Friday, May 31, 2019

Sri Lanka

A year ago I could not have told you where Sri Lanka was located. All of that changed when a friend of ours visited Sri Lanka last June and posted a photo of a sloth bear she saw on safari. We asked her about the bear, then about the country and before long I was looking at Sri Lanka as a vacation destination. 

This post gives an overview of our eleven day trip, eight days spent in Sri Lanka and three days to get there and back. It includes links to my posts, primarily dealing with animals we saw, and my wife Judy's posts, who deals with all aspects of the trip in a timeline fashion. Neither of us are finished posting at this point, so there will be additional links added later.
     Things to Know Before You Travel to Sri Lanka  (Judy)

We left Los Angeles on Thursday, March 7, 2019, at 3:35 p.m. on a 16 hour Emirates flight to Dubai. I've wanted to fly Emirates for a long time and I loved their leg room, vast selection of movies and music, and of course, the funky stewardess uniforms.

Exacerbated by a 12 hour time difference, we did not arrive in Dubai until Friday at 7:30 p.m. with a four hour layover. The Dubai airport is enormous and it took us about 30 minutes by bus to get to our next terminal. The next terminal was a wonderful panorama of culture, including many people from the Middle East and Central Asia.  We left Dubai on an Emirate's sponsored FlyDubai flight of 4.5 hours at 11:20 p.m.

With an extra 1.5 hour time difference, we arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, March 29 at 5:25 a.m. (Bandaranaike International Airport is 32 km north of Colombo). We hit the ground determined to make a full day of it, despite the long flights and our lack of sleep. We were met by Sanjay, our guide from Lankatracker, based in Matare, who accompanied us the entire trip. We set out for Anuradhapura, 200 km to the north, about a four hour drive. Along the way we stopped for king coconut and jack fruit and watched people harvesting rice by hand. We checked into The Sanctuary at Tissawewa Hotel where we had a chance to eat lunch and rest for a couple of hours. Then we met up with Sanjay and hired an Anuradhapura guide and visited many of the sites in this ancient city, which was the capital from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE. Highlights for me were the animals: a large monitor, toque macaques and gray hornbills.
     Sri Lanka: Arrival and Drive to Anuradhapura  (Judy)
     Sri Lanka: a Visit to Anuradhapura  (Judy)
     Anuradhapura and Theravada Buddhism  (Bob)
     Bengal Monitor  (Bob)
     Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill  (Bob)
     Common Toque Macaque  (Bob)
     Grizzled Giant Squirrel  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Common Myna  (Bob)
     Eastern Great Egret  (Bob)
Monitor in Anuradhapura.

Sunday morning, March 10, we got up early and left Anuradhapura shortly after 6:00 a.m. and drove southeast for 73 km, about 1.5 hours, to Sigiriya (Lion) Rock, arriving around 7:30 a.m. Sigiriya is a massive rock, about 660 feet high, accessed by a winding trail that includes rock steps and steel-stepped ramps. It was the site of a palace, before 500 CE, then used by Buddhist monks until the 14th century.
     Sri Lanka: Sigiriya Rock  (Judy)
Stairs up the last portion of the rock.
View from the top of Sigiriya Rock.
Judy on top - fabulous view.
Going down the stairs.

Hot, sweaty and exhausted, we enjoyed an ice cold Coke and then Sanjay drove about 1.25 hours (55 km), northwest, then southwest, to Polonnaruwa, the capital city for several kingdoms from the 10th century to the 17th century. Judy continued her quest to view the ruins, but I have to admit that by this time I was running out of gas and mainly looking for monkeys.
     Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa  (Judy)
Langur in Polonnaruwa.
Gray heron in Polonnaruwa.

We had our best meal of the trip at Jaga Food Restaurant on the outskirts of Polonnaruwa. It had its own organic farm and was right next to a small stream. When we arrived a huge water monitor came out of the stream and walked very close to where the seating was for the restaurant, with only a small two foot tall fence separating us. It was one of the neatest experiences of the trip. The food happened to be very good as well, all various types of curry cooked in clay cooking pots.
     Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa: Jaga Food Restaurant  (Judy)
     Common Kingfisher  (Bob)
     Indian Palm Squirrel  (Bob)
     Asian Water Monitor  (Bob)
Asian water monitor.

Sanjay figured out that Judy loves elephants and arranged a last minute safari to Minneriya National Park, the best park for elephants in Sri Lanka, about 37 km northwest of Polonnaruwa and a 45 minute drive. Sanjay arranged for an open air safari vehicle and driver to meet us there and we spent two hours in the park, from, 3:00 to 5:00 p.m, looking at elephants, and seeing some other animals such as openbill storks, a jackal, a junglefowl and a monitor.
     Sri Lanka: Minneriya National Park  (Judy)
     Sri Lankan Jackal  (Bob)
     Asian Openbill Stork  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Elephant  (Bob)
     Indian Stone-Curlew  (Bob)
     Oriental Garden Lizard  (Bob)
On safari in Minneriya NP.
An elephant alongside the road outside Minneriya NP.

From Minneriya, we drove 31 km southwest to Dambulla and visited Sam Popham's Arboretum for a night visit to look for the loris. It was overkill. We were exhausted, not only from a long, hot day, but also still recovering from our flights to Sri Lanka. It was a lot of walking, the guides were over-dramatic, and very uneventful - we caught just a couple of brief glimpses of a loris. We finally pulled the plug on the activity and said "enough." We spent the night at the Cassandra Culture Resort in Avudangawa, northeast of Dambulla. The air conditioning was great and that mattered a lot.

Monday, March 11, we stopped by a batik factory in Dambulla, then continued southwest to Nilagama, near Galawela, for what was called the "village experience." We took a ride on a cart pulled by a bull, then took a catamaran out onto a small lake and landed at the home of woman who lived on the shore. She prepared us a very tasty lunch, with a little help from us, doing things like grinding coconut for a sambol and separating rice kernals. After lunch we were taken by tuk tuk back to our vehicle. Even though the experience was all contrived, it was lots of fun. The cart ride and catamaran weren't really necessary, the meal was enough by itself.
     Sri Lanka: Henry's Batiks and a Home Visit  (Judy)

Driving back north a bit, we visited the Dambulla Cave Temple, a Buddhist monastery utilizing caves in a mountain, dating back to the 1st century BCE.
     Sri Lanka: the Golden Temple and the Cave Temples of Dambulla  (Judy)
     Sri Lanka Bronze Skink  (Bob)

From there we traveled south 74 km, about two hours, to Kandy. Sanjay dropped us off so we could walk partially around the lake, viewing some fun birds, like black-crowned night herons and spot-billed pelicans. Then we watched a cultural dance performance for an hour, then spent another hour or two in the Dalada Maligawa Temple, or Temple of the Tooth, watching lots of excited people and trying to figure out where we should be to view what we knew not. Sanjay drove us outside of Kandy to Barigama, where we spent the night in a small stand-alone cottage after having a nice buffet dinner.
     Sri Lanka, Kandy: Cultural Dancers and the Temple of the Tooth  (Judy)
     Black-Crowned Night Heron  (Bob)
     Sri Lanka Black Turtle  (Bob)
     Indian Jungle Crow  (Bob)
     House Crow  (Bob)
     Indian Pond Heron  (Bob)
     Little Egret  (Bob)

Tuesday, March 12, we started out with a visit to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens outside Kandy. I was not excited about it, but was so glad we visited. Aside from the beautiful orchids and trees, the real reason to go there was to interact with the toque macaques that wander the grounds and view the Indian flying fox bats that inhabit the trees by the thousands. The latter was worth the visit by itself.
     Sri Lanka: Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya  (Judy)
     Indian Flying Fox  (Bob)
     Pale-Fronted Toque Macaque  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Yellow-Billed Babbler  (Bob)
Fly fox bats in the botanical gardens.

Then we set off for Ella, via Nuwara Eliya, through the hill country of Sri Lanka. We made a dubious stop at a spice farm, and spent lots of time climbing in elevation up winding roads to Nuwara Eliya where we went for a short walk and luxuriated in the cool temperatures. After a stop at a Hindu Temple on the outskirts of town, we got to Ella near dark, and stayed at the Ella Gap Panorama, high up on a hill above town. Our excitement for the night was a huge beetle that got in to our room through an open bathroom window and started Judy into a shrieking run when it started to fly, something I don't believe I've seen before in almost 40 years of marriage.
     Sri Lanka: From Kandy to Ella -- Hotels, a Post Office, a Farmers Market, and a Hindu Temple  (Judy)
     Highland Toque Macaque  (Bob)

Wednesday, March 13, we drove through Ella and began a downhill grade. We stopped briefly at a gorgeous waterfall and stopped on the outskirts of a lake to see some more Indian flying foxes. We got to the Elephant Transit Home on the western border of Udawalawe National Park and watched game keepers feed orphaned elephants. Sanjay showed us a small owl in a tree, and pulled some tamarind off a tree and peeled it so that we could eat it - sour, but good. Sanjay arranged for a driver with a safari vehicle for an afternoon safari in Udawalawe National Park. I had envisioned this is as a dull sequel to the Elephant Transit Home, but Udawalawe is a legitimate venue with fantastic scenery and lots of wild animals. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the highly acclaimed Yala National Park (a later visit). We saw a broad variety of wildlife, but highlights were elephants, jackals, Malabar pied hornbills, painted storks, mugger crocodiles and a crested hawk eagle. Afterwards we drove to Kawantissapura to spend the first of two nights at Magampura Eco Village Resort. We had a very nice late dinner there.
     Sri Lanka: Ravana Falls and the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home  (Judy)
     Sri Lanka: Udawalawe National Park  (Judy)
     Malabar Pied Hornbill  (Bob)
     Ceylon Paradise Flycatcher  (Bob)
     Green Bee-Eater  (Bob)
     Painted Stork  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Axis Deer  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Crested Serpent Eagle  (Bob)
     Spot-Billed Pelican  (Bob)
     Eurasian Spoonbill  (Bob)
     Common Green Forest Lizard  (Bob)
     Brahminy Kite  (Bob)
     Oriental Scops Owl  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Red-Wattled Lapwing  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Ruddy Mongoose  (Bob)
     Indian Peacock  (Bob)
     Spotted Dove  (Bob)
View from our hotel outside Ella.
Ravana Falls outside Ella.

Thursday, March 14, I met Sanjay and our driver with a safari vehicle at 5:00 a.m. Judy was exhausted and not feeling well and decided to stay at the hotel and get some rest. We drove about 40 minutes to a less-used entrance to Yala National Park and got in line for the park to open. Sanjay told me that the first two hours were exclusively to look for leopards, we weren't stopping for anything else. I was fine with that. We drove to an area of large rocks and drove around the roads in that area a number of times. Contrary to the prohibition on stops, Sanjay did stop for us to take photos of a stripe-necked mongoose we hadn't seen on our trip - he seemed pretty excited about it. We saw a small lake near the rocks and a couple of mugger crocodiles and some birds. Also a sambar deer that normally does not come this low. We eventually widened our search area and came across a clearing full of wild water buffaloes and about 15 safari vehicles lined up. Someone had seen a leopard go into the trees at the back of the clearing. We waited for 20 minutes or so and many of the vehicles started to move into the surrounding area. Sanjay had us stay put. Then he excitedly announced he saw the leopard and had the driver jam it forward about 50 yards. Like a rugby scrum, a bunch of other vehicles followed suit and crowded around us. We saw the leopard leave the trees and walk through a clearing. It was a madhouse among the vehicles. Eventually we headed back to the hotel for lunch to pick up Judy (during the two hour period in the park where vehicles must stop in prescribed areas). We went back to the same entrance, but largely drove different roads. Sanjay had a large cooler with very cold water, a watermelon, some mangosteen and other delicious fruit that we ate near a ranger station (where we were allowed to get out of the vehicle to eat). At the end of the day we had dinner back at our hotel.
     Sri Lanka: Yala National Park  (Judy)
     Sri Lankan Leopard  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Crested Hawk-Eagle  (Bob)
     Mugger Crocodile  (Bob)
     Stripe-Necked Mongoose  (Bob)
     Black-Headed Ibis  (Bob)
     Indian Hare  (Bob)
     Common Kestrel  (Bob)
     Lesser Whistling Duck  (Bob)
     Wild Water Buffalo  (Bob)
Lake in Yala NP.
Leopard in Yala NP.

Friday, March 15, we got up early again, and went to the same entrance in Yala. We took different roads and went to the other side of the park. While still very early and low light, Sanjay spotted two leopards on top of a large rock down a small side-road. The driver backed up and then down the road and we saw both leopards before they disappeared on the other side of the rock. We then spent another 30 minutes or so driving around to the other side of the rock and in the vicinity looking for the leopards, but did not see them again. We stopped for lunch at a beach on the ocean and were allowed to get out and walk around. There was a memorial there for people killed in a tsunami at that spot a number of years ago.
     White-Breasted Kingfisher  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Junglefowl  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Sambar Deer  (Bob)
     Indian Boar  (Bob)
Eating lunch in Yala NP - our safari vehicle.
Judy on the beach in Yala NP.

We went back to the hotel for lunch, gathered our belongings, then headed for Bundala National Park, about 47 km away. There we got a different driver and vehicle, checked in, and entered the park. We saw several purple herons, some rose-ringed parakeets, a gray-headed fish eagle, two white-bellied fish eagles, saltwater crocodiles and even an elephant hiding way back in the trees. I got very bad diarrhea and had to take a pit stop in some trees. I was lucky to get out of the vehicle before losing my load. It was an explosion and came on quite suddenly.
     Sri Lanka: Bundala National Park  (Judy)
     Pied Kingfisher  (Bob)
     Blue-Tailed Bee-Eater  (Bob)
     Indian Rose-Ringed Parakeet  (Bob)
     Purple Heron  (Bob)
     Oriental Darter  (Bob)
     Gray-Headed Fish Eagle  (Bob)
     White-Bellied Sea Eagle  (Bob)
     Sri Lankan Tufted Gray Langur  (Bob)
     Yellow-Wattled Lapwing  (Bob)
     Great Stone-Curlew  (Bob)
     Saltwater Crocodile  (Bob)
     Indian Flapshell Turtle  (Bob)
     Indian Cormorant  (Bob)
     Indian Star Tortoise  (Bob)
     Gray-Headed Swamphen  (Bob)
     Black-Winged Stilt  (Bob)
     White-Breasted Waterhen  (Bob)
     Oriental Skylark  (Bob)
     Common Snipe  (Bob)
     Common Redshank  (Bob)
     Ceylon Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Lark  (Bob)
Our safari vehicle in Bundala NP.
Beautiful ocean view in Bundala NP.

We continued on to our hotel, the Lagoon Paradise Beach Resort, 56 km away in Marakolliya, near Tangalle. It was right on the ocean and the humidity was through the roof. I was feeling wiped out. We had dinner right on the sand on the beach.

Saturday, March 16, was our last in Sri Lanka. Sanjay took us to the home of a man who keeps snakes. We spent about an hour there with the man bringing out four different Indian cobras for us to look at, a very venomous Russell's viper, a huge Indian rock python and some small green vine snakes.
     Sri Lanka: Lagoon Paradise Beach Resort and a Snake House  (Judy)
     Indian Cobra  (Bob)
     Green Vine Snake  (Bob)
     Indian Russell's Viper  (Bob)
     Indian Rock Python  (Bob)
Indian cobra at the man's home.

We visited a small sea turtle hatchery in Kogalla. It was not at all what I expected. It was very small and had a few tanks with four types of sea turtles, most of them hurt in some way, some new hatchlings and some unhatched eggs in sand. It was underwhelming.
     Sri Lanka: Iconic Fishermen, a Sea Turtle Sanctuary, and Some Souvenirs  (Judy)
     Hawksbill Sea Turtle  (Bob)
     Olive Ridley Sea Turtle  (Bob)
Holding an olive ridley sea turtle.

We stopped for a photo-op of three stilt fisherman along the rocky ocean beach. It looked like three crosses on Calvary. Sanjay paid the required tip to their stooge on the road. Completely fake and unsatisfying. I would not have paid them or taken a picture.

We stopped in Galle and walked up to part of the walls over-looking a cricket match. We saw some purple langurs in a nearby tree, the only ones of this particular species we saw. We took a walk along a wall looking down on the ocean and visited a mosque nearby.
     Southern Purple-Faced Langur  (Bob)
Purple faced langur.

We had an okay seafood lunch and then headed toward Colombo for our flight back home. We caught the only stretch of freeway-like road in Sri Lanka and made much better progress than normal until we hit Colombo and major traffic jams.

We got to the airport north of Colombo with time to spare and caught a 10:05 p.m. Emirates flight to Dubai.

Sunday, March 17, we arrived in Dubai at 1:00 a.m. and had to wait 7.5 hours for our Emirates flight to Los Angeles, leaving at 8:30 a.m. Our flight to Los Angeles was 16.5 hours, arriving at 2:00 p.m.
     Sri Lanka: Galle and the Journey Home  (Judy)

We were shocked and saddened to learn of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka just a little more than a month after we left. I'm sure if our trip had been scheduled after the bombings we would have considered cancelling, but we felt completely safe while we were there.


  1. In my defense, I haven't seen a flying beetle of that size in any bathroom, or anywhere else for that matter, before. I earned that shriek. Seeing this all laid out helps me understand why we came home so tired! But it was definitely worth the physical strain, wasn't it? I'm so glad we went.

    1. It was a huge beetle! I'm glad we got there before the bombings. Sri Lanka is such a wonderful country, I feel so badly that their tourism is going to suffer.