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Seeing Elephants in Sri Lanka

For Hospitality Directory

(I love writing for Hospitality Directory and this is my most recent article for them).

For most foreign visitors to Sri Lanka, a visit to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage outside Kandy is near the top of their to-do list. But how do you actually get to the orphanage, and should you believe the hype?

The road to Kandy is narrow, unmodernised and time-consuming. You absolutely need unlimited supplies of mineral water, ipads or travel games for any children, and snacks. It’s hard to compute looking at the map how long it might take from Colombo to Kandy but the answer is hours: three and a half to four hours on a good day.

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The most extraordinary wildlife sight that greeted us near the orphanage was that of two porcupines being meekly led around on leashes by some young girls. Fascinating though it was, there’s a different wild animal that’s undoubtedly the main draw. Elephants are big business in this district, and a number of other elephant attractions and wildlife parks have sprung up near Pinnawala.

Our driver insisted on taking us to his friend’s elephant sanctuary. In fairness, it was a well-run and humane enterprise, with numerous elephants accompanied by cautious keepers and the irresistible opportunity to give them a bath in the river. Marvelling at their oddly bristly skin, scrubbing away at their skin with a coconut shell while they thrashed appreciatively in the shallows of the river was certainly a highlight.  It was also possible to ride them briefly and feed them. It was rather moving afterwards to be shown the paintings which our particular elephant had made after we’d been carried by her around a patch of forest and socialised with her.

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The famous Pinnawala elephant orphanage itself might be slightly a victim of its own popularity. Crazily busy all the time, the very limited timeslots per day in which you can actually capture the animals eating or out in the open ensure a lengthy and highly confusing queue for tickets. It was frustrating to be charged ten times the local price of admission as a foreign tourist, but once inside, gripes were forgotten as we witnessed the unforgettable splendour of a full herd of elephants roaming through the hill country right in front of everyone.

The highlight is certainly the twice-daily bathing, and it’s important to allow plenty of time to get into the orphanage before bathtime, because it is a very well-attended attraction. It is almost unbearably cute watching some of the smaller elephants running to catch up with the larger ones as they make their way to and from the water.

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Pinnawala has about 70 elephants and appears to care for such a large herd well. I experienced slight discomfort at seeing some elephants in chains, whilst feeling gratitude that the elephants were not free to harm people against their will out of confusion or misplaced aggression. Feeding the baby elephants is the other hugely popular pastime, and the speed with which they can guzzle large quantities of milk is a sight to see. Elephants with sight problems or injuries are also cared for at Pinnawala, making it on the whole a good resource for the vulnerable elephants of Sri Lanka.

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It’s worth mentioning that you can see at least one elephant right in downtown Colombo too, at the lovely Gangaramaya Temple. It’s a juvenile elephant and can often be found reclining in a large bathing area on the left hand side of the temple. Although it’s preferable to see them in a natural environment, it’s somehow even more memorable to see an elephant where you’d least expect it, in a serene place of worship while the world flies by outside.

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Phileas French