After spending three months in Sri Lanka we had already fallen in love with the incredible island. We thought we might have experienced everything that was on offer but then we ventured north and realised our journey had just begun; we were heading for Jaffna! Two days turned into four, and four quickly turned into eight. The North captured our hearts and we were so glad we stepped further into culture and discovered Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka.
After three days of tea with locals, temples, curries and lonely donkeys we had truly walked all of Mannar. We headed to the bus station and took a rickety minibus 4 hours north along the Palk Bay. The journey made us feel further away than ever before and we bumped along the dusty road for hours with a handful of inquisitive locals. On our left hand side an eerily flat sea looking across to India and on our right baron nothingness. With no buildings or changes of scenery and nearly perfectly flat ground it was a very hypnotic experience that felt like driving in the clouds.
With our dreamy drive completed we stepped of the bus and could immediately tell this was nothing like the rest of the island. The Indian influence was strong, 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, bicycles ringing and a young boy selling rambutan. We bought some rambutan, pulled out a map and tried to work out where we were going.
After an hours walk all the guesthouses we discovered ‘charged by the hour’, so, we walked a few kilometres out of the hustle and bustle of the centre. Soon enough we found a BIG double room with a four-poster bed for 1000rs. Perfect. As we had 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 and spend the day peddling 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 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 guided by the smell of aromatic curries, the sound of 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 our favourite food in the world. As a predominately Hindu area it’s a veggie’s dream and it’s harder to find meat on menu 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, the food really hit the spot.
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 and we knew this was going to take more time. A two day stay turned into a four day stay. Then five. It ended up being an eight day adventure that really was the icing on an already delicious vegan cake.
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 an old, crumbling graveyard.
Looking for other off-the-beaten-track destinations in Sri Lanka?
In the afternoon we refreshed with some coconuts and dosas. Later we cycled 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. To finish our day we spent hours talking to a local yoga instructor in a vegetarian restaurant outside and saw some beautiful churches on the way back home.
Over the next few days we ate an abundance of curries, sundries and local foods I never found out the name of. Along the way watching some unbelievable sunsets and discovering another one of Sri Lanka’s fascinating forts with it’s inhabitants!
Ditching the bikes we jumped on a bus to see the miniature dagobas in Kantharodai. These ancient monuments are said to contain the remains of old Buddhist monks and were made over 2000 years old. Like most of the other places we saw in Jaffna we had the place to ourselves (besides a few goats).
We heard about some hot springs 25km north of Jaffna so we jumped on a bus and made some more friends. Getting off at the wrong stop we walked down the dirt track towards the hot springs for what seemed like an age. It was baking hot and we’d walked for a long time before we saw any other signs of life. A elderly Tamil man slowed down as he approached on an old scooter, he 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.
Need some inspiration for the rest of Sri Lanka?
The hot springs are believed to have healing properties and were filled with character, atmosphere and locals. 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, one of the oldest shrines in the North according to our bus driver. Years ago it was destroyed by the Portuguese and again during the civil war but had recently been rebuilt.
Our final day in Jaffna was the most unforgettable part 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 occasionally travel to 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 we followed a deserted single lane road all the way to the island of Mandativu. We quickly felt a million miles away. With a light blue sky blending in with the still sea it was hard to know where the water stopped and where the sky began. Following the dusty road we came to some small temples with nothing but some sleepy dogs lying around. It 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 mysterious experience all 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 to the ferry we were joined by more and more locals who were also taking the ferry to see the temple. We parked the bike and 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. We were told the temple was sacred to the goddess Ambal and newborn babies are traditionally brought to the island to receive blessings. It was a really incredible temple and you could see the faith and devotion in the families and children. Further down the road we also saw the Nagadipa Vihara temple; a small Buddhist temple which was uncommon in this primarily Tamil region.
We wandered for hours, sat and had our fruity lunch and then continued vagabonding. With nowhere to be and no map to follow we drifted around the peninsula and lost track of time. After a few more hours we got a boat back over to the previous island and were isolated, away from humanity and driving into nothingness again. To take in our surroundings we drove off a small side road and just sat. It felt like we were the only people in the world and with nothing but the sound of wind slowly blowing I realised we were in a baron paradise. Then we saw some flamingos!!! 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.
Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka – Step Further Into Culture Pt. 2
In our two days which turned into eight we couldn’t get enough of Jaffna. If you’re looking for home comforts, established tourist infrastructure, activities and well maintained attractions then Jaffna certainly ISN’T for you. However, If you want to step further into culture from the rest of Sri Lankan then this should definitely be your first choice!
The war and different waves of immigrantion have cut the North off from the rest of the country. This has pickled and fermented the culture creating a wonderfully rich mix of Sri Lankan flavours with Tamil spices. People are proud of their individualism and curious of visiting travellers, you’ll find 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!