After three days of tea’s with locals, temples, curries and lonely donkies, we had truly walked most of Mannar. We headed to the bus station and took a rickety minibus 4 hours North along the Palk Bay to step further in to culture. We were heading to Jaffna. The journey made us feel further away then we ever had before. Sharing the bus with only a handful locals we bumped along the dusty road for hours. The sea looking across to India on our left and baron nothingness on our right. With no buildings or changes of scenery and nearly perfectly flat ground it was almost like driving in the clouds. A very hypnotic hour experience!
4 hours later and we had left behind the sleepy town of Mannar and had arrived in the bustling city of Jaffna! From setting foot out from the bus, it was hard not to feel the Indian influences. It was hot, it was loud, it was busy and all of our senses were pulsating! Buses beeping us out of the way, Tamil music blasting from market sellers, a cow sleeping in the middle of the road, bicycle’s ringing and a young boy trying to sell us rambutan. So we bought some rambutan, pulled out a map and tried to work out where we were and where we were going.
After asking in a few central guesthouses who charged ‘by the hour’, we walked a few kilometres out of the hustle and bustle of the centre. Within the hour we’d found a nice guesthouse with a BIG double room with a four-poster bed for 1000rs. As we’d arrived late we went to bed with some fruit, a big bag of nuts and a map to plan the next few days.
Looking at our map the next morning we had dozens of different places we wanted to visit! They were all over the city so we decided to rent some bicycles to get us around. It was a great decision but as soon as we left we realised that following the map wouldn’t really work. On every corner and down every street something caught our eye. We decided to do what we would do what we do best – wander! Who wants to spend the day rushing from A to B and forgetting about the bits in the middle, ey? We spent the day following our senses; guided by the smell of aromatic curries, the sounds of the temples and the lure of dusty Tamil shops.
Then we tried the food. Bloooody hell. The food in Jaffna is without a doubt some of my favourite food in the world. As a predominately Hindu area it was a Veggies dream. It was honestly harder to find meat on menu’s than veggie food. If only all countries were the same! The food was fresh, filling, incredibly tasty and so damn cheap – noticeably cheaper than the rest of Sri Lanka. We found what turned out to be my favourite restaurant in the world, Sri Saiee Bavaan and had some of the tastiest curries and sundries I’ve ever had. Everyday the curries were different and the locals and owners became our friends. Served on a banana leaf and eaten by hand. Perfection.
Returning feeling energised from our first day exploring we realised we had barely made a dent after 12 hours wandering! There was so much more to see, this was going to take more time! A 3 day stay turned into a 4 day stay. Then 5. It ended up being a 7 day adventure that stole our hearts.
String hoppers started the next day and armed with our bikes we headed back out. Finding small fishing communities to the south, buying incense from a little guy and stumbling across a crumbling, old graveyard.
In the afternoon we stopped for some coconuts and some dosas. Later we cycled out to the incredible Nallur Kandaswamy temple during the evening puja which was a truly humbling experience! The locals welcomed us and explained their practices and ceremonies. It was an amazing insight into Hindu faith and culture in Sri Lanka. Finishing our day, we spent hours talking to a local yoga instructor in the vegetarian restaurant outside and saw some beautiful churches!
Over the next few days we ate an abundance of curries, sundries and loads of local foods I never found out the name of. Watching some unbelievable sunsets and discovering another one of Sri Lanka’s Forts, along with all of its inhabitants!
Ditching the bikes we jumped on a bus to see the miniature dagoba’s in Kantharodai which are said to contain the remains of old Buddhist monks and are at least 2000 years old. Like most of the other places we saw in Jaffna, we had the place to ourselves, besides a few goats!
We’d heard about some hot springs about 25km North of Jaffna so we jumped on another bus and made some more friends. Getting off at the wrong stop, we walked down the dirt track towards the hot springs. It was baking hot and we’d walked for about 10 minutes before we saw any other signs of life. A elderly Tamil man slowed down as he approached on an old scooter, asked if we were going to the Keerimalai hot springs and signalled for us to get on the back. The scooter chugged along not much quicker than a jogging pace and 10 minutes later we arrived. We jumped off the back and as soon as our feet hit the floor the driver was off in a cloud of dust, no goodbye or financial requests.
The hot springs were old and filled with character and the locals believe they have healing properties. I jumped in and shared the waters with a group of young boys who were very keen to show off their diving skills. Just outside we saw the Naguleswaram temple which the locals said was one of the oldest shrines in the North. It had been destroyed by the Portuguese and again by the civil war but had recently been rebuilt.
Our final day in Jaffna was the highlight of our three month stay in Sri Lanka. West of the city, the Jaffna Peninsula has a collection of islands spreading away from the mainland towards India. Boats will occasionally connect the islands and others are linked by roads. Home to forgotten temples, lagoons, migrating birds and wild ponies, we decided to rent a scooter, take a big veggie pack-up and spend the day exploring the islands!
Leaving the mainland, the single lane road was empty and we first crossed over to the island of Mandativu. We quickly felt a million miles away. With a light blue sky blending in with the still sea, looking ahead it was hard to know where water stopped and the sky began. Following the dusty road ahead we came to some small temples with nobody but some sleepy dogs around. It literally felt like a sandy forgotten world that we’d somehow discovered. We found cows and birds but no people and felt incredibly lucky to have this experience to ourselves.
We gradually crossed over to the island of Punkudutivu and saw the first signs of human life. A tuk tuk. We crossed further over the island towards the ferry port which would take us to the holy Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil temple on the neighbouring island of Nainativu. As we got closer and closer we were joined by more and more locals who would also be taking the ferry over to see the temple. We parked up the bike walked along the jetty towards the small wooden boats. Sticking out like a sore thumb, we climbed into boat and got to know the rest of the passengers.
As soon as we left the crowded boat the temple was in sight and we followed the trail of locals. In conversation on the boat we were told that the temple is sacred to the goddess Ambal, and newborn babies are traditionally brought to the island to receive blessings. Further down the road we also saw the Nagadipa Vihara temple; a small Buddhist temple which is rare in the region.
We wandered for hours, sat and had our fruity lunch and then continued wondering. Eventually we got a boat back over to the mainland connected islands. Once again we were away from humanity and driving into nothingness. We drove off a small side road and just sat, taking in our surroundings. I felt like we were the only people in the world and with nothing but the sounds of wind slowly blowing over, I realised we were in a baron paradise. Then we saw some flamingos !!! Bloody icing on the cake. Who even knew there were flamingos in Sri Lanka! We drove back through more beautiful surroundings and finished the day with a beautiful curry. Couldn’t get any better.
In our 3 days which turned into a week, we couldn’t get enough of Jaffna. If you are looking for home comforts, established tourist infrastructure, activities and well maintained attractions then Jaffna certainly ISN’T for you. However, If you want a step further into culture from the rest of the Sri Lankan island then this should be your first choice!
The war and different waves of immigrants through history have cut the North off from the rest of the country. This has pickled and fermented the culture and what you get is a beautiful mix of Sri Lankan flavours with Tamil spices. People who are proud of their individualism and curious and happy of visiting travellers, collections of dusty vintage cars and lazy roadside cows, a tantalising and varied local cuisine and a HUGE area ripe for exploring without having to share it with others. Don’t read the guidebooks, don’t follow a map, just get to Jaffna and follow your senses, you won’t regret it!
Have you been to Jaffna? Did it blow your mind as well? Let us know in the comments box!