Elephant Watching in Pinnawala
Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
Our journey around Sri Lanka was to last near three weeks, beginning in Pinnawala and heading north, circling around the country clockwise. Our stay in Pinnawala lasted only a single day and then we’d move on to Sigiriya, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Tissa, Marissa and Colombo before the flight out.
We had chosen Sri Lanka for so many reasons. A country that’s budget friendly, rich in culture and history and offers gorgeous landscapes along high temperatures. After 30 grueling hours of travel we arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Negombo, 20 miles north of the capital city of Colombo.
Our hotel, Hotel Pinnalanda, an hour and a half northeast of the airport in the village of Pinnawala arranged a taxi from the airport for $45 US. After scooping up our luggage we found the driver holding our name card and as advised, we used the ATM at the airport to withdraw enough cash for the next few days. The Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) is a closed currency and only available within the country.
The weather was hot and sticky especially packed into the backseat of a small taxi but we were on our way. Upon arrival, Hotel Pinnalanda served a refreshing sparkling black currant water. Check in was simple, then we were led to our room overlooking the stream. Exhausted and running on fumes, we showered and passed out, never waking for lunch or dinner.
Day 1: Morning & Afternoon | Elephant Watch
The following morning we woke early to shower and enjoy breakfast overlooking the river. Breakfast was included with our stay and served at a dining area attached to our hotel. It was very nice, complete with a gorgeous view.
As we finished our meal of eggs, toast, chicken sausage, bacon and fruit, the elephants began to arrive. We spent the next few hours hanging out, taking photos of the elephants.
We quickly realized it was best to sneak down near the water to get up close and personal with the elephants. One of the local men nearby offered us fruit to feed the elephants but asked for payment in return. Either way, it was incredible to feed the elephants by hand.
Later that morning we learned more elephants would be arriving at the river to cool off. The elephants visit this area to drink and bathe twice daily from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was established by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1975 and was taken over by the Department of National Zoological Garden in 1978. Beginning in 1982, an elephant breeding program was launched.
Between 75 and 100 elephants are taken after at the orphanage which was established to nurse, feed and house young elephants abandoned by their mothers. Many elephant births have occurred at the orphanage while under care and some have even been released to private owners and temples.
One of the locals asked if we’d like to bathe the elephants (and possibly ride) for a fee but we felt it best to not support any type of exploitation of the elephants and passed on the opportunity.
As the herd of elephants began to arrive, everyone cleared to make way. It was pretty incredible to see so many massive elephants moving this quickly and was even a bit frightening to realize how powerful they must be.
As the elephants arrived, they began to spread out and enjoy the water. Some wandered off to avoid the crowds while others eagerly begged for fresh fruits from the tourists.
As we took a closer look we noticed some elephants were secured by large chains linked to posts in the ground, while others were free to roam. There was even one elephant with all four legs chained so tightly he was barely able to shuffle by like an inmate.
It turns out that the “trouble makers” (ones who cause problems or sneak away) need to be secured for safety reasons. Of course, it’s never fun to see animals tied up but I can understand a certain level of safety is extremely important.
Watching the elephants play was fascinating. Most acted like children, taunting other elephants or splashing around in the water. Others tried to get frisky with each other, break away from their chains or snap branches in half. But most of all they seemed happy, happy to get a scrub down or sprayed in the face with cool water under the hot sun.
After spending hours hanging with the elephants it was time for us to move on to Sigiriya, our next stop in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is two and a half hours northeast of Pinnawala and is home to an ancient rock fortress often referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Hotel Pinnalanda was a wonderful experience and a great way to begin our vacation. The service was incredible from the moment we arrived until the second we left. The rooms were clean and very well kept but we did need to work out getting an adapter (something most hotels had already worked out by offering dual outlets).
And it’s still hard to believe how close we were able to get to the elephants as they bathed in the river. We could literally sit on our balcony and watch them playing below us. We hadn’t needed to pay an entry fee to view or scurry off with a tour, we could sit and enjoy the elephants throughout the day without any pressure.