Last updated: March 17, 2012 1:10 am

War-torn beauty

After 30 years of violence, northern Sri Lanka is opening up to tourism
Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Vihara, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka©Getty

Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Vihara, Anuradhapura

Saying I’m going on holiday to Sri Lanka elicits one of two reactions from my friends. There’s the ooh-elephants-temples-cocktails-at-sunset-lucky-you! brigade. And then there are my friends who read the newspapers. “Which beach did you say you’re staying on?” emails a friend. “The one where Sri Lankan forces massacred civilians? Or the one with the death camps?”

Hmm. It’s a fair point. It’s just two years since government forces finally routed the Tamil Tigers: a brutal end to a brutal war. Anyone who saw War Crimes Unpunished , a shocking documentary shown on Channel 4 last week, will be feeling very uneasy about putting the words “Sri Lanka” anywhere near a sentence which also includes “holiday” and “destination”.

But there’s an argument that it should be the government that is punished and not the people. And if you share my belief that tourism is largely a force for good, re-balancing global economics, stimulating investment and helping rebuild communities, then, as I discovered in Lebanon in the early 1990s and Sarajevo a few years later, the aftermath of war is in some ways the best time to go.

I don’t want to be flippant – I can’t be after seeing Channel 4’s footage of executed children – but going to the war-affected parts of the country, in the north and east, rather than swigging cocktails with the elephants-and-sunsets brigade in the south, seems somehow more appropriate. Locals are delighted to see you, there is a dearth of other tourists, and when I look up one of our first destinations – Kalpitiya – in the index of the Lonely Planet guide, I have a moment of quiet joy when I discover it’s not actually there. It’s that rarest of all rare things: a place where Lonely Planet has yet to tread.

There’s just a handful of quiet, low-key hotels, most of them like the one we’re staying at, the Bar Reef resort, with its simple “rooms” built out of wood and palm fronds with open-air beds lit by oil lamps at night. We like being in the open air, although some people might say it’s something of a bold move to build a hotel next to the sea and deliberately ensure that none of your rooms have a sea view. Still, it’s all very eco, which is not surprising when you consider that the owners also run Sri Lanka’s best-known yoga retreat, Ulpotha.

The rustic simplicity doesn’t come cheap, yet a streak of hippy thinking still runs through the place: we eat a dinner of home-cooked curries communally on our knees in the central gazebo with the other guests. There’s the cool ice maiden I nickname “Gillian Anderson”. Her partner looks like Tony Blair. And then there’s the international expat crew: the Germans who live in Delhi; the Australians from Kuwait; the Brits from Singapore. “My friend in the embassy in Colombo told me it was the secret place for those in the know,” the German lady tells me.

It’s only two days later that I discover that the woman I nicknamed Gillian Anderson actually is Gillian Anderson. “Good God,” I say, wondering if I’ve missed the scoop of the century. “Tell me that wasn’t actually Tony Blair?” It wasn’t, but I can’t help thinking coming here is a smart move on Anderson’s part: the Bar Reef resort is the antithesis of a five star hotel stuffed with paparazzi.

Along the beach there are old watch towers, barracks and forgotten rolls of razor wire. Offshore, the water teems with fish and thousands of leaping dolphins (deep-sea fishing was banned for years because of security issues). There are whales, too, further out – the continental shelf is just a few miles offshore and it was only recently discovered that this is a major migration route for sperm whales, blue whales and minkes.

Map of Sri Lanka

We miss the whales but it doesn’t matter: it’s such a sleepy forgotten place with fishermen’s shacks next to the hotel and local boys playing cricket on the beach. However, it’s a way of life that’s about to change: war may have preserved Kalpitiya but it looks like peace will get it instead. The government has an extensive development plan involving dozens of hotels and, worse, “an amusement park, golf course, racecourse and a domestic airport” are all planned. If you’re going, go now.

Until now, most investment in Sri Lanka has been local and limited. Up in the hills outside Kandy, we meet David Swarbrick, a British publisher, and Mikael Zoghbi, a Swedish headhunter, who bought a 45-acre plantation while the war raged on.

“It was a bit mad buying a hotel in a war zone, but we just fell in love with it,” says Zoghbi. Together they have restored the land and will open a new boutique hotel, The House of the Flame Trees, next year.

According to Swarbrick, things are slowly improving and post-war normality is re-emerging. But it’s Sri Lanka’s lack of development during those years that forms part of its charm. Swarbrick grew up in Calcutta, “and it reminds me here of how India used to be, before everyone was in such a rush.”

But then rushing is not an option. Bicycles, tuk-tuks, schoolchildren in white pressed uniforms, cars and trucks all share a single carriageway and manoeuvre around each other with something like grace (or perhaps simply good fortune). Mohammed, our Tamil driver, takes us along the A12 to Anuradhapura, the old Sinhalese capital. There’s a land-that-time-forgot quality to the drive. We see no suburbanisation and no shopping malls.

It’s unspoiled and barely touched by the modern world, even though Anuradhapura is the heart of Sri Lanka’s so-called cultural triangle, a Unesco world heritage site stuffed full of temples, stupas and ancient caves. We hire bikes and cycle from one empty complex to the next, dodging only Sinhalese pilgrims and cows in the road.

But then Anuradhapura was – and still is – an important military base and supply route. North of here was Tamil Tiger country; south was government-controlled. Several bomb attacks, including one in 2008 which killed around 30 people, deterred tour groups from visiting. Today, it’s mostly backpackers and day-trippers who make the journey, though there’s now a stylish hotel, the Ulagalla resort, with individual villas set in 60 acres of lush jungle just to the south. It’s an upmarket honeymoon type resort where you can cruise the grounds on electric golf buggies.

Ulagalla Resort©Getty

Ulagalla Resort

Even here, in what looks very much like paradise, it’s only recently that it’s been safe to visit. “This was all Tiger country,” the hotel’s manager tells us.

It’s the heart of Sri Lanka’s “dry zone”, a spectacularly misleading description for what turns out to be a very wet landscape. The next day we head east, past hundreds of “tanks”, or lakes, which are sophisticated rainwater harvesting systems built hundreds of years ago, a system that ensures dazzlingly green paddies and lush forest.

A few miles outside of Anuradhapura, the road narrows to a single track pitted with potholes and the number of military checkpoints and barracks increases. It’s the main road to Trincomalee, north-east Sri Lanka’s biggest town, off-limits for years, its hinterland a former Tiger stronghold. We pass watch-towers, burned out buildings, shacks built with the assistance of the UN, the EU and the Red Cross. The area around Jaffna, in the far north, was where the alleged war crimes took place but this road was the frontline.

There’s a military barracks every kilo­metre or so – all quiet now, though Mohammed points out that “nothing has actually changed”. The reasons why the war started – at least partly down to the Tamil’s frustration over their lack of access to education – still exist today, he says.

A farmer harvests rice in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka©Panos

A farmer harvests rice in Anuradhapura

As the land gets poorer and poorer, the houses little more than mud huts with tin roofs, it’s easy to understand Mohammed’s point. “Look at it! There’s nothing for young men here. They prefer to die.”

And yet it’s starkly beautiful. There’s nothing but jungle and soldiers and extraordinary bird life. I’ve never had bird-watching tendencies before but in Sri Lanka I discover my inner twitcher. The birds prove impossible to ignore: wild peacocks roost in trees next to the road, huge green kingfishers perch on telephone wires, cranes and spoonbills rest in the paddies, pelicans and storks swoop overhead.

According to Google maps, it should take less than two hours to travel the 70 miles to Trincomalee. But it takes us at least five. The road is appalling. When we arrive at the Chaaya Blu hotel and talk to Lankesha Ponnamperuma, its manager, he cheerfully explains that “the road to Colombo is even worse.”

The Chaaya Blu is a relaxed and cheerful place. It’s a true survivor, built in a burst of optimism in the 1970s and staying open throughout the war. The topography of the coastline has protected it from the worst of the 2004 tsunami, and it was given a facelift in another burst of optimism around a year ago. Business was brisk during the war with NGOs and aid workers. It’s peacetime that’s proving trickier. “They talk about attracting tourists,” sighs Ponnamperuma, “but that road ... ”

In the meantime, the diaspora has returned: sturdy Australian Sri Lankans raised on milk and beef who’ve come to see their ancestral homeland.

A waiter serving food and drinks at Mud House in Sri Lanka©Getty

Mud House

Despite the peace, a militaristic culture is still apparent everywhere. At the end of the beach and on the mouth of the creek – in a prime position where a boutique hotel would stand if we were in any other part of the world – is a spectacularly sited police post. Even the town’s major sight, a  Hindu shrine high on a cliff overlooking the harbour, is bang in the middle of a barracks.

Still, it’s a lovely, sleepy relaxed sort of place, where cows amble along the beach, and girls in pretty floral frocks wave as you pass them in the street. In the late afternoon, we wander between stupas and temples where “puja”, or ceremonial offering, is performed, a riot of bell-ringing and drum-banging. It feels as though we are the only tourists for 200 miles in any direction, and I can’t help thinking that everyone else is missing a trick.

The next day we bump back down the potholed road. (When has anywhere worth visiting been easy to get to?) We spend our final night in the Mud House, which really is a mud house, or at least a collection of mud houses in the middle of the jungle. It’s tourism at its best: small-scale, low-tech and eco-friendly. The foreign investors and giant corporate chains are gathering at the borders, though. So go now: after the war, but before the concrete mixers arrive.

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Details

Carole Cadwalladr was a guest of Experience Travel, who offer tailor-made tours to all parts of Sri Lanka. A 13-day tour like that described would cost £2,095, including private chauffeur/guide for the duration, activities, entrance fees and most meals. Flights from London would add £660; www.experiencetravelgroup.com/sri_lanka

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A motorway through the paddy fields

“Thank you Jesus for the good weather and good health of my clients. Thank you for the safe journey and no accidents or injury ... ”

My driver on a recent trip in southern Sri Lanka was not lacking in gratitude or piety, writes Rahul Jacob. But when our car pulled up at the toll gates at Kottawa, the start of the new Southern Expressway, his genuflections took on a slightly manic tone. “Thank you President Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he bellowed, explaining that we had the Sri Lankan president to thank for the highway, which opened in November last year.

On previous trips to the south of the country, I had been in cars on a slow single-lane road, weaving between cyclists and schoolchildren and public buses bent on destruction. This time, we flew along the deserted 60-mile highway to Galle, a ribbon of tar cutting through the verdant green that is Sri Lanka’s national colour. Having left Colombo at 12.30pm, we were in Galle in time for a late lunch of satay and Vietnamese noodles.

On earlier short trips, the poor roads meant I rarely ventured beyond the Villa Mohotti Walauwa on Bentota beach. The best thing about the new highway, which will be extended down the southern coast to Matara in 2013, is that one can now pack in a view of a shimmering green paddy field one day and listen to the waves of the Indian Ocean pounding the beach the next.

Villa at Maya, near Tangalle, Sri Lanka

Opulent: This villa at Maya, near Tangalle, upgrades a former plantation house to 21st-century standards

I travelled down the coast to a villa called Maya which opened last year near Tangalle and stopped for a night at the Reef Villa in Wadduawa, a couple of hours from Colombo, on the way back. Both are elegant five- to seven-room villa hotels, Sri Lanka’s forte.

They could not be more different, however. At Reef, I half-expected to be transported to my room in a palanquin. The British owner has even tracked down the mahogany or rosewood four-poster beds used by the civil servants of imperial India. There are lovely details everywhere; lily ponds as you walk to your gigantic rooms and manually operated punkahs fans from the era before electricity.

When the switch on my air conditioning control jammed for a couple of hours one evening, I yanked the rope that pulled the punkah to discover it is no fun at all if there isn’t a servant propelling the timber and cloth contraption back and forth. The bathroom featured a bath-tub large enough to swim in, with a champagne bucket by its side.

The design at Maya near Tangalle, 90 miles from Colombo, is a very 21st-century take on a 110-year-old plantation house – the property was used to grow cinnamon. There is an L-shaped pool, with views of the paddy fields. The assistant manager apologised in case we were disturbed by monks at the temple next door chanting at dawn. Ear plugs were provided, but the monks took the weekend off and the nearby peacocks caterwauled instead.

Owner Niki Fairchild is an interior designer and it shows. If we hadn’t been the only guests, I might have been tempted to unscrew the beautiful brass wall lamps in the shape of a lotus and take them home with me.

Maya’s young staff are unstinting. A particular Sri Lankan canapé I had a craving for was prepared at short notice. I also wanted to visit Hambantota, a 1½-hour drive away, where Leonard Woolf had been a young government officer for more than three years before resigning from the civil service exactly 100 years ago. The assistant manager quickly found a local guide to take me.

As we sped along another new road, I saw a Chinese engineer overseeing what looked like a road-widening programme. In Hambantota, we found a deserted cream-coloured bungalow with a gabled roof. It had been Woolf’s last office in Sri Lanka, where he wrestled with decisions about tax and cattle epidemics, and daydreamed about marrying Virginia Stephen. The driver didn’t mention it in his thanksgiving prayer when we returned to Maya that evening, but I was inexplicably moved.

Rahul Jacob was a guest of Ampersand Travel (www.ampersandtravel.com), Maya (www.mayatangallesrilanka.com; doubles from $170) and Reef Villa (www.reefvilla.com; doubles from $440)

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Back to Libya

Tourists returned to Libya last week, on a trip that took in Gaddafi’s palaces and bunker and offered a tour of Misurata led by rebel militia leaders, writes Tom Robbins.

The week-long trip, which cost £4,200 and concludes on March 18, was organised by Political Tours (www.politicaltours.com), a travel company set up last year to cater to tourists with an interest in politics and current affairs. Previous trips have visited Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia; destinations for this year include North Korea, Georgia and Northern Ireland. The tours are led by academics and foreign correspondents.

Clients on the Libya trip, who include an American student, an Australian lawyer and an 83-year-old from California, have been accompanied by a security team as they explore the country. Political Tours insists it is not offering “war tourism” but serious study tours, the equivalent of a historical battlefield visit in which you can meet and question the protagonists.

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