A Sri Lankan holiday - after 20 years

European tourists are once again romancing the breathtaking Sri Lankan beach of Nilaveli on the Bay of Bengal. Only two years ago, the scene here was of a bloody battleground.

Nilaveli beach on Sri Lanka's east coast is full of European tourists - the Germans, French, Dutch and the English. A rash of kids are frolicking in the white sand building castles and gathering shells.
The sight today could not have been more different from one of two years ago, when the only people on the beach were soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army battling guerrillas of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) - or more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers.

The LTTE wants to carve out a Tamil nation out of the north of the island nation. The fighting stopped abruptly last February following a ceasefire pact.

This one has held against the odds, and now the north and east of the island, where most of the fighting in the 20-year war took place, are once again open to all.

Sri Lanka, also known as the Emerald Island of the East, is once again beginning to unfurl itself.

Nilaveli is 20 kilometres north of the spectacular harbour town of Trincomalee, one of the major centres of fighting only a couple of years ago.

The town itself has borne its scars remarkably well - the hotels and shops are doing brisk business.

Before the war began in 1983, the strip of beach leading northwards from Trincomalee was being touted as a new "destination", but the civil war put an end to that.

The few hotels that held out during the war along with the ones that have now sprung up report good turnouts.

Like Croatia's beaches, said to be Europe's best, the beaches in this part are spectacular - miles of white sand looking out into the Bay of Bengal. And on offer for the typical western tourist - plenty of coral reef diving and sea-surfing.

The still small numbers of guests mean that hotels here are cheap and the beaches unsullied yet.

Outside the hotels and away from the beach there is less to do, with large areas of land still heavily mined (all of which are clearly marked) and the shells of bombed-out buildings clearly visible.

The devastation is much more pronounced in the north of the island, which forms the major part of the theoretical "homeland" of the Tamil Tigers.

Jaffna town, the capital of the region and now accessible by thrice-a-day flights from national capital Colombo, is but a shadow of its past self.

The magnificent 17th century Dutch fort, which guarded the city first against the Portuguese and then the British, is now no more than a heap of rubble atop a heavily-mined hill.

However, there are still things to see and do in Jaffna and, reasons to visit the region, other than to see first hand the devastation of the conflict.

The towns are being rebuilt and some of the more impressive pieces of architecture, such as the Central Library, are being restored.

The beaches, as in the east, are stunning and unspoilt, and the fresh fish and other seafood caught by local fishermen are well worth trying.

There are also remarkable Hindu kovils (temples) besides the dig site at Kantharodai, where dozens of small Buddhist stupas are said to mark the spot where the Buddha landed on the island.

Other than the re-opened airport, the only way into the peninsula is by road - not a recommended option. The LTTE control the only land route into Jaffna, and all travellers have to pass through both LTTE and army checkpoints at either end.

This entails having your bags and vehicle searched, paying taxes and filling out a large number of forms to obtain a travel visa.

The experience can be fraught, especially for foreign tourists and non-Tamil-speakers.

Trincomalee is much easier to reach by road - in fact, the roads are the only way to get there, and most people choose to hire a chauffeured van in Colombo to tour the island (because of insurance formalities, cars and vans with drivers are cheaper to hire than vehicles on their own).

The roads to both the north and the east, while being patched up, still bear the scars of 20 years of war, and short distances can take some time to cover.

On the road out of Jaffna, an expanse of salt flats opens up at Elephant Pass, where a whole town once stood.

The only remnants are a sign, marked "Elephant Pass Rest House", standing alone, next to a burnt out tank.

The place will not be re-opening any time soon, but it may not be too long before the tourists return in numbers.