Sri Lanka's Slow Return to Paradise

Three years after a cease-fire was declared, a measure of tranquillity has descended on this magical island. Glyn Vincent tours a country teetering between war and peace.

The morning of my arrival in Sri Lanka, I sat in a tropical garden in Colombo watching a stray cat thread its way through frangipani branches overhanging a stucco wall. A bird hidden amid the dense vines and banana and mango trees made a strange whoo, whoo, whoo call that ascended to an angry pitch, while Buddhist monks chanted hypnotically in the distance. I was visiting Asia for the first time, and Sri Lanka, the land of myth and serendipity, of rainforests and wild elephants, was promising to be every bit as exotic as I'd hoped. Perhaps even more than I'd bargained for: Hours after my arrival, news reached us that fighting had broken out. The Tamil Tigers (an ethnic separatist group) had landed on the east coast and crossed into government-controlled territory, arousing fears that the country's brutal civil war might resume.

As my host, Judy Grayson, who manages a United Nations demining effort, called her colleagues stationed in the eastern section of the island to assess the situation, I nursed my third cup of tea. I was not, I had to admit, one of those combat journalists who embrace the sound of gunfire as though it were a bat hitting a home run at Shea Stadium. Grayson, a pack-a-day smoker with dark, curly locks and the can-do spirit of a Susan Sarandon, has worked in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chad. "The fighting," she said, a reassuring grin on her freckled face, "will probably blow over in two or three days."

Chances were, she would be proved right. In February 2002 the Sri Lankan government signed a cease-fire agreement—brokered by Norway—with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers or LTTE for short). For over two years now the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese of south central Sri Lanka and the Hindu Tamil of the north have lived mostly in peace. And while there have been isolated incidences of violence (including a suicide bombing by a Tamil terrorist in July that killed four policemen in Colombo), international aid and investment have poured into the country as have tourists. Last year alone, close to a half million European, Asian, and Australian vacationers came flocking back.

It's not hard to understand why. Sri Lanka, the lush, pendant-shaped island located at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, has lured foreign visitors since ancient times. Waves of emigration and invasions from India by the Sinhalese began in the sixth century b.c. The first European colonialists, the Portuguese, arrived in the early 16th century. They were followed by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, and eventually the British, who took control of what was then called Ceylon, in 1796. The island finally achieved independence in 1948. By the 1970s, unrest among the Tamil, many of whom had been brought over from India by the English to pick tea and had long felt marginalized by the Sinhalese, had become an open insurgency.

Today a direct flight from Paris or London deposits you in Sri Lanka in ten hours. First-class travelers are apt to head for one of the island's many sumptuous villas or new boutique hotels in the southwest. My flight also carried a few young, carefree adventurers (tank tops and drawstring pants) and a group of French and Belgian tourists I would later spot at the Dambulla cave temples in matching yellow-and-black sarongs.

A small country about 270 miles long, Sri Lanka is easily traversed. Its diversity of species is, as a lepidopterist might point out, one of the most impressive in the world. Elephants loaf on the beaches, leopards slink through mountain rainforests, and monkeys land on your hotel balcony. Along with the impressive wildlife, ancient Buddhist ruins beckon, and hundreds of miles of tropical beach await the unfurling of a towel. Deciding where to go first can be a problem.

Indeed, later the day of my arrival, I found myself hunched in the tiny backseat of a trishaw with Grayson, ricocheting through traffic as we made our way to the Galle Face Hotel on the Colombo seafront to discuss our itinerary over a cool drink. This once-grand colonial establishment's airy salons were getting a fresh coat of paint. We sat on a terrace near the mahogany bar and a bronze bust of Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and still Sri Lanka's most celebrated literary resident. It was hard not to think of the decadent Dutch and English elite who lingered in Sri Lanka long after their governments' hegemony had peaked. On the plane coming over, I had read the evocative memoir Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje (of English Patient fame), about Ceylon in the twenties and thirties. Many other writers, Paul Bowles, D.H. Lawrence, and Leonard Woolf among them, had also dipped their pens in Indian Ocean ink here. In their honor I ordered that classic English summer drink—a Pimm's and soda.

Our plan was to spend several days near the towns of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in the cool hill country in the southern central part of the island—best known for its vast estates of undulating tea fields and cloud-shrouded mountain peaks—before continuing on to the ancient ruins of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa in the north central plains. We had agreed to forgo the well-trod tropical beach resorts of the southwest, but I wanted to stop somewhere along the way at one of the many national parks to see wild elephants. "Don't worry," Grayson said. "We see elephants all the time crossing the roads around Trincomalee." This port on the northeast coast is surrounded by undeveloped beaches and was near our final destination. It also happened to be close to where the Tamil Tigers had made their recent incursion.

"Our driver is worried about whether Polonnaruwa is safe. And he's never even been to Trincomalee," Grayson told me. "Really?" I said, trying not to sound overly concerned. Both were important stops on our itinerary, so our driver's comment was more than a nettlesome detail. But under the influence of the wilting heat, my Pimm's, and Grayson's optimism, I let it pass. Only later did I learn that most Sinhalese (who make up 74 percent of Sri Lanka's population) have not visited the Tamil-dominated north and northeast since the beginning of the war.

The next day Grayson, along with her friend Ranbir Sidhu, an American novelist of Indian descent who'd been living in Sri Lanka for three months; our driver, Sanpath Buddika; Grayson's security guard, Patrick Nimal; and I packed up our van with luggage, a case of wine, a bottle of scotch, some French cheese, and CD players, laptops, and books. In truth, the ever courteous Sanpath and Patrick did the loading—most Sri Lankans I met tended to be embarrassingly deferential and friendly to foreigners.

I saw little sign of any war past or present during the first week of our driving expedition. The army checkpoints were unmanned. The tourists we came across were, for the most part, unflustered by the continued military skirmishes in the east. It wasn't the war that we tourists worried about, it was the crowds on hand for the Sri Lankan New Year holiday on April 13. The towns and the roads were jammed. Firecrackers—not gunfire—crackled at night. In Kandy, we drove by stores with names like "String Hopper Take Away" and "Camera Repair-Dental Surgery." Although the city is considered a Buddhist holy site of sorts, it seemed like there were more people buying plastic shoes than there were pilgrims visiting the Temple of the Tooth (a famous shrine, bombed by Tamils in 1998, which houses the Buddha's sacred incisor).

It wasn't until I was under the shade of a tall, quirkily shaped Cook pine tree in the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens (a bounty of horticultural oddities), six kilometers outside Kandy, while bats with four-foot wingspans flew overhead that I felt immersed in the South Asia I had come looking for. That evening, on our hotel balcony with a view of the valley and the Buddhist temple below, monkeys jabbered as they bounded from tree to tree and flocks of parrots and crows crossed the darkening sky. By the time we reached Horton Plains the next day, walking on a vast grassy plateau 6,000 feet up, I felt as if I had entered a strange diorama—a land with ferns the size of trees, where, at any moment, a dinosaur or a hobbit might suddenly cross my path.

Descending from the hill country toward the north central plains, the road straightened out and rice, coconut, cashew, mango, and banana farms extended in every direction. Near Dambulla, we stayed at the extraordinarily situated Kandalama Hotel, designed by the celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Having climbed 5,200 stairs the previous night to the summit of a flat-topped mountain called Adam's Peak (a six-hour trek better skipped by all but the most dedicated of sightseers), we were ready for Bawa's landscape-inspired luxury. This kilometer-long hotel is nestled at the base of a small cliff, its roof, walls, and balconies camouflaged by climbing vines, with views on one side of distant Jurassic hills and on the other, a lake on a semiarid plain reminiscent of those in Kenya. I was the only American tourist among the pods of Italians, Japanese, and Aussies savoring the aromatic curries in the hotel's vast glass-enclosed dining room. But we did meet a U.S. Embassy attaché who was traveling with his family and confirmed that the fighting east of us had abated; the renegade Tamil commander, Colonel Karuna, was, he informed us, on the run.

The next day, as Grayson and Sidhu luxuriated by turns in the hotel's three pools, I pulled on my hiking shoes again and made my way to the nearby Buddhist temple caves, and then, late in the afternoon, to the spectacular, ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya. I arrived just before sunset, the last tourist to get a pass before the ticket clerk closed his window. The palace gardens (built in the fifth century) at the base of the cliff were nearly deserted. At the summit I gazed at the ancient ruins as I sat, letting the wind dry my shirt, damp from the vertiginous climb up the cliff.

The following day Grayson and I traveled on to Polonnaruwa, which from the late 10th century to the 13th century a.d. was the capital of the Sinhalese kingdoms. The most impressive ancient Buddhist sculptures and temples in the country are scattered in a sparse forest that stretches for miles along an ancient "tank" (the country is dotted with such centuries-old reservoirs). Aside from monkeys and a group of Buddhist monks in orange robes, we had the site to ourselves.

Polonnaruwa is a scant 20 miles or so from the Verugal River area where the Tamil guerrillas had been fighting days earlier. Though we saw one day-trip tourist bus parked at the ruins, the army checkpoints outside town were staffed with soldiers (they waved us on happily with hardly a pause when they saw we were tourists) and the small local hotels were quite empty. In fact, we were the only ones having lunch at the Rest House's breezy restaurant built on stilts over the water. Neehan, our middle-aged Sinhalese waiter, reacted cautiously when I raised the subject of the war. As had many others, he first insisted that the country was completely safe. But then, after telling us that his wife's family was from the city of Jaffna (in the north) and owned a small property there, he conceded that they had not yet been able to return to it. "Here we are free," Neehan said, "but we cannot travel where we want." When I pressed further, asking whether there were lingering feelings of animosity between the Tamil and the Sinhalese population, he wagged his head back and forth, in the ubiquitous Sri Lankan gesture that can mean anything from "yes" to "maybe" to "I don't know." "My son is twenty-one years old," he told me. "He doesn't care what race anyone is. He is not angry."

There were few tourists of any nationality in Trincomalee. A bundle of contradictions, the port, heavily populated by Tamils, is touted in tourist literature as the hub of the next Sri Lankan Riviera. Bustling with people on bicycles and shoppers dressed in brightly colored robes, it's also bristling with fortified army checkpoints and military bases, one of which was situated 75 yards down the beach from our hotel. My first evening there, as I sipped a cocktail in the setting sun, watching the local villagers splash happily in the Indian Ocean's warm surf, my reverie was interrupted by the sight of a platoon of soldiers returning from patrol—a reminder of what the local newspapers described as the ongoing "confrontations" in the area.

While the white adobe wall around the hotel compound was somewhat reassuring, the few Europeans sunning themselves by the pool at the Nilaveli Beach Hotel turned out to be either Norwegian peacekeepers or other international aid workers on their day off. The exception was one young vacationing English couple, who showed up at the hotel with their two-year-old daughter, Maya. The mother, Rachel Chung, told me the family had just spent two blissful weeks in Mirissa—a sleepy seaside village recently discovered by the jet set—on the south coast. "We were quite cautious about coming up here, actually," Chung explained. "But the Sri Lankans we talked to all said it was okay. That as tourists we were safe." It's true that the Tamils have not deliberately targeted tourists, but there have been occasional incidents in recent years of tourists and civilians being caught in the crossfire of local disturbances. The area north of Nilaveli, still dense with refugee camps, destroyed houses, and mined fields, remains, for the moment, best avoided unless you are traveling in an official international vehicle with a flag flying high.

After accompanying Grayson on a U.N. demining expedition to the north, I decided to visit Velgam Vihara, just to the northwest of Trincomalee. Vihara, a small isolated Buddhist ruin, was the site of an LTTE massacre of 26 Sinhalese soldiers and civilians in 2000. I went there with Sanpath in our unmarked civilian vehicle. I had been assured that the area was safe, but the road was empty, lacking the government checkpoints we had become accustomed to. After we had traveled ten kilometers through desolate scrub growth, I started to sense Sanpath's growing unease, acutely aware that he was relying on my judgment to keep us out of harm's way. Even though I felt confident that we were not taking an unnecessary risk, we were both relieved when we finally passed a small military barracks and spotted soldiers drawing water from a well outside the ruins we had come to see. The temple monk, Seelawansa Tissa Thero, who had witnessed the massacre, was engaged in conversation with local officials and army officers. His announcement to me that Tamil rebels were based less than a kilometer from the soldiers' sleeping quarters was greeted with nervous chuckles from the officers. "The peace is risky," Thero told me. "Most Tamils want peace, but some LTTE just want to continue the fight."

On the return journey to Colombo, we stopped at Minneriya National Park. My park guide drove the open-air jeep down a winding dirt road through the forest, pointing out exotic long-beaked green bee-eaters and peacocks in the underbrush. When we emerged on the plain, the sight of wild elephants grazing quietly under a vast sky of broken clouds, just as they had done for thousands of years, seemed to augur well for the country. Relaxing on the veranda of my private "chalet" at the nearby Lodge hotel, I listened to the familiar cacophony of bird chatter in the dimming light. The military tensions of Trincomalee seemed far away, as if they belonged to another country altogether. Indeed, had I spent my trip lolling at one of the enticing beach resorts in the southwest, I might have concluded that Sri Lanka's troubles were over. But I experienced a more complicated place. I saw sleek hotels and bombed-out buildings, blissful beachcombers and displaced refugees, startling wildlife and heavily armed soldiers. I saw a rich and varied country whose future hangs tenuously in the balance between war and peace.

 

House Proud

 

Sri Lanka has many excellent hotels, but recently travelers have fallen in love with its array of extraordinary private villas. "It started rather organically about five years ago," says James Jayasundera, of London-based AMPERSAND TRAVEL ($ www.ampersandtravel.com; 44-207/723-4336). "A few European expats bought homes, fixed them up, and then let them to friends." Jayasundera oversees several properties and is an excellent resource for travelers planning a visit. Also try EDEN VILLAS ($ www.villasinsrilanka.com; 94-91/223-2569), run by Jack and Jo Eden. This English couple moved to Sri Lanka in 1998 and now manage some of the island's most impressive properties.

Sri Lanka has many excellent hotels, but recently travelers have fallen in love with its array of extraordinary private villas. "It started rather organically about five years ago," says James Jayasundera, of London-based AMPERSAND TRAVEL ($ www.ampersandtravel.com; 44-207/723-4336). "A few European expats bought homes, fixed them up, and then let them to friends." Jayasundera oversees several properties and is an excellent resource for travelers planning a visit. Also try EDEN VILLAS ($ www.villasinsrilanka.com; 94-91/223-2569), run by Jack and Jo Eden. This English couple moved to Sri Lanka in 1998 and now manage some of the island's most impressive properties.

For Rent The five-bedroom villa on tiny TAPROBANE ISLAND (rate, $2,000 per night; www.taprobaneisland.com), two hundred feet off the southern shore of Sri Lanka, has spectacular 360-degree views. MAHAWELLA (rate, $1,000 per night; www.villasinsrilanka.com), located two hours from Galle, elegantly combines outdoor and indoor living. KAHANDA KANDA (rate, $1,800 per night; www.ampersandtravel.com) is on a working tea farm beside a lake.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

Glyn Vincent has written for The New York Observer and The New York Times Book Review.