Travelling without moving in Trincomalee

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March 31st 2017
Published: January 25th 2018
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Today we were travelling south-east from Jaffna to Tricomalee.

We woke early at 5:30am, organised our packs and headed down to JetWing Jaffna’s amazing breakfast area. I had cornflakes, toast, jam, an egg hopper (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepe cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre), wild orange juice, guava juice and tea. It was another fantastic breakfast, and I wished we could eat like this every morning.

We checked out of JetWing Jaffna, jumped into our minibus and drove a short distance to Jaffna’s bus station, where we clambered into a very packed public bus and sped off towards Trincomalee. As we drove through Jaffna’s streets, I was unsettled by the war-torn houses that still bore the marks of ammunition. The further we travelled from Jaffna’s suburbs, the faster our driver pushed his big old bus down the A9. There was no air-conditioning, so all the windows were open, and every now and again I felt a splash across my face. I can only assume someone down the front was spitting out their window, and it was being sucked back in through my window at the back. 😞

We love travelling on public transport when we venture abroad, and this was no exception. The bus itself was reasonably comfortable, and the local people that we were crammed in with were very friendly. A major bonus was the Indian Tamil movie that started playing on the screen at the front of the bus. Filmed in Rajasthan, it was a shocker (think Bollywood western), but it was so bad it was good, and the guy across the aisle was absolutely loving it.

After about an hour on the road we arrived in Kilinochchi, which is often termed the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) capital of Sri Lanka. We clambered off the bus just in time before it sped off down the A9. We walked around a large water tank that had been destroyed during the war, and we also walked around a monument erected by the Sri Lankan government to signify the defeat of the LTTE. I was left speechless by the monument’s purpose – I can only describe it as nationalistic narcissism at its very worst. The text carved into the monument read as follows:

”This monument was erected in the town of Kilinochchi which was held as the terrorist stronghold. In memory of the magnificent victory achieved by the 57 division supported by 58 division with task force 2 and 3 of the Sri Lanka army. Ably supported by rest of the security forces in the gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has terrified this land over 30 years. Is marked by a cuboid and the projectile which is penetrated this cuboid symbolizing the sturdiness of invincible Sri Lanka army to blossom forth in a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag that proclaims the resplendent majesty of the nation’s glory.”

When I was young, my father always used to say: ‘The only thing worse than a bad loser, is a bad winner.’ I think the people responsible for this monument could have learned a thing or two from Dad.

We jumped into our minibus and continued our journey south towards Trincomalee in a little more comfort (and no more open windows)! On the way our guide Bala shared a few economic, demographic and social facts about Sri Lanka. He loved to talk and share his knowledge, and while I didn’t always listen, this time he had captured my attention. I jotted down the following as he spoke.

Sri Lanka’s National Income
• 41% of the national income is earned from foreign remittance (i.e. Sri Lankan’s working abroad and sending money home, mainly in the Middle East)
• 18% of the national income is earned from garment production (where fabric is imported from other countries, manufactured into clothing etc. and then exported)
• 15.5% of the national income is earned from Ceylon Tea exports
• 5% of the national income is earned from rubber exports
• 3.5% of the national income is earned from tourism

Sri Lanka’s Labour Force
• 47% of Sri Lanka’s population are labourers, and 8% of these work abroad

Sri Lanka’s Class System
• 1.5% of Sri Lanka’s population are in the rich class (earning more than $5,000 per month per family)
• 8.5% of Sri Lanka’s population are in the upper middle class (earning between $2,000 and $5,000 per month per family)
• 62% of Sri Lanka’s population are in the lower middle class (earning between $500 and $2,000 per month per family)
• 28% of Sri Lanka’s population are in the poor class (earning less than $500 per month per family). Within the poor class, 7%!a(MISSING)re termed ‘proper poor’, earning less than $300 per month per family.

I haven’t checked or confirmed any of the above data. I’ve simply reproduced what I scribbled on my pad in the slightly cramped confines of a moving minibus.

We continued our journey south, stopping in Vavuniya to pick up some drinks and chips from Cargills Food City to last us over the next few days at our beachside retreat. We also picked up some pan rolls (filled and rolled up crepes, that are crumbed and fried) and egg rolls from Sinbon (a local bakery), which we had for lunch as we continued our journey towards Sri Lanka’s east coast.

We arrived in Uppuveli, a small village to the north of Trincomalee, at 1:30pm. We checked into our beachside hotel (Anantamaa) and settled in our upstairs room overlooking the hotel pool. We had a balcony, which was a major bonus, as we fully intended to relax over the new few days. We walked over the road to a local house offering a laundry service, where we dropped three bags of washing – we were on our last items of clothing. We weren’t convinced we would see our clothes again, as we were greeted by an old woman and her two granddaughters who didn’t speak English. However, one of the young girls took two batteries from the television remote and put them into a small electronic set of scales, which we used to weigh our three bags of clothes. Nothing was written down, but there was a lot of nodding and smiling, so I didn’t feel too bad.

We walked back over the road and made our way down to the beach in front of the hotel. As soon as I felt the sand beneath my feet I realised this was the type of Sri Lankan beach I’d been thinking of all along. While the tell-tale signs of tourism (sun lounges, beach umbrellas, boat hire signs, touts) were clearly evident, the beach felt uncrowded and welcoming, and it was far removed from the madness of Mirissa. However, the afternoon sun was savaging, so we quickly retreated to our room.

In the late afternoon we sat out on our balcony and shared a few pre-dinner drinks with fellow travel companions Mark and Damien. We sipped rum and snacked on ‘devilled manioc’ chips into the early evening, and at 8pm we decided it was time to find somewhere to eat. We made our way down to the beach, walked about 100 metres along the sand and stumbled across Fernando’s, a tiny beachfront bar and restaurant. We settled at a wooden table on the sand and ordered two pizzas – Devilled Chicken and Fernando’s Favourite. We sipped on a potent cocktail titled ‘The Fernando’ while we waited, and when the pizzas arrived we moved onto red wine. It was a fantastic night, and we only just managed to get back to our room without incident.

We woke around 6am and headed down to the beach about an hour later. We wandered along the sand, watching old fisherman drag in extremely long fishing nets. I dived into the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal for a quick swim on the way back, embracing the relaxed atmosphere of this place, before making our way back to the hotel for breakfast (where I enjoyed curd and treacle, toast and jam, juice and tea).

We headed into the pool for a swim after breakfast, and we were joined by a very friendly peacock. He walked up to the side of the pool where we were floating and looked at us intently, drinking the pool water every so often. He made small noises in his throat which we thought was an attempt to communicate, and when hotel staff walked past he would mournfully call out to them.

After a morning spent lazing by the pool, we walked over the road to pick up our laundry in the early afternoon. While the wash wasn’t perfect, our clothes were reasonably clean and dry, which is all we could ask for. We walked back to the hotel and settled by the pool for the rest of the afternoon. We relaxed, swam, chatted and caught up on our travel writing, and we were occasionally joined by our friendly peacock.

We jumped into our minibus around 5pm and headed to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, which was just up the road from our hotel in Uppuveli. The cemetery acts as a resting place for those who died at Trincomalee during World War II, most of whom were killed during a Japanese raid in 1942. We then made our way to the Kanniya Hot Wells, and then on to the atmospheric Fort Frederick in Trincomalee. We tried walking to the Koneswaram temple, a Hindu temple inside the fort, but a mosquito spraying project was underway, so we drove instead. We stood on a rocky outcrop and looked out over the lights of Trincomalee and Uppuveli, before walking back in darkness to where the minibus had dropped us. We then drove to the Pathirakali Amman Temple (dedicated to the goddess Kali), a Hindu temple in the heart of Tricomalee where local worshippers had gathered for an evening festival.

After our whistle-stop sightseeing tour we were ready to eat, especially given the fact that we had skipped lunch. Our guide Bala was originally from Trincomalee, but he was reluctant to make any recommendations, so we went for a Lonely Planet suggestion – Green Park Beach Hotel. We drove down a dark street on the beachfront, clambered out of the minibus and made our way towards our unknown restaurant. The staff was fantastic, taking us upstairs to an incredible outside dining area and setting us a table in the open air overlooking the Bay of Bengal. This was a remarkable location, and it was an amazing place to eat. The dinner menu was mainly Indian, so I opted for an aloo gobi with garlic naan, while Ren ordered kadai chicken with plain naan. The food was fantastic, and we enjoyed it in good company with a warm sea breeze fresh against our faces.

We finished the meal and headed back to Uppuveli, stopping at a Cargills Food City on the way to pick up small tubs of kithul pani cadju (treacle and cashew) ice cream. We arrived back at the hotel around 10pm, and were greeted by the friendly resident peacock as we walked in – he had nestled up a tree for the night, but he still called out in his mournful voice as we walked past.

We were exhausted, but Ren had one last task – she had slipped a few sausages from the breakfast buffet into her bag, which she was saving for a pregnant cat that had appeared the night before. As we walked towards Damien’s room the cat was waiting, as he had given her peanuts and powdered milk the night before. Ren rushed up to our room, got the sausages and brought them back down. Happy the cat was fed, we struggled upstairs and crashed.

I woke up at 5am, feeling rested and better than I had felt for the past two mornings. I think my sore throat and fever had finally given way to a cold. I worked on my travel notes, and looked forward to one last breakfast at the Jetwing Jaffna Hotel before we left for our beach stay in Trincomalee (called Trinco by the locals).

When we got to breakfast, the ‘hopper station’ wasn't set up yet, so I had an omelette while I waited impatiently. I also tasted rasavalli kilangu kool, a local Jaffna dish of purple yam porridge. Very surprisingly, I loved it! When the ‘hopper station’ eventually got going, I could finally have an egg hopper (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepe cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre) with pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime). I was in breakfast heaven. I have also really come to love the Sri Lankan fried noodles at hotel breakfast buffets. It's very light and goes well with dahl (lentil curry).

The breakfasts at Jetwing Jaffna had been superb, and we couldn't fault the service either. We normally don't like large chain hotels, however this one had been perfect in every way, especially its location in the heart of the town. This was also where we discovered the existence of the delicious Dilma’s spiced ginger tea bags, and it became a quest to find them for the rest of our trip. Bala (our group leader) had also given me some sachets of a herbal tea remedy called ‘Samahan Ayurvedic Herbal Ceylon Tea’ to be taken three times a day to ease the symptoms of my cold; I can’t vouch for its healing properties, but it certainly was an enjoyable hot drink with coriander seed, black pepper and ginger flavours.

After we checked out, we were dropped off at the busy public bus station. We were catching a public bus for just over an hour from Jaffna to Kilinochchi, where Anil our driver and Hemantha our bus assistant would meet us with our luggage.

The Sri Lankan red CTB public buses don’t have the best reputation on the road. They are usually packed beyond belief, have little regard for other traffic, and usually leave a trail of horrid black exhaust fumes in their wake. However our experience on the bus was quite good. It wasn’t that packed and we managed to get seats.

We were dropped off in Kilinochchi, in front of a bombed out town water tank. It was a shocking and sobering sight. When the army had occupied the town, the water tank had been bombed by the LTTE (colloquially called the Tigers, a militant outfit that fought for a separate country for Tamils in the north and east) to cut off drinking water to the entire area. Kilinochchi had been the stronghold of the LTTE, and possible still had sympathisers and supports in the area, so it wasn't a coincidence that the government had chosen to erect a giant monument right here. Called a war memorial, it was a large wall with a gold metal bullet embedded in it, and a golden flower sprouting from the top of the wall, topped by the Sri Lankan flag. Even before I read the plaque, it was blatantly obvious to me that this wasn’t a reconciliatory or healing act, if anything, it was an obscene two finger salute to the people of the area. The army guard stationed at the bottom of the wall, made the monument even more sinister.

The monument had dampened our mood, and the rest of the minibus trip was sombre. We later stopped at Vavuniya (the largest town before our destination) for supermarket and alcohol purchases for our beach stay. We stocked up on Lion beers, local white rum, and our mixers of choice – creaming soda, diet coke and ginger beers. We also bought some short eats (an umbrella term for Sri Lankan fried or baked snacks) of egg rolls and pan rolls (filled and rolled up crepes, that are crumbed and fried), for a light lunch on the minibus.

We arrived at Anantamaa Hotel at about 1:30pm. It was a small resort-type hotel about 4km out of the heart of Trinco, on the peaceful stretch of beach in Uppuveli. The hotel was perfect for a couple of days of chilling out after a somewhat hectic schedule over the last week. The hotel was laid out in small blocks of rooms that sat around a lovely central pool. And we were happy to see that our balcony had a large old tree shading it.

A small house on the tiny lane outside our hotel advertised a laundry service, but we had no real confidence that we were going to get our clothes cleaned, or even get them back. When we arrived, the house seemed deserted. A neighbour yelled into the backyard and a very elderly lady with two young children appeared. A small electronic scale was thrust into our hands to weigh our own bags, and we think we were told to come back tomorrow morning. There was no receipt given or names taken, and our clothes were unceremoniously dumped on a pile of other bags of clothes. We had to make a decision to trust the process, or wear dirty clothes for the next four days until we got to Kandy. We crossed our fingers and put our trust in the laundry gods.

We then explored the near-deserted beach just outside our hotel (via a narrow walled-in walkway between beach front properties). It was a gorgeous beach, but by now it was stinky hot and the ocean view was veiled by a very thick heat haze and heavy surf mist. Our hotel had a few lounges under a couple of beach umbrellas for our use, however we both struggled with the barefoot 'ouch-ouch-ouch' hot sand shuffle to and from the water. It didn’t take long for the intense temperature to get to us, and we were forced to retired to the cool of our balcony.

As evening fell, we had sundowner drinks on our balcony with Mark and Damien. We started drinking at about 5pm and before we knew it, it was 8pm. We’d put a dent in our rum and arrack supplies, and we were in dire need of food. We walked to the beach and sought out the nearest place that had a good ambience – which was Fernando's. We started off with a round of Fernando's cocktail special with pineapple, lime, banana, white arrack and dark rum. We shared a devilled chicken pizza and a Fernando's special pizza. I think the pizzas were good, but I really couldn’t say for certain. All I know for sure was that sitting on the beach with our feet in the sand, eating pizza, drinking cocktails, and laughing ourselves silly, made for a very very fabulous night. 😊

We woke up at 6am in much better shape than we thought we would, so we walked the length of the beach with only fishermen, joggers and beach dogs for company. We watched with curiosity as fishing boats were launched off the beach, while other boats where zigzagging around lengths of large fishing nets that were being pulled in by men on the beach – I presume they had been set up the night before. Andrew enjoyed body surfing in the warm water for a while, before we walked back to the hotel for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn't anything speculator, but I enjoyed my pol roti (coconut roti), pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime) and chicken curry. I also snuck some cold cut meats for the skinny little pregnant cat on the property. I normally don't feed the local animals but she was only a kitten herself and very pregnant, and sorely needed the extra food. Damien had fed her the night before and it was clear she was hungry.

The rest of the day was a blissful blur of sitting by the pool, sitting in the pool, writing by the pool, sipping rum by the pool, sipping rum in the pool, napping by the pool, sitting in the pool some more etc. etc. We only left the pool to pick up our laundry, which by some laundry miracle, we got back in perfect order.

I’m always partial to booking hotels with a resident dog or cat...but a hotel with a resident peacock was a first for us! A cute juvenile peacock lived on the hotel grounds, and even though he wasn't restricted and could leave the grounds if he wished, he didn’t. We named him Captain Peacock, because he was friendly but slightly odd. He followed us around the property, making little peacocky noises under his breath. He would also come and stand beside us whenever we were in the pool, watching us with his beady little eyes. It was totally cute. However we soon figured out that he was quick to peck at outstretched hands, probably because he was used to tourists offering him food that way. Paul from our group had tried to shoo him away and Captain Peacock pecked his hand and drew blood…this and other such incidents had earned him an unwarranted reputation of being aggressive. He really wasn’t aggressive. He’d learnt bad habits from tourists and was misunderstood as a result. We both fell in love with Captain Peacock, and I've decided that I'd like to have a free roaming peacock at home. 😊

At 5pm we forced ourselves out of our sun loungers and gathered for some sightseeing. Grace didn't join us, and Mark only just made it as they'd been sick for the whole day. Thankfully for us, our sore throats and fever hadn't eventuated into anything much and we were on the mend (medicated with white rum and arrack!).

We drove to the Commonwealth War Cemetery for soldiers who died in Trinco in WWII. It was a calm little block that had been beautifully maintained, with neat rows of grey headstones. We had a very happy dog welcome us with a big grin and the waggliest of tails. He lived next door with the caretaker and clearly knew how to work the tourists for pats, even cheekily asking for a tummy rub!

We then drove through the rural outskirts of Trinco to the Kanniya Hot Wells. Seven hot springs have been tapped into seven square wells, which interestingly have different temperatures. Again, as with the Kantarodai Ruins we visited in Jaffna, there is a tug of war about the origins of these wells. Both the Hindus and the Buddhists wish to claim it as their own, and wipe out any other history. Apparently to approach this scientifically and find the truth, is not on anyone’s agenda. To me it’s quite feasible that both religions have claim to it over different periods of time, however in a country where everything is driven by race and religion, I don’t think there’s space for objectivity. Regardless of its origins, the wells were very popular with locals who flock to the supposed therapeutic water. I assume the water had some mineral content, but I couldn’t detect any mineral (i.e. pongy) smell.

While driving back to Trinco and trying to get to Fort Frederick, we passed a high level of army personnel and had to detour due to road closures. Apparently the President was in town. However we later learned that Trinco always had a high military presence because its strategic port has been, and still is, of great international interest. It's the world’s deepest natural harbour, and has been fought over by many countries for control of a crucial point in both trade routes and war activities.

Fort Frederick sits very strategically at the neck of a narrow peninsula. Like other forts in the country, it was initially built by the Portuguese and added on to by the Dutch. Now the dilapidated fort is occupied by the Sri Lankan army. We walked past the rather ramshackle army buildings and on to Koneswaram Kovil, an ancient Hindu place of worship that likely dated back to 400 BC. Very dramatically, it sits right on the edge of cliffs, with portions of it built into large rocky boulders. The location of the temple inside a fort seemed odd until I read the history. The Portuguese ransacked and demolished the original temple, with religious iconography thrown into the sea. They then used stone and other building materials from the destroyed temple to build the fort on the peninsula. And not coincidently, the new fort also cleverly blocked access to the very holy Hindu site. The current temple was rebuilt in the 20th century.

The temple was (and now is again) one of the five ancient temples dedicated to Shiva, with the entrance guarded by a colossal Shiva statue that dominated the skyline. The temple was quite busy with lamps being lit and coconuts being broken as offerings. A young man offered us his platter of fruit that he'd just offered to a deity during a religious ceremony. It’s believed that the deity accepts the offering and returns it blessed, and so the offering is then charitably shared among devotees in the temple. The tiny fat bananas were quite tasty, and made me realise that we'd only had snacks for lunch. This temple was very welcoming, and even though it was atmospheric at night, I think I would have preferred to visit it in daylight to fully appreciate its location on cliff tops above the Indian Ocean.

We then drove through the thick of town and braved the huge crowds at an evening festival at the very very vibrant Pathirakali Amman Temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali. The large gopurams (gatehouse towers) were beautifully lit and adorned in fairy lights. We walked through the two shrines, one for Ganesh and the main one for Kali. The shrine interiors were an explosion of colour, sound and human bodies. It was so packed that entering it was reduced to a slow shuffle. Every single centimetre of the walls, ceilings and pillars were crammed with sculptures and paintings, and the many animal representations and deities were painted in a bright rainbow of colours. However we didn’t stay inside the shrines for long as we were mindful of not getting in the way of the people who were praying. We walked around for a little while, being dazzled by the lights and breathing in the scent of floral offerings and incense. As we were leaving we got to see the blessing of the Kali statue before it was taken in procession around the town.

By now we were starving and looking forward to dinner. We made our way to Green Park Beach Hotel in Dutch Bay. This was the old part of town, where colonial Dutch buildings could still be seen, albeit now under a very colourful palate of paint colours.

We were offered the rooftop as an impromptu private dining room, and the waiters carried out tables and chairs for us. It was just lovely up there – the evening air was pleasantly mild, and we could see the harbour and hear the sea. The food was a mix of Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine. My kadai chicken was seriously brilliant, however the naan wasn't anything like Indian naan. Andrew's aloo gobi was also delicious, but it was more a cauliflower and potato curry than an aloo gobi. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a supermarket for small cups of kithul pani cadju (treacle and cashew) ice cream. A lovely night out on all accounts.

We were very tired by this point, which was odd considered we'd effectively done nothing all day. However I suspect we'd both got too much sun, and probably hadn't drunk as much water as we should have.

When we arrived back at the hotel, we noticed that the pregnant cat was asleep on Damien's terrace, possibly waiting for a repeat of last night’s dinner. I retrieved the cold meats I'd squirrelled away for her from breakfast, and she was treated to a much needed meal. I loved that she was well fed for that night, but was very sad that when she turned up the next night, we'd be gone. 😞

Trinco had been a relaxed beach break with a side of culture, and very different to how we normally get to know a place. However the respite from in-depth explorations was much needed and very welcome.

Next we travel south to Batticaloa.


25th January 2018

Sri Lanka
Hello Ren, this was another brilliant travel reportage of Sri Lanka!!Well done...
25th January 2018

Re: Sri Lanka
Thanks Marcos! We are slowly catching up on our blogs from last year... I’ve been looking out for your new blogs from Asia, will have to check that I haven’t missed them :)
26th January 2018

I love reading your blogs because all the food I ate in Sri Lanka I didn't know or remember what it was called. I loved pol sambol and ate it for breakfast often! Trincomalee looks really great. It would have been really hard to see all the bombed out or shot up sights but that helps the reality of the area sink in doesn't it? Aw, you fed the little preggo kitty, I struggle with my conscience to feed or not to feed while I'm away. I'll have to look at a map now to see where Batticaloa is!
26th January 2018

Pol sambol seriously rocks! We really wanted to understand the other side of the war in the north and the east... it wasn't easy to see, but important to witness I think. I really struggle with the feeding dilemma too - I told myself it was ok because she was so preggo :)
27th January 2018

Great notes
You've taken some great notes to be able to write the blogs nearly a year later. I hate being sick on the road but it is inevitable. I guess I've never asked if you are bi-lingual? Glad you continue your quest to nurture animals around the world.
27th January 2018

Re: Great notes
Thanks Merry! We are pretty good at taking notes, it’s the writing them up and editing bit that we’ve sucked at this time :( No, sadly I’m not bilingual - but bits and pieces of both languages came back to me over our time there... proving that my memory isn’t as bad as I thought it was :)
30th January 2018

Great blog posts on Sri Lanka ! We have always wanted to visit Sri Lanka and I think we can use a great deal of details from your blog posts to plan our trip. Hope you wouldn't mind ! :) . Cheers! - Rashmi
31st January 2018

Thanks for your lovely comment Rashmi. Of course I don't mind, and please feel free to message or comment if you have any specific questions when the time comes :)
4th February 2018

Never sit a the back of the bus
I sure hope that was only spit, as you know a lot of people get motion sickness - the joys of bus travel. I bet if you go back to Kilinochchi in ten or twenty years time they would have pulled down that horrid war memorial, propaganda rubbish like that does not last forever. Those temples at night look absolutely incredible, got "templed out" in India and swore I would never go to another but I would make an exception for them.
4th February 2018

Re:Never sit a the back of the bus
I tried to convince Andrew it was possibly water from the air conditioning unit, until I realised the bus wasn't air conditioned :/ I hope you're right about the monument...there's been a change of government since the end of the war so there's hope I suppose. Strangely we didn't get as 'templed-out' on this trip as we have in the past - probably because there was a bit of diversity in religions, periods and styles :)

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