Let loose in Ceylon

It’s been quite a few years since I first came here. In fact the civil war (1983 to 2009) was in full swing the first time I was in Sri Lanka, as its now known and there were many restrictions on where you could go and what you could do. Of course, that didn’t really stop me back then as there were ways of getting to the most interesting places without encountering too many road blocks manned by very suspicious and trigger happy soldiers.

In 2001 there was a Tamil Tiger attack on the airport that destroyed much of the Sri Lankan airlines fleet and resulted in a massive crackdown by the Buddhist Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) against the Hindu Tamil Tigers (otherwise known as the LTTE).  I was back in the country this time because of the war, even though it had ended and I needed to go up to the north west of the country to Mannar Island to see if any of the tens of thousands of landmines and munitions still remained.

Things have really improved now and there are very few physical barriers to getting around the city and so I decided that I’d go exploring this morning. I went for my morning limp along the route that I used to run (oh, how times have changed) which takes in Galle Face green, which in more colonial times was the cricket pitch, but now it’s more of a car park for visiting dignitaries. The sea front was never beautiful here right in the city, in full view of the main barracks but at least now that the new Shangri La has been built on the site, there are fewer (visible) guns and a lot less barbed wire.

The historic lighthouse, surrounded by the new Chinese mega port.

Sounds and smells

I walked out to the lighthouse, celebrating the end of British colonial rule (1796 to 1948) at the northern end of the green and past where there used to be a roadblock that turned all non military traffic back.  The road passed behind the married quarters of the Naval base and like most military family areas, there is a mix between civilian life and the strict protocols that govern military etiquette.  It didn’t seem quite so obvious here with sailors of all ranks hugging their families, finishing their breakfasts while waiting for their drivers to take them to work.

Aside from the normal ‘drains of Asia’ aroma, once I had moved upwind, there were the cooking smells I really missed, fish and ginger frying with tamarind and lime and small children laughing when they snuck food out from under their mothers noses.  I enjoyed the sounds and smells from the local ladies cooking so much, that I had to sit on a small wall opposite the base and just watch and listen for a while.

Sri Lankan chicken and fish curries are the best I have ever tasted.  They use a lot of coconut milk in the cooking, so it’s very creamy and sweet.  The smell is almost too much to bear without eating and luckily my hotel served it for breakfast as well.


I got a little further along the coast and saw a number of what once must have been lovely beachside mansions that are now crumbling and are surrounded by high rise apartments.  There is still a family living in this one who I felt quite sorry for.

There’s nothing like a few close neighbours…

Sri Lanka is one of those wonderful countries where it can be hot and so humid, but despite that, the kids all troop out of the villages and into the schools in white, perfectly pressed uniforms and the mothers sashay after them.  Sashay, because there is no other word for the way they move, with their circular hips and feet that never seem to leave the ground, all bright white teeth against their lovely brown skin whilst wearing the most beautiful coloured sari’s.

A few cheeky chappies on their way to school

Historical Hotels.

I’m staying at the Galle Face hotel, which is an old colonial pile that was built by three Englishmen in 1864.  Last time I was here, it was very tired, with all of the the faded beauty and elegance of an elderly duchess, but now it has been refurbished and it’s very much back in the Raffles mode, but still surprisingly cheaper than its modern counterparts.

The refurbished Galle Face Hotel with the cricket pitch under construction as a car park… 

Next door to the hotel is the Indian high commission and the US AID building.   As a nod back to the war, there is still a watch tower with a heavy machine gun on top, back then it was to guard against the Tamil Tigers suicide boats. During the conflict, I remember it being equipped with a WWII Oerlikon anti aircraft gun, which would have made a real mess of any attempt to mount an attack from the sea.  I was told that it was still there, just folded down and hidden from view under the tarp at the front of the tower.

From the hotel swimming pool.  The .50 machine gun stands on the left of the tower, but there’s something more evil under the cover…

The usual end to a day

After my meetings I headed back to the hotel and believe it or not, it’s a bit of thing for me to have sundowners by the ocean whenever I can and at 6pm, a piper marches into the hotel accompanied by the concierge and they lower the Sri Lankan flag to the sound of the pipes.  Everyone stops what they are doing and watches.  I couldn’t help thinking of it being the union flag that was lowered and all the buttoned up brits in solar topees and ladies in wide brimmed hats watching the same ceremony, a hundred years ago.

Time for sundowners.  A lot of them…

The next morning, I was feeling a little shabby (blaming the jet lag, of course) but after a brisk walk I felt a bit more lively and along with my companion, the UXO expert, we travelled up the country towards Jaffna, a city that was very much embroiled in the civil war, I passed through some wild and undeveloped areas.

The wildlife

There are a number of national parks in Sri Lanka and more native wildlife that could be seen from the road than I have seen in any country, in many years. There were monkeys, a gang of mongooses racing around, snakes in the long grass everywhere you looked and elephants, quite a few elephants in fact.

An elephant family bimbling through the jungle

The young father starting to get a little shirty with my presence.

Galle and more about elephants

Seeing the elephants reminded me of a previous visit where I got up close and personal with two of them.  In mid 2005 I was back in Sri Lanka during the state of emergency, conducting some training.  The very real threat of suicide bombers attacking the vehicles of politicians meant that police outriders would force pedestrians at gunpoint to face away from the street, foreheads against the wall and hands behind your back.  If you didn’t comply, you’d find the barrel of a machine gun in your stomach.  Given what I’d seen elsewhere, I took them seriously and I remember closely examining the brickwork one morning outside the Indian High Commission as the convoy drove by.

Luckily, on that trip, I had occasion to escape the city and travel to the south of the country and quite by chance, as a favour, we were asked to take a look at the overall security and safety of a colleagues house.  So,  I ended up staying in a luxury beach house, along with two resident pet elephants, as you do…

The house was just outside the town of Galle, where there is a world heritage listed fort and it is a very beautiful place. The beach house was owned by a very wealthy merchant banker, who had married a Sri Lankan lady and they used the place as a holiday home.

Galle Fort, started by the Dutch in 1584.

The couple had come by the elephants during a local religious holiday where the mahout had been selling food to the locals so that the public could feed the mother elephant and her daughter. The bankers two little girls who were 8 and 6 at the time saw the sad looking pair and prevailed upon Daddy to help.  As any father knows, there’s only one answer when your little girls look up at you with their enormous brown eyes and ask you to buy them a couple of elephants and that’s “right away darlings”  and so he did.

They walked the new family members home, in a long convoy of locals who all wanted to meet the two young owners and see where they lived.  The elephants lived a great life in the large garden, being made a fuss of by all of the domestic staff and going for long walks along the beach.  When the girls were there, they were bathed, scrubbed, made up and dressed up on almost a daily basis.

I knew the place had been badly hit by the Boxing day Tsunami of the previous year and so I wasn’t expecting much to be left. I was very surprised to see that it had been completely repaired with the addition of an observation tower, in order to give advance warning of the next time the sea rapidly receded.

The owner told me that his security guard hadn’t seen the water recede following the undersea earthquake from behind the high wall, but that instead he’d noticed that there was no sound of the waves. He went out to have a look, saw the exposed reef and luckily woke everyone up.   The banker and his wife scooped up their two small girls and quickly headed to higher ground. The domestic staff released the elephants onto the beach road behind the house and then literally ran for the hills.

The non too shabby sun shelter at the beach house.  Try to imagine a tsunami crashing through here in the middle of the night. 

Looking back up to the main building.  Either side of the pool is the accomodation.  There was a slight tide mark 3 metres up the walls…

The elephants instinctively made their way inland and when the waves hit, they were swept apart, but luckily met up again some hours later.  They brought themselves home a couple of days later, outwardly none the worse for the experience.

Mannar Island

Anyway, back to the real reason I was there.  I was heading north to Mannar Island, up at the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, ostensibly to find out the real situation with regards to how the area had been affected by the war and if there were any explosive remnants of war left in the ground.

A nice old map of Ceylon with Mannar Island shown three quarters of the way up on the western side of the country.

The tactics used by both sides, was to use artillery to drive the enemy out of the towns and villages and then to lay landmines to deny the other side the ability to move back into their homes.  It was a really dirty conflict and through various sources we had identified a number of underground villages (mass graves).  Out of respect, we wanted to know where not to dig foundations and roads and the very last thing we wanted was to find, at the last minute, was a mysterious government person telling us not to dig there, but instead to dig there…

Our guide was a young local who spoke both Sinhalese and Tamil and it turned out that he’d been interned along with the whole town ‘for their own safety’ as the conflict spread to the island.  He was able to confirm that there had been fighting throughout the island and for around a year, the LTTE actually controlled most of the area.  Research with the Mine Action Group also confirmed that whilst all but around 15% of the landmines laid by the Army had been cleared, they weren’t at all sure if all the mines laid by the other side had been.

The differing stories are common in conflict afflicted areas and sometimes, the older people who were told the government ‘truth’ had their own ideas and remembered accordingly.  The younger generation knew only the propaganda from both sides who told their grisly stories.  Others, keen to encourage tourism and also healing between the two sides, blankly said ‘there was no war here’ ignoring the shrapnel scars on the buildings and rusting barbed wire from the road blocks that had been bulldozed off the road.  The trauma from such a deeply personal civil war takes generations to even begin to heal, if ever for some.

Mannar island, looking pretty desolate. 

Mannar Island itself was quite un prepossessing, being flat and featureless, but there were lots of wild donkeys, that had apparently been imported by the Dutch, during their years of colonisation.  I stayed overnight at the ‘shell coast resort’ which if you read trip advisor, will tell you not to bother.  We were a captive audience however and I had managed to pick up a bout of food poisoning that kept me changing ends in the bathroom all night.  It also had no liquor licence, so not a good choice at all really.  We did manage to pick up quite a lot of useful information from the locals the next day that convinced us of the need for a more in depth survey of the specific areas before we started to disturb any ground.

After another night in a strange, but this time, luxurious hotel in the middle of nowhere,  we were back in Colombo.  I had a shopping list as long as my arm and so took a few hours to cover the two floors of Paradise road.  It’s a fantastic shop with lots of asian homewares.  Part of the business is a very nice restaurant called the “Gallery Cafe” and the shops, restaurant and even a hotel is run by a delightfully camp gentleman.  I recommend them all, if you are ever back in Ceylon.

The Gallery Cafe. Try it!