A short drive out of Jaffna, against a backdrop of abandoned concrete ruins and fish drying en masse on the roadside, a fisherman sits baiting his lines, one eye on the sea. Close by, a trio of kids performs backflips onto the sand, and a local man squats beside his makeshift stall – a wide sweep of flawless spider shells. As we explore Point Pedro, discovering more and more friendly faces, all seem curious about our presence in Sri Lanka’s most remote, far northern town.
the bullet-riddled buildings, tumbledown homes and the empty spaces in between provide a visual history of the terror inflicted
Right along this little-visited stretch of pearly sand, the bullet-riddled buildings, tumbledown homes and the empty spaces in between provide a visual history of the terror inflicted on this former Tamil stronghold, which, in the midst of an epic, 25-year civil war, was pummeled by 2004’s devastating tsunami. The mass desertion of residents that followed brought this coastline to a standstill.
Make an island pilgrimage
Out of town and just offshore, the tiny island of Nainativu attracts Sri Lankan pilgrims in droves, and joining their journey is one of the best ways to get a handle on this Hindu, Tamil stronghold of the north. The squeezy bus ride out of Jaffna (no, the bus is never full) winds across a landscape shelled by decades of war, and when we reach the port for the firmly-packed ferry crossing, we discover that there’s nothing like sharing a life jacket with a stranger to really bring people together.
What lures us, and so many genuine pilgrims, is an incongruous pair of stunning beachside temples that shimmer across Jaffna’s shallow, endless lagoon. First is the gleaming, silver dagoba at Nagadipa, the north’s only Buddhist pilgrimage site, and after an easy 10-mintue stroll along the beach we reach the Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil. Devoted to the naga goddess Mennakshi, the temple hosts midday pujas or prayer ceremonies that are popular with women trying to conceive. Witnessing a lively puja in full swing would make a trip to these temples unforgettable, and while the island is pretty enough, it’s the hilarious, tightly packed journey that I remember most.
Marvel at the mysterious Kantarodai Ruins
Protruding from a grassy, palm-fringed field and measuring just 1-2 metres high, these ancient stone domes have long baffled archeologists, fuelling debate about whether they may actually predate Buddhism and be the work of a more ancient culture. Unusually, the formerly flat-topped structures were ‘rounded off’ by Sri Lanka archeologists in 1978, which may either have been an attempt to restore their Buddhist shape, or impose it on the structures regardless.
Still, this cluster of around two dozen mounds is a transfixing place that I found far more intriguing than the country’s dominant travel guide might suggest. You’ll find it near the tiny town of Chunnakam, not far from Jaffna, and although you can’t walk around the site, you can peer at the precious ruins through the open wire fence.
Climb Jaffna Fort
This 1680s Dutch-built fort not only provides unequalled views of Jaffna’s shimmering silver lagoon, but its intriguing construction from huge coral chunks and its distinctly Dutch design lure great crowds of travellers. Fiercely defended and fought over during the war, the fort is a vast, star-shaped complex that rates as one of the greatest in Asia, despite being largely in ruins. Ongoing restoration has so far rebuilt the great moat walls and gateways, which we climbed at sunset for breezy water views and to gaze out over Jaffna’s cityscape. Free to visit, it’s a great place to get to grips with Jaffna’s complicated history and mingle with Sri Lankan tourists.
Dine in a railway carriage in a militarised zone
This was probably the most surreal hour I spent in Sri Lanka: eating English-style fish and chips inside a miltarised zone, served by a waiter in black tie while sitting in the booth of an old train carriage and gazing out to sea. Operating within a militarized zone, Thalsevana Holiday Resort at the seaside town of Kankesanturai, is an unlikely place to dine, yet its Yarl Thevi Restaurant serves up a daily menu of distinctly expat fare inside a beautifully restored railway carriage. With a slim choice of eateries on offer in the area, we staked out a booth for our unlikely lunch after a glorious swim in Kankesanturai’s impossibly clear, blue sea.
Unearth Enid Blyton in historical Jaffna Library
When this much-loved intellectual institution was destroyed in the lead-up to Sri Lanka’s civil war, more than 90,000 texts, including treasured, irreplaceable Tamil documents, went up in flames. Rebuilding the library was a post-war priority and today, it contains some unusually expat tomes; we spotted Jane Austin, Enid Blyton and host of Clive Cussler adventure tales. A library might not seem like a must-see destination, but this historical building has been beautifully rebuilt, and endures to remind us of the resilience of Jaffna’s residents.
Explore Point Pedro
From Valvettiturai (VVT), famous as the birthplace of charismatic Tamil-rights leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, a sublimely beautiful coastline stretches east to Point Pedro. Squeezed between a fringing coral reef and long rows of abandoned concrete homes, we strolled a narrow white-sand beach, inspecting daily catches laid out to sunbake amongst ruins and rubble. Having already endured decades of civil war and the displacement of so many local residents, this lovely, little-visited coastline bore the brunt of 2004’s tsunami (locals say that fishing boats were lifted a kilometre inland).
Today, decades after the terror and destruction ended, the bullet-riddled buildings and tumbledown homes form an incongruous backdrop to the town’s lively fishing scene: colourful wooden boats, immensely friendly locals and happy-to-chat kids. At Munai Beach we sit in the doorstep of concrete ruins watching fishermen netting in the turbulent shallows. Later, when we stop to admire a fisherman preparing his lines for sea, he collects seats for us all so we can watch him at work.
Around Point Pedro Lighthouse, sellers display their sea treasures on huge tarpaulins spread on the ground – beautiful spider shells and thick fish steaks, whole fish and heads for soup. Without a doubt, Point Pedro resonates as THE highlight of our trip to the north.
Jaffna Essentials: An express train (3 hours) is the easiest and most comfortable way to reach Jaffna from Anuradhapura. In Jaffna, we enjoyed our stay at Sarrass Guesthouse for the immense upstairs family room, good meals and friendly staff. Staff at Morgan’s Residence can arrange a car and driver to tour the north all the way to Point Pedro, stopping at significant sites en route.