Archive for July, 2011


Friday, July 29th, 2011

Welcome, dear readers, to this week’s newsletter from Sri Lanka.


Jaffna visit.

Because it was announced in July that permission from the Ministry of Defence is no longer required by foreigners to visit Jaffna, I travelled there as soon as I could. The journey from Horizon Cottage totalled 1,067km round trip by hired van. The road was pretty rough for the final four hours of the 15-hour journey from my home to Jaffna. Was it worth it? Yes, even if the only reason was to see a part of Sri Lanka closed for a couple of decades through war.

For the past two years, Jaffna has been developed and is now as busy as Colombo’s southern suburbs like Wellawatte. One anomaly I spotted were a few classic 1950s motorcars still used as taxis.

And there was a politeness, too, that was remarkable; no one disturbed me even when I went into some places that seemed pretty dodgy (see Bars below).

I stayed in a residential suburb at the Blue Haven Hotel, blessed with a sparklingly clean swimming pool and 10 spacious, air-conditioned rooms (also with a ceiling fan, telephone and plug points for laptop and portable kettle). Basic bathrooms but with hot water. It has a pleasant, informal atmosphere, and cost Rs3,000 nett (£17.14, US$ 27.27) for a double room per night.

I dined on a stylish buffet (curries, fresh fish and fried chicken) at Rs1,300++ (£7.42, $11.81) in the new Tilko Jaffna City Hotel, where a luxury double room is Rs9,150 nett (£52.28, $83.18). There is also a smart bar there where a shot of 50m Chivas Regal scotch cost Rs430++ (£2.45, $3.90) served by a young and apparently ever-smiling steward.


Tip Tip

Where a price is quoted as nett in a restaurant or hotel it means service charge and taxes are included. In Jaffna ++ after a price means service charge (10%) and government tax (12%) will be added to the bill.


Jaffna Guide

Accommodation is either in guesthouses or the above-mentioned City Hotel. Be prepared for what a cautionary email from one hotel management said: “Tourism in Jaffna is in early stage, so is the hotel industry. Maintenance and management are Herculean tasks as most of the staff are novices.” Novices, perhaps, but everyone was keen to do whatever was required, when reminded about it.

Food choices include the safe, well-cooked curries (the mutton [goat] was superb) at Muslim eateries where the food is set out in glass display cabinets and served quickly on a plate swathed in cling foil for easy cleaning.

The joke used to be that the best Jaffna cuisine (flavoursome curries, especially crab, and pancakes made with palmyrah flour) was to be had in Colombo, but the City Hotel produced excellent dishes. A place called ‘A Taste of Jaffna’ with its chairs wrapped in upholstery and ribbons more suited to a wedding reception, seemed pretentious and designed for nervous tourists, both local and foreign.

Bars (and night life) exist. I found two wonderful seedy drinking dens where strangers sit around tables in individual rooms swigging Sri Lankan beer or local spirits including arrack, gin and “whisky.” As an example of courtesy mentioned above, the drunkard sitting beside me quietly turned to a corner to vomit, so I wouldn’t be upset. (Well, I did move to another room.)

Drinks, but only by the bottle, not the glass, are also available at the Green Grass Hotel (in a residential area) where drinkers gather around tables in the garden by the swimming pool in the evening. Black Label whisky (750m bottle) cost Rs6,000 (£34.28, $54.54). More upmarket, more comfortable and more welcoming was the City Hotel bar.

Shopping for souvenirs is easy: huge Jaffna mangoes

or unusual sweetmeats from the permanent market in the town;

dried fish from a store near the City Hotel;

and palmyrah products, such as these pot rings and this jolly basket made from palmyrah leaves. (More on palmyrah products next week.)


Madame Helga

There was a wonderful feature on Helga de Silva Blow Perera, owner of the fabulous Helga’s Folly in Kandy, in The Sunday Times Magazine ( on 24 July 2011, called A Life in the Day by Beverley D’Silva, with a beautiful photograph of Helga by Benya Hegenbarth. To read it is to be inspired at discovering yet another facet of this amazing country.



Guide to Sri Lanka

I review Helga’s Folly ( on page 105 of the latest edition of my guide to Sri Lanka, citing the over-the-top hotel as “an antidote to too many temples and ruins seen in the Cultural Triangle.” The book is available from

Warm regards