a boutique hotel furnished with antiques and arched verandas.
But it is Kandy’s Buddhist roots that entice most visitors. Head to the Y.M.B.A. (Young Men’s Buddhist Association) around sundown to witness a pooja dance. Dancers twirl about in red and gold sarongs, clink brass rings and bang on drums before staging a fire-eating ritual. Or hop on a tuk-tuk, the motorized rickshaw taxis all over Sri Lanka, to make the drive to Dambulla, an ancient complex of cave temples stuffed with reclining Buddha statues.
Even Colombo, the gritty capital, is getting a makeover, with Bohemian cafes and flamboyant nightclubs now tucked within its high-rise hotels. Aid workers and diplomats converge at the Gallery Café, a chic fusion restaurant that doubles as an art gallery. But the best place to soak up the colonial-meets-tropical vibe of Colombo is from the ocean-facing garden of the stately Galle Face Hotel.
As the well-heeled brunch crowd filed into the hotel, Waruna Jayasinghe, a bushy-haired artist who recently opened a Buddhist meditation center near Kandy, was with a gaggle of European real estate developers, discussing Sri Lanka’s prospects for peace.
“With the war going on, nobody felt safe,” Mr. Jayasinghe said as he rubbed the tiger’s claw that hung around his neck, a talisman he said brings good luck. “But for the first time, things are different. Now, anything is possible.”
As seen on The New York Times on 14 March 2010
Media Release – 16 March 2010