One of the highlights of any trip to Sri Lanka is a visit to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Pinnawala is small town just north of Kegalle, east of Colombo (just over half way on the road to Kandy). Its a great place to stop if you’re traveling from Colombo to the central Hill Country or to the Cultural Triangle further north. Its also an excellent day-trip destination from Colombo if you have limited time (eg. cruise ship stop) because the journey and visit to the orphanage will give you a much better understanding of Sri Lanka than a short stay in Colombo would.
Pinnawala is set amidst lush green forests, coconut plantations, rice paddies and spice gardens. And it is home to the very famous Elephant Orphanage. This is a stop that is certain to bring a smile to everyone’s face and is a must if you’re traveling with children. There’s no better place to see large numbers of elephants up close than in Pinnawala. You will have plenty of time to observe them, to feed the babies and have limited interaction with adult elephants. While most roam freely around the plantation, their trainers (mahouts) keep a close eye on them for their (and your) own safety. A modest admission is charged which is used to subsidize the elephant’s care. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of food to maintain a herd of elephants.
The elephant orphanage was started on an old coconut plantation in the mid 1970s as part of a growing national conservation effort, to provide care for young elephants who were found alone or whose mothers had been killed (e.g. in the civil war between the government and Tamil rebels). Over the years the focus has changed from just helping young orphaned elephants to encouraging a program of breeding, species preservation, and tourism. That program has been successful and around 70 elephants now live at the orphanage. Young elephants are trained and raised to be working elephants. Care is also given to injured adult elephants (eg. one elephant — Raja — was blinded by shotgun pellets; one had an amputated leg from a landmine injury).
Most of the elephants’ day is spent at the old plantation site, where they wander and are fed trimmings from jackfruit and coconut trees. Additionally, three times a day one has the opportunity to feed milk to young orphaned elephants (via a huge baby bottle). Please check with the website for the time of elephant feedings.
Its great fun to watch the elephants freely trot thru the streets of Pinnawala on their way to the nearby Maha Oya river, where they are allowed to bathe and cool down for a few hours. These river excursions occur twice daily (again, please check the website for times). The elephants clearly love bathing and playing in the cool water, as will you as you watch them from the river bank. Some of my best memories from my travels to Sri Lanka were of my 4 visits to the Elephant Orphanage.
There are small hotels near the orphanage but I never stayed in Pinnawala except a few hours at a time to enjoy the pachyderms, wander the streets, have a drink or snack at a cafe, and shop for a few handicrafts. After a few hours at the orphanage, most people journey on.