Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri LankaIf there was a single point we lost faith in guidebooks it was probably in Sri Lanka. As we had limited internet most of our travel planning was done with dusty guidebooks found lying around in hostels. Every book would give Colombo 50-100 pages despite it being pretty shit uninspiring. The Vanni or Northern 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 island and discovered Mannar, Sri Lanka. Keep reading to find out why you should do the same and why you shouldn’t listen to the guidebooks!

It was a 3 hours train journey from Anuradhapura to our first Northern destination; Mannar. From the word go it was clear to see that few travellers ventured here, we definitely stood out. It was obvious that the regions past and guidebook’s descriptions had put off a lot of travellers. After three months in Sri Lanka the locals had been incredibly welcoming but in the North this was even more true. People seemed genuinely happy we were visiting. 5 minutes into our journey and we were sharing food with the rest of the carriage, making some friends who were very curious of our camera.

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

Mannar station is very isolated. With one dusty platform the crowds and vadai sellers are replaced by cows wandering across the tracks. The  conductors are replaced by lonely donkeys 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 (it should be the other way round, right?). We told the driver the name of a hostel given to us by our new friends on the train, he smiled and we were off.

Although it can be risky we didn’t actually 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 had no idea what to expect from our lodgings, we just knew the name. Now standing outside this flamboyant Mannar Guest House I wasn’t sure what to think.

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
This place definitely stood out!

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 but 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. Plus, a very jumpy frog in our bathroom which seemed to take hours to catch and release outside.

A Step Further in to Culture Pt. 1 Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
Pin me!

Culturally Northern Sri Lanka leaves behind the Buddhist majority on 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 and you’ll notice it within 5 minutes of arriving. Being in a Hindu area meant many things to us but most importantly it meant 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.

Check out the ultimate vagabond’s bucket list for Sri Lanka!

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
Man, you can’t say that doesn’t look good!

We found out very quickly that getting from A to B in Mannar would take a while. People really wanted to chat, everywhere, and most journeys would be accompanied by one or two new friends. Night markets and midnight roti shops were filled by locals drinking lots of cups of tea. Market stalls and shops were amazing experiences and we watched as local families negotiated for their daily needs. The prices we paid were the same as the locals after some eavesdropping but a good level of haggling was required.

We were even given half a jackfruit FOR FREE!

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
Everything tastes better when it’s free!

Our days were taken at a slow pace, vagabonding around town meeting the locals and exploring the culture. We discovered a 700 year old Baobab tree that was truly larger than life. Locals told us the tree was named Ali Gaha, meaning elephant tree because of it’s elephant like bark. We encountered more donkeys staring into the abyss and spent days discovering temple after temple and curry after curry. That’s definitely our kind of travelling!

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
700 year old baobab tree, Mannar, Sri Lanka
Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
Staring into the abyss

One of our favourite parts of Mannar was definitely the Dutch Fort (1560). After three months on the island we’d seen our fair share of forts but Mannar was still 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 to clamber around and imagine you’re back in the era of the Dutch occupation.

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

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We were told about an interesting pilgrimage site called Our Lady of Madhu so we hopped on a bus to take a look – the site was said to protect against snake bites so it sounded right up our street. As soon as we got off the bus we got one of those horrible travelling feelings when you know something isn’t right. We were right, we’d left our bag on the bus! Fortunately two hours later the bus returned and the driver jumped out and handed us the bag. Before we could even say thank you he was back on the bus and tearing down the road. 

The shrine itself is in a Roman Catholic church said to be the most important on the whole island. The church wasn’t much to look at but it was interesting to learn about why it meant so much to the locals there. It was also a beautiful day and we were happy to have our bag back, so we wondered around for hours chatting with everyone that was available to chat with.

Click on the photo below to read about our adventures in Jaffna!

The Thirukketheeswaram Temple was on the way back so we stopped for a wander. The temple was built in 1575 and dedicated to Lord Shiva but was completely empty and very isolated. Together with the impressive building it really added to the mysterious atmosphere. Like many Hindu temples shirts are were not allowed, ladies don’t be put off this only applies to men!

Step Further into Culture - Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka
Step Further into Culture – Mannar, Northern Sri Lanka

After three days of tea with locals, temples, curries and lonely donkeys we had truly walked most of Mannar. Mannar is a sleepy town but definitely not the one we read about in the guidebooks. There were no bullet holes, no war-ravaged areas just a fascinating town filled with fascinating people and a fascinating culture. The curries really were mouth watering and it was beautiful to be away from the crowds and have locals glad to see you. The unexplored land is the perfect place for local encounters and to experience Tamil culture at a laid back pace. A visit to Mannar and Northern Sri Lanka will give you experiences not possible in other parts of the country, it will take you away from the crowds and help show you a side to the land you didn’t know existed.

Have you been to Mannar or discovered any other off-the-beaten-track destinations in Sri Lanka? Tell us in the comments section below!

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24 Responses

  • Great photos! I have a weakness for really old trees, now I really want to go visit to see that old baobab! I’ve always been interested in Sri Lanka and now you made me really want to go! And the food look awesome. Getting hungry… 😋

    • The boabab tree was incredibly impressive! All of Sri Lanka is mindblowing actually, if you get away from the touristy areas it’s such a beautiful country. Plus the food!

  • A lot of people I know visited Sri Lanka last year, and each one of them was thrilled! It’s always a pleasure to discover hidden gems overlooked in the guidebooks, right? 🙂 And the food looks gorgeous!

  • Your pictures are amazing! And so inspiring! The fact that the locals are so friendly is also a huge bonus for us when we visit a new place. We love making new friends along the road and I think it helps to get to know different cultures too!

    • Honestly, you really didn’t have to try hard to take good photos. We were surrounded by amazing places! Yes, the people you met along the way really make the journey!

  • I’d love to know what the donkeys are thinking! That’s the kind of gentle exploring I love, just going with the flow and seeing what happens. It looks inviting, and the friendliness of the people you met counts for a lot. Thanks for the heads up on the ghee too; I wouldn’t have thought of that.

    • I’ve thought the exact same thing, there is so much expression and feeling in their eyes. The ghee is a big one to watch out for but all places we came across were accommodating 🙂

  • Loved seeing all of the temples and pilgrimage sites, and I’m really intrigued that shirts were not allowed! I’m not incredibly familiar with Hinduism–what’s the reasoning behind that? I’m curious.

  • Sri Lanka’s always been on my radar, but flight tickets are out of the budget..for now! The food looks incredible and the photos as a whole are amazing! It’s so cool to see the disregard for guide books too, they always take you on a pretty, safe path, or they leave out the best parts. I often wonder if it’s intentional.

    • Totally agree, you’re just taken to the same spots as everyone else. I definitely think the best thing is to speak to a local and see where they thinks cool. Most of the time you’ll find amazing places away from the crowds.

  • I haven’t been to Sri Lanka yet! Argh I need to go. After reading your article I’d definitely love to check out Mannar, that food looks delicious and love the opening photo’s with the very curious local haha. Teas, Temples and Curries = I’m there!

  • Heading to India soon so will be oh so close to Sri Lanka but just can’t fit it in this time. Looking forward to it though as I suspect there will be many similarities with SL, particularly seeing animals walking freely in the street and the food culture as well. It doesn’t surprise me that the locals were friendly. That’s the best part of travel.

    • Yes Northern Sri Lanka has a very similar feel and cultures with Southern India and Tamil Nadu. Where abouts in India are you going?

  • How colorful and picturesque! Sri Lanka does seem like a friendly place for vegetarians. Did you try the baobab’s fruit? I’m a bit envious that you had an incredible trip. South Asia is one of my dream destinations. I could smell all the spices that were in your food. 😊

    • Ahh, actually I don’t think I need. Ha, I didn’t actually know it had edible fruit either… it’s on my hit list!

  • Hi there my loved ones associate! I want to say that this particular article rocks !, great created you need to include about just about all significant infos. I’d like to discover more discussions like this .. cooks windo Dinners

  • Brilliant guys! These are the best places. Off the beaten path, rarely covered in guidebooks. You look like a foreigner but feel at home after getting over self conscious stuff. Love it. Those donkeys are still staring into the abyss LOL.


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