How To Visit Jaffna, Sri Lanka

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.

Fishing boats in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Although the economy is picking up, fishing is still the biggest industry in Jaffna

Jaffna schoolkids riding home on bicycles
Many of the buildings in Jaffna are bombed-out or bullet riddled but the kids are amazingly happy and friendly

Here in Jaffna, Sri Lanka the cows own the streets. They are not scared of anything and when you honk at them they just look at your like "WTF do you want?"
Here in Jaffna the cows own the streets. They are not scared of anything and when you honk at them they just look at your like “WTF do you want?”

The streets of Jaffna
The sacred Keerimalai Pond located just north of Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Keerimalai Pond is a sacred mineral water spring reputed for its curative properties

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.

Derek was quite ecstatic whenever he received permission to visit Jaffna
A permission slip? It’s like elementary school field trips all over again…

Applying for permission to visit the north is shockingly easy. Simply send an email to the MOD ([email protected] — 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.

How To Get 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.

The Jaffna train schedule and prices

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 berth aboard the Jaffna train "Night Mail"
Sometimes a GoPro really comes in handy for fitting everything into the photo

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!

Bus from Trincomalee to Jaffna, Sri Lanka

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.

The military checkpoint at Omanthai, gateway to northern Sri Lanka
At Omanthai all vehicles coming and going are forced off the road to undergo military inspection.

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.

Successfully crossed the Omanthai checkpoint....Jaffna here we come!
Successfully crossed the Omanthai checkpoint….Jaffna here we come!

  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.

Browse the others~ Jaffna Travel Archives

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

23 thoughts on “How To Visit Jaffna, Sri Lanka”

    • I didn’t forget. In fact I thought about including that juicy tidbit but didn’t want to ramble on too much or keep bringing you up. After all, ’tis my first Jaffna post, got to keep in focused and not ramble off like I usually do. There will be plenty of opportunities for that in my upcoming Jaffna posts 😛

      Reply
      • Hi Thara,

        I’m still angry.. You left a comment on Derek’s blog first than my blog, I’m totally feeling abandoned since we’ve been friend for years, and I introduced you to him because as a foreigner he likes to get in touch with local like you, a Sri Lankan.. Unfair.. Grrrr…

        Okay, okay… I’m kidding 😛

        Hi Derek,
        Where’s the video, I’ve been waiting but nothing till now. Is it your trick so I have to come back again and again to check it ??
        By the way, I like this statement; ” 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 and the culture by visiting the north — more so than anywhere else in the country.”

        A ha !! This is what I expect from Western Expats in Indonesia during the election, also foreign media when it comes to politics in my country. I don’t know why, as the outsiders they act like they’ve been more civilized and think they know everything and opinionated which is totally rubbish or bullshit for me because they, against, my candidate.

        Okay, this is about Jaffna, not about Indonesia. But, I’d like to say, I really appreciate your neutral attitude as a tourist. You are my ideal western tourist for Indonesia, not like those ‘sotoy*’ expats in Indonesia… Urrggghhh… I hate them so much. Politics is very sensitive topics, not much different from Religious topics. I lost alot friend on facebook because my political views are different from them.

        I think, when I visit Sri Lanka later, I really need to visit this place too. Thanks for the information, and I think it’s safer to print out the permit, hey dude, you’re like a young boy there.. Why,.. just in case my gadget being robbed or broken or low batt 😉

        Please upload the video…. visual is important too.

        *sotoy; Indonesian slang for a person who thinks they are smarter or maybe Pseudo-intellectual is appropriate definition for this.

        Reply
  1. Good work Derek. I will def be making use of your advice in my world tour of dictatorships and brutal regimes for which Sri Lanka most definitely qualifies. Lets hope they dont read my blog before I get there. Looking forward to your other posts on the North

    Reply
    • That cow was a complete diva….so hard to work with. Kept having to fix her hair, and to beg and plead with her to look at the camera. But at the end of the day the shot was worth all the hard work 😉

      Reply
  2. It is really not necessary to sensationalize Jaffna the way you do, Derek. I am actually a bit disappointed by the sensationalism used by you in this article. First of all, Jaffna is not a forbidden city ‘off-limits’ for foreigners. Yes, you have to get a permit, but it’s a formality and it’s not like nobody’s visiting Jaffna – you make it seem like it’s a huge ordeal. Several high-end boutique hotels have opened their doors in Jaffna over the past few years – not only backpackers like you visit Jaffna, but also culturally interested / special-interest tourists who would like to see this part of Sri Lanka. I saw tourists every day during my time in Jaffna, and not only foreigners, but also Sri Lankans from the southern part of the country. So while you asked ‘dozens and dozens’ of Sri Lankans if they had been there, you should’ve talked to the Sri Lankans up there who did visit Jaffna. Also, I find your article absolutely lacking when it comes to complaining to conflict – for someone who doesn’t know anything about the background of the civil war in Sri Lanka, it’s not even clear why visiting Jaffna requires a travel permit or why some of the city’s buildings are bullet riddled. No explanation whatsoever, just sensationalizing the fact that you went to a place that isn’t on many people’s agenda when they come to Sri Lanka. Instead of starting your coverage on Jaffna in such a sensationalistic way maybe you should’ve started with an introduction on Jaffna, its history and the city’s involvement in the civil war before stating that it’s off-limits to foreigners (which is simply not true). As for the thoroughness of your research in regards to transportation options: 2nd class train tickets during the day are 570 Rupees, and there is one train (the InterCity Express), also running during the day, which does have AC. A printed version of the travel permit is not required as long as you have a version of it on your smartphone on which name and permit number are clearly visible. I hope your next articles on Jaffna will include some thorough information and not just a dramatization of the place.

    Reply
  3. It is really not necessary to sensationalize Jaffna the way you do, Derek. I am actually a bit disappointed by the sensationalism used by you in this article. First of all, Jaffna is not a forbidden city ‘off-limits’ for foreigners. Yes, you have to get a permit, but it’s a formality and it’s not like nobody’s visiting Jaffna – you make it seem like it’s a huge ordeal. Several high-end boutique hotels have opened their doors in Jaffna over the past few years – not only backpackers like you visit Jaffna, but also culturally interested / special-interest tourists who would like to see this part of Sri Lanka. I saw tourists every day during my time in Jaffna, and not only foreigners, but also Sri Lankans from the southern part of the country. So while you asked ‘dozens and dozens’ of Sri Lankans if they had been there, you should’ve talked to the Sri Lankans up there who did visit Jaffna. Also, I find your article absolutely lacking when it comes to complaining to conflict – for someone who doesn’t know anything about the background of the civil war in Sri Lanka, it’s not even clear why visiting Jaffna requires a travel permit or why some of the city’s buildings are bullet riddled. No explanation whatsoever, just sensationalizing the fact that you went to a place that isn’t on many people’s agenda when they come to Sri Lanka. Instead of starting your coverage on Jaffna in such a sensationalistic way maybe you should’ve started with an introduction on Jaffna, its history and the city’s involvement in the civil war before stating that it’s off-limits to foreigners (which is simply not true). As for the thoroughness of your research in regards to transportation options: 2nd class train tickets during the day are 570 Rupees, and there is one train (the InterCity Express), also running during the day, which does have AC. A printed version of the travel permit is not required as long as you have a version of it on your smartphone on which name and permit number are clearly visible. I hope your next articles on Jaffna will include some thorough information and not just a dramatization of the place.

    Reply
  4. great writing! I was surprised to hear that you needed persmission – I was in Sri Lanka 2 years back now and a family offered to take us there and we couldnt go with no time, but I had no idea it was still restricted! Great pics as well. Sri Lanka is one place I really want to return to!

    Reply
    • Thanks Andrew! I was under the impression that the restrictions are only temporary but alas, with a president who has his heart set on becoming a full-fledged dictator you never really know which way things will go. I plan on returning to Sri Lanka in a couple months and am dead-set on returning to Jaffna to visit my new friends there. Come on back for a second taste and let’s cross paths!

      Reply
  5. Love your posts on Sri Lanka. We just had an election and ditched the crazy president so if you are visiting again the North is now open freely to foreign passport holders.

    Reply
    • Yes, I was following the election and quite excited when Rajapaksa didn’t win. Am happy for all my friends in Sri Lanka and hope the new president brings positive change to the country and doesn’t slap his face on every building or build a massive highway and convention center in the middle of nowhere.

      Didn’t realize that traveling to northern Sri Lanka was easier now but am happy to hear that. Guess I can delete this article lol

      Reply
      • haha please don’t delete. It’s good to have a record of how the experience was at the time.

        For example, journalists in Sri Lanka were busy right after the election to make archives of the crazy propaganda the previous government was putting up before the websites got wiped during the changeover. So people can see how crazy and authoritarian the situation was turning out to be at the time.

        Reply
  6. Thankfully traveling to northern parts of Sri Lanka is much easier now. It really is a must see place and once the roads are developed further I’m sure many more Sri Lankans will visit their. I think banning of foreigners happened because news stories done by some media organizations like Channel 4. I wonder how the security would have reacted if you were carrying video equipment.

    Reply
    • Yeah, I followed the election and was so happy — as are most people I know in Sri Lanka — to see the shift in power. But you are right, as soon as Sirisena took power the restrictions were lifted. Hooray! (I wasn’t happy with Rajapaksa and actually wrote a piece about him called How To Become A Dictator In 8 Easy Steps)

      Anyway, Jaffna is hands-down my favorite city in Lanka and one I think that more people should visit. People there were so happy to see foreigners. They’ve struggled through a lot the last few decades but just because the war is over doesn’t mean life in Jaffna has resumed to normal. Of course these are things that you cannot understand until you visit. And speaking of camera equipment, I nearly brought a drone to Sri Lanka…but wasn’t sure how well that would go over with local authorities. In the end I shot around 20 hours or so of footage in Jaffna but haven’t had the time to edit it yet, unfortunately…

      Reply
    • Shame, I was expecting a more interesting or informative comment, like how the travel restrictions to the north have been lifted by Sirisena or how the train between Jaffna and Colombo is once again operational…….. :/

      Reply
  7. Thanks for this info. We may be going by car with a driver from the south. Will that be a problem in the north? Thanks.

    Reply

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