Friday, 13 August 2010

Sri Lanka the surprise package: Why Asia's forgotten destination is an explorers' paradise now the civil war is over

It may not have set off a loud ping of the radar – stories about how Country X is now deemed safe to visit get less attention than shouty headlines about how Country Y is now considered a dangerous hellhole to be avoided by all – but last week’s announcement that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has lifted the last of its no-go restrictions on travel in Sri Lanka is a small but definite reason to be cheerful.

The basic figures of Sri Lanka’s existence make fine reading: A ‘teardrop island’ (as the description usually runs) of 25,000 square miles, coated in tropical foliage and dotted with lively cities, sat in the Indian Ocean 20 miles to the south of India.

But there is a more damning statistic that Sri Lanka is now seeking to put behind it – the (nigh-on) three decades of civil war that have seen the country written off by many as a risky choice in tourism terms. Here is a tropical isle that, between 1983 and May of last year, was the scene of hostilities that robbed an estimated 100,000 people of life, and cost the country a great deal in terms of its stability, economy and reputation.

Even now, 15 months after the final shots were fired, numerous issues remain in need of address. The losing side in the struggle, the Liberation Tigers Of Tamil Eelam (commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), is condemned as a terrorist group in 32 countries (including the United States, the UK and the rest of the European Union), but accusations of war crimes and unethical tactics have also been levelled at the Sri Lankan government, in the wake of a conflict that has sullied all who took up arms.

Civil wars, with the ghastly spectre of brother attacking brother, tend to be the bitterest of fights and the cause of the deepest, angriest scars (as Spain’s continued reticence over who did what to whom between 1936 and 1939 shows), and the official investigation into 26 years of pain, which began this month, has much work to do.

And yet, while the FCO is still guarded in its stance on Sri Lanka, underlining that there remains ‘a general threat from terrorism’, particularly in the north of the country (where the Tamil Tigers had hoped to establish an independent state), the comment that ‘we no longer advise against all travel to Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaittivu and Vavuniya’ is a reason for cautious optimism for anyone keen to experience what is one of the world’s more intriguing – but less visited – areas. A corner has surely been turned.

Of course, Sri Lanka is not an entirely unmeasured quantity. With the civil war mainly confined to the north and north-east during its third decade, the beaches of the south and west coasts have – lately, at least – proved happy turf for sun-seeking tourists.

But the interior – a place that hovered a little too close to the flying bullets and rolling tanks for many tourists’ tastes – retains a definite mystique, and a sense of being unexplored. Take a look of the photo at the top of this piece. This is Sigiriya, a 370-metre volcanic bluff that, in many ways, is the Ayers Rock of South East Asia. It certainly bears comparison – a giant boulder that rears above the largely flat terrain around it, and is regarded with reverence by the local population. In fact, if it existed in a country better publicised than Sri Lanka, it would surely be as famous as Uluru, a global wonder whose sheer flanks and 2000-year back-story as fortress, palace and monastery would be the centrepiece of many a round-the-world tour. But as it is, it lies hidden in the shadows – metaphorically at least, because there is little shadow to be had once you reach the bare summit and find yourself completely at the sun’s mercy.

I took the photo of Sigiriya just before twelve on a sweltering day that was crammed with personal discoveries. Two hours later, I drove into Polonnaruwa, the onetime 12th century capital of the island, but now an enclave of ruins that might match Pompeii as an echo of past times if anyone actually knew about it. But instead, I walked through its dust and decay – through tumbledown temples where statues idle away eternity (see above), and past thick stone tablets on which forgotten wisdom is carved in florid writing – in relative isolation, sharing this ghost of a lost era with little more than the occasional backpacker and one party of visibly bored school children (school children always look bored on school trips. This doesn't make what they are seeing any less impressive). And this was before I encountered Polonnaruwa’s twin glories – two Buddha statues, one seated (see below), the other reclining, head on pillow – that can only inspire awe in the observer, whatever your religious affiliation (or lack of it).

There were other grand moments – Nuwara Eliya, a high-altitude outpost that, with its race track, golf course and faded department stores, still has the ambience of a British hill station – which is exactly what it was in the 19th century, when it provided gin-drinking colonials with summer refuge from the heat on the plains; the tea plantations that swirl down and around the town for miles (where women in bright saris pluck leaves with admirable concentration) – a reminder that, for all the hints of Blighty above, this is definitely Asia; the manic, busy city of Kandy, which revolves around the Temple Of The Tooth – a holy shrine said to contain a relic of the Buddha.

Throughout this, I encountered few indicators that I was anywhere near a combat zone. My visit was in March of last year, when the war’s bloody endgame was being played out in the north. But in the centre of the island, little stirred. Sure, there were the occasional road ‘blocks’, where surly men in uniform stared vaguely at passing cars, taking more interest in their cigarettes than anything happening around them. And the security checks at Colombo airport were fairly robust. But that was it. No smoke above the treeline, no explosions in the distance, no obvious sign that anything was amiss – and certainly no reason not to consider Sri Lanka a valid travel destination.

My journey ended in Negombo, a resort on the west coast that, while ranking as a fairly unimaginative strip of hotels and restaurants, nevertheless boasts a lovely beach and a set of bars ideal for watching the sun plunge into the Laccadive Sea. One of these watering holes offered a sheltered garden where I spent an hour watching the horizon turn pink and orange with a cool beer in hand – but, my wife aside, without the presence of a single other paying guest. When I asked the cheerful bar owner if this was usual, he shrugged, and said, quietly: ‘Well, people think there is a war here.’

Sri Lanka is no longer a country at war. And while the problems that tore it apart for 26 years have hardly vanished, it is a place well worthy of tourist interest – especially now the FCO’s reassessment has marked a small step towards mainstream appreciation.


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