Sri Lanka

A last visit to Haputale in the Sri Lankan hill country

With my two-year stay in Sri Lanka coming to an end, there was time for one last trip with my partner. Deciding on where to go was an easy decision and after booking our train tickets, we headed for the cooler hill country and more specifically the small town of Haputale, perched on a ridge with astounding views. 

Morning view, Haputale

Shortly after sunrise. 

Path, Haputale

Tea plantations make up for most of the surrounding scenery.

bush fires, Haputale

Bush fires at night. 

Bus, Bandarawela

On the bus in nearby Bandarawela.

Love, Haputale

A short message on the window of an abandoned vehicle. 

Most guidebooks will point you to Ella, but I’d recommend Haputale over it any day. Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn is also the best budget accommodation I’ve come across in Sri Lanka. If you’re on a bigger budget or in a larger group, Kelburne Moutain View Cottages will be equally hard to leave. 

It's not a road trip without some car shots

By the end of the trip I had driven 1500 kms in the old Toyota Corolla. Despite being stopped on more than one occasion by the police, often for no apparent reason, no fine or bribe was paid for once. On one occasion my patience was properly tested as I had to wait 45 minutes and play an odd bluffing game before getting my license back.

The only small mishap was the windscreen ending up with a big crack - I’m not sure how it happened, but I suspect it was due to a change in temperature, the AC blasting on the screen after the car had been sitting in the sun a while. 

Some of the shots featured on the previous blog posts are part of a couple of small projects and series on Sri Lanka, but most are outtakes. The projects and series will soon be up on my new website which I’m currently putting the finishing touches on. 

Saint Anne's church, Kalpitiya

Taken on the coast behind Saint Anne’s church on Kalpitiya. 

Car roof reflection, Jaffna / Velanai causeway

Taken on the island of Velanai,just before the causeway linking it to Jaffna. The sky is reflected off the roof of the car. 

Rearview mirror, Velanai island

Taken on the desolate and flat island of Velanai.

Second part of the road trip, first stop: Batticaloa

Kallady beach after dark, Batticaloa

Kallady beach after dark.

After a break at home in Colombo, I set off again on May 30th for Batticaloa, one of the main cities on Sri Lanka’s east coast. It’s surrounded by water, may it be lagoons or the sea, and despite its size, has a provincial feel to it. Most people get around the shaded streets by bike and no one seems in much of a hurry. It hasn’t got any particularly great sights to offer,  but the pleasant, friendly, laid-back vibe make up for it.

Its recent history is anything but pleasant though. It was occupied by the LTTE for a lot of the war and only freed in 2007. It was also severely hit by the 2004 Tsunami and there are still remnants of villages that were completely destroyed only minutes away from Kallady beach, popular with locals. 

Despite its difficult past, the people seem eager to move on, rebuild what they lost and rediscover their culture. The http://welcometobatticaloa.com is a good example of the city’s efforts to develop its tourism. I’ve yet to come across such a comprehensive website for any other place in Sri Lanka. 

Second stop: Kalpitiya, a big disappointment

Kalpitiya has been earmarked by the Sri Lankan government as the next big tourist destination. Grand plans to build an airport, an underwater theme park, a golf course and more are pencilled in. Nothing has been built yet though, and the main allure currently is dolphin-watching and kite surfing. 

I must say I really can’t see how this will all pan out. The accommodation is currently ridiculously over-priced (over £10 to sleep in a tent!), the beaches nondescript, dirty and lacking shade, and the sea nowhere near the turquoise blue shades westerners dream of from their office desk in the cold of winter. The town itself looks like one big construction site and the only nice building I saw, an old mosque, is abandoned and falling into disrepair. All in all, if you’re not into kite-surfing or dolphin-watching (which some say will be threatened by all the planned development), I struggle to spot the appeal of the place. Unsurprisingly, I only stayed one night before heading back to Colombo a day early for my partner’s birthday.  

Building site, Kalpitiya

One of the many building sites in Kalpitiya town. 

Chilaw: the first stop on a 3 week road trip

On June 19th I picked up an old Toyota Corolla clocking over 170.000 kms with the plan to further explore less visited spots along Sri Lanka’s coastline in the next month. My first trip out of Colombo was a short 4 day trip north of Colombo as I needed to get back home by the 24th. 

I set for Chilaw, a city I had driven through previously on my way to Puttalam. It is a vibrant city (in Sri Lankan terms), with a predominantly devout Catholic population and a large fishing community. I spent three days wondering around the town and on the second day stumbled across a colourful, small and friendly fishing village which I returned to a couple of times.  

For the time-being, here’s a one-shot-teaser of possibly the most effective scare-crow I’ve yet to see. 

The ultimate scare-crow, Chilaw

A dead crow hanging from a stick is used to deter other crows from the fish drying on the sand. 

Adam's peak / Sri Pada

at the bottom

The view of Adam’s peak from the nearest town, Dalhousie. 

Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, is a 2,243m-high mountain and a holy site for Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Most pilgrims climb the 5000-plus steps in the month of April, when the weather is at its best. It’s far from an easy ascent, especially as most climb in the dark in order to see the sun rise and catch a glimpse of the mountain’s surprisingly triangular shadow cast on the surrounding hills. 

Despite the 1:30am alarm and the 5000 steps that followed (as well as having no religious motivation what-so-ever), I enjoyed the experience. The numerous shelters on the way selling tea and providing shelter from the cold winds - it was genuinely cold at times - were a blessing, and seeing old women and men, some weak, some overweight, tackle the steps, meant giving up was just not an option.  

At the top, it was busy, too busy for my liking. And this was on a week-day. Climbing on a full-moon / Poya day must be a nightmare and take for ever. I wasn’t up for fighting for a clear shot of yet another sunrise so I wandered round, taking in what I could.

waiting

It’s busy at the top and everyone wants a prime spot to get a clear view of the sunrise. 

Waiting for the sunrise at the top of Adam's Peak / Sri Pada

A young boy yawns, waiting for the sun to rise. 

shoot the sunrise

May it with their cheap smart phones or their expensive DSLRs, many visitors can’t resist to record the sunrise. 

Sun's up - Sri Pada

A pilgrim takes in the view of the sun rising over the Sri Lankan hill country.

messy view

The rooftop of the basic, overnight shelter for pilgrims. 

view

Very early views over a large water tank and the rolling hills. 

Adam Peak's shadow

The staggeringly-triangular shadow of Adam’s Peak is cast over the hills for a brief 30mins or so. 

at the top

Most people head down before 8am in order to avoid the heat. 

A second visit to Mannar island

On my second trip to Mannar, I made a lucky find one afternoon when I stumbled across a temporary fishing village on a beach a few kilometers from town. The blue and white ribbons draped over the only lane of the village, and the relaxed atmosphere hinted that a special occasion was nearing. A friendly young Sri Lankan with good English explained that the inauguration of their first local church was to take place the following morning. They firmly invited me to come back and join the celebrations.

landscape

Looking towards the causeway linking Mannar island to the mainland from Bar road. 

Although advised the day would start with a procession around 7:30am, I got there at 9:00am, which turned out to be perfect time as they were running late. 

lourdes

The procession started at a small shrine at the entrance of the village. 

The locals gathered around a shrine at the entrance of the village before heading for the newly-built and very modest church - a small hut with a tin roof. 

church

Despite a lack of means and funds, the locals managed to add a festive touch to their village.

After the inaugural mass, the fishermen pushed their boats out to sea, gearing up for a race. It took them a while to get themselves organised which allowed me to ask my improvised guide about the community.

He explained that they were all here on a temporary basis, many of them coming from around Negombo and Kalpitiya. They come to Mannar once a year for a maximum of 6 months, and fish as they can make more money off these shores than those around Negombo where competition is fierce. However, recently business has gotten much harder for fishermen as they recently saw a 33% hike in kerosene prices in the past year. The price of fish however doesn’t increase and catching the more valuable fish is increasingly difficult. These fishermen travel 13 kms from the coast to catch their fish and occasionally have to compete with larger Indian trawlers from Tamil Nadu who encroach in Sri Lankan waters. This has led to disputes between governments and even arrests. 

After a while, they eventually got going and the race started. There was a 2000 rupee fee to enter the race (about £10) and the first three would collect the prize money. The race lasted about 15 minutes with a clear winner. All villagers watched and cheered on. 

It was then time for lunch after which the drinking would commence. My young guide who very rarely drinks advised me to make a move as he said most weren’t used to drinking and these occasions often turned into a mess with the occasional dispute or even fight. I followed his advice and made an exit before a stiff drink or two was forced upon me. 

Boat race amongst fishermen, Mannar

Children move with their families to the village. They particularly enjoyed the eventful day, especially the boat race. 

point

As I was leaving the village, an early drinker stopped me, demanding I take a picture of his baby. Not the portrait he would’ve wanted, but one I was quite pleased with. 

Rear view, Mannar island

On the way back along bar road, the skies darkened and I briefly stopped near the liquor shop to see if there was a good scene to shoot. The locals were already too drunk though so I made a move, taking this shot just before hoping back onto the scooter. 

Puttalam's salt plains

According to wikipedia, the name “Puttalam” may be a modification of the Tamil word Uppuththalam: Uppu means salt, and Thalam means salt production zone. There are salt plains both north and south of the town. The northern plains are right next to an unusual sight in Sri Lanka: 25 wind turbines, run by an Indian firm. 

Salt production is a good money earner according to a local I spoke to. However, he also added that most of the plains were all owned by a handful of businessmen, many of whom got their hands on the land in shifty ways, taking advantage of the confusion created by the civil war.

 Salt plains, Puttalam

Workers rake the salt from a plain into small mounds.

Salt plains, Puttalam

The salt is then stored in wooden shelters. This particular one was falling apart.

salt plains

Both men and women work the plains, usually in the morning and late afternoon. However, they occasionally will work till the late morning by which time temperatures are at the highest. 

Housing near the salt plains, Puttalam

There is quite a lot of recently-built housing around the salt plains, mostly unpainted cement-brick houses.  

Lake Shore Street, Puttalam

View of the jetty from the lighthouse, Puttalam

The view of the jetty from atop Puttalam’s abandoned lighthouse.

Picturesque Lake Shore Street runs along Puttalam’s lagoon. It’s a long, narrow and quiet street, with very little traffic. It runs from near the main round-about in town all the way down one of Sri Lanka’s (only?) wind farms.

I went for a few strolls here during my stay, meeting some very friendly, talkative and opinionated locals. Despite many Sri Lankan’s being able to speak basic English, conversations rarely go beyond the ‘your name?’, 'what country?’ and 'what do you think about Sri Lanka?’ questions; the latter is practically rhetorical, asked by locals eager to hear some positive feedback on their country, may it be sincere or not. However, when off the tourist trail, Sri Lankan’s seem much more willing to speak about their government and the hardships they face on a daily basis. 

fish nets

Fishermen check their nets for holes before heading out for the evening.

Puttalam

The lagoon is saline or brackish depending on places. Locals don’t swim or wash in it, although it is used for fishing.

library

This was taken inside a small library right on the shore of the lagoon. There were a few English books, mostly by L. Ron Hubbard. Just what Sri Lanka needs: another religion.

Jungle gym by the lagoon - Puttalam

Fishermen row out, pictured through the frame of a jungle gym.

colours

There are a couple of Mosques along Lake Shore street. There is a large Muslim community in Puttalam, quite a few of whom came from Mannar during the war.

jetty

Looking west across the lagoon from Puttalam, one can see Kalpitiya, a 20km strip of beach land (actually 14 islands) that runs parallel to the coast. 

doors

These colourfully-painted doors along the lagoon’s shore are used as store rooms for fishing equipment.

On the banks of the lagoon, Puttalam

Two boys sit under the umbrage of trees and watch two fishermen cast their net in the lagoon. 

Negombo's fish market and Pamunugama

Back in February 2014 I headed up to Negombo to rent a scooter for a week and explore the eastern coast north of Negombo. Before shooting off, I did stay in the area for a day though, as I wanted to experience Sri Lanka’s second largest fish market as well as explore Pamunugama, a slither of land south of Negombo that runs between the Indian ocean on the west and a lagoon on the east. 

beach

A view of the bay next to Negombo’s fish market. Once the boasts have come back in from the fishing, there is still lots of work left to do. The fish must first all be gathered from the nets and sorted. They are then brought back out to sea in baskets and rinsed to remove any sand before being carried to the market to be sold or auctioned off. 

Fish Market, Negombo

Despite the first fishermen already coming in before sunrise, work goes on into the late morning by which temperatures in the sun are easily above 30 degrees celsius. Luckily workers sort out the fish under make-shift tents which provide a bit of shade. 

barrels

Blue plastic barrels are typically used for storage. 

Football practice, Negombo

Children playing football on Pamunugama while the sun sets and smoke from a nearby fire blows across the pitch. 

church

Inside a Portuguese-style church being built on Pamunugama which is famous for its Catholic community. 

A Sunday in Batticaloa

Welcome

Some goods lie outside a shop in a lane off Batticaloa’s main shopping street. 

Batticaloa is the main city on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast with a population of about 100,000. There are a few remnants from its rich history such as the Dutch fort which looks out on to one of the three surrounding lagoons. 

Dutch fort

The Dutch fort, built by the Portuguese in 1628 and taken over by the Dutch 10 years later.

My visit was unfortunately a brief one though, and I only had a day to roam around the place. As it was a Sunday, it was specially quiet with most businesses closed for the day and the streets generally empty. Nevertheless, the place had a pleasant, relaxed feel to it and was much more enjoyable to walk around than your average Sri Lankan town. I hope to make another visit. 

Chruch, Batticoloa

There really are so many churches around the country, most in this Portuguese style. My preference goes for the ones painted blue and white. 

Sunday cricket, Batticaloa

A group of friends enjoy a Sunday morning game of cricket in the shade of a banyan tree. 

Construction site, Batticaloa

A construction site near the Dutch fort.

Downtown Batticaloa

Downtown Batticaloa on a Sunday morning. Quiet.

Kallady bridge

Kallady bridge was built in 1924 during British colonial rule. It was the main bridge until a new one, right next to this one, was opened in March 2013. The old bridge is now used by the cyclists and pedestrians. 

Jaffna Peninsula

Below are a few shots taken on the Jaffna peninsula in the very north of Sri Lanka. 

The landscape here is flat; so flat that along the the causeways and coastal roads, water and land seem to merge into one, neither element dominating the horizon. There are no spectacular vistas like those the hill country has to offer, and most of the few towns around are half-deserted. Still, these features, or lack of, only add to the singularity of a place which has a distinctive feel to it.

The goats and the boat

A goat walks along Point Pedro’s coastal road while other goats take a rest on a boat. 

Keerimalai spring, near JaffnaMen enjoying a swim in Keerimalai springs, part of Naguleswaram temple, north of Jaffna. There is a separate pool for women only. 

Casuarina Beach, Karainagar, Jaffna District

Casuarina beach on the island of Karainagar is one of the peninsula’s best beaches and quite popular on week-ends. 

Jaffna

Fishermen beat their fishing nets off the coast of Ponnalai. 

Thai Pongal celebrations in Jaffna

One of the most important festivals for Tamil-Hindus, Thai Pongal, takes place every year on 14 January. Apart from being celebrated in Tamil Nadu, it is also celebrated by Tamil-Sri Lankans all over the country.

Thai Pongal is part of a 4-day harvest festival celebrated to thank the Sun God for its contribution to a successful harvest. In Tamil, ‘Pongal’ means 'overflowing’, as in an abundance of something. Thai Pongal is followed by Maatu Pongal, a day when the cows are in turn celebrated for their contribution to the working of the land. 

On the morning of Thai Pongal, families traditionally prepare a Pongal dish (rice, milk and spices) in the morning which they then share with relatives and neighbours. Most families will then visit a Kovil to attend a Puja and make offerings.

image

Nallur Kandaswamy temple is Jaffna’s most famous. It was impossible to get shots of the Puja here as photography inside is unfortunately strictly prohibited.

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One of the first devotees to visit Nallur temple in the early morning on Thai Pongal makes a prayer after having smashed a coconut. This ritual is symbolic of course, the coconut representing one’s own ego which should regularly be 'smashed’ to attempt to remain humble.

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Looking into Nallur Kandaswamy kovil.

In order to get some shots of Puja on Thai Pongal, I visited Nallur Sivan Kovil, just across the road. The local, charismatic Swamy was extremely welcoming and with only a small crowd was present, the experience was much more accessible to a non-Hindu foreigner than in the busier Nallur Kandaswamy temple. After the Puja, the Pongal dish was served to all present and musicians played traditional Hindu music on the nadaswaram (long flute) and thavil (percussion), before an Indian violinist visiting from the UK played for a good half-hour.

image

Many children helped out with the Puja in Nallur Sivan Kovil.

The Swamy pours water to thank the God of Water for contributing to the harvest. 

image

The Swamy lights candles which he holds to the sky, thanking the Sun God for its contribution to the harvest.

See all photos and more in large by clicking here.

Jaffna

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The Sangupiddy Bridge on the new A32 which runs from Mannar to Jaffna.

Jaffna has, unfortunately, pretty much become synonymous with the Sri Lankan civil war which plagued the island for 26 years. There are many obvious links. For instance, Prabhakaran grew up in Valvettithurai, a town a few kilometers outside of Jaffna. It was also nearby that the LTTE ambushed a patrol of the Sri Lanka Army, killing 13, on 23 July 1983. This attack sparked ’Black July’; generally regarded as the start of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. And perhaps most notably, it was occupied by the LTTE on two occasions during the war, for a total of 6 years.

image

One of the many abandoned houses on Jaffna peninsula. 

Traveling through Jaffna peninsula one can’t but notice the numerous abandoned houses, some of them shelled and bullet-ridden, others overtaken by the vegetation and many simply left to slowly decay. Despite these regular reminders of the war, Jaffna’s rich cultural heritage and diversity are still prevalent.

For over 300 years Jaffna was once a Kingdom until the Portuguese invaded in 1620. Not long after the Dutch took over, and the city became an important port in the region. The British came in at the tail-end of the 18th century and stayed till Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. It was during the British rule that more Tamils were brought over from India as they were considered more cooperative and hard-working than the Sinhalese. Before the war the population was still considerably mixed though, with Tamils, Moors and Sinhalese. During the fighting the Moors and Sinhalese were forced out and many Tamils also left, choosing to flee. In the span of 14 years the population nearly halved. Nevertheless, Jaffna remains Sri Lanka’s Hindu-Tamil cultural and religious centre and is now trying to rebuild a future after years of seeing progress being stifled by the war.

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This home belonged to this man’s parents and he grew up until the land became a High Security Zone and was occupied by the Sri Lankan Army in the eighties. 25,000 people were evacuated in total. 20 years later the house and surrounding land was handed back to him after he provided all the necessary documentation to prove his ownership. The house is in disrepair so he is forced to rent a place. He now uses the land to run a small timber mill.

Jaffna, downtown

A street cobbler waits for customers on the steps of Jaffna’s central market.

Beach road, Jaffna

Children play near a Church on Beach road, Jaffna.

Beach road, Jaffna

A young teen watches two fishermen bring a boat in, on Beach road, Jaffna.

Mannar island

Mannar

Broken glass 

Mannar island lies just off the north west of Sri Lanka and is connected to mainland by a causeway. The most western tip of the island is only 30kms from India to which it was once connected.

The landscape is flat and barren bar some palmyra palm plantations, most of which seem unattended. Mannar is also famous for its donkeys, which aren’t originally native to the country. It is believed that they were brought over by Arab traders a few centuries back, as the smell of their dung kept insects away from the palmyra palm plantations. More modern methods are used nowadays and the donkeys are now mostly wild and often found roaming around Mannar town.

Mannar, Mannar island

Donkeys and the shadow of a palmyra palm

Nowadays fishing is the main industry of the island.

Fishermen, Mannar island

Fishermen from the small town of Pesalai clearing the nets of all fish

Mannar, at dusk

Mannar port just after sunset

Mannar island

Pesalai beach

Mannar has had a large Muslim population since the 9th century with the arrival of Arab traders. It was also once a safe haven for Tamil Muslims expelled from the Indian Portuguese Territory in the 16th century. However, during the civil war it was long occupied by the LTTE who drove the Muslim population out in 1990, most of which walked the 50 kms to the safety of Puttalam through Wilpattu National Park.