Standing in the green marshes of Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, three adult elephants and one baby expertly pulled out tall grasses with their trunks. After a quick back and forth swing of their trunk, they each shoveled their bounty into their mouths.
I couldn’t believe our luck. Our safari jeep was parked on the road right in front of them, giving us a front row view of these beautiful wild animals.
The baby elephant laid down in the mud underneath his mom and began to roll around. Lost in his cuteness, I hardly noticed when large chunks of dung fell from his mom’s butt.
I couldn’t miss, and I can never unsee, what followed. Suddenly interested mom’s waste, our adorable baby elephant rolled onto his tummy, reached out his trunk, and snatched a ball of poo.
“No Baby, no…” I said aloud as I watched him eat his mother’s waste.
And then he did it again. And again. Until he had gobbled up all of his mom’s deposit.
And believe it or not, this wasn’t even the craziest elephant behavior we saw in the wild in Sri Lanka!
- Day 1: Arrive in Colombo
- Day 2: Drive to Sigiriya, visiting Dambulla Cave Temples along the way
- Day 3: Minneriya National Park Safari and overnight in Kandy
- Day 4: Drive to Nuwara Eliya
- Day 5: Hike in Horton Plains National Park
- Day 6: Drive to Ella and hike Little Adam’s Peak and visit Nine Arches Bridge
- Day 7: Drive to Tissamaharama
- Day 8: Yala National Park Safari and drive to Mirissa
- Day 9: Drive to Unawatuna and visit Galle
- Day 10: Drive to Colombo
- Day 11: Fly out
Dates: July 29 – August 8, 2018
Our guide, Vijay, greeted us at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a head shorter than me, drove a spotless Toyota, and wore large, circular-framed glasses. Missing a few teeth from a lifetime of chewing betel leaves, he looked older than his age. Combined with his kind demeanor, he had the air of a loveable grandfather.
While driving to our hotel, he explained our plan for the next few days in broken English. We realized quickly we may not be able to communicate very well with him due to the language barrier. But, we are pretty easy going and were excited to see what was in store in this country which, admittedly, I knew very little about.
Sri Lanka has only recently become accessible to tourists, due to a decades-long civil war between the Tamil ethnic group of the northern part of Sri Lanka, and the government. The Tamil Tigers (as they were called) fought for an independent Tamil state from 1983 to 2009, when the government defeated the rebel group.
Now Sri Lanka is a peaceful and quiet country. There’s hardly any honking on the roads, even in the bigger cities. It’s become increasingly popular with tourists, but still has this “not yet discovered” vibe to it. We saw relatively few other tourists the entire 10 days we were there.
We started our adventure the next morning when Vijay came to our hotel to pick us up. He explained today would be a busy day with a long drive and a few stops as well. He gave us the option of visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, but we declined. Sadly, the so-called orphanage is actually known for its mistreatment of these beautiful animals.
If you’ve read my posts about ethical elephant sanctuaries Thailand (here and here), then you already know that many places abuse elephants to “break them” for elephant riding (sometimes called trekking). Pinnawala allegedly rescues orphaned elephants from such dire places, but most reports from people who have been indicate that minders keep the elephants at Pinnawala in chains and will even hit them if they don’t “behave”. We didn’t need to go see for ourselves to know this wasn’t for us.
Instead, we headed inland from the west coast and then north towards Dambulla. Along the way we stopped on the side of the road to buy king coconuts from a man selling them under a tree. King coconuts taste like regular coconuts, but have a striking light orange colors instead. I’d never seen a coconut like that before!
Eventually we arrived to the ancient city of Dambulla. The caves here have held Buddha images for 2000 years. Over the centuries, kings have updated and added to the cave art. I was surprised to learn that, while India is predominantly Hindu, Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist. Admittedly, up until I started planning out to go Sri Lanka, I thought it was like a smaller, less chaotic India. Clearly I was wrong – Sri Lanka’s culture is distinctly their own.
Today at Dambulla there are five cave temples you can visit, all side by side. The spiritual and artistic power of the place is overwhelming. Walking freely through these ancient temples, you’re completely immersed by over 150 Buddha statues and paintings. This collection comprises some of Sri Lanka’s most important religious art.
From there it was just a half hour to Sigiriya, another ancient city that sits atop a rock of the same name, which means “Lion’s Rock”. This large granite monolith reminded me of Uluru in Australia and Mount Popa in Myanmar. Standing tall amid the jungle, the rock overlooks ancient boulder gardens and monastic ruins.
An hour long climb (1200 steps) led us to the enigmatic site of either an ancient palace or a Buddhist monastery. Scholars disagree on exactly what the grounds around and on top of the rock were used for, but archeological evidence dates the ruins from the 5th century.
Midway up the rock, visitors can see the remains of astoundingly colorful 5th century fresco wall paintings. Photos are forbidden, but here is a beautiful example of the female figures that adorn this wall.
Near the top, two stone lion paws flank each side of the stairs the lead to the palace (or monastery!) above. Once at the summit, I felt like we could see all of Sri Lanka spread out in each direction around us. The warm wind at the top reminded me of afternoons at the beach when I was a kid. The view looking out over an ocean of green treetops reminded me to pause and enjoy it.
Minneriya National Park
Sri Lanka was already impressing us, and the next day was even better. I promised you some crazy elephant stories, and this is it. As a warning, what follows is my attempt at a polite description of elephant mating behaviors. If that is off-putting for you, please skip the next few paragraphs!
We got up very early before sunrise to go out on a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park. Somehow, we were one of only two jeeps there that morning, and the only jeep that witnessed the drama that unfolded there.
After about an hour of riding around and spotting many different birds and monkeys, we found 5 elephants (one pregnant female, 3 young adult males and a male bull with large tusks) grazing.
Our driver told us the bull was likely the father of the female elephant’s baby. It’s unusual for male elephants to hang out together, especially this time of year when they are in musk. But, since the female was already pregnant and therefore not available to mate, the group grazed peacefully together.
We noticed that two of the other males were interested in the female, despite her being pregnant. If you’re wondering how we could tell, let’s just say they were visibly aroused and that elephants don’t normally have 5 legs.
When the bull wasn’t looking, we saw the female elephant get closer to one of the other males. They entwined their trunks and seemed to be flirting. At one point the female elephant grazed his erection with her trunk. Was this an illicit affair?
Even our guide started taking photos – this was incredibly rare behavior, he said.
Soon the bull turned his attention to the would-be lovers. They separated, as if to say, “Who, us? We weren’t doing anything!”
Under the watch of the dominant bull, who was now becoming visibly aroused himself, the other males distanced themselves from the female. Several tense moments passed as all of us, wondered what would happen next. Thankfully for the other males, the bull was soon no longer aroused, diffusing the tension of sexual competition. Eventually they all sauntered into the forest, while we continued to stare in awe.
As soon as it was over, Tim and I excitedly starting talking about what we just saw. You know when you watch an intense episode of Game of Thrones, and you stare, completely riveted until the very end? And then as soon as it’s over it’s like a spell has been broken and you immediately discuss everything with your friends? It was a lot like that.
That afternoon we continued on to the city of Kandy, where exactly two interesting but unpleasant things happened that night. The first was that I found a scorpion in the bathroom of our hotel.
The second was that our driver took us to a tourist trap restaurant for dinner, complete with exorbitantly priced meals and a mariachi band (it was Margarita Night). The food was fine but the atmosphere was abysmal. We told Vijay afterwards that we only wanted to eat at local restaurants from then on out. This ended up being the best request we made on the trip.
The next morning we visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The main temple houses the country’s most important relic from Buddha – his tooth. Several small shrines surround the entire complex. We happened to be visiting on a holiday, and the place was packed with white-clad Buddhists paying their respects.
We opted not to wait in the very long line to enter the main temple. By this point in our trip, we’d visited so many amazing Buddhist temples. The idea of waiting for hours to see a small gold box that may or may not contain a tooth of the Buddha just did not appeal to us. Of course, we did enjoy just getting to watch the rituals and practices of the locals around the complex.
Back on the road, Vijay took us to a number of touristic “workshops” to learn about local crafts. We visited a gemstone museum, which admittedly had a nice video and display of Sri Lanka’s gem mining techniques.
We then stopped by a batik shop. Batik is a technique of dying fabric that is similar to tie-dye in that you block off the parts you don’t want to absorb color. Instead of a rubber band, however, they use wax. This allows them to create intricate designs.
Lastly, we visited a wood carving shop. We saw the most beautiful table we’d ever seen, but bought nothing. Visiting spots like that is always a little awkward. Tim and I like learning about local handicrafts, but we never buy anything. Vijay seemed disappointed. I’m pretty sure he gets a commission on every sale.
Thankfully, Vijay demonstrated that he’d listened to us about not wanting to go to touristy restaurants. We stopped for lunch at a small open air cafeteria. Local women cook a few dishes and bring them in to sell. It’s very affordable and locals regularly eat there. We got some amazing fried dough balls and a local dish called kottu. It’s basically bits of bread sliced thin like a noodle and fried with meat, veggies and spices.
Finally we arrived to Nuwara Eliya, a small city in the lush central mountains of the island. People often call it Little England because of the presence of heavy British influence, cool and foggy weather, and, of course, tea.
Nuwara Eliya is renowned around the world for its tea plantations. Major tea companies like Lipton source some of their tea from these fields. As an avid tea fan, I was excited to visit the plantations and try some Ceylon tea right from the source.
Vijay stopped at the Damro Tea, which used to be called Mackwoods until it recently transitioned to new ownership. It’s located right on the highway, and it pulls in a lot of tourists on their way into the city. I enjoyed seeing the factory and how they make tea. Of course, it was delicious to try, but the atmosphere felt chaotic and the view of the highway didn’t help.
To be honest, I felt disappointed. Recalling having felt similarly at the rice terraces in Bali, I made a mental note to look up other tea plantations in the area later to find one I could really enjoy.
By this time though it was late afternoon. We made one last stop at a strawberry farm to enjoy some chocolate covered strawberries. Next, we checked into our hotel, perched on a hill high above the lake in the city. After a short rest, we met back up with Vijay to drive into the town center and get some dinner.
Vijay asked us if we liked Indian food. We do! And he led the way to a small hole in the wall restaurant serving up dosa with masala vegetables, cheese and dipping sauces. Dosa is a South Indian type of bread with a moist, spongey texture. This was our first time having it and we loved it!
Horton Plains National Park
The next morning was an early one. We were up and out before sunrise to visit Horton Plains National Park. We slept on the hour-long drive to the park. It was still dark when we arrived, and we were among the first hikers to arrive that day.
On entry into the park, a ranger checked our belongings to make sure that we didn’t have any plastic in our daypacks. If anyone had any plastic, they put it aside or disposed of it. I absolutely loved this, and I hope more national parks around the world do this in the future.
Once in the park boundaries, we began our hike. The trail most people do covers a 9.5 km loop that passes by Baker’s Falls and two viewpoints named World’s End and Mini World’s End. Since it’s a loop, you can go in either direction. We opted to go the way no one else was, and as a result, we had a peaceful and quiet trail to ourselves most of the morning as the birds and bugs sang their morning songs.
The view from World’s End is considered the undisputed highlight of the hike, and the impetus for the early morning. World’s End looks out over a steep cliff with a drop of over 4000 feet. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the ocean, but on any day, if you arrive after 9am, you’re likely to just see a wall of fog. When we got there, it was crowded by Sri Lanka standards (meaning, not insane, but busier than other sites we’d visited). We stood in line for a photo of the view and bumped shoulders with others trying to get a selfie. It was a jarring transition from the quiet hike we’d had up until that point.
We found a calmer spot and sat down to enjoy the packed breakfast we’d brought in with us. We then continued our hike to Mini World’s End, which has a smaller (1000 feet) but nevertheless impressive drop to the valley below. After that it was about an hour of walking back to the entrance of the park.
Lover’s Leap and Pedro’s Tea Estate
That afternoon, we did the short hike up to Lover’s Leap, which is one of several waterfalls in the area. The walk took us down the roads passing by one of the tea plantations. It took less than 30 minutes to reach the waterfall, which was picturesque but admittedly not something worth going out of your way for. Legend has it that a prince was hunting in the jungle when he met a young woman and fell in love. The king and queen opposed their love, and so the two lovers decided to jump off the waterfall to their deaths.
I’m always annoyed by legends like this that romanticize suicide. To be clear, it’s not romantic to commit suicide, alone or together. If you or someone you know is having thoughts about suicide, reach out to someone you trust. If that’s not an option, call one of the many hotlines available. In the US, this number is 1 800 273 8255.
After the hike, I told Vijay I’d like to visit the Pedro Tea Estate near the waterfalls. I am so glad I did. This small tearoom was quieter than the one we’d visited the day before. There were hardly any other people there, and we were able to get one of the small tables on the back patio overlooking the tea fields. This was everything by tea dreams were made of. Tim and I played cards over two cups of perfect Ceylon tea.
Afterwards, we asked Vijay to take us to a pub we’d read about in my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was still too early for anyone else to be there, but Tim and I enjoyed our delicious Sri Lankan Lion beer and a few more games of cards. Eventually it was time for dinner, so we met back up with Vijay. The decision was unanimous – we all wanted to eat at the same small dosa place from the night before. I still think about that food, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to have it again.
The next morning, we left Nuwara Eliya and headed to Ella, another town in central Sri Lanka. Before checking into our hotel, we would be hiking Little Adam’s Peak. I slept most of the ride, and when we arrived at the trail head, I was very groggy. I was slow to sort out what I needed to bring on the walk. What follows is one of the silliest fights Tim and I have had.
Tim grabbed a water bottle for me out of the car, but I didn’t to have to carry it. I asked him not to get the water bottle since it was just a short hike, but he brought it anyway. I was annoyed that he didn’t listen to me – I felt like he was disrespecting my decision not to take a water bottle on the short hike!
I thought, so what that it was just a bottle of water? It was the principle of the thing, dammit!
We spent the hike up making snippy comments to each other (when we exchanged words at all).
At the top, I grumbled that we should at least take a pic since we’d climbed all the way up there. Looking at our grumpy faces on the screen of Tim’s phone as he positioned it to take a selfie, we both burst out laughing.
We laughed at ourselves at how stubborn we (mostly I) had been, and we enjoyed the stunning view at the top of the small mountain. On the hike down, we decided to hold hands to compensate for the combative hike up.
Afterwards, Vijay drove us to the start of a walk to the iconic Nine Arches Bridge. This colonial-era railway bridge spans across a valley just outside of Ella. It’s recently become a popular spot to take photos, and beyond that I don’t really know why it is so famous. We weren’t even planning to go there. I’d seen pictures of it before, but I didn’t know where it was and therefore didn’t expect we’d see it.
Vijay told us it was only 200 meters from the point where he dropped us off, so we didn’t bring any water since it would be so short. Unfortunately, the way to get to the bridge is very confusing. We saw a sign for the bridge that points down a road. The road then branches off and one way goes up hill and the other downhill. We started on the uphill path and then thankfully ran into another couple who told us that they had just come from the very top and that it was not the way to the bridge.
We turned around with them and hiked down the road. Eventually we got to a place where it kind of just ends. We saw people climbing out from the jungle and figured that, despite the lack of any real visible trail, this must be the path. Eventually, we emerged from the trees right in front of the bridge. It was one of the strangest and unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) tiring hikes we’ve done, but we still made the most of the photo op.
When we got back to the car, we told Vijay he underestimated the walk. It was closer to a full kilometer and required going downhill on the road and into the jungle. We’re hoping he will share this with his future clients and spare them the trouble we had!
Ella is a very cute little town, with a lot of bars and restaurants all along one main street. I would have loved to have spent more time there, but we only had the one night. This is one of my flaws as a travel planner – I tend to plan itineraries that cover as much as we can in the time that we have. This approach has its pros and cons, but, overall, I must like it (since I keep doing it!).
Ella to Tissamaharama
From Ella, we made our way south towards Tissamaharama. Along the way, we visited Ravana Waterfall and Ravana Cave. According to Hindu legend, the demon king Ravana kidnapped princess Sita and kept her in this cave near Ella. Some believe the story could be based on the real life of a king who ruled in Sri Lanka from 2554 to 2517 BCE. Who knows if the legend is true, but archeologists have uncovered a long history of human activity in the cave. They even found a human skull dating back to 20,000 BCE.
Our next stop, Buduruwagala, was one of my favorites. On a large rock wall, seven carvings stand side by side, with a tall Buddha carving in the middle. The carvings are at least 1,000 years old. Standing in front of them is a sure way to make you feel small, both in size and time.
Yala National Park
The next morning, we went on our second safari of the trip, this time in Yala National Park. During the first 2 hours of our drive, we saw an abundance of fresh water crocodiles, a civet cat, deer, boars, many roosters (the Sri Lanka national bird!), peacocks with babies, hawks, water buffalo with babies, monkeys, rabbits, a woodpecker, a few mongooses, a water monitor lizard, and beautiful blue and green birds. Basically, this place is teaming with wildlife. Many people also see elusive leopards in Yala.
We spent the last hour of our drive parked by a green marsh, where the four adult females and baby elephant grazed and rolled around in mud (and ate poo) in front of us. Watching this all unfold right in front of our jeep is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had observing wildlife!
That afternoon, Vijay drove us to the small coastal town of Mirissa. On the way, we visited a small community-run museum commemorating the impact of the 2004 tsunami on the region. Entire villages were washed away, and more than 30,000 people died. I had no idea until my visit to this museum that Sri Lanka had suffered during this catastrophe. Even though I’d heard about the tsunami at the time, it never registered to my high school brain just what a big deal this was for so many people across several countries and continents.
We checked into our hotel in Mirissa, relaxed for a bit, and then went out for a date night along the beach. We ate dinner at a delicious restaurant. The highlight was the chocolate lava cake dessert that we ordered…twice. Then we walked to a bar along the beach and enjoyed a few Lion beers.
The next day we proceeded to Unawatuna, another beach town. Vijay drove us into the nearby colonial city of Galle for the afternoon. We spent our time walking around and exploring the European-style fortress, lighthouses and clock towers.
The next day was our last in Sri Lanka. Vijay drove us back to Colombo, where we visited the Independence Memorial Hall and the strangest temple we’ve ever been to. The Gangaramaya Temple is an amalgam of buildings and shrines within one complex. Each of the buildings houses various unique donations. There is a collection of watches, statues, various knickknacks, and even a glass case with Snoopy statues. It feels more like exploring an antique shop than a Buddhist temple.
Like this temple, Sri Lanka surprised me. I had never even heard of many of the sights we saw before we saw them, and that made it even more rewarding. As a chronic over-planner, it was a joyful anomaly to be able to sit back and let a place surprise me. Sri Lanka’s amazing wildlife, litter-conscious national parks, rich ancient history, friendly people and diverse landscapes have landed it solidly among one of my favorite travel destinations of all time.