The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is located halfway between Colombo and Kandy. Just for a change, we decided to take a train from the modern-looking central station in Kandy westwards to Ranbukkana. From there, we planned to travel the extra few kilometers to Pinnawala on foot. After all, we had all day and were in no hurry for a change.
We left our hotel straight after breakfast and walked over to the train station. The train journey takes around an hour and a half. We planned to arrive in Pinnawala a little before lunchtime: This is the time the elephants are taken across the road for their daily wash in the nearby river.
Our train had comfortable soft seats and was not very full, so we had a relaxing journey. When we arrived in Ranbukkana, we walked back the short distance to Kegalle Junction. From there we took the main road south to Pinnawala. The distance is only around 3 km, but it feels a lot longer on foot.
The entrance fee (for foreigners) is Rs 2000 ($15). This gives you access to the main complex and the river where the elephants bathe. Be aware however that you will be hassled by would-be guides and constantly harassed for tips once you are inside.
We saw several elephants in chains. In the covered areas we found some younger elephants being hand-fed with what looked like milk from large bottles. We also saw 2 hairy little baby elephants.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Further in, there is a large wide open area where the elephants seem to spend the majority of their time. Here they are herded around by the keepers. We counted around 30 or so elephants of different sizes. It’s at this point that the keepers will offer to take pictures of you (with your own camera) next to an elephant. You will then be agressively badgered for a tip, and no – a few hundred rupees is insufficient: They demand 500 rupees (each keeper).
Around lunchtime, the keepers round up the entire herd and non-too-gently hustle them across the road to the river for bathing. Along this route you’ll find a succession of expensive gift shops selling trinkets, as well as recyled paper and artefacts made from elephant dung. These items are also surprisingly expensive considering their provenance.
At the river’s edge, around the bathing area, there are a few very busy terraces where you may be able to order something to eat or drink if you’re lucky (and if you have deep pockets). I have to admit that by this time I’d had enough of this circus.
If you want to see elephants, there are plenty of other more worthy places in Sri Lanka to see them. This place is simply a slick business designed to part you from your cash at every opportunity.
♦ Want a picture with an elephant? PAY!
♦ Want to visit the washroom? PAY!
♦ Want to feed an elephant? PAY!
♦ Want to ask anyone anything? PAY!
The staff will actually argue aggressively with you if they think your “tip” is insufficient.
This place is no orphanage (and hasn’t been for many years). It exists simply to exploit both elephants and tourists. At least I had the choice to leave: God help the elephants…
After this disappointing (and dis-heartening) experience, we headed back to the train station. Luckily, we found a bus ready to leave for Kandy. We hopped on the bus and saved some time waiting for the next train back.
Our final visit in Kandy would be to the Temple of the Tooth, down by the lake.
After that, we planned to head up into the relative serenity of the mountain jungles to the east.
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