Skip to main content

Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other. (Part 5) The Elephants of Pinnawala



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 (e.g. 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 in Sri Lanka than in Pinnawala.  You'll 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.



(Elephant and baby, mahout and a tourist, Pinnawala) 


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 your guide or hotel for the timing of elephant feedings.



(Elephants freely wandering the streets, on their way to the river) 


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 when you watch them from the river bank.  Some of my best memories of my travels to Sri Lanka were of my 4 visits to the Elephant Orphanage.



(Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala) 


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.



(Mother and baby elephant bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala)



 For an extended high resolution slide show of Pinnawala, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.




Images (18)
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: Sign at the entrance
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Mother and baby elephant bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala: The babies are sooooooo cute!
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Elephants bathing in River Maha Oya, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Mother, baby and mahout, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Dr Thompson, mahout and elephant in Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: The elephants roam freely through this former plantation.
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
  • Feeding baby elephants, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: The mahout supervises the interaction of a tourist and mother/baby elephant.
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: Raja, a large bull blinded by shotgun pellets, is cared for in the orphanage. Only around 10% of Sri Lankan elephants develop tusks.
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: A working elephant preparing to carry her dinner.
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka: Elephants on their way to the river to bathe!  Don't get in their way!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Add Comment

Comments (6)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

I'm becoming more intrigued by the day.  On the practical side of things, specifically how to get there, what's your usual route, DrF, or is there a best way.  From the US west coast.  I'm thinking about using miles and I haven't found a cheap way yet for an onward flight from, say, BKK or HKG to Colombo.  India is the obvious closest but costs more miles to get to than BKK.  Any ideas?  AA miles if have any experience with that alliance.

Thanks, PortMoresby!  And we've not even been to the sacred tooth relic in Kandy, the medieval ruins of Polonnaruwa, the beautiful hill country filled with tea plantations and "The World's End", a wildlife safari at Yala National Park, nor any of the nice beaches (but keep reading -- reports on these are coming).  Sri Lanka is a great destination, especially now that the civil war is over.  I was doubly lucky to not only be able to visit a dear friend there but to have time to leisurely explore this great country.


Economy class tickets from the Western USA to Sri Lanka aren't as expensive as you might think -- generally about the same as flying to Europe or just a little more.  I never used frequent flyer points for this because the ticket cost were reasonable for cash purchase (and I saved my points for more expensive options).


The two best airlines to fly with are Thai and Singapore, both among the best in the world and with very excellent inflight service.  Check out their prices at different times.  Both airlines will give you a fairly long layover in either Bangkok (Thai) or Singapore (Singapore Air) respectively, almost a full day at no extra cost, which is welcome after that long flight from the US west coast and lets you start your exploring early.  Flights to Colombo usually leave late in the evening from these city and arrive in Colombo after midnight.

Lots to consider.  I can't go through Thailand without hanging out a few weeks so the 2 ticket plan may suit me better.  I see Cathay Pacific also flies to Colombo, connecting in HKG.  Will have to do more research to see if any of the low fare Asian airlines can facilitate a plan.  


What season is your favorite there?  Is there an off-season when there are bargains to be had?

Sri Lanka is almost on the equator so it has minimal seasonal variability in temperature or length of day and night.


There is a monsoon season, but that generally translated to an hour or two of rain, often after dark, so don't let this worry you.  I don't think there's a bad season.  Imagine "high season" coincides with vacations in Europe as most travelers there are from Europe so would avoid the summer months especially.

Link copied to your clipboard.