The quickest way to make people want to visit somewhere is to tell them that they cannot. So when I heard that Jaffna was off-limits to foreigners and rare even for ordinary Sri Lankan citizens from the south to visit, well I knew right then and there that I would find a way to explore this beautiful yet war-torn city.
Entry into the far northern reaches of Sri Lanka is forbidden without expression permission from the Ministry of Defence. The reasons for this vary depending upon who you ask, however the most common answers I got were because of political instability and the upcoming presidential election.
Although the three decade long civil war ended in March of 2009, tensions still remain between north Sri Lanka and the rest of the country. While it is not my place to try and deduce which side is right and which is wrong, the fact remains that I learned a lot about the nation, its history and the culture of the country by visiting the north — more so than anywhere else in Sri Lanka.
I highly suggest that every foreign tourist to Sri Lanka visit Jaffna. It is an amazing city full of friendly people and I have MANY more posts on it coming over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
How To Obtain Permission To Visit Jaffna
After doing some research I was able to determine that foreigners with permission from the Ministry of Defence are allowed to make brief trips into the north. Just hearing that made me shudder. I expected paperwork, intense interviews and a whole series of time-consuming hoops to jump through. Luckily that was not the case.
Applying for permission to visit the north is shockingly easy. Simply send an email to the MOD (email@example.com — yes, they use Yahoo 😉 ) with the following information:
1. Name 2. Passport Number 3. Intended date of travel 4. Intended date of return 5. Purpose 6. Mode of travel (Air/Rail/Public transport/Private vehicle) 7. Vehicle registration (only if private vehicle) 8. Name of the driver (only if private vehicle) 9. Whether multiple entries be required during the stipulated period)
I applied for permission at midnight and by 8am the next morning I had the signed forms in my inbox.
If you own your own domain, do not use that email address to apply for permission. Instead use a Yahoo or Gmail account.
Transportation To Jaffna
The easiest way to get into northern Sri Lanka is via train, which can be ridden all the way up from Colombo — although most foreigners never take it past Anuradhapura. The rail lines north of there were destroyed during the war but have recently been rebuilt thanks to an $800 million loan from India.
In fact the Yal Devi train up to Jaffna just re-opened last month, only two weeks before I passed through. The trains have first, second and third class options, and although none of the cars were air conditioned on my train, I have heard that other trains to Jaffna do have AC. Second and third class are just basic seats (“sleeprets” as they are called) and as you might suspect the ones in second class are more comfortable and do recline slightly.
First class is composed of two-bed berths, each with an attached private bathroom. Of course the bathroom is nothing fancy, so don’t get your hopes up. And bring your own toilet paper.
Riding the train along these tracks is a bit like being aboard a boat in a storm. Up and down, back and forth, side to side….the motion never stops and even holding onto your drink without spilling becomes an art form. However this just makes it more fun!
The other alternative is by bus. Of course I’m nothing if not thorough so I tried this method as well. Unsurprisingly it was not near as fast as with the train but I found the journey to be equally enjoyable and with a lot more opportunities for photographs. For the budget conscious it is also marginally cheaper: only 460 rupees (less than $3 USD) as opposed to 510 rupees for a third class train ticket, 700 for second class sleepret, and 1400 rupees (just over $10 USD) for first class berth.
Crossing The Checkpoint Into The North
All inbound and outbound traffic to the northern provinces must pass through one of two checkpoints, depending upon route. The most well-known of these — and the only one which foreigners will ever pass through — is the checkpoint at Omanthai.
After the bus pulled in to the checkpoint Marysia (of My Travel Affairs) and I, as the only foreigners aboard, exited the bus and were led over to a booth with several guards stationed at tables with stacks of binders and paperwork. We presented our signed forms and while they were cross-checked against their copies and against our passports, we were questioned. “What are you doing here?” “Why do you want to go to Jaffna?” “How did you know to get permission to enter this restricted area?”
Of course we did not mention the fact that we are bloggers and visiting Sri Lanka to write about the country as part of TBC Asia. However I realized in the middle of all this questioning that I had accidentally left my TBC Asia hat on. Luckily I was wearing it backwards so the logo wasn’t visible to the military officers questioning us. Once they said we were approved and handed back our passports I quickly scurried back onto the bus before anyone could see my hat and change their mind.
Visiting Jaffna was one of the highlights of my month in the country and I highly recommend it to anyone else visiting who is curious about the culture here and history of the country.
If you have any questions on how to travel to Jaffna then please leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer it.
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