For the past few years, we’ve spent New Year’s in Italy. First in Rome, and then in Florence. And I could do that every year. So I tried to push for a chilly European getaway this Christmas and New Year, but Adam wasn’t having it. I’m starting to lean towards wanting to re-visit places I love, like Paris and Cadaqués, Spain, but he’s still looking for new adventures and to check exotic countries off the list. So, Sri Lanka.
That was Adam’s suggestion for our holiday vacation and no sooner had he uttered the words than Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the top country to travel to in 2019. But that newfound caché didn’t even matter. I started booking everything for this trip in November, and it was already too late. Most mid-range and better places were booked and we’re too old and bougie to stay at places called “The Backpackers High Hostel.” So it was a bit of a struggle planning the trip for our group of four (two Jerusalem-era friends joined us) but it all worked out okay. Better than okay. Sri Lanka is awash with gorgeous natural beauty, wild animals, and spicy, fragrant, vegetarian food. More on the food in the next post, but first, the animals!
After one quick night in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, we moved to the beach. We spent Christmas Eve at the Cocobay Unawatuna (highly recommend this hotel) watching Sri Lankan Santa row ashore to deliver a sack of presents.
We took tuk tuks to the nearby Dutch/Spanish/English Colonial fort town of Galle, which is very pretty and worth seeing.
While were were walking, Adam saw, and I caught just a glimpse of, an ENORMOUS Asian water monitor scurrying in a ditch. So let’s say the first very interesting animal sightings were:
The above lizard was tiny compared to the prehistoric creature we saw in the storm drain, but still, neat to see animals you’re not used to see just walking around.
We moved to a luxury villa near the beach town of Tangalle, although the villa wasn’t near a beach at all (oops). It was in the middle of nowhere, but oh my, the pool was heaven, and the morning sounds of birds and monkeys was super soothing.
One morning I watched probably a dozen monkeys frolicking across this lawn. That was the start of monkey sightings, but not our favorite monkey experience.It was from this beautiful villa that we booked a whale-watching tour, which brings us to animal sighting number two:
The whale watching tours all depart from a beach town called Mirissa and we had to backtrack a bit to get there. We left our villa super early, like at 5am, to get to the boat around 7am. The boat turned out to be a two-story ferry that was PACKED TO THE BRIM with tourists. Our group of four was directed to some cushions on the floor at the bow of the boat and that’s where we’d sit, crunched, roasting, and miserable for the next seven-and-a-half hours. We thought the expedition would be four hours. For at least the first few hours, I told myself that this discomfort would be worth it if we saw a blue whale, Earth’s largest and most majestic mammal. But at hour four, I could take it no more, creaked myself up to standing and yelled at the captain, “How much longer will this last!?” He said, in broken English “Six hour maximum, sit down.” By then, most of the floor-dwellers were sprawled and intertwined amongst lifejackets and discarded hopes of seeing whales. We went out past international shipping lines. I’m not sure a small ferry should be where these big boys are.
Finally at hour five we saw some dolphins. I longed for the freedom and fun they were having. At hour six, we saw some orcas, aka killer whales. They were cool in a Free Willy reminiscing way, but frankly I was too pissed and low energy then. I didn’t even reach for my camera. They are not nearly as big as blue whales. Finally, finally, it was over. We were back at the dock, our driver was like “Omg, I’ve been waiting for almost eight hours, what happened?” Not much, I told him. We ate very bad club sandwiches at a nearby beach bar amongst thong-wearing young European tourists and were glad to be leaving the beach area the following day. The beach is not my favorite thing. So yeah, whale watching did not meet my expectations. But the next animal adventure did.
The day after our ill-fated whale watching tourist trap of an expedition, a driver took us right outside Udawalawe National Park, and we checked into a little jungle hotel called Walawa Blue Sapphire. It cost hardly anything and had a little bit of charm, save for a freakishly large spider in our room that necessitated a heart-pounding team rendition effort. He was relocated safely outside, where he belongs.
This guesthouse also does safaris in the nearby park, so shortly after we arrived, we hopped in a Jeep to get to the 119 square mile Udawalawe National Park, home to elephants, many species of birds, water buffalo, sloth bear, leopards, fishing cats, and more. We had to wait in a line of about 25 other Jeeps to get into the park, while our guide/driver ran up and waited in a line to buy our tickets. A storm seemed imminent, but we watched the darkened sky move past us and we stayed dry. It didn’t take long driving through the park to come upon our first elephant. It is simply magical seeing a creature that huge and prehistorically beautiful right in front of you. I loved driving through the serene park and straining to see animals and getting the payoff of just watching how an elephant in the wild lives its life.I was so happy these elephants get to live their best lives roaming around the park (albeit interrupted often by loud Jeeps) that I felt very guilty about riding captive (albeit rescued) elephants in Laos years ago.
This fuzzy baby elephant is nursing from its mother!
We also saw some beautiful birds, including peacocks, which are native to Sri Lanka.
Also, whatever this horned cow thing is:
The drive in an out of a park is past a gorgeous rice paddy/lake where the water buffalo and a few elephants were wading in at sunset. Magical.
We had an interesting night back at our jungle lodge, when a couples’ game of charades went off the rails thanks to splitting a bottle of the local liquor, called Arrak, which is not, as I had expected, anise-flavored like the Middle East/North African booze called Arak. Sri Lankan Arrak is rum made from a coconut flower but it also must contain some sort of rage-inducing ingredient that causes a normally mild-mannered husband to disturb the jungle peace and scream wildly at his wife whilst jumping up and down like a monkey all for yelling out her guesses “too rapidly” giving no time for husband to respond in the affirmative or negative.
The next morning, marriage bonds slightly damaged and at least one person in the group coconut rum hungover, we were off to the Ella region, home to mountains, lush vegetation, and tea plantations. This was actually my favorite part of the trip, so more to come on this stunning region in the upcoming “Sri Lankan Food is My New Favorite” blog post. Oh but first, on our way out, we noticed lots of elephants hanging out near the road, just inside the park. Took more photos, of course.
En route to Ella, we stopped at a waterfall on the side of the road, where monkeys and humans alike enjoyed the roadside grilled corn snacks.
A few days later we totally hit the monkey motherlode when we went for a walk in the Royal Botanical Garden in the city of Kandy, which is known as Sri Lanka’s cultural capital.
We first spotted dozens of monkeys on this pretty suspension bridge and then noticed the trees were just FULL of them. They all looked so different!
I don’t think the locals were as enthralled with the park monkeys as we were.
A mother carrying her baby!
And the final animal sighting that knocked my socks off:
Sri Lanka’s bats, known as fruit bats or flying foxes, are freakin’ enormous -they’re one of the largest types of bats in the worlds – and they just chill upside down in the broad daylight!
This botanical park was the real highlight of Kandy for us, although we didn’t spend a whole lot of time here. But we did tour some of the temples, including the famed Temple of the Tooth, which may contain Buddha’s tooth.
That about wraps up blog numero uno from Sri Lanka. The only thing equal to the splendor of seeing all these amazing animals was discovering Sri Lankan food. So stay tuned.