If you are coming and want to know more about the Civil War, then check out the Channel 4 investigation - http://channel4.com/srilanka
Jaffna - Sri Lanka's northernmost city, the former centre of the country's Tamil culture and the birthplace of my father. There is a lot of sentimental value that connects me to Jaffna, far more than the city is actually worth. But it has never been a straightforward journey to reach this city. The A9 road is the lifeline to the north of Sri Lanka. In the recent civil war, this corridor was savagely fought over, as whoever controlled the road, controlled access to the north. The A9 road starts in the hill city of Kandy and ends up in Jaffna, on the way passing through Vavauniya, Kilinochchi and the fabled Elephant Pass. I have managed to get to Jaffna three times, and two of those times has been via the A9. So join me on this journey up to the north...
For anyone not holding a Sri Lankan ID card - that is all foreign passport holders and all non-resident Sri Lankans, they must gain clearance from the Ministry of Defence to reach Jaffna, by either air or land. This is a relatively straightforward process, but it does require dealing with the bureaucracy of Sri Lanka, which means that it does take time. You need to fax a letter to the Ministry of Defence in Colombo and wait. The main bugbear is that you also need a Fax Number in Sri Lanka to receive permission. It is all straightforward and you should receive permission within two weeks. The difficulty is in actually getting the fax sent to Sri Lanka. It is not always guaranteed that their fax machine is turned on or not engaged. Thankfully, after four days, I managed to get my letter sent through and I got permission in under a week! Below is an example of the letter I faxed:
If you get permission faxed to your alotted number (most people do), then the trip is really easy. Out of all the times that I have travelled in Sri Lanka, 2010 was probably the most relaxed and hassle free, and long may it continue to be so! If you go by road, a plethora of options are available to you. You can hire a private car, travel on the many air conditioned buses that take the ex-pat Tamils direct from the capital, join the Sinhalese on their special tour buses from the south, or if you are a cheapskate like me, hop on the CTB from anywhere along the route. Their buses may be knackered, your body will ache for days after the trip, but at under GBP2, the price is right!
The good news is this. There is only ONE CHECKPOINT! Just to the north of Vavauniya (now, the true capital of the north of Sri Lanka), is the checking area, which is fairly quick and easy. You jump off the bus, the guards write your passport details and permission fax into the ledger, then you are off! Music will blare from the bus' speakers, the road will bump up and down and you will sail through the hot dry plains of the Vanni (I told you it was dry season). From Vavauniya, you are looking at around 4-5 hours of bumpy driving to get you there (quicker on the private buses). As you head the north, the train line looks inviting to your left hand side, but the line will not be open until 2011 at the earliest (the sooner the better!) and so enjoy the ride.
The first stop is usually Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the Tamil Tigers, now today little more than an expanded village that serves awful food, but it is a welcome rest halt on the way. Next comes Murikandy (various ways to spell that town). Now there is an interesting tale behind this small pilgrimage site. It is said that stoppping here will avoid accidents on your journey as the local god is very powerful. I am not personally a believer, but knowing of the tale, I was relieved when we stopped here on the way up. You do not have to worship at the shrine. Just stop, then go. That is all that is required. Worship and prayer is for the devout. You take the risk, but yes, later on in this journey our driver managed to stop the bus in time instead of making motorbike pancake. Was it the local god at Murikandy? Who knows, but everytime I head up to Jaffna by road, I am always thankful when the bus makes a halt here.
Next up is the Elephant Pass. Jaffna is a peninsula, and the only way to practically reach it is over the series of bridges and causeways of The Pass. A lot of blood was spilt here over the past quarter of a century, but thankfully, the peace, now holding firm has made this a rather delightful tourist spot. Unfortunately, our driver was in a rush to get to Jaffna town, but I managed to take a few snaps of this wonderful lagoon on the rush up! Definitely somewhere to wander through next time, along with the rest of the tourists!
Soon the sea peters out and the (barely) dry land of the low lying Jaffna Peninsula is reached. Despite being here only three times, I know this part of Sri Lanka well, and it was not long before the suburbs of Jaffna Town filtered into view. I got off by the church, and headed off to my cousin's house, the place where my father was born and raised. It was a long time since I had visited Jaffna, but it was good to come and see the family again. But that, is another story...