I wasn’t sure what to expect in this town, since it was a Tamil stronghold during the Civil war and hasn’t been open to visitors very long. But I was surprised to find it the calmest, friendliest, most peaceful town I’d visited so far in all of Sri Lanka.
There’s a pretty lagoon, home to a giant jellyfish called the Crambionella. They sting but it’s not severe, and the largest numbers are found from June to July and in November. Batticaloa lagoon is also famous for its singing fish, but these can only be heard at night, at certain times of the year.
When I asked a man at the YMCA about them he laughed and said that after all the troubles ‘the fish are crying now’, which seemed to me to be strangely poignant. It could be fun to take a boat trip on the lagoon – negotiate a price with local fishermen.
I had a thoroughly lovely stroll around the streets of ‘Old Batti‘, looking at old Catholic churches and Hindu temples, taking a few photos, smiling at people and munching on street snacks. A small packet of excellent, crunchy local cashews cost me R50. The ‘military area’ has been greatly reduced during the past 2 years and there is now a cricket ground at one end of it, where 3 games of cricket were going on among boys of different ages. In the Dutch Fort a policeman at the gate showed me the steps up to the ramparts, then later pointed out an enormous hornet’s nest. I mimed throwing something at it and he backed away worried, shaking his head. So much for macho military posturing! He also showed me the exit, all very politely and kindly.
Batticaloa’s market is on the north bank of the lagoon, almost opposite the clock-tower. Here you can buy fish caught in the lagoon – some very strange looking, with long thin jaws and sharp teeth. Try a Sherbert drink, which one local proudly told me is only to be found in Sri Lanka. You’ll know the stall by the row of different coloured bottles lined at the front of it, including pomegranate red and lurid yellow. It doesn’t taste like Sherbert; it’s a sweet, fruity pink concoction, with small pieces of fruit and ice floating in it. However, it’s worth buying to see the artful way in which the several ingredients are expertly mixed together by the vendor.
Cultural tip There are still not many tourists visiting Batticaloa and people are excited to see a foreigner but are friendly, not at all aggressive. I would advise wearing clothes that cover the shoulder and fall below the knee, whether you’re male or female. This is the local standard of modesty and it shows respect to follow the same code, and for women results in much less unwanted attention.
Travelling there and away Batticaloa now has a brand new CTB bus station, opened in February 2011. I spoke to an old man selling ice-creams here and he told me he was very proud of the new building and it was long overdue. Private buses and minibuses leave from an area adjacent to this. Buses don’t travel to Trincomalee via the coastal route – they go inland to Habarana first. I was quoted R3500 for a three-wheeler along this route. There are a large number of river crossings so if you decide to do this then set off early.
Accommodation I stayed in the YMCA (Tel. 065 222 2496), which was friendly, clean, cheap and felt secure. R700 a night and they’ll bring you a cup of tea in the morning (not included in the room price). It’s situated just north of the lagoon in an area of quiet lanes beside well kept old houses, with gardens full of flowers.
Eating in Batticaloa The Sunshine restaurant on Trinco road serves not bad Indian style food such as chicken fried rice. Good enough western food can be found in the restaurant of the Subaraj Inn. Sadly, they no longer have a bar here.