Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 7 – Mannar Island

From the same spot I’d arrived at a couple days earlier, my bus trundled off, bound for Mannar, after not much more than a few minutes wait. Stocked up with a few snacks form the shop across the road, even on a Sri Lankan bus, I anticipated that this would be a fairly easy journey. Weighing in at just 90 minutes to two hours, with a good seat and an early morning departure, I was feeling pretty good. If Vavuniya had been my first real taste of northern culture, Mannar was to ratchet it up a notch. This started almost immediately that we left the city limits. The roads quickly degenerated into pot hole filled messes. A brief chat with one of my fellow passengers, who saw the tension in my face as the bus tipped to perhaps 30 degrees, revealed that, at the end of the war, the government in Colombo had promised much in terms of infrastructure repairs for the decimated northern province, but that little had been forthcoming. This explained why the journey of only 45 kilometres or so, on a relatively straight road, took such a long time. Suspension testing discomfort notwithstanding, we arrived in Mannar without incident fairly quickly.

Mannar is referred to by just about everyone as an island. Strictly, it’s a peninsula. Access is allowed to rail and road by two parallel causeways, which give quite remarkable views over the sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean, though the city itself is not the jewel you might hope to see, when you arrive at the other side.

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As you leave the causeway – pictured above – you turn straight on, leaving the old, ruined Dutch fortress to your right and head on to the bus terminal, situated next to a series of markets and across the road from a bunch of eateries, that I would come to know well. Not having booked accommodation and unsure whether there might be vacancies int he limited range of places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, I had a walk around the market, asking people if they knew of any accommodation.

Disappointingly, no-one could suggest anywhere beyond the places that were mentioned in the book, so I decided to take a chance. I wandered down the main east-west road towards the post office where I found the most highly recommended guest houses in the town. I also found that it was full. Across the road though, a man was pulling up on a scooter and asked me if I was looking for accommodation. He showed me into his accommodation which was just across the road and, while it didn’t look as nice as the lavishly gardened place I had been looking at, it was certainly clean and offered a large room with a double bed for me to sleep on. At 1500 rupees per night, the price was also right. I accepted his offer, paid for my room and dropped my things. Walking with my bags in the midday sun had left me rather clammy, so I took a quick shower and headed out for lunch and then to explore the island a little. In a turn of events that beggared belief, the café next to my accommodation didn’t have rice and curry for lunch. So, it was fried rice, with chicken and then a walk.

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The first thing you notice in Mannar, just walking around, is donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere. Sadly, they’re often not in tremendous shape and even more often eating in piles of rubbish, which might explain why they’re not in good shape. When you ask local people where they came from, the best story I managed to get was that someone brought them a long time ago. Some investigation via google and various blogs seemed to suggest that they had been used by a wealthy family group who had had lucrative linen washing business on the island. When the business dried up, the donkeys were left free to roam. Not sure I buy it, but it’s the best I can do.

Anyway, once outside the centre of Mannar town, you quickly find yourself on the rocky/sandy water’s edge, which is not hard or time consuming to reach in any direction. As I mentioned before the litter is a great shame and really stark against the pale blue of the shallow water, but nonetheless, it’s prettier than you think on first arriving in the town.

Returning to my accommodation after a few hours of walking around the coastline and talking to/scaring donkeys, I heard a commotion, with someone speaking over a loud speaker. Of course, it was a cricket match. So I grabbed a cold chocolate milk from a corner tea house and went and sat in the stands until dinner.

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After the match and a short nap, I decided to walk in to the town to grab something to eat. At the bottom of town were a row of eateries, opposite the bus station, as I mentioned earlier. I was tipped off about one of them and went inside to get something to eat. They had kottu ready to go, so a steaming plate of beef and cheese kottu was ordered and devoured shortly after it arrived. Hot with great chunks of chopped red chilli, the gravy was also particularly fiery. I made a note to come back here often.

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Food was quickly followed by sleep, as the next morning I was going for a change to my regular programme, as far as Sri Lanka was concerned – a trip to a Christian pilgrimage site!

Waking up in the morning, I realised I needed to get breakfast before heading off, as I ddn’t know when I’d eat again. So I dashed downtown to the restaurant I’d been to the night before. I asked, more from hope than expectation, if they had anything special for breakfast and, to my huge surprise, the manager told me that they had hoppers with eggs and gravy. Tea would be fifteen minutes or more though, as they had run out. Realising you can’t have it all, I ordered a plate of the hoppers with eggs and gravy and a ginger beer. It was so nice to have something different for breakfast from the other meals I was used to eating – we were getting into the later part of my second week in Sri Lanka by now. I ate, felt thoroughly satisfied, then jumped into a tuk tuk taxi to the station.

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Arriving at the station, I still had plenty of time to get my train. I bought my ticket and waited, noting that I was the only foreigner there. I strolled down to a nearby store to buy some water for my day and began to look at my guide for details of what was to be found at Madhu Junction. As with most Catholic pilgrimage sites, Madhu was a place where people witnessed a miraculous appearance of the holy virgin. It is also the place where a small statue of the virgin is kept safe. Boarding the train, I sat down in a third class seat. Diagonally opposite me was a Sri Lankan fellow, curious at seeing a foreigner on this train, he struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was from Colombo and had been working at the Mannar branch of a finance company. He was very honest about his country, expressing his frustration about the state of the government and the need for a lot of change to improve the country. He was also extremely candid about the underinvestment in the north and about his experiences of working with good people there who deserve better. We had such a good chat that we exchanged contact details and are still in touch, though he’s now been relocated back to Colombo, which is great news for his wife and young child.

Arriving at Madhu had positively comic results. As I hopped off, the station manager approached me and told me that I was at the wrong station. I told him that I wanted Madhu Road and showed him my ticket. First he smiled. Then he pulled a confused expression, and then he stopped. He asked me again just to make sure and then finally set about asking me why I was there. I told him I was there to visit the church of our lady of Madhu and he became positively excited. He asked if I had booked a taxi ahead. I said that I hadn’t and so he called his friend who was equally excited, once he arrived. We negotiated a price for the trip and set off. It was a very bumpy 30 minutes, way off from the main road into the countryside. I was beginning to think the fellow was lost – particularly when we stopped to pick up his niece from school – but we arrived soon enough, without any detours. I jumped out to see what was a huge complex. The site was one of the most important Christian sites on the island for a very long time and, with its position at the very heart of the conflict during the civil war, the church and its grounds found itself home to many thousands of refugees at various points during the war. It has received a great deal of renovation in recent years, largely owing to the visit of Pope Francis in 2014. You can find more information about the site from wikipedia here.

Now it was time to go in and see the lady of Madhu for myself. There was a sign outside saying “no photography” which was disappointing but, once inside I noticed that none of the pilgrims were paying any mind to it, so I swiftly grabbed my phone camera and grabbed a quick snap. It was a very small effigy but really nicely presented. It was interesting that some of the pilgrims there were not Christian, but in fact Hindu or Buddhist yet they were still offering up prayers to her.

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After seeing our lady of Maddhu and having a walk around the grounds, looking at the dramatic, almost life-sized dark wood sculptures of the stations of the cross and chatting to a few pilgrims, I had just an hour or so to try to find some lunch before my tuk tuk driver returned to take me back to the main road. I strolled across the wonderfully peaceful gardens of the church to the canteen and stepped inside. The smiling man behind the almost surgically clean stainless steel serving counter greeted me and then looked somewhat dumbfounded when I asked him if there was still rice and curry for lunch – it was after two o’clock. Eventually, he told me apologetically that they didn’t get foreign tourists there. I told him that now they had one and pressed him on the rice and curry. He told me it was too hot for me. I smiled and told him that I’d like some anyway. So he started spooning it out for me and gave me just three dishes. first just a spoon of each on a small plate to try. I tasted each one and told him they were all delicious. He looked half confused and half delighted and so decided that I really ought to try everything. So I ended up with a mountain of rice and no less than six of the little silver pots full of curry and the associated sides. I can confidently say that this was in the top three meals I had in all my time in Sri Lanka and I made sure the extremely courteous and friendly staff knew as much. There was also, of course, ginger beer to wash it down and a mug of hot milky tea to finish. I left the restaurant with an extremely full and satisfied belly and left the staff with a generous tip. I strongly recommend this restaurant to anyone who finds themselves in the area.

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This left me with about twenty minutes to sit in the shade on the edge of the church garden and wait for my ride. The tuk tuk driver arrived and was quite apologetic about being a few minutes late. I hadn’t even noticed and told him as much. We hurtled back down the long straight road to the main highway in to Mannar. There, I asked him to let me off, as I knew that the train was a good hour and a half away. I stopped at a roadside café for a drink and to read for a bit. So I sat almost under the gate to the Maddhu complex for the next hour in the café, where the waiter told me that the bus back into town was a better option than to wait for the train. I followed his advice and found myself – via a typically bumpy journey, back in Mannar in time for a nap.

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The next day was a chance to explore Mannar itself and that started, after more eggs hoppers, with the fortress. I found myself at eight o’clock in the morning, competing with a family of donkeys to enter the old ruin. As with so many of these fortresses, it had been founded by the portuguese, reinforced about a century later by the Dutch and then finally used by the British until the end of the colonial period. Also like many of the other fortresses – particularly those in the north – it had remained in fairly good shape until the later parts of the civil war whereupon it had become a base for Tamil forces and had been bombed out by government troops. In spite of this eventful life, it still made an interesting place to visit, almost entirely deserted but for the aforementioned donkeys and a huge number of crows.

With the fortress explored and photographed, it was time to cross the the northern tip of the island. There, I would find the Baobab tree. These trees are native to the Arabian peninsula and were thought to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Arabic merchants as early as seven hundred years earlier. The one here in Mannar is treated with some reverence and has a Buddhist temple attached to it. Having never seen one before and reading that they were particularly unusual looking, I decided I had to take a look. After about forty five minutes of walking in the midday sun, I found it and, if I was looking for something strange, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed here! As you can see from the plaque, the trunk of this gigantic plant is close to twenty metres around, while it also stretches up to seven and a half metres above the ground. It’s quite impressive. The pockmarks and wrinkles on the bark are also quite bizarre.

From here I was near to the northern edge of the island, so I decided I would keep on walking and see some of the small fishing communities, even further detached from anything resembling tourism. Once up there, I found myself bombarded with the smell of fish in the air. Turning a corner to the narrow street running parallel to the shore line, it quickly became apparent why. The fishermen had laid out their catches in the sun to dry. It made for quite a sight, the sun reflecting off the silvery skin. I continued walking around the coastal road until I was struck by something that strongly reminded me of home. By home, of course, I nowadays mean Portugal. For here was a traditional Portuguese church.

At first I just spied the silvery dome over the walls and immediately I decided to go to investigate further. Coming round, finally to the front of the church, it was unmistakeably Portuguese and I will admit to feeling a little pang of homesickness. I wandered inside and the pastor of the church came to meet me and gave me a little tour, with his niece. They explained that they were Portuguese burghers, the man having one great grandparent who was Portuguese. They were also delighted to meet someone with some connection to Portugal, even if only as a foreigner who lived there. They implored me to tell my Portuguese friends to visit. I of course said that I would. Walking outside the church, I ran into more Portuguese burghers and, for the first time on my trip, they were asking me about football rather than cricket. A sign of the Portuguese influence if ever there was one!

After saying goodbye to the displaced Portuguese and having seen a very distinct cultural difference from the more British influenced folk I had met throughout the island thus far I took the slow meandering walk back inland to where I was staying. I washed a few things back at the accommodation and then popped back to what had become one of my real favourite eateries for one last meal. This time, they had something new for me. Roti bread served with a pile of fried chicken and vegetables in batter that you rolled up and ate like a burrito. Needless to say it was top stuff. After that, it was time for bed before the next morning’s bus ride on to Jaffna, the capital of the north!

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy yours, here:

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1 – London – Doha – Colombo

So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.

The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.

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Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.

I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.

The Arabs know how to do breakfast
The Arabs know how to do breakfast

After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.

Nice mosque Doha

So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.

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Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.

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Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.

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So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.

How do they make any money?!
How do they make any money?!

Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.

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The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.

I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.

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Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.

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After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.

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With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.

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From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.

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Looks dreadful, but tastes delicious!

With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.

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With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.

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Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here:

SriLanka