The Other Side of Sri Lanka

Offerings at the Hindu temple complex of Koneswaram in the Trincomalee District.

Offerings at the Hindu temple complex of Koneswaram in the Trincomalee District.

Before dropping me back down south in Batticaloa—Batti for short—Michel stops at a Hindu temple on the outskirts of the city. It’s painted in splashes of deep blue and saffron that somehow manage not to clash with the worshippers’ multihued sarongs and marigold garlands. Compared to the air of seclusion that hung over Girihadu Seya, however, this Tamil shrine throbs with life, punctuated by the sound of ear-splitting wooden flutes, drums, and bells.

We push on to the Batticaloa Lighthouse, about five kilometers from the heart of town on the Palameenmadu Estuary, where young men in beach chairs rent out rainbow-colored plastic boats. Built in 1913, it’s one of the town’s main attractions. “There isn’t that much to see here,” admits the lighthouse keeper. “Some days I get busloads of Chinese. On other days, just the odd Western tourist like you.”

Just down the road at Batticaloa Market, I watch middle-aged women haggle over spoons made from coconut shells and pungent Ayurveda medicines. Vendors hawk Lion-emblazoned Sri Lankan flags, Winnie the Pooh balloons, toy cars and helicopters, and a remarkable array of produce. An octogenarian woman with a crooked smile and a rainbow-colored push cart asks me if I want a sorbet. “A dirty ice cream?” she prods, opening the wooden thatched lid to reveal a stack of homemade popsicles on a bed of homemade ice. She really could have sold it better.

After saying my goodbyes to Michel the next day, I head to the city’s isle-studded lagoon, where fishermen are hauling in crab nets heavy with catch. I’m here to board a charter flight with Cinnamon Air, Sri Lanka’s only scheduled seaplane service, which has opened up the country and the east coast in particular. I look on a little nervously as the ground crew disinterestedly throws rocks at the crows loitering on the tarmac.

Batticaloa's colonial-era Kallady Bridge, said to be the oldest and longest iron span in Sri Lanka.

Batticaloa’s colonial-era Kallady Bridge, said to be the oldest and longest iron span in Sri Lanka.

But before long, our Cessna 208 Caravan, an eight-seat turboprop stylishly outfitted with plush leather seats lined with maple trim, taxies down the runway. The plane slams forward, rocking the passengers—most of them in camouflage hiking gear—hard into their cushy seats. In seconds we are airborne, peering over Batticaloa’s low-slung cinder-block houses and then patchwork quilts of rice paddy, teak forests, and crescent-shaped beaches. Little more than half an hour later we touch down in Arugam Bay, the jumping-off point for Kumana National Park.

I wake up the next morning to a banging on my door. It’s my safari guide, Andrew De Silva, an always-smiling heavyset man in his 40s who’s raring to get going on the 40-minute drive to the park. On the way there, De Silva prepares me for possible disappointment, saying, “Sometimes you see leopards, sometimes you don’t.”

He needn’t have. Within minutes of entering the park we spot a full-grown male leopard sunning himself among slabs of ash-colored stone and rich green fig trees. The big cat yawns and stretches, all sinewy muscle and plush gold-and-black fur.

I’d seen leopards before in Africa. They were just as beautiful as this one, but more skittish. Here, the leopard is at the top of the food chain; there are no lions, jackals, or hyenas roaming the park’s dusty trails for it to concern itself with. Its eyes lock on mine—huge, deep, almost fluorescent yellow orbs that shimmer in the sunlight. We stay that way, me and him, for a full minute until the sound of another safari vehicle approaching shakes his stare. With a leap, the animal disappears into the forest.

“Better leopards than Tigers, right?” De Silva says as he puts our four-by-four into gear and drives us deeper into the park. Not sure whether I’m meant to laugh at his joke, I nod silently, and keep my eyes peeled for whatever might come next.

THE DETAILS

Getting There
Getting to the east coast is either a long slog—at least seven hours—by car from Colombo, or a much shorter flight away thanks to Cinnamon Air, a seaplane service whose extensive domestic routes include Batticaloa and Trincomalee. For help in organizing bespoke itineraries to this lesser-explored part of Sri Lanka,
contact local specialists Experience Travel Group.

When to Go
The Yala monsoon season (May to August) brings torrential downpours to Sri Lanka’s southwest coast, but leaves the east and north dry and sunny.

Where to Stay
About half an hour outside Trincomalee, the 48-cabin Uga Jungle Beach (94-26/567-1000; doubles from US$250) lives up to its name with a lush backdrop and a secluded stretch of sand. Back down toward Batticaloa, Anilana Pasikuda (94-112/030-900; doubles from US $220) overlooks its namesake bay and offers a full range of amenities; book a beach chalet for maximum privacy. Sister property Anilana Nilaveli (same rate), set across from Pigeon Island, is another good choice.

This article originally appeared in the June/July print issue of DestinAsian magazine.

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