Monday, May 13, 2013

Travel Mondays: Colombo - Jaffna by bus, train, boat and coach

A wise person once told me to never take exactly the same trip to and from a destination when travelling for leisure. 

Since following that advice I have been fortunate to experience some extraordinary adventures around the world. This trip from Colombo to Jaffna is one of them.

For some strange reason the journey began with a bus to Fort station. As they say, all journeys in Colombo somehow lead to and from Fort or Pettah.

It was your usual Colombo bus ride, somewhat fast, slow, sweaty and with plenty of people hopping on and off. Fort station is usually a bustling place, heaving with people during the peak hours, and a little more relaxed other times.

After navigating the crowds lining up and purchasing tickets it was then time to find the train, hop on and settle in for the journey to Anuradhapura.

Train journeys are one of the favorite things. There's no driving involved, no traffic to stress you out, just lots of countryside to immerse in by looking out the windows. The railway network was introduced during the British colonial period in order to transport tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo. Extensions were made to this main line over the years.

On this particular rail journey it was scenic and there was plenty on offer to eat and drink along the way! 

 It was a hive of activity upon arrival in Anuradhapura train station. I've always thought it had a nice  country feel to it, although it happens to be a major transport hub to the north. The ancient city of Anuradhapura is also a mecca for Buddhist pilgrims and tourists.

Sometimes when I travel there's a feeling I get when it feels right to break a journey and stay a night or two, rather than travelling onwards. This was a feeling I got when we arrived in Anuradhapura. 

It was rather opportune because it gave an opportunity to pay a visit to the ancient city, spending some time wandering around the ancient ruins as well as visiting Ruwanmalisaya and the sacred Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi.

After a quiet time in Anuradhapura connecting on a more spiritual level, it was back to the train station to hop on a train to Vavuniya.

I've traveled to Vavuniya a couple of times. Those times I've been checked by security personnel due to the war - as in identification, passport, travel details and all of that. There was a different feel this time given the passage of time.

It was raining upon arrival but it was easy enough to hop into a tuk-tuk and venture straight into town. From there it was a bit of a search to find a suitable bus to travel up to Jaffna. Locals were helpful and pointed in the right direction. Admittedly there was a bit of hustle-and-bustle to the place, and the rain made it seem even more so. In the end we hopped onto a large air-conditioned bus that was half-full. As we headed north the bus got increasingly full. The journey was long, but it was also enjoyable with plenty of loud music, happy faces, a couple of stops along the way and plenty of activity on and off the bus.

There was a checkpoint before we got to Jaffna and I had to present my passport and confirm where I would be staying and the duration of my visit. Only the foreigners were checked and our details were entered into their records.

We arrived early evening into Jaffna and settled in for the night. After such a long journey it was pleasing to bathe and enjoy a hot meal.

The next day it was full speed ahead. We organised a local taxi (Jenny Cabs) to take us touring around Jaffna.

There was much to see and do. I recommend picking up a tour map of Jaffna that sets out all the highlights to cover. The places I really enjoyed were the Nilavarai Bottomless Well, Kathurogoda Ancient Vihara, Thambakola Patuna, and Casuarina Beach to name a few.

There are a number of islands that are scattered around the coast of Jaffna. I particularly wanted to visit Nagadeepa, which is a 20-30 minute boat ride from the Kites, Karikattuwan jetty. We set off early in the morning and the drive to Kites was breathtaking. There had been heavy rainfall in the days leading up to our visit, so the scenery was lush and vibrant.

The boat trip definitely does not satisfy health and safety regulations. There must have been at least 20-40 people over the limit on both trips we took. Plus, there weren't enough life jackets for every passenger. I hate to think what would happen in the event of an actual emergency.

Boat trips aside, Nagadeepa is a must visit. It's a beautiful island. You can tour the whole island in a tuk-tuk for a small price, and it is well worth it. I was particularly taken with the Naagapushani Amman kovilNagadeepa Purana Viharaya and the island itself. We spent almost a full day on Nagadeepa.

On our final day we took in a few of the sights in Jaffna in a leisurely manner. These included the Jaffna Public Library, Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna Archaeological Museum, Jaffna Fort built by the Portuguese and various other sights around the city. I was definitely struck by the lack of sophistication in some of these places, but then I reminded myself of history of the place and allowed it to be as it is. It will take some time to restore and build the place up to its potential, but it is on its way. I was struck by the remnants of the past and its direct contrast to the building of the new. An example is the old battle-worn police headquarters building versus the newly built hospital.

For the return trip to Colombo it was decided not take the same trip back. Instead we booked onto one of the luxury coaches that departs Jaffna at 7.30pm and travels overnight directly back to Colombo. The journey takes approximately 10-11 hours with a few stops along the way. Once you leave Jaffna there is an early stop to present your travel documents to the authorities and then you jump back onto the bus. This is the only compulsory stop where you must alight. The other stops are comfort breaks. The journey is actually fairly pleasant as the buses are smooth and comfortable. I slept most of the journey and arrived in Colombo feeling better than expected.

I will definitely return to Jaffna. I still want to visit some of the other islands, like Delft Island and to spend a little more time in the area.

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