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Introducing The East

Visiting eastern Sri Lanka is travelling as it used to be: tropical lushness, unexplored beaches and scattered jungle ruins that feel way off the beaten track. The main tourist draw is Arugam Bay, a laid-back hang-out that’s also Sri Lanka’s top surfing spot. The hinterland is full of wildlife, and you’re virtually assured of seeing wild elephants at Ampara. Eccentrically craggy forest-scapes tumble into mesmerising vistas of paddy fields as you head north. The coastline leads on to Batticaloa and Trincomalee via chaotic strip villages and beautiful lagoons, uncleared tsunami debris and paradisal beaches. The best-developed beaches are at Uppuveli and Nilaveli, and you can find some real accommodation bargains here in the rainy low season, which runs from October to April. But while swimming is OK in the low season, stick to the dry season (May to September) for surfing or snorkelling.

So few foreign travellers bother to visit the east coast that you’re likely to find a very heartfelt welcome and a great generosity of spirit. But you’ll need to tread gently. Ethnic conflicts remain unresolved – not just between Sinhalese and Tamils, but also between Tamils and Muslims, and between Tamil factions. For inquisitive travellers, learning about these complex interrelationships is part of the excitement. But sensitivity and tact are crucial.

Meanwhile, some roads remain closed or controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Checkpoints are common. At the time of research, soldiers gave us grins and merry waves rather than shakedowns or body searches. But keep an eye on the situation – as the recent violence has shown, renewed civil war is not entirely off the menu.