Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

A highlight of our trip aboard Silversea’s Silver Wind was a stop in Sri Lanka! We had plans to take a Silversea excursion to visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the center of the country. Pinnawala has the largest number of captive elephants in the world (88!) and is nearly 40 years old.

How to Get to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sri Lanka – I guess its sort of like India except less developed and more tropical? Well, that’s about right, but it is also far less populous and thus is less crowded, less noisy and less polluted. Pinnawala is located about 50 miles from the capital of Colombo and is reachable via an absolutely terrible road that is riddled with potholes. The road is by no means a highway, and I’d be surprised if you could make it up to 20 mph in any stretch. You’ll pass through every single town from Colombo to Pinnawala. The journey takes 3 hours.

If you’re fortunate enough to be on a well organized tour like we were, there is a chance you’ll take a train to Pinnawala…

Dave & Chandra on Viceroy Train Colombo Sri Lanka

This train, the Viceroy, dates back to 1935 and only operates by charter. There is no way to take the train otherwise and there is no set schedule. The train doesn’t look like much on the outside, but inside it is all made of wood, has very posh seats and is very well air-conditioned (surely an upgrade since 1935). Dave and I got a spot near the back of the car so that we could see the Sri Lankan countryside out the back window. The landscape is extremely rural and lush, with tiny homes dotting the fields and poking through the wall of palm trees. Over the course of the 1.5 hour trip, it seemed the entire population of the area was outside waving at our train as we passed.

Viceroy Train, Rambukkana Station Sri Lanka

Elephants by the Oya River

Twice per day, the elephants go down to the river to bathe and cool off. We were fortunate to arrive in time to see them in the water, splashing about with their handlers. There were dozens of tourists climbing all over trying to get a close look at the elephants and Dave and I were no exceptions.

River Elephants Pinnawela Sri Lanka

It was so amazing to see the elephants so close, although certainly this would be nothing compared to later in the day. We watched them toss water over themselves, drink water and generally splash around and have a good time. It really can’t be described how cute this process was and how impressive it was to be so close to the action. The highlights were seeing a small 1 week old elephant play in the water with its mother, and also seeing a very pregnant elephant lay in the river while the care takers splashed her nonstop with water. I can’t imagine much worse than being a pregnant elephant in the 90 degree heat (and also they are pregnant for 2 years!).

Super Pregnant Elephant

Super Pregnant Elephant

Baby Elephant Pinnawela

One week old and hiding behind mom

At about 5 minutes to noon, a large horn sounded and the elephants began to gather by the mouth of the river. We were ushered off of the rocks and moved into side areas by the road and waited in anticipation for the elephants to make their way up the road. This was just a crazy thing to see as one by one all of the elephants climbed up the road and passed us within a few feet. The highlight was again the baby elephant, although there were quite a few “toddler” elephants who also stole the show.

The Orphanage

After lunch, we headed into the orphanage itself. Some areas were not very nice, one of which being a small covered area where a few elephants were chained to the floor and left to eat leaves while hundreds of tourists looked on. Wanting to avoid seeing that, we moved to the open, hot spaces on the land. Elephants were spread all over this large field where caretakers gladly accepted tips in any currency to have a photo with them. We ended up taking photos with one of the elephants, a must do, then moved on to photographing the baby elephant with his mother.

Mom and baby elephant graze pinnawela Baby Elephants Graze Pinnawela

Bluish mountains in the background created fantastic photo opportunities and we must have taken a hundred shots of the elephants across the field.

Trio of Elephants Pinnawela

About 20 minutes to 2pm, we decided to do some shopping for elephant themed gifts so we headed back to the dirt elephant path. We negotiated a pretty good price for a few gifts and I managed to also get bitten by 3 mosquitos in the process. As I was no longer taking the malerone for malaria, I was a bit nervous, but the elephants making their way back to the river at 2pm took my mind off of it for the time being. The parade back to the water was even more entertaining as the elephants seemed to engage more with all of us. I got plenty of trunks in my face and in my hands and got to touch lots of flapping ears. These elephants were just adorable.

Elephant Parade at Pinnawala

Return to Colombo

Even though we had been spoiled by taking the train earlier in the day, we had to take the bus option back to Colombo. The ride back was fairly uneventful and unpleasant at times as we made our way through the local roads of Sri Lanka. It was somewhat nauseating but finally we were back in the port and aboard our ship. Visiting the orphanage was a unique way to experience Sri Lanka during our short time here. From what we saw, it seems like a fantastically beautiful country with lots to offer – I hope to make it back someday soon!


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