Sri Lanka: Once off-limits areas are reopening to tourists

Foreign correspondent Peter Popham returns to discover how much has changed since the civil war ended

You can rarely drive more than a couple of blocks in Colombo before a soldier extends an arm to your taxi or tuk-tuk, and subjects car and driver to a security check. So far, so familiar: moving around the Sri Lankan capital has been like this for years. The difference now is that the soldiers generally have smiles on their faces as you pull up. And when they see that the passenger is a tourist, as often as not they send you on your way with a laconic wave.

The checkpoints and the razor wire are still in place, but with its long civil war slipping into the past, Sri Lanka is slowly getting back to normal. No war since the crushing of Nazi Germany was finished off so decisively as this one, with the Tamil Tiger leadership slaughtered in a final showdown last May in a mangrove swamp on the north-east coast. And however fierce the lingering controversy about war crimes and the fate of Tamil civilians caught in the middle, it's wonderful what removing the threat of suicide bombs can do for a nation's mood.

If the difference peace makes is subtle, that's because even at its height the war never closed Sri Lanka down. It never destroyed the things about the island that visitors love most: the glorious beaches of the south and west, the tea estates and the rolling hill country, and even the great archaeological site of Anuradhapura towards the north.

The advent of peace has done little to change the appeal of places on the well-trodden tourist itinerary: the main difference is that they will become more crowded.

But what it does mean is that visitors who love Sri Lanka, and who have perhaps been several times before, can now raise their eyes, unfold their maps and plot journeys to corners that have long been out of bounds. You can travel from Colombo to the north-eastern port town of Trincomalee, for example, by bus, and it will cost you less than 600 rupees (£3.70). But the six-hour journey in squashed conditions and at the mercy of scary drivers is not good for anyone's nerves.

The more comfortable alternative is the 40-minute flight – but at present the only people who offer it are the Sri Lanka Air Force; the one-way fare is a modest 4,000 rupees (£30) and the flight leaves from the military airport on Galle Road, close to the city centre and far more convenient than the international airport. The destination is the military air base in "Trinco". But the service is not advertised, and I would not have known about it if a local journalist friend had not invited me along for the ride.

The Soviet-made Antonov prop plane we travelled in carried only a handful of civilians. Nilaveli, a beach resort a few miles north of Trinco, is on the brink of a serious boom. One of the other passengers on our plane was a local businessman working his cell phone hard, and when we struck up conversation we learnt that he was just about to open a luxury beach hotel in Nilaveli. He invited us to join him for lunch and a look around.

In its most recent incarnation the hotel was a bordello, but scenting a great business opportunity Nigel Coomaraswamy, our new friend, bought the property for £1.2m. The brilliant white beaches were empty in both directions, except for a few cows, and in his view were at least as good as those of the Maldives – and with all the cultural attractions of the Lankan hinterland close by.

He put his speed boat at our disposal, and a short ride brought us to the island for which his hotel – to be called the Pigeon Island Beach Resort – is named, with rock pools, gloriously clean water and coral worth diving to see. Nigel told me he intends to charge $150 (£100) a night for rooms, with $400 or more for the top-priced suites.

After trying Nigel's delicious lobster, and Pigeon Island's welcoming rock pools, I wanted to get closer to the soul of Sri Lanka. I decided to climb what the locals call Sri Pada, the Holy Footprint: a 2,243 metre-high mountain where Sakyamuni Buddha was supposed to have placed his colossal foot when arriving on the island, and which has been a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination for many centuries. (It is known in English as Adam's Peak.)

Using trains and local cabs, I travelled to Ratnapura, a town in the forested hills south-east of Colombo. The Ratnapura Rest House is just the spot for a cut-price sahib – a dignified mansion built by the Dutch centuries ago, crowning the top of the town's highest hill and asking only 1,600 rupees (£9.80) per night for a large, bare room with bathroom adjoining. I checked out at dusk the next day and took a cab to the start of the walk, which traditionally lasts all night.

Ten thousand people must have climbed Sri Pada that Saturday, a public holiday and the night before Poya, the full moon: old ladies climbed barefoot, there were families with small babies, couples with aged relatives who could barely walk and had to be lugged all the way up and down, and about 8,500 English students, all eager to know "What your country?".

For the first few thousand feet, the climb was banal in the extreme: cement steps going straight up, lit by fluorescent tube lights, with frogs and cicadas telegraphing each other across it. Then suddenly it got interesting, the steps were replaced by dripping wet, precipitous boulders, wild ginger fringing the path, the moon breaking through the clouds. When the path broke out into the open, we saw the lights of towns spread out far below, and the silhouette of a hill the shape of a trilby hat. After another 20 minutes of boulder-hopping, the stupa-shaped peak of Sri Pada appeared above us, lit by hundreds of pricks of light.

But there was a ritual to be performed before the final ascent. "Are you going to have a bath?", one young pilgrim asked me, indicating a waterfall ahead. It was 11.50pm, the air temperature had plummeted and an alfresco dip was the last thing on my mind. But I felt much better afterwards.

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