If there was a single point in losing my faith in guidebooks, it was probably in Sri Lanka. Our travel planning was done with old guidebooks found lying around in hostels as we had limited internet. Every book we looked through would give Colombo 50-100 pages. The Vanni, or the Northern corner of Sri Lanka was lucky to get 20 pages for the WHOLE region (some didn’t even feature it). Each section started along the lines of ‘a region ravaged by war’ or ‘on the road to recovery’. From what we’d read, the area was known only for it’s war-torn past and had little reasons to bring in visitors. How glad I am that we didn’t listen to the guide books. We stepped further into culture from the rest of Sri Lanka and discovered the North. Keep reading to find out why you should do the same and why you shouldn’t listen to the guidebooks!
After a 3 hours train from Anuradhapura we arrived at our first Northern destination – Mannar. From the word go I noticed people received us differently. Sri Lankan’s are generally incredibly hospitable and friendly but in the North this was even more true. People seemed genuinely happy that we were visiting. It was also obvious that the regions past and guidebook’s descriptions had put off a lot of travellers. 5 minutes into our journey and the rest of the carriage was sharing lunch with us and we made some friends who were very curious of our camera.
Mannar station was very isolated. With one dusty platform – the crowds of families and vadai sellers were replaced by cows wandering across the tracks. The conductor replaced by a lonely donkey staring into the abyss (there were a lot of donkeys staring into the abyss in Mannar). We walked over to a tuk tuk and initiated a conversation, a change from the normal soliciting drivers. Giving the name of a hostel recommended by our new friends on the train, the driver smiled and we were off.
Although it can be risky, we didn’t know how far the journey was meant to be. We got off the tuk tuk 15 minutes later and gave the requested 100rs. Not so bad. We only knew the name of the hostel so we didn’t know what to expect. Now standing outside this flamboyant Mannar Guest House I really didn’t know what to think.
After driving through some very under-developed areas to reach our destination, this place stuck out like a sore thumb. I was nervous about the price. At 2000rs it wasn’t the cheapest place we’d stayed but it was okay. It was actually very nice inside, with a comfy double bed and a clean, shiny private bathroom and shower.
Culturally, Northern Sri Lanka leaves behind the Buddhist majority of the rest of the island. It’s home to primarily Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils who are Hindu, giving the North a much stronger cultural connection with India. You’ll notice it within 5 minutes of arriving! Being in a Hindu area meant many things to us, but the most important things were; Hindu temples and veggie restaurants! Each day we picked the busiest place to try some local grub and my god it was good! Vegans, be careful as some of the foods contain ghee.
Getting from A to B in Mannar would take a while. This we found out very quickly. People really wanted to chat, everywhere, and most journeys would be accompanied by one or two new friends. Market stalls and shops were amazing experiences! We watched as local families picked up their daily needs. The prices we paid were the same as the locals after some eavesdropping but a good level of haggling was required. An added bonus, we were even given half a jackfruit FOR FREE!
Discovering an ancient Baobab tree which was over 700 years old, encountering more donkeys staring into the abyss and spending the day walking from temple to temple.
Night markets and midnight roti shops were filled by locals and lots of cups of tea. The next day we adventured the Dutch Fort (1560). After 3 months in Sri Lanka, having seen our fair share of forts, Mannar was our favourite! Not as big, famous or well kept as others in Sri Lanka – Mannar Fort made up by being the complete opposite; Small, unknown and crumbling. You can have the place to yourselves – clamber around and take a step back in time to the era of the Dutch occupation.
We were told about Our Lady of Madhu, a pilgrimage site which was said to protect against snake bites. So, we hopped on a bus to take a look. Clumsily, we left our bag on the bus with all of our valuables. The bus returned with the driver jumping out to give us the bag two hours later. He looked more concerned than we did! The Thirukketheeswaram Temple was on the way back so we stopped for a wander. It was very isolated and empty but the emptiness added to the mysterious atmosphere. The temple was built in 1575 and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Like many Hindu temples shirts are were not allowed (ladies don’t be put off this only applies to men)!
After three days of tea’s with locals, temples, curries and lonely donkies, we had truly walked most of Mannar. Mannar is a sleepy town. The people are curious and endearing and the curries bountiful and mouth watering. If you want to experience Tamil culture at a laid back pace Mannar is ideal. Have fascinating local encounters, wonder around temples and forts with few tourists in site and see a completely different side to the country. Step further into culture and discover Mannar!
Did you venture into Northern Sri Lanka? Have you got any tips for a visit? Let us know in the comments box!
Click on the photo below to read about our adventures in Jaffna!