Sri Lanka, June 1998: War Weary Paradise

MVC-009F (3) - CopyTaking a direct flight on Air Lanka from Bangkok, we landed at Bandaranaike Airport. Colombo is only 35 km to the south but it took nearly two hours to work our way through all of the military checkpoints set up to keep the Tamil Tigers out of the city. My hotel was  next door to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Since we arrived late, I went to bed soon after checking in. The next morning, I opened the curtains to my room and looked at the bank building a few feet away across the alley and was shocked to see that the front of the building had been blown off. It seems the terrorists had bombed the bank a day or two earlier. The entire façade had collapsed into rubble right below my window. No wonder it was so easy to book this hotel!

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Normally I did a lot of research on a new destination before I traveled there. In those days it was Lonely Planet or any other relevant travel book I could find. I used to spend hundreds of hours at Barnes & Noble in San Diego researching a trip beforehand. Later, it was Asia Books in Bangkok. In this case, clearly my system had failed to give me up-to-date information. I knew there was an ongoing insurrection in Sri Lanka, but the information I had said that it was confined to the outlying areas. Today, that disruptive force called the internet will overload you with more information than you can absorb. Look for the latest. One should definitely check the U.S. State Department Travel Advisories if you intend to travel to developing countries as I so often did.

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Well, poor planning or not, I was already there and I needed to keep my head on a swivel and make the best of it. I had three main goals; Get to know Columbo, go up in the hills to the town of Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth and finally to relax for a few days at the beach town of Trincomalee. I was able to do two of the three. Trincomalee was occupied by the Tamil Tigers. A good portion of Sri Lanka was off-limits to any tourism. As you may know, the Tamils were originally from southern India and were Hindu. They refused to be controlled by the native Sinhalese who practiced a form of Buddhism, the main religion of Sri Lanka. The Tamil were fierce fighters. It was a bloody insurrection that had gone on for nearly two decades. It had taken its toll on on the economy and on the population. While the people were among the friendliest I had met on earth, you could see in the eyes of the older people that they were war weary.

For a large crowded Asian city, Colombo was reasonably pleasant. Probably because they got very few foreigners, nearly everyone smiled and said hello when we met them. The

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Sandbags and Machine Gun under a Tree

only thing that put a damper on all the friendliness, was the occasional stack of sandbags with machine guns protruding out. It was a constant reminder of what was really happening in the country.

The drive to Kandy wound through the green rolling hills and was uneventful and spectacular. Located in the central plateau, Kandy was the capital of a former Kingdom but now was most famous for the Temple of the Tooth which housed the most important Buddhist relic in the country. Several times a year, colorful ceremonies were held, including one that featured a ceremonial washing of the tooth.MVC-019F (2)

After arriving in Kandy, it became very clear that my research had failed me again. It seems that just five months earlier, on January 25, 1998, some Tamil terrorists had broken through the gates of the temple and had detonated a truckload of explosives. The explosion damaged buildings within a 5 km radius. The Temple was under repair. Scaffolding was everywhere. We could only view the building from the outside. So much for the Temple of the Tooth. We enjoyed the fresh air of Kandy for a few days and then headed back to Colombo.

Since the beach town of Trincomalee was off limits, I decided to check out the beach just south of Colombo. While it was okay, it was nothing like what I had experienced in Thailand and Indonesia. I stayed a few more days and then it was back to Bangkok.

2017 Update:  The war between the Sinhalese and the Buddhists finally ended in 2007. Basically the Sinhalese won. From everything I hear today, Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to visit. Do your research well on the internet before you go.




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