The author enjoying a late afternoon swim in the clear, warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Uppuveli Beach, Sri Lanka.
All I wanted was to lounge at a beach, read and write some, work out a little, sleep a lot.
It had been a while since I’d seen a beach. Sri Lanka seemed a perfect destination for my visa run out of Thailand.
“Pearl of The Indian Ocean,” the ads call it.
Okay, so I didn’t know about the violence.
The Easter Sunday Massacre
An organized Easter Sunday massacre at religious observances in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and a couple of other cities, carried out by suicide bombers, left nearly three hundred people dead and more than 500 injured.
Certain areas in West Sri Lanka also have suffered from acts of religious/political violence since then, apparently in response to the Easter Sunday bombings.
Relationships among the dominant Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindu Tamil, Christians, Muslims and others are long, complex. Although the recent strife ended a 10-year period of peace following the 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil.
While the fighting ended, bitterness and unsettled issues still smolder among the bountiful natural beauty of Sri Lanka. Emotions run high in this vast island nation of 21 million people.
Tourists Heed Warnings
Since Easter Sunday, tourists have all but abandoned the country. Media accounts of the horrible bombings and foreign government travel warnings have steered many to other destinations.
The ever-cautious U.S. State Department had issued a Level 3 Advisory, telling Americans to reconsider any plans to visit Sri Lanka "due to terrorism."
The U.S. may not be able to help its citizens with emergencies in Sri Lanka in the current environment, its website says.
But I had already made my reservations, so I came anyway, just to see.
Over the years I’ve learned that going where I’m warned not to go often makes traveling more interesting and fun. It certainly makes it less crowded.
Chiang Mai to Colombo
On May 15, I left Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a Thai Lion flight to Bangkok, then Air Asia to Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, an island nation off the southern tip of India, formerly known as Ceylon.
Fortunately for me, not for Sri Lanka, the three-hour Bangkok-to-Colombo flight was less than half full. I stretched out and napped across three seats.
The night I arrived, armed soldiers and police patrols were all over the streets in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. My taxi was stopped twice in 30 minutes at checkpoints between the airport and hostel.
Fun With Authorities
At one stop, I was asked for my passport with a flashlight’s beam wiggling over me in the dark, back seat of a taxi.
The second night I was there, a half-dozen soldiers with weapons raced toward me on the sidewalk below the towers of the Sri Lankan World Trade Center, ordering me to delete photos I’d just taken. (Story here)
Colombo to Trincomalee
My third day in Sri Lanka, as planned, I took an ambling old Sri Lanka Railway train on a cross-island trip, nearly 300 kilometers, to the Eastern Province capital Trincomalee. Just to the north lies sleepy Uppuveli Beach, where I took a room in a guest house.
There’s not the high tension here in the east that’s felt in Colombo. There is security and checkpoints on the street in and around Trincomalee, but fewer than in the nation’s bustling capital. I haven't seen any armed police, soldiers or checkpoints in Uppulevi Beach.
Stopped in Colombo
Although I had a couple of incidents occur in Colombo, I haven’t felt especially endangered or threatened by the increased security anywhere in Sri Lanka. (There was the flashlight request for my passport, and the next night I was ordered by soldiers to delete photos from my phone.)
My incidents, though, are mere travel anecdotes, interesting little asides that happen sometimes when you step off the tired old but recommended tour path. There was nothing genuinely menacing about either of these incidents.
But Uppuleli restaurants, tuk-tuk drivers and tour operators are getting desperate. Hotels and guest houses are practically empty.
Meanwhile, the fact is, there’s really no reason to avoid travel in Sri Lanka. It's no more dangerous here than most places in the world where people travel.
A Good Time to Travel
At times like this, it’s even advantageous to travel in countries like Sri Lanka. When it's peak tourist season with few tourists, travel bargains abound without crowds.
I live in a family-owned guest house I found on Booking.com on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. I have a large, clean room with private bathroom-shower for about $7(US) a night.
The inviting white sand beach, soft waves and warm water of the Indian Ocean are only a couple of hundred meters away. For several days, I was the only guest. Others have arrived, but rooms are still available.
My guest house hosts are Tamil by identity and language. The Eastern and Northern provinces of Sri Lanka are largely populated by Tamil people who still want a piece of Sri Lanka to call their own.
The 26-year civil war fought over Tamil independence was ended in brutal fashion a decade ago by the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated government.
Unfortunately, I arrived largely ignorant of this history and the politics of Sri Lanka, but I am learning.
My new friends show me their scars from burns and bullet wounds suffered in the civil war.
These kinds of unexpected experiences, raw expressions of the human struggle, are the human connections I crave, reminding me again and again why I travel the way I do.
Just a great beach and some good weather were all I really wanted on this trip, my first to Sri Lanka.
Now I’m here, feeling the pulse of another beautiful part of the world, enjoying myself immensely again in a place I was warned not to visit.
I have what I came for, and now so much more.
David Hunter Bishop is a retired journalist from Hawaii who quickly tired of retirement life and hit the road as a solo traveler in August 2016. Since then he's traveled in 18 countries on four continents and is currently enjoying life in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. For more about David's journey, see his blog at www.davidhunterbishop.com. David's also been interviewed by Nomadic Matt and Expat Focus, and for an article titled, A Confluence of Adventure Writers, by veteran Borneo news writer and author James Ritchie.
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