TWO Sri Lankan cities at the heart of a 25-year civil war are creeping back onto the tourist trail.
Since the war ended five years ago, more tourists are exploring this South Asian country.
The word “serendipity” — describing happy discoveries made accidentally — is derived from Serendip, an ancient name for Sri Lanka.
Slightly smaller than Tasmania but with a population as big as Australia’s, teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka has an elaborate network of mostly narrow paved roads winding from the coast to its tea-growing hinterland.
The war devastated locals, but most tourist sites were spared.
Holiday-makers kept coming — enticed by bargain-basement prices, high-quality resorts, cut-price shopping, good beaches and attractions ranging from ancient cities to wildlife parks with large populations of elephants and other animals.
The war was a conflict between a Hindu Tamil minority and a Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Central to the conflict were the north’s main city, Jaffna, and its mainly Tamil surrounds, along with the northeast’s hub, Trincomalee. Neither saw many visitors.
Officials in both regions see economic potential and now want slices of the tourism cake.
Both have many small hotels, with large resort-style properties set to follow as wait-and-see investors gamble that peace will hold.
Already, Jaffna and Trincomalee are seeing trickles of tourists. Jaffna, closest to India and a major centre of Hindu culture, bills itself as Sri Lanka’s “final frontier” while Trincomalee touts rich history and some of Asia’s most alluring white-sand beaches.
I feel tipped into a time-warp along Jaffna’s Hospital Road, the main drag. Old Morris and Austin cars are everywhere.
“I’ll buy a few and ship them home,” confides a car collector from Canada as we admire an Austin Cambridge.
More modern vehicles are increasingly seen but, as residents tell me, old British cars became workhorses during sieges — many as taxis and others as private cars.
Tables groan with fish and fruit at Jaffna’s municipal market. People are friendly. Even uniformed Sinhalese soldiers are unarmed. At the Rosarian Sisters’ Ashram, I meet Catholic nuns who buy grapes to make wine. But they don’t drink it themselves.
“It wouldn’t be proper for nuns to drink,” Sister Perpetua insists.
Nearby, Rosarian monks make table and communion wine. “I suppose they drink it,” shrugs the abstemious nun.
A taxi whisks me to the Church of Christ, a bombed-out shell. Downtown, the historic Jaffna Library — once again operating — is one of many restored buildings.
The Clock Tower, a formerly derelict landmark, has been painted and is again keeping time.
Colourfully decorated Hindu temples dot Jaffna. Day trips cross narrow causeways connecting Jaffna Peninsula to the islands of Kayts (with a busy fishing harbour and splendid beaches), Punkudutivu and Karaitivu.
More distant and reached by ferry is a popular backpacker destination, sparsely vegetated Delft — a windswept isle of defiant grasses and sandy beaches boasting an old Dutch fort.
Back on the mainland, I wander through a bizarre grove of palm trees: just trunks — with treetops blasted away by artillery as reminders of troubled times.
Trincomalee is renowned for diving amid sunken ships and aircraft. Its other dive sites are similarly rich in tropical fish and colourful coral, including gathering places of moray eels and manta rays.
Diving locations are close to Trincomalee’s two best beaches, Nilaveli and Uppaveli.
From Nilaveli it’s a 3km boat ride to Pigeon Island, most of which is Pigeon Island National Park. Upscale Pigeon Island Beach Resort has a beach ideal for lazing, with an adjoining Beach Bar spilling onto the sand.
Diving, snorkelling and swimming are on tap — as are excursions to nearby hot springs. An amble takes me to several Hindu temples, the most visited of which is Kali Kovil from where it’s not far to blue-hued and 162-year-old St Mary’s (Catholic) Cathedral.
The cathedral proves serene prelude to the boisterous local fish market, a place of high-decibel haggling at the edge of what’s claimed to be the world’s second-biggest natural harbour.
Top of Trincomalee’s list of attractions is thick-walled Fort Frederick. Built by the Portuguese in 1624, it was captured by the Dutch and renamed Fort Frederick (honouring Prussia’s Frederick the Great) before falling into British hands until Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.
Outside Fort Frederick, I meet an Australian couple who visited Jaffna before their three-day Trincomalee stay. They found on-foot investigation to be both peaceful and ideally suited — a reality at odds with their preconceptions about former war zones.
“Both places seem poised to develop rapidly,” says the woman. Adds her husband: “We wanted to be a few steps ahead of the crowds.”