Sri Lanka

How to Explore Jaffna and the North Independently

The Sri Lanka Civil War

The north and east of Sri Lanka have a turbulent history. It was in these regions of the island that a bloody civil war raged from July 1983 until May 2009, in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers) waged an armed insurgency against the government. They were fighting to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country called Tamil Eelam.

After a 26-year military campaign, in which more than 100,000 civilians and over 50,000 fighters were killed, the Tamil Tigers were eventually defeated and the civil war brought to an end. Both sides, however, have been accused by the UN of war crimes during the final phase of the conflict. Today, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils are still living in South India as refugees.

The North Today

Until recently, the northern region was off the itineraries of most foreign travellers; indeed permits were previously required to venture here. Now, as rebuilding continues, most of the military presence has gone and new hotels and restaurants are opening all the time.

Now is the perfect time to explore this wild and relatively unexplored part of the country, before it becomes part of the well-trodden tourist trails that weave their way over much of this tropical island nation. For now, the north is not lined with backpacker hostels and smoothie bars, and is all the better for their absence.

So if, like us, you’re a fan of history and off-beat travel, the north of Sri Lanka may just be what you’re looking for.

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Our Lady of Refuge Church, Jaffna

Mannar Island

A new train line now connects the north to Colombo and the Cultural Triangle, making it possible to reach Jaffna in one easy day. On route from the capital, we decided to stop by Mannar Island, connected to the mainland by both rail and road bridges.

Sun-baked Mannar Island is extremely dry, with deep red earth, white sand, palm trees, gulls, wild donkeys and fishing boats. It’s the Wild West of Sri Lanka. Though it was once a prosperous pearling centre, Mannar today is one of the poorest parts of the country. The ferry services that, at one time, provided a route to South India, just 30km away, are a distant memory, the old pier now lying decrepit and forlorn.

Out here, this far-flung corner of Sri Lanka feels like a world apart from the rest of the country. With its dusty streets, battle-scarred remnants of the civil war and lack of tourist infrastructure, you might question why a visit here is worthwhile.

But, persevere; Mannar beckons with the promise of an adventure quite unlike anywhere else in the country. With ancient baobab trees native to Africa and crumbling colonial architecture, built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, the island is an intriguing place.

Getting to Mannar Island

The train from Colombo, which took around eight hours, was half-empty and in the final stages, we shared our carriage with just one other person. It was dark by the time we disembarked and a strong wind was blowing.

Luckily, we were greeted by a couple of friendly tuk tuk drivers, and, with none of the hassle or hard bargaining of tourist cities, we were able to quickly find a cheap ride to our accommodation.

Mannar Guest House

Within a five-minute-walk of the bus stand and tiny town centre, Mannar Guest House is ideally located and one that we would recommend. The rooms are clean and simple, the family very friendly and breakfast is included.

Old Dutch Fort

Just outside Mannar town, near the causeway to the island, the Old Dutch Fort is a site worth seeking out. Though in ruins, the walls are atmospheric and enclose the roofless remains of a chapel, dungeon and Dutch bell tower; it is also ringed by a moat. Climbing the ramparts offers a wide view over the town and Gulf of Mannar.

A short walk away lies a famous baobab tree, Baobab Tree Pallimunai, which was supposedly planted by Arab traders. It has a circumference of 20m and is thought to be over 700 years old; locals refer to it as the Elephant Tree since its tough bark resembles the skin of an elephant.

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Chapel remains in the Old Dutch Fort

Talaimannar

During our visit, we also took a bus out to Talaimannar, the point furthest west in Sri Lanka, where ferries used to depart for Rameswaram in India. Here, we explored the area around the rusting old pier and lighthouse, where colourfully painted fishing boats had been hauled up onto the sand. With just a few locals going about their business, the beach here had an end-of-the-world feel.

From the pier, we found a ride to take us a few kilometres further west, to look out at the chain of offshore islets known as Adam’s Bridge – island stepping stones to India. The beach here was wide and expansive and, save for a military installation, felt all-but-forgotten. With the tuk tuk parked on the sand, the three of us gazed out towards India, our driver giving us local insights into his recovering homeland.

If you make it to Mannar, don’t miss a trip out to Talaimannar, a living museum of history and stories. It’s possible to stop en route at Keeri Beach, 5km west of Mannar town, which offers decent swimming.

The island itself is a very multicultural place, with churches, South Indian-style Hindu temples (known as kovils in Sri Lanka) and mosques all to be found within the quiet tangle of streets. This peace, perhaps unremarkable now, is a demonstration of how much things have changed; in 1990 thousands of Muslims were driven out by the LTTE.

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The old pier and lighthouse at Talaimannar

Transport from Mannar Island

Buses:

  • Talaimannar: Rs 65, 30 minutes, hourly
  • Jaffna: Rs 180, 3 hours, 10 daily
  • Colombo: Rs 550, 8 hours, 7 daily

Trains:

  • Colombo: Rs 205/350/620, 8 hours, 2 daily
  • Talaimannar: Rs 50/90/160, 45 minutes, 2 daily

All prices are 3rd, 2nd and 1st class respectively.

We recommend taking a train from Colombo to Mannar Island and then buses to Talaimannar and Jaffna.

Jaffna

Tropical Jaffna feels a million miles from Colombo with none of the capital’s frenetic pace, pollution or traffic jams. Indeed, Jaffna is more a large town than a bustling city, with towering multi-coloured Hindu temples and pretty churches awaiting discovery within the wide leafy boulevards.

With an arid climate for most of the year, much of the Jaffna region is characterised by barren, sun-scorched land, especially so in the Vanni, a vast expanse of hazy white salt flats.

Here, as in Mannar, Tamil is the primary language you’ll hear on the streets; the city is relaxed and locals are friendly, the focus being on building for the future and reviving the rich traditions of life in the north.

Sights in Jaffna

It’s possible to see the main sights of Jaffna in a day or two, though linger longer to day-trip out to the surrounding islands, linked by causeways or ferries, and to explore the peninsula.

Alongside the sacred temples and churches lie green parks, lively markets and the crumbling remains of once great structures. Wandering the quiet streets was a delight, pondering the history of the colonial architecture and taking in sights such as St Mary’s Cathedral, St James Church, Our Lady of Refuge Church, Jaffna Clock Tower and the Public Library – a symbol of northern heritage.

Jaffna Fort

Though not the most awe-inspiring, Jaffna Fort is still a must-see with parts of the complex overlooking the Jaffna lagoon. Built in 1680 over an earlier Portuguese original, it was once one of the greatest Dutch forts in Asia. Today, it’s possible to explore the walls, admire the gateways and moats and take in the views from the ramparts; restoration work is ongoing.

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Jaffna Fort

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

Even though there are many Hindu temples scattered about town, it’s worth making a special effort to see Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. Huge in size and crowned by an immense golden gopuram, it’s one of the most significant in Sri Lanka.

The main deity is Murugan; pujas throughout the day see offerings made to his brass-framed image, as well as to other Hindu deities in shrines surrounding the inner sanctum. Mangoes, a popular restaurant just around the corner, serves tasty dosas and decent lunchtime thalis.

Jaffna Kingdom Relics

Within town, there are also traces of the glorious past of the former Jaffna Kingdom.

Notable remnants include:
  • Sangiliyan Statue – Dedicated to Cankili II, the last king of the Jaffna Kingdom
  • Mantiri Manai – Derelict historic palace
  • Yamuna Eri – Ancient U-shaped women’s bathing pool of the royal family
  • Cankili Thoppu Archway – Believed to be one of the palace’s original entrances; one of its carvings is an inscription to King Sangili from 1519.

All of the above sights can be visited either on foot or by tuk tuk; we found Jaffna compact enough to walk, though we did cover a fair number of kilometres!

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Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

Jaffna Peninsula

To properly explore the Jaffna peninsula and surrounding islands independently, we recommend hiring a scooter from your guesthouse (around Rs 1500/day excluding petrol). Of course, it’s also possible to pay for a car/tuk tuk and driver for the day, though this won’t give you as much freedom and will cost significantly more.

Whilst I drove, Ollie navigated using maps.me, a technique we have found to be highly effective! The main highlight of the Jaffna peninsula is the drive itself, especially along the stunning northern coastal road with its palmyra and coconut palms. Aside from the odd military camp, where you’ll need to detour inland, it’s possible to drive along the entire north coast.

Keerimalai

Our first stop was Keerimalai Sacred Water Spring and the nearby Keerimalai Naguleswaram Kovil. With its legendary healing waters, the spring is still popular today among young boys and men, who enjoy splashing around in the ancient pool overlooking the sea; there is a separate bathing area for women.

The colourful Hindu temple next door is one of Sri Lanka’s sacred shrines dedicated to Shiva, worshipped as the destroyer of evil.

Sakkotai Cape

Continuing your route east, you’ll pass numerous vibrant Hindu temples, a smattering of churches and some pretty white-sand beaches, gaudy fishing boats lining their shores.

Just before you reach Point Pedro, the second town of the peninsula, you’ll see a signboard with the Sri Lankan flag and a small monument, indicating your arrival at Sakkotai Cape, the northern-most point of the country. Here, you really are at Sri Lanka’s final frontier!

Point Pedro

Continue a little further on the coast road to Point Pedro, a town with a few faints hints of colonialism and a mellow vibe. There’s a small rocky beach and a lighthouse that, unfortunately, stands in the shadow of a telecommunications tower. This area was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami.

Exploring the peninsula by motorcycle will likely take a whole day as a trip to and along the north coast and back to Jaffna is quite a few kilometres. But, remember that, in this case, it’s the journey that’s the highlight, not any one particular destination. Take your time, relax and enjoy the ride!

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Shoreline at Point Pedro

Islands around Jaffna

For another ambitious full-day drive, head out to the pretty islands that surround Jaffna, most of which are linked by narrow causeways that stretch across the expanses of water. It really is a surreal feeling to be driving along a narrow isthmus of road, seawater on either side!

We spent an amazing day covering a circular route, taking in the highlights of the all-but-deserted islands, though again, the journey was itself the real reward.

For those interested in following in our footsteps, I’ll briefly highlight the route we took:
  • Road causeway from the western end of Jaffna town to Velanai Island, via Mandaitivu Island; on Velanai stop by Chaatty Beach.
  • Take the causeway to Punkudutivu Island and then on to Kurikadduwan Island, linked by causeway that also passes through Naduturitti Island. From Kurikadduwan gaze across the water to Nainativu Island or alternatively take the ferry across. Nainativu is holy to both Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims with one of Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist sites and one of 64 Shakti shrines located across South Asia.
  • Make your way back to Punkudutivu and stop by an ancient baobab tree. Complete a circular loop of the island, returning to the main road via an off-road sandy track that is sure to test your driving skills.
  • Take the causeway back to Velanai, stopping by sights such as the General Denzil Kobbekaduwa War Memorial (a slight detour) and St. Anthony’s Church in the town of Kayts. There are numerous other churches, as well as Hindu temples, to be found here including St Mary’s and St James Churches.
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War Memorial on Velanai Island
  • From Kayts take the small ferry over to Karainagar Island, which you’ll drive straight across, to take a final causeway back to the Jaffna peninsula. The sun was setting as we returned to the mainland, the colours reflecting off the water on either side.
  • For one final stop before you return to Jaffna, consider detouring north a couple of kilometres to Varatharaja Perumal Kovil, a great way to finish a tiring but rewarding day. From there, take the AB21 straight back to Jaffna, passing the entrance to your first causeway of the day as you re-enter town.

Transport from Jaffna

Buses:

Jaffna has a CTB Bus Stand and a neighbouring Private Bus Stand. There are frequent departures to the following destinations:

  • Anuradhapura: Rs 400, 4 hours, three daily
  • Kandy: Rs 600, 8 hours, 9 daily
  • Mannar: Rs 185, 3 hours, 10 daily
  • Trincomalee: Rs 350, 7 hours, 5 daily
  • Vavuniya: Rs 185, 3 hours, every 30 minutes
  • Colombo: CTB buses – Rs 750, 8 hours, 8 daily/ Private buses – Rs 700/900/1300 (ordinary/semi-luxury/luxury AC), 8 hours, mostly overnight

Trains:

Trains on the Jaffna-Colombo line use Jaffna Railway Station, an art-deco structure that has been lovingly restored. Services include the following:

  • Anuradhapura: Rs 190/340/600, 3-4 hours, 4 daily
  • Colombo: Rs 320/570/1100, 6-8 hours, 4 daily
  • Vavuniya: Rs 150/280/520, 2-3 hours, 4 daily

All prices are 3rd, 2nd and 1st class respectively.

It is perfectly possible, and extremely rewarding, to explore Jaffna and the north independently. An area ripe for off-beat adventures, the north of Sri Lanka is a paradise for those wishing to escape the well-trodden tourists trails of the south and hill country.

At the moment, visitor numbers are minimal, but, with new transport connections and increasing tourist facilities, this could all change. The time to go is now, while the region still retains its originality and high-end resorts are nowhere to be seen.

The local people are welcoming to those who do make it to this far-flung corner of the island and there are none of the hassles or overpricing of further south. For a different side to Sri Lanka, the north promises to deliver.

Have you been to Jaffna? What were your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t miss our next post when we tell you The Best Way to Explore Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities.

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