Travel Notes: Sri Lanka's Liberated East

By Douglas Clayton | May 2010

We're on a marathon investment inspection tour of the South and East coasts of Sri Lanka. Locals like to say the East has the island's best beaches, natural harbor, fishing, farmland etc. so it's time to put such claims to the eyeball test. The East also provides a preview of what reconstruction programs may lay ahead for the North, since the East was liberated from the separatist LTTE Tigers a few years earlier. On the way East, we also want to tour the South which the government has made another priority area for investment.

Leaving Colombo, our first stop is in Galle, an intact port town from the wooden ship era. We enjoy a sunset stroll along the Dutch fort's elevated waterfront ramparts, from which one can soak up much of Old Galle's historic architecture.A few of the nicer buildings have already been spruced up and it's not hard to imagine Galle becoming renowned as an atmospheric tourist hangout.

We lodge overnight nearby at tourist-friendly Unawatuna beach which like much of coastal Sri Lanka was wiped out in the 2004 Tsunami then recreated. Heading onward along the coast, we visit a series of fishing inlets harboring flotillas of boats with "donated by" nameplates of well-known charities. These small boats cannot go out very far or long, so their catch is limited in size. The assortment of fish they net is sold dockside to traders who ice and truck it to Colombo for sale into the domestic market. We spot some medium sized boats as well, which might be selling tuna directly to Japanese collection boats offshore.

Further East we finally reach Hambantota, the home province of President Rajapaksa and by coincidence now the recipient of Sri Lanka's most ambitious infrastructure upgrade. Currently just a shabby, impoverished village, Hambantota has been earmarked to become a rest stop on the world's shipping highway. China, the core customer of the cargo cruising by, is bankrolling and building a billion dollar bunkering and bulk port in Hambantota. This world-class port facility will be complemented by a planned international airport, industrial estate, coal power plant, oil refinery, tank farm, convention center, administrative center, and various other big-ticket facilities. The overall project reminds us of Thailand's visionary Eastern Seaboard initiative, which overcame early skepticism to propel that nation's remarkable industrial development over the past two decades.Hambantota's facilities will be rolled out over a 15 year period, with most of the investment checks written by foreign governments and multi-national companies.

We find the Port's entrance gate near a vast workers' camp which consists of orderly rows of, temporary housing. Most of the workers are of course Chinese. We talk our way past the port's local guards and undertake an unguided driving tour of the port site, dodging around lumbering loaded dump trucks. The scale of the worksite is mind boggling, and reminds us of a huge copper mine site we once toured in Mongolia. What they are building here is an inland, artificial port - think of a gigantic swimming pool 17 meters deep and spacious enough to maneuver multiple 100,000 ton cargo ships within. Toss in a dredged channel to the sea, and a couple kilometers of oversized breakwaters outside, and you have a pretty big project indeed. And it is being built, at breakneck speed.

After we snap some photos from various viewpoints, a SUV suddenly races up to us. Out steps the unsmiling Chinese security manager, who demands to know, in crisp English, exactly what we are doing here and who gave us permission to enter. We reply that we were in fact just leaving, and watch him glare at our vehicle as we speed off to the exit.

Next we visit the planned $200 million international airport site, which involves a rather long detour into the countryside. The airport currently consists of a cleared jungle field with the following key improvements:a decorative gate, a billboard featuring the beaming President, and an orange nylon windsock. We expect that if the Chinese agree to build it, the small "final touches" of building a runway, terminal and control tower won't take long. On the way back, we see that some smaller components of the Hambantota transformation project are well underway: a windpower pilot farm, a government administration complex, and an International Exhibition Center - courtesy of Korea.

It's late now so we head north to our next hotel, just outside Yala National Park. Our fellow hotel guests -mostly Swedes and Italians - seem enthused about all the wild elephants and other animals they have seen in the park. Unfortunately our ambitious schedule doesn't permit us to join the morning safari trip, and we push northward up the East Coast to Arugam Bay. This bay is reputed to be a world class surf spot, but we don't spot any over-tanned dudes with boards. We do find a charming beach hotel there operated by a Danish lady whose husband sadly perished in the Tsunami; we admire her for reopening and carrying on.

Next on our agenda is a tour of Oluvil Port, a project being financed by Denmark and constructed by a leading Danish civil contractor. While this port is only a fraction of the size and cost of Hambantota, it is still quite a substantial project comprising breakwaters, cargo berths, a fish boat basin, and a small fish processing plant. The experienced Danish project manager gives us a comprehensive tour and discusses the local challenges his team encountered and overcame; he seems unflappable. The only problem is that the port has been located - perhaps for political reasons - in an impoverished area with little real need for a port this size, so it may end up well built but lightly used.

As we make our way up the East coast it becomes apparent just how much road work is in going on in this formerly rebel-controlled province.Every road seems to be getting widened, smoothed, and resurfaced, section by section, while at each river, creek or ditch crossing there seems to be a brand new concrete bridge underway. Our travel speed and passenger comfort surge each time we reach a finished section.When all this is finished Eastern Sri Lanka will leapfrog from having the country's worst to best road system. Still, we enjoy the experience of crossing one river the traditional way, in a battered single-car ferry powered entirely by human muscle. Two attendants on the ancient platform tug on the guide cable stretching across the river while the boat skids forward. Approaching the opposite shore, they leap up and down on the tailgate to position it so that we can safely drive off. This eco-friendly ferry's days are numbered however, as a modern new bridge is under construction 50 meters away. (see picture below)

We drive through the pleasant town of Old Batti and wander around its small 300 year old Dutch fort, which now houses some local government offices. This town holds potential tourism charm, a bit like Galle, and we spot the shingles of numerous NGO offices, whose staff usually sniff out the better places to live. Moving northward, we hit a couple once-famous beaches but find that while they are now attracting swarms of locals, they are still missing any tourism support facilities more durable than a food cart. That will change.

Lining the coastal road are endless agricultural fields. Unlike in rural Cambodia, we spot numerous tractors and harvesters in use here, while the buffalos just wallow and watch. The support towns also appear more prosperous; many display public buildings and clinics donated post-tsunami by foreign governments and NGOs, unlike Cambodia which rarely experiences any natural disasters. However the region still shares Cambodia's problem of having insufficient post-harvest technology, the farmers dry their rice along the sides of the road.

Our final stop is Trincomalee, home of what Admiral Horatio Nelson proclaimed the "world's finest harbor". Since the British fleet sailed out a half century ago, the magnificent harbor has been forgotten while costly manmade ports are constructed in Colombo, Hambantota and Oluvil. "Trinco" looks to us like a grand place to invest; here is a sizable town with an important past and an inevitable future. Also, the rail line runs here, so it could plausibly become an important industrial hub - already there are foreign-owned major cement and flour factories here.

Just north of Trinco we are pleased to discover what we'd rate as our favorite beaches in Sri Lanka: Uppuveli and Nilaveli. These are lengthy, walk-able beaches dusted with fine, off-white sand, fringed with coconut trees and looking out on an inviting aquamarine sea. Excursion operators offer whale watching and snorkeling trips. Most of the existing hotels look weary, but larger operators like John Keells are gearing up to open higher-end properties here. And yes, we spot some NGO home-offices partially hidden just behind the beach, surely being described back to headquarters as a hardship posting.

Our tour completed, we head back to Colombo, exchanging the traffic-free roads of the East for the congestion of central and western Sri Lanka. We reflect back on the China-like audacity of the Hambantota project and the transformative impact it could have on the sleepy South, which could emerge as a new growth engine of the national economy. If Trincomalee is given its own airport and container terminal, it could emerge as a third integrated industrial / services growth zone alongside Colombo and Hambantota. Meanwhile, the rest of Eastern Sri Lanka will be steadily expanding its agricultural, fisheries and tourism industries, boosted by the improved transport connectivity.

We look forward to next exploring the liberated North and assessing how that fits in to Sri Lanka's changing economic paradigm.

Our Favorite Ferry

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