June 1999 was a big time for me. I had moved into my new house in Pepiliyana but there was no time to settle in, it was holiday time and this time a trip to the war torn East coast. First stop was Habarama a five hour journey. I stayed at the Village Hotel and was joined by the BC crew who were travelling by van. It looks like an expensive place now but I wasn’t impressed at the time – especially the snake show which was on that night. Probably a bit too package touristy for me.
The following day I set off for Trinco on the East coast. I described the road as quiet but the scenery very good. Dry but rolling hills. Trinco was fairly spread out but the beach by the fort looked stunning. I had a wander around the fort and saw a herd of chital deer amongst the barracks – the so called Wellesley House. It looked very grand under the shade of enormous acacia trees. I also wandered up to the temple by Swarmi Rock. It was closed but there were plenty of monkeys about and a few local tourists. I then took the road up the coast. It was hot and dry and I noted only a few checkpoints. The de facto border with Tamil Tiger held territory was only a few miles to the north but we must have deemed it safe enough. I did note a couple of destroyed villages on the way. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos at all up to this point.
The Nilaveli Beach hotel was really nice, a bit 70s in details but open plan and very simply designed. There was a good pool area surrounded by trees and beyond that a wonderful beach and calm water. That night and for the next few days we had beers on the beach and made a fire.
We also went out to Pigeon Island just offshore which was excellent for snorkelling. Not only that but while snorkelling I saw a very large shark – large enough to deter me from going in again. Naturally the others didn’t believe me. I braved it with a couple of others. This time the shark reappeared with a couple of mates and started circling us. We could see they were at least 6 foot long! That was definitely the end of snorkelling for me for a while.
We stayed four days and then I headed off south. My plan was to go down the East coast ending in Arugam Bay. Looking back a little bit foolhardy perhaps as areas around Batticaloa were Tamil Tiger held and there had been fighting in the area. As the roads immediately south of Trinco were closed I went back to Polonaruwa and Devi Tourist home where I had stayed before. From here I headed back to the coast to Kalkudah/Pasikuda which used to be tourist resorts before the fighting started. After the relative greenery of Polonaruwa it became very dry and hot again as I neared the coast. There were many army checkpoints but I sailed through them.
I found the road to Kalkudah only to find an army base blocking the end. I also found the bombed out remains of tourist restaurants with faded menus on the walls – reminders of better times. The beach itself was beautiful with turquoise clear water. I also found the more secluded and smaller Pasikuda bay with its two ruined former hotels overtaken by weeds. I noted glazed tiles on parts of walls that must have been former bathrooms. It was very peaceful except for a few fishermen pulling in the nets. There was nowhere to stay unsurprisingly so I headed further south towards Batticaloa. The coast road was very flat with many checkpoints and almost continuously inhabited. At one point there were soldiers every 100m or so on either side of the road and I was told to stop while a convoy of tanks and buses with soldiers rolled past. I didn’t spend much time in Batti itself – it seemed just a regular town but with lots of Red Cross 4WDs buzzing about. I did have a very nice cuttlefish curry before carrying on through Ampara and onto Inginiyagala which was the base for the Gal Oya National park and situated on the banks of the Senanayake Samudraya, the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka.
I wasn’t best pleased, however, to learn from the National Park warden that there was nowhere to stay. Because of the troubles all the guest houses had closed and if anyone shows up wanting to go into the National Park he sends them off to Lahungala near Potuvil, quite some distance away. I had no alternative but to turn back to Ampara. There was a rest house here but I found another place – the New Araliya Guest House round the corner which had only been open for 6 months (I think it might just be the Araliya Inn now for some reason). Strange time to open and I was the first foreign guest. Nice big clean rooms, a small veranda and a dining area, for 450 Rs (£4). I had a well needed shower, and a meal of grilled Sear fish, potatoes and carrots. I noted than Ampara itself was quite a pleasant town situated by an attractive tank. I couldn’t write anything further in my diary as I was getting eaten by mosquitoes and so retreated to my room to listen to the World Service.
A bloke connected to the hotel had said he would take me on a boat trip to the Gal Oya National Park but he never showed up. I then heard that there had been an attack in the night. Five people had been hacked to death and their car burned. I decided to leave town. I headed south through green vistas and along very quiet roads. I saw the odd bus, tractor and bicycle but no private cars. All the towns only had signs in Tamil but all the checkpoints in Sinhala. There were lots of Muslims in these towns but they all spoke Tamil I was told. I reached Arugam bay sometime in the afternoon and checked into my old favourite the Arugam Hilton. Later I was joined by the BC crew who arrived in the van. The following day I forsook my bike and went with them for a drive to Yala National Park further south. Not the most successful of trips because at one stage the track turned to sand and we got stuck. It was a trifle unnerving given the quantity of bleached bones lying around. Fortunately a group of young locals showed up and managed to push us out. Back in Arugam we splashed out on a very posh meal at the Stardust (I mentioned before that it seems the Hilton is no longer with us but the Stardust is still in business). Steak Tartar!
After a couple of days chilling by the beach it was time to head off again. This time inland again to Monaragala. I noted that the landscape changed quite quickly and became jungly. I checked into the Frashi Guest Inn and got a big room with three beds and ensuite bathroom for 400 Rs. It now seems to be known as the more upmarket Frashi Hotel and Banquet Hall. I assume it’s the same place. They also had a small restaurant so I had a rice and curry lunch followed by a siesta. I was going to go to the big Buddha in the late afternoon but changed my mind as I heard claps of thunder and the saw the sky turn black.
The following morning was cool and cloudy but dry and I was off and out by 7.15am. The road to the statue was quite pleasant – lots of rubber trees and the odd elephant in the bush. I found the statue at Maligawila at the end of a dusty track. It was a picturesque spot although the caretaker wasn’t keen for me to take photos for some reason. After a cursory look around I didn’t find the second statue which was supposed to be there (I think the Maligawila Bosath Pilimaya) but instead followed signs to an old dagoba a few kilometres away sat in paddy fields. I checked my photos and google maps and have determined that this was Dematamal viharaya.
Nearby was the small town of Buttala where I had a late breakfast of roti, curry and dhal. From here my diary says, “I set off on a B road for the Hill country. Quite picturesque but a bit of a strain for the bike. In the end I got to Balangoda by 3pm. Nice countryside and I did want to see a bit of the Hill Country but now I feel I would rather have gone the Southern Dry route.” I obviously did take the long way round as I have a photo from Bandarawela. Anyway, I checked into the Balangoda Guest House and go on to say, “I’m now sat on the veranda enjoying the late afternoon sun and a cup of tea after a great shower, hair wash and shave. Very pleasant”. The following day I was off again, this time home, and covered the 120 kms in three or four hours. My final entry reads, “All is well at home 1,253kms in 12 days.”
8 Aug 1999
My next trip was a short one, just a weekend away but pretty good. This time up the East Coast to Chillaw. My diary notes that I was very impressed with the state of the road and it even had a line up the centre and a bicycle lane! As it was a Sunday most of Chillaw was closed – it was a Christian area and had quite a few churches dotted around. No photos in Chillaw but I headed inland to Pandawas Nuwara. I called this the poor man’s Pollonaruwa. I didn’t dally here at is was already 4pm and I wanted to get to the hilltop fortress of Yapahuwa. On the way was the only roadblock I could remember. Well I suppose I was close to Anuradapura. Checked into Yapahuwa Rest House at 6pm. One of the smaller rest houses – only two rooms! I took the bigger one at the princely fee of 350Rs. That night I had devilled chicken – very nice. I wandered through the small town and was surprised that I was stared at by the locals.
The following day I went up Yapahuwa Rock. There was a temple at the bottom where I was relieved of 130 Rs and then climbed up the carved staircase to the fortress on top. I say fortress but there was no evidence – no walls, rooms anything. A good view from here though. A very flat plain interspersed with rocky crags. The sky looked a bit foreboding so I thought I’d better be off. Came back via Negombo which also featured a number of churches and then home.