If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!