As we headed east from Polonnaruwa, the landscape changed dramatically. There were fewer trees and more grassland. It was still very green and we began to see herds of cattle grazing along both sides of the highway. Manjula pointed out that we were entering a region that was out of bounds for years due to the presence of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). The highway ran parallel to the railway and I noticed military sentries sitting in fortified bunkers at regular intervals. From where they were situated, it was obvious they could easily watch the highway and the train tracks.
We were stopped several times for security checks. Manjula had to present his driver’s license and insurance papers and was always asked what country I was from. The soldiers paid little attention to Anil, he always seems to be mistaken for a local wherever we travel. The highway was in good condition but as we came nearer to the coast, we began to encounter a great deal of road construction.
It seems the highways and bridges had been heavily damaged during the war years and the government was quickly having them repaired. I wasn’t sure if this was to convince the eastern provinces that the government in Colombo cared for their ease of travel or if it was to ensure that troops could be moved into the area quickly should the peace not hold. Probably a bit of both.
At last we reached the coastal town of Batticoloa and turned southwards. There didn’t seem to be much to see there, at least not according to the Lonely Planet. We had decided to stop in a town called Ampara, a couple of hours south of ‘Batti’, so we pushed on. I had read that a herd of wild elephants passes through a narrow corridor beside the Japanese Peace Pavilion just outside of Ampara, and because of my fascination with elephants, I wanted to see this for myself.
We stopped at a once popular beach called Kalkudah to see the beautiful curving bay with its soft white sand. There is absolutely nothing left of the large number of hotels and guesthouses that used to host tourists from all over the world. The bay was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004 and only a tall water tower perched on concrete stilts remains. We walked along the beach and noticed that it is littered with broken coral. There were a couple of carloads of Sri Lankan families at the beach for a swim and Manjula talked with an ice cream vendor.
The vendor mentioned that all the land around the bay was recently sold to a politician, and it’s clear that it will soon become a popular vacation destination once again. For the time being, there are only a few fishermen scratching a living from the sea. Their lives will be changed once again when the resorts and hotels push them off to another beach.
We drove along the coast but I was surprised to see that the highway did not hug the sea but was slightly inland. This certainly gave better access to the rice paddies that stretched in all directions. The rice looked to be near ready for harvesting and though the fields were deserted for the time being, they will become a hive of activity before too very long. Manjula pointed out that this would be the first rice to be harvested in many, many years. The farmers were so harassed by the LLTE that they were not able to plant crops and suffered terribly as a result.
We turned inland at Kalumnai, a tiny Muslim town. We were travelling on a Friday and all the shops were closed. It would have been just another coastal town except for the fact that all the doors of the shops were painted bright colours. It reminded both Anil and me of the painted buildings in Valparaiso, Chile. If the shops had been open, the doors would have been hidden from view and we never would have seen the delightful storefronts.
Before long we were pulling into Ampara, a dusty, unattractive village. We had booked a room for two nights at the Lonely Planet’s ‘Our Pick’ called the Chinese and Western Food Court. It was described as ‘funky’ with ‘bright colours’ in the ‘modern rooms’, equipped with satellite TVs and DVD players as well as stacks of films to watch. Well the rooms were ‘funky’ all right, but we didn’t know the author was referring to the smell. The price was 50% more than anywhere else we had been staying, for nothing like the comforts we were used to having. The Chinese woman who booked Anil in told us that breakfast was included, but only for one person. What nonsense was that? It was an expensive double room, and we were two guests planning to stay for two nights.
We had a quick shower to wash off the heat of the day, but then I suggested to Anil that we have a look at another hotel nearby because there was no way I wanted to stay two nights in that place. We drove over to the Monty Guest House, and while it was newer and better furnished, we were shown a dark room on the ground floor that smelled musty. Their rate was considerably higher and the staff was unfriendly at best. What was it about this place, Ampara?
We talked it over as we drove out of town to the Japanese Peace Pagoda, and decided that we would just stay the night and leave the next morning. Instead of two nights at Ampara and one night in Arugam Bay, we would switch things around. I had a feeling we would find better accommodation further south at Sri Lanka’s most popular surfing beach.
The elephants are reputed to pass by the pagoda, built beside a large body of water, every evening between 5 and 6pm. We arrived just at five to find a raucous game of cricket being played on the grounds of the temple. It seemed to me that the elephants would be put off passing by if there was so much noise, but the young boys assured us that they do come by from time to time. Anil and Manjula amused themselves watching the game while I walked around the pagoda and took some photos. The light was getting low and the boys packed up their bats and headed off to their homes. It was almost 6pm and there was no sign of elephants.
Some families arrived to make offerings at the pagoda and a local man passed by for an evening stroll. Manjula spoke to him about the elephants and he seemed to think that they would be travelling further inland at this time of year because the water in the tank (reservoir) was still very high and it would mean the elephants had to walk through the water if they took the route that ran between the road and the pagoda. He said that they might come but it would be more like 7pm as they would have to walk a longer distance to keep to the banks and not through the shallow water.
I was keen on waiting till 7pm at the least, so we just sat quietly and listened to the sound of drumming coming from the image room nearby. At last it was so dark that if the elephants did arrive, we wouldn’t be able to see them anyway so we walked back to our car, but popped into the small building that houses dozens of Buddha statues for a quick look. We watched a tiny nun beating on a large Japanese drum with huge sticks.
We can’t be sure, but she looked Japanese to us. All along, while we had been listening to the drumming, I had thought it was a recording being played over a loud speaker. When she finished her ‘set’, she called us over and offered us sweets from a traditional container. We had read about her in the Lonely Planet, and the fact that she likes to distribute candies. At least the author had got something right about Ampara, because he must have been on drugs when he described our hotel as being the ‘most unexpected thing in Ampara’.