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.

For more information, visit

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?