November 2009: As part of a longer three-week trip that includes other Southeast Asian countries, I visited Sri Lanka for 4 days. My main goal was to see the Asian elephant in the wild. Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see the Asian elephant in the wild because of its national parks and conservation efforts. Since my planned itinerary covered so much ground in a short period of time, I hired a car and driver and as soon as I arrived in Colombo, we were off to explore the island.  This was my itinerary for my Sri Lanka trip:

Day 1: Arrive Colombo, Sri Lanka 715am, arrive and drive to Sigharaja Rain Forest, afternoon visit the Forest (4 hours hiking) and night stays in guest house outside of the Rain Forest. Driving will be about 4 and half hours.

Day 2: Morning visit the Rain Forest (6 hours hiking) and afternoon drive to Yala via Udawalawa National Park. Night stays in Yala guest house. Driving will be about 5 hours.

Day 3: Full day Safari and evening relax at the Yala Camp site. Safari will start from 6am till 6 pm.

Day 4: Drive along south, visit tsunami damaged areas, Buddhist temples, Dutch colonial towns, and drive to Airport evening.

About Sri Lanka

I was intrigued by Sri Lanka not only for its wildlife but because of its recent war, which just ended right before my trip when the president launched a merciless assault that defeated the enemy but, in the process, killed thousands of innocent civilians too. Sri Lanka is unique in that the majority of its citizens are Buddhist but in the north are Hindu, much like Sri Lankans much larger neighbor India to the north. The northern Hindus launched a separatist movement that led to the formation of a rebel group called the Tamil Tigers and from there a bloody civil war that lasted from 1983-2009 killing as many as 100,000 people. Before suicide bombings became normal practice with Islamic terror groups, the Tamil Tigers were using these tactics in the war and were blowing up civilians on busses and markets in Colombo. The war finally ended when the Sri Lankan president ordered an assault to root out the rebels in their villages that laid waste to all civilian infrastructure and killed everyone forcing the rebels to surrender. The war ended right before my visit but there was always the threat of a resurgence. I didn’t have time, but I would have loved to travel to the north of Sri Lanka to learn more about the war, which has the feel of a different country and receives far less tourism than the south. The north was a new frontier for exploration at the time of my visit.

My route in Sri lanka

Monument to the end of the war with Tamil Tigers

Sigharaja Rain Forest-the largest Remaining Rainforest in Sri Lanka

One of my main motivations for visiting this part of the country was to see Sigharaja Rain Forest, a huge reserve with forest elephants, leopards and all of the animals from the Jungle Book. The rainforest was the oldest in the country and the richest in biodiversity. There was also an indigenous tribe that lived in it but I didn’t have time to visit them. They sadly on the most part have been assimilated into Sri lankan culture.

During my visit to Sigharaja Rain Forest, I hired a park ranger guide and hiked for hours into the reserve to the top of a mountain peak. To this day, the reserve was one of my best experiences for observing reptiles. My ranger guide constantly spotted reptiles right in front of my face that I went un-noticed by me. There were venemous snakes and amazing lizards. One of the highlights was when I chased a giant monitor lizard about 6 feet long into a cave with walls covered in cockroaches.

Rice farm outside Sigharaja Rain Forest where I stayed in a guesthouse

Lizard

A giant monitor lizard I chased into a cave

Cockroaches inside the cave

Top

Me in front of one of the rainforest trees

Eyelash Viper

Lizard

Monitor Lizard

Mongoose

More snakes

More snakes

Udawalawa National Park

My main destination was Yala Reserve but to get there I had to drive through Udawalawa National Park, which contained vast grasslands with a large population of wild elephants that I saw from the road as soon as I entered the park from the main transit road.

Elephant in tall grass

I decided I would save the money for the entrance by just watching the elephant from the side of the main road, where they were easy to see on other side of the flimsy electrical fence and save my elephant sightings for Yala reserve the following day.   I asked the driver to pull over on the road Andi jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer photo. I made the mistake of assuming that this wild bull elephant would stay on the other side of the electric fence.  I whipped open the door and approached him with the idiotic notion that somehow the flimsy electrical fence would keep the beast at bay. It didn’t occur to me that even if the electrical fence worked, unlikely, the elephant would have little trouble breaking it on its way to crush me. So, I inched closer to the elephant as a school bus full of kids pulled over on the side of the road watching with excited anticipation of the mauling that was about to happen. And sure, enough the elephant, which seemed to barely notice me suddenly let out a big trumpeting growl and whipped around towards me in an instant charging towards the fence and pushing it halfway towards the ground as I fled hurriedly back into the safety of my van slamming the door shut. My driver scolded me and the school bus full of kids erupted in laughter. In a country where hundreds of villagers are trampled by wild elephants every year, I guess I should have known better.

 

 

Angry elephant that charged me

Angry elephant that charged me

Angry elephant that charged me

I stayed in a small village near Yala, were I explored the Buddhist temples that are uniquely designed compared to other Buddhist countries I have been. Here in in Sri Lanka they are shaped in giant white domes.

 

Buddhist Temples

Children training to be monks

Looking for Leopards in Yala Reserve

I went to Yala, the flagship reserve of Sri Lanka because I wanted to see the elephants, which I did easily but also because I wanted to see the leopard, which are easy to see in the reserve but unfortunately for me it was monsoon season and the skies dumped rain on my for most of the day and the few animals I did see, not including the leopard appeared miserable. The roads were also washed out and the experience was not a good one.

Washed out roads

Eagle

Peacock 

Sambar deer

Antelope

I decided to cut my Yala day trip short and see other places instead and so we continued driving to some historical Buddhist places in the mountains where huge reclining Buddhas, at the Galagoda Shailatharama Viharaya, just outside Karandeniya in South-Western Sri Lanka located in caves with herds of naughty macaque monkeys that I had to fight off during my climb.  The giant Buddha statue at around 35 meters in length, is claimed to be the largest reclining Buddha in South Asia.

Reclning Cave Buddha

Ancient Buddhist Statues in the cave that have faded away 

Visiting Villages Destroyed by Christmas Day Tsunami

On the southern coast, I stopped to visit some of the villages that were decimated by the deadly 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people when an earthquake under the ocean occurred in Indonesia.6,000 people were killed in this region of Sri Lanka alone and I walked along a beach where dozens of structures were still abandoned after being ravaged by waves. Many friendly locals came out to greet me and were very curious.

Tsunami beach

Abandoned house destroyed by tsunami

Friendly locals

Friendly locals

Becoming a Sri Lankan Movie Star

While I was waiting at the airport in Colombo in the departure gate, a film crew approached me and asked me if I would be in an airport informational video that the government was making. I said sure because what else was I going to do. They informed me they needed me to swap my backpack for a briefcase and put a sports jacket over my t-shirt to look more respectable I imagined. Then they filmed me approaching the information desk with a script of questions to ask about the status of a fictitious flight. My brief acting career in Sri Lanka only lasted about 30 minutes but it did make me out to feel more important than I was when I went to buy some snacks from one of the airport stores when all of the girls working inside started giggling flirtatiously and asked me if I was an actor.

Girls working inside an airport store that were impressed with my acting skills

From Sri Lanka, I departed on Sri Lankan airlines via a vicious thunderstorm with pretty bad turbulence to Banko, Thailand to continue my travels to Laos.

 

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