Whatever you like, you’ll find it in Sri Lanka: Whether it’s archeological sites, lush sceneries in the highlands, jungles, beaches – and animals, lots and lots of wild animals and endemic birds. You can observe them on Safaris – where the only kind of shootin’ is with your camera, of course. Although the most popular Safari-site is Yalla, the national park of Udawalawe doesn’t offer only the far cooler name, it grants also a much more idyllic and intimate experience – mainly with elephants, that are not in the room since they are roaming practically everywhere.
Here is a Guide.
The Elephant in the Roam
And it’s the elephants that attract all the travellers that do not want to go in a convoy across the far more known and popular natural reserve Yalla in the south-east of Sri Lanka.
Me, too, I opted for a more tranquil visit to the pachyderms and came to Udawalawe for one day.
Staying at a very charming, tastefully decorated hotel pretty far from the town center and pretty close to the park’s entrance, I spent the afternoon cycling. My accommodation, the Royal Tusker Hotel*, rents bikes to their guests for free, which is a great service.
Cycling on the road where all these maniacs are speeding and overtaking like there’s no tomorrow would be like Russian roulette.
But behind the hotel are huge sugarcane fields and that’s where I went.
A Home For the Little Ones
In the afternoon, the hotel arranged a tuk-tuk that
tuk took me to the elephant orphanage where I and a bunch of other tourists witnessed baby elephants being fed milk.
Why they are orphans? Well, maybe their mummy had an accident with a train. Or mummy trampled on some fields and the farmer had it with her and shot her; which is illegal and a terrible thing to do.
On the other hand, who are we non-farmers to judge someone who sees his crop being trampled down and eaten by an elephant?!
Anyway, the entrance fee to the orphanage is 500 LKR and I paid the tuk-tuk driver another 600 LKR for the roundtrip including waiting time.
I’ve heard really bad things about the orphanage in Pinniwala and saw some very disturbing pictures of animals being chained.
I would like to emphasize that in Udawalawe, I didn’t witness anything that was disturbing or suspicious.
The visitors were seated on a stand and at no point invited to pose or even get close to the elephants. My research on the internet confirms my impression that the animals are treated in an adequate manner. They seemed very well and not neurotic or stressed at all.
There are also decent information displays where you can learn a lot about these beautiful pachyderms.
On a Safari
The safari – what can I say?! It was a wonderful experience.
Admittedly, it starts a bit annoying: You get up at 5 a. m., the jeep picks you up at 5.40 as agreed. You get to the park entrance at 5.55 – where there are already many jeeps in front of you and many more to come; and there you wait forever for the park to open the gate, the guards letting jeeps pass, the drivers buying your ticket and so on.
If only this process was as fast as Sri Lankan bus drivers….
Smart vendors walk along the line of jeeps, offering coffee and snacks.
I was very lucky that the lovely people at the Royal Tusker Hotel* had packed me very juicy and tasty club sandwiches along with a variety of tropical fruits. They even gave me a big bottle of water to take with me. What a treat that was in the wee hours at the park entrance.
People who were less lucky with their accommodation had the chance to buy snacks and coffee from some mobile vendors while waiting.
The Gates Open
As the gates open, the drivers buy the tickets – about 3500 to 5000 LKR per person – I didn’t figure out why there were different prices. In addition to that, you also have to pay for the jeep.
But once the driver has the tickets and you went to the bathroom the last time, off you go into the wilderness.
It’s such a trivial thing, but I really recommend you go to the bathroom since you’ll be in the jeep for around three hours without a chance to get off; and the road is very bumpy, which can be an even bigger challenge for your bladder.
The park is just paradisiac, the trees and bushes in the early morning sunlight – so peaceful.
Since this park is smaller and less popular as for instance the Yalla national park, there are much fewer jeeps so that everyone goes into a different direction. You are not going in a convoy from tree to tree.
At least our jeep didn’t.
The Kingpin of the Tour
But I must also say, that we – me and Adrianna and David, an English-Australian couple, were extremely lucky with our driver and especially with our guide Ruwan.
I believe it’s crucial having a driver as well as a guide. One has his eyes on the road and the other one…. everywhere.
Many other jeeps had only the driver sitting, obviously, in the driver’s seat in the cabin while the guests were outside on the high observation seats.
I wonder how the driver was able to point out, explain, and answer their questions; and how he was able to spot something with his eyes on the road. Since there are, obviously, just dust roads – worn from the wheels and probably rains and extremely bumpy – eyes on the road is crucial.
Our guide Ruwan must have been an eagle in his former life; and eagles were not the only birds he pointed out to us.
He saw all these birds, no matter how tiny, before everyone else – and was able to tell their names, explain in which state of molt they were by the color of their feathers.
This man puts Dr. Doolittle to shame!
He showed us the most incredible nests and explained exactly how they were built.
All this in a great, perfectly understandable English.
He impressed me the most by making the driver back up to a tree we had passed: between the brownish-grey branches was a brownish-grey lizard, maybe six inches long; Ruwan had spotted him….literally by the way!
Since I’m no eagle-eye and look around in nature pretty much like a blind woman, Ruwan was so patient and pointed a dozen times at the same spot.
Eventually, he took my camera, zoomed in, showed me on the picture where the huge bird’s nest was. And voilà, now even I saw it way up there in the crown of the highest tree.
Super-nice and super-ingenious.
I assume without this man, I would have seen a beautiful landscape with many trees, something flying around….and possibly an elephant, since they are not that difficult to spot.
Of course, we saw elephants, but also buffalos, deer, crocodiles and much more. And I’m sure that thanks to Ruwan we saw probably triple of what the other visitors spotted.
Take a Good Jeep
Obviously, it’s possible to hire just the next jeep that comes your way. And maybe you even save a dollar or two. But your experience will never be like ours.
Nothing works like the concept of two people focusing on their respective job.
Another point is the vehicle. Fortunately, we did not meet too often with other jeeps in one spot. But when we did, there were these cars that made so much noise that the animals chose to walk off; I don’t blame them.
So also the quality of the jeep and a more silent motor should optimize the experience.
Another factor is the vehicle itself. Fortunately, we did not meet too often with other jeeps in one spot. But when we did, there were these cars that made so much noise that the animals chose to walk off.
So also the quality of the jeep and a more silent motor should optimize your experience.
How to Get There
Most visitors will come to Udawalawe for just one day: They go on a safari and leave again. As a matter of fact, this is enough. If you have very little time, it’s even possible to come here on a day trip.
Since I tried to avoid too much racing from place to place, I opted for a one-night stay.
As I wrote in the main post, don’t worry too much how to get from A to B before you get to Sri Lanka. On the internet, it all sounds so complicated and even impossible. Once you are there, it’s a piece of cake.
My hosts in Nureliya told me to go by bus to Thanamalwila and from there, I’ll get in one hour by another bus to Uduwalawe, and they were absolutely right.
Best jeep to book
I went with the fantastic people from lakpura. Not only was the communication beforehand quick, precise, and understandable. They were also very punctual and reliable – and as I said, they have the best staff to guide you around.
Best place to sleep
I was very happy staying at the very charming, tastefully decorated Royal Tusker Hotel – pretty far from the town center and pretty close to the park’s entrance.
They have also a restaurant.
However, since I didn’t have the time for a proper breakfast, they were so kind to pack me a wonderful breakfast box – I didn’t see anyone else with this kind of treat on my tour. Guests can also use their bicycles for free, which is an absolutely great service.
If you are searching for other convenient lodging options, you can do so on this map*:
Best place to eat
As I was cycling around, I did feel a bit hungry. Bummer, I didn’t have much cash left.
On the road, I spotted a big, posh hotel, the Centauria Wild – what a name!? – advertising to have a restaurant.
I looked like a bum in my dusty jeans shorts. But I was hungry and the guy at the reception assured they accept credit cards.
They had this really great buffet – soup, various salads and starters, a complete Chinese buffet with different main courses as well as a complete Sri Lankan buffet and a good choice of desserts….for about 1500 LKR, which is a lot of money in Sri Lanka, but as a matter of fact about 8 bucks.
I was enchanted – and at the end pretty full.
The only downside was my glass of orange juice for 600 LKR which is outrages. My bad, I just ordered without asking –
So, apart from their orange juice, I can highly recommend the buffet at the Centauria Wild from the bottom of my stomach.
What to See
I’m an avid solo-travelling woman. Since solo-travel doesn’t equal solitude, I love to join organized tours here and there. They allow me to meet fellow travellers – for just a short moment or a lifelong friendship.
Therefore, here are some great ideas of what to do and which tours to join during your stay in Sri Lanka*:
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Sri Lanka? Then go to the main post and take your pick! There you’ll also find valuable general information that will make your trip smoother.
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Note: I am completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in May 2021.
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Disclaimer : I appreciate that lakpura LLC supported my blogger trip by taking me on one of their jeep tours. However, all opinions on these services are mine and weren’t by any means influenced by my cooperation partner. I do not get any commission from putting links to their site but do it as a service to my readers.
*I paid for my stay at the Royal Tusker Hotel their standard price, so this recommendation comes truly from the heart. However, if you book using this link, I’ll get a small commission from booking.com.