The Other Side of Sri Lanka

Once off-limits, the east coast of this teardrop-shaped island is more alluring now than it has been in decades, with new resorts and a newfound optimism putting it firmly back on the Sri Lankan tourist map.

By Cain Nunns 
Photographs by Alice Luker

A 17th-century Catholic church in Batticaloa.

A 17th-century Catholic church in Batticaloa.

A pair of black-and-coffee-colored hawks glides above the edge of a luminous reef before banking hard right over the golden sands of a gently curved bay. Below them, king coconut palms stand at attention over sun-baked tourists knocking back fruity cocktails at a clutch of newish resorts, while monkeys feast from mango and banana trees.

Back in the 1970s, beaches such as this one at Pasikuda, a seven-hour drive from Colombo, used to attract streams of European holidaymakers to Sri Lanka’s stunning east coast. Before German and Swiss sun-seekers discovered Thailand or Bali, this constituted the quintessential tropical-Asian screensaver. Then came the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla insurgency that pitted itself against the Sinhalese-dominated government in an attempt to carve out a separate state for the country’s Tamil minority. The ensuing civil
war lasted 26 years, until the Tigers’ bloody defeat in 2009. During much of that time, the north and east were cut off from the rest of the country—either under rebel control or behind military cordon. The region endured roadblocks, emigration, embargoes, food shortages, sporadic fighting, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, leaving it underdeveloped and, until recently, forgotten.

Pasikuda (also spelled Passekudah) is a pinprick on the re-emerging tourist map of the Eastern Province,
whose 300-kilometer-long coastline extends from Trincomalee in the north down through the former colonial hub of Batticaloa and on to Arugam Bay, gateway to the leopard habitat of Kumana National Park. Rajesh Parker, a local Sri Lanka Tourism staffer, tells me that the beaches along this coast are easily as good as any in the more developed south, but that “more tourism is needed to help provide jobs that local communities need to prosper and grow.”

Anilana Pasikuda’s swimming pool.

Anilana Pasikuda’s swimming pool.

A guest room at Anilana Pasikuda.

A guest room at Anilana Pasikuda.

“The people here were traumatized, so it’s going to take time. This place was a war zone a few years ago,” says Trevor Burton, a former executive at Sri Lankan hotel and property developer Anilana, which already operates two east-coast resorts—Anilana Pasikuda and Anilana Nilaveli—and plans to build a string of others between Trincomalee and Kalkudah. “But there’s been a lot of investment, particularly in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.” Underscoring the area’s tourism potential, he adds, “It’s beautiful out here. Just sublime.”

After a stay at the Anilana Pasikuda, a three-hectare property flanked by an infinity pool that seems to flow straight into the gin-clear waters of the Bay of Bengal, I catch a tuk-tuk up the road to Kalkudah Beach, where I’m to meet a guide for my journey up to Trincomalee and back. While admiring the stretch of flaxen sand I fall into conversation with a local man named Robert Arisinga, who invites me to join him for fish curry and bottles of Lion Lager. He tells me he used to live in East London, but that he returned home as soon as the war ended.

“I’ve only been back a few years and I’ve already seen huge improvements,” Arisinga says. “It’s like a second act for this coast. Towns are being rebuilt, and people are returning from everywhere. The people are the key.”

My guide, Joseph Michel, turns out to be an affable Christian Tamil with a Burt Reynolds mustache and an unexpected backstory: a former Sri Lanka Air Force pilot, he turned in his wings after sickening of flying bombing sorties over Tiger-held positions. Stripped of his pilot’s license, he now drives tourists around Eastern Province.

We set off on the 130-kilometer road that links nearby Batticaloa with Trincomalee. Controlled by guerrillas a decade ago, this ribbon of asphalt has since been resurfaced and upgraded, slashing travel time between the cities from nine hours to two and a half. It also provides a fine glimpse of rural life. We pass fields of yellowing rice and languid herds of water buffalo. Farmers take shade under tarpaulins, and smiling school kids in pressed white uniforms and checkered ties wave as we drive by. Dogs, cows, goats, and snakes wander or slither across the sun-blasted road like they own it. At one point, Joseph stops to pick up a turtle and deposit it safely on the other side.

Garlands, coconut husks, and other offerings for sale at Trincomalee’s Sri Pathrakali Temple.

Garlands, coconut husks, and other offerings for sale at Trincomalee’s Sri Pathrakali Temple.

We pull into Trincomalee a couple hours later. Once famous for its untouched silver-sand beaches and as a jumping-off point for the islands and lagoons in the north, the city is looking to rise again as a bastion of Tamil tradition and culture. I wander around its palm-shaded suburban streets, lined with stately temples, colonial-era houses, and stores selling everything from fresh coconut juice to lottery tickets to pirated Bollywood DVDs. At Trincomalee’s great harbor, I flag away the boat operators offering dolphin- and whale-watching tours and head instead to Marble Beach for lunch.

A sign reads: YOUR PRIVATE PARADISE. On one end are private cabanas, snorkeling facilities, and a restaurant
and bar; on the other, a public stretch of sand. It’s not much of a secret. It’s packed. Tamil women in jeans and long black T-shirts mingle with Muslim ladies in burkas, while men in colorful sarongs chat and smoke cigarettes. I head to the restaurant, where I share coconut sambal, prawn masala, and locally caught groper with Michel. At the table next to us is a middle-aged schoolteacher on holiday from New York. We start chatting. “Here is as good as anywhere I’ve been,” he says as Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer plays over the restaurant’s tinny speakers. “There’s a quaintness to it, like it was put in mothballs and just unpacked for the world to discover.”

Ten kilometers to the north is Nilaveli, a small seaside village known for great surf when the southwest monsoon brings the same waves that end their journey in Indonesia. Its other attraction is Pigeon Island, a rocky offshore outcrop surrounded by a vibrant reef that draws a steady stream of snorkelers. On the beach, fishing boats find sanctuary past the reach of the pounding surf, and a string of lean-tos flog dried fish, plastic waders, milk tea, beach volleyballs, and fresh coconut, mangoes, and papaya. The air is thick with the smell of cooking oil, banana fritters, squid balls, deep-fried quail eggs, and skewers of grilled chicken.

Nilaveli Beach

Nilaveli Beach

An old woman with yellowed teeth offers me something disgusting-looking to drink. It’s gray, thick, and so pungent I have to pinch my nose before swallowing it. She cackles, as do the assembled children, as though they’re in on the joke. “It’s a tonic for pregnant women,” Michel snickers. I soothe my wounded pride with the knowledge that, whatever these people may have suffered in recent memory, at least they haven’t lost their sense of humor.

Our next stop is the ruins of Girihadu Seya at Thiriyaya, said to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. According to legend, this is where, in 500 B.C., two sandalwood merchants offered alms to the Buddha, who in turn plucked a hair from his head as a gift. That hair is supposedly still enshrined here.

For years the site was off-limits to pilgrims as it fell within Tiger-held territory. But the worshippers are back, and I follow some of them up what feels like a million stone steps to the temple. A 
crumbling circular perimeter wall, built from river rocks hoisted up the mountain countless centuries ago, surrounds the low, stepped stupa that houses the sacred hair. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze.

From up here, the surrounding countryside comes into sharper focus—mangrove forests and treacle-colored rivers, watering holes abounding with bird life, an expanse of emerald plains. The only evidence of modernization takes the form of a crimson cell tower. “I’ve seen herds of wild elephants from up here,” Michel tells me. But there are none today. “Still, the view’s pretty good anyway.”

Back on the coastal road, we pass kids playing cricket on a dusty field of red earth. They wield homemade bats and use sticks for stumps. Farther on, it’s wildlife that grabs our attention. Every 30 seconds or so Michel seems to spot something new. “Crocodile,” he shouts, pointing to a river running alongside the road. “Peacocks,” he says, directing my gaze to a mango orchard. “Lizard! … Monkeys! … Kingfisher! … Hummingbird!” Everything except an elephant.

The ruins of a stupa at Girihadu Seya.

The ruins of a stupa at Girihadu Seya.

We eventually pull into Uga Jungle Beach in Kuchchaveli. Just a few years old, the boho-chic resort’s thatched cottages and teak walkways are set in a secluded four-hectare reserve sandwiched between the Indian Ocean and a mangrove-dotted lagoon filled with cranes. Its rugged, caramel-colored beach flickers with iron-ore deposits.

At the bar that night I can barely hold my head up until Wasudeva Dissanayaka, a gregarious banker from the northern city of Jaffna, takes the seat next to me and begins interjecting his conversation with slaps of a dinner-plate-size hand against the table. Like Robert
 Arisinga back in Kalkudah, Dissanayaka too had spent most of the war overseas, in Dubai, the United States, and France. “I was away for 23 years. But why live overseas and make money for other people when you can make it in Sri Lanka!” he shouts, banging the table. “This is our country. We will rebuild it!” Whack. “The talent is here. We just need Colombo to loosen the purse strings!” Whack whack.

And on we go through the night, downing snorts of Irish whiskey and talking about everything from Sri Lankan architecture to microcredit financing and the unbearable sadness of the civil war. By the time I head to bed, I can feel the stirrings of a hangover that I’m sure I’ll regret tomorrow. But I also have a new friend.

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