Sri Lanka. For many people it conjures images of a strident Colombo with its pollution and bottleneck traffic, the relaxed idyllic beaches in the South and a suffocating civil war in the North and East. Quite a contrast and one that kept many people from visiting the country during the intense fighting that erupted from 2006-2009. Now that the war is over tourists are streaming into the country, filling up hotels and weighing down tour buses. Locals are also fanning out and visiting areas once considered too dangerous.
Called Serendib by Arab traders (the origin of the word “serendipity”), Sri Lanka has an amazing diversity for a small island and offers the possibility of experiencing vastly different climates, history, and cultures during a short vacation. In this Four Part Series I will share a glimpse of four vastly different areas of Sri Lanka that can, and should, be a part of any itinerary to the island of providence. I am leaving out the beaches and the south as I have covered them before (Southern Sri Lanka).
Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is a magical place. A small town atmosphere pervades this eastern coast haven as it clings to narrow strips of land reaching out into one of Asia’s best natural deep-water harbors. Perfect tropical beaches extend to the north of the small “city” tantalizing visitors with their turquoise blue waters and abundance of tropical fish. It is often described as the Maldives of Sri Lanka. Until recently the area has been under military lock-down and few tourists were brave enough to venture there. Now things are changing and the limited number of hotels that were operating are preparing for an explosion of visitors by upgrading and adding rooms. Unfortunately, coastal land is also being parceled out in a very nontransparent and unethical way to developers from Colombo leaving lingering questions of how equitable the economic boom will be for the Tamil and Muslim majority in the area.
If you are looking to beat the crowds and experience Trincomalee (called “Trinco” by the locals) before it’s overrun with atmosphere choking tourism planning (yes, I am being cynical here) now is the time to visit. Besides the beaches, the cultural heritage of the town is extremely interesting. One of the best places to experience this is the Hindu Koneswaram Temple, which clings to high cliff on Swarmi Rock off the edge of the Portuguese era Fort Frederick. The old fort is now occupied, fittingly so, by the Sri Lanka military, and you pass their barracks as you climb the steep hill to the promontory holding the temple.
The path leading up to the temple was lined with stalls selling everything from dried fish to plastic Chinese figurines of the God of Fortune and Wealth. Usually quiet and deserted the area was teaming with devotees praying and helping to prepare the temple for its annual festival. Besides the temple the view from the cliff is amazing and you are rewarded of a view of the town and fishing boats below.
The temple’s main deity is Lord Shiva and evidence suggests worshipers have been using the area for over 2,500 years. The original temple is long gone, pushed into the sea by the Portuguese in 1624 in their attempt to control the area. However, it was rebuilt 450 years later fueled by myths which associate the temple with the popular Indian epic the Ramayana, and its legendary hero-king Rama.
Leaving the temple a skinny young man grabbed my arm and directed me towards the bay. “When the tsunami came the whole bay below dried up as the water was sucked out into the ocean,” a local stall owner recalled. He pointed to the bay’s opening, drawing a line from the cliff top temple to another temple across the way. “With the water gone we saw huge square stone slabs placed on the ocean floor in a straight line leading from this temple to the one across the way.”
The other stall owners crowded in, nodding away. “We were always told that God crossed the bridge in the past. Now we have proof,” another man said. His face was deeply lined from a life spent in the tropical sun. As quickly as they swarmed they dispersed as a new group of devotees approached and they returned to the business of selling.
The local feeling of Trinco is its real charm. Everything is built and used by locals. If you get there now you might still be able to experience it.
If you go
Like all places in Sri Lanka there are still dangers associated with the recent civil war. However, security restrictions have been eased in Trincomalee and besides a few check points on the way into town I found the area to be very safe. Of course normal common sense should always be followed and you should probably not go out at night, not that anything is open after dark in this sleepy town.
Travel by car or bus is your only real option. The road conditions are improving every day and a new road is being built from Habarana to Trincomalee along the A6 road. At the time of writing about half of the road has been completed and is beautiful wide, smooth road. The second half is still pot hole ridden, narrow and windy and still takes quite a bit of time to navigate.
If you don’t like long car rides, consider spending the night in Habarana (don’t forget to check out the sites nearby like Sygiria and the Dambula Cave Temples) which is a 5-6 hour drive from Colombo. The final drive to Trinco should take about 4 more hours.
When to Go:
April to September when the East Coast is the driest and the monsoon has shifted the West Coast leaving the waters and beaches in the East perfect for swimming.
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