Nature and Culture Collide: Yala National Park and Sri Lanka's Wild Coast

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February 18th 2015
Published: July 2nd 2015
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During the Shanghai winter I had been a bit overzealous in planning our trip. While well intentioned, it came back to haunt me in the end, as several hotel reservations made our itinerary less flexible. For this reason, our route in southern Sri Lanka became slightly awkward: we first visited Tangalle for a respite at the beach, and then found ourselves retracing our steps back to Yala National Park.

To get to Tangalle, we took a taxi from Ella; a journey of just under two hours. We descended from the hill country back into lush paddy fields and finally the windswept southern coast near Hambantota. It was there that we traveled down the empty highway, a special project of former president Rajapaska. The coast was largely unpopulated here, just a scattering of houses and occasionally a school. Things became busier as we approached Tangalle; the coastal towns became more bustling, full of people spilling out of the markets with armloads of vegetables, students in crisp uniforms, and surges of tuk-tuks.

The town of Tangalle is set close to the ocean along the dusty and traffic-choked main road. The beach itself, however, is slightly separated from the town, down a sandy path where a strip of tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants are scattered along the shoreline. The beach at Tangalle has a rugged and forgotten quality about it that reminded me a lot of Monterico in Guatemala. (In fact, many aspects of Sri Lanka made me think of Guatemala: the squat, colorful concrete houses, the painted slogans, the powerful northern neighbor, the women’s bright clothes and long, dark ponytails…) Tangalle isn't really a swimming beach due to the crashing waves, nor is it a surfing beach since the waves break at the shoreline. There was one tiny area for swimming, where enterprising locals had created a wall of boulders for protection.

Tangalle ended up being one of the favorite places that we visited on the entire trip. I found its end-of-the-earth feel to be both relaxing and contemplative. I also loved the mangroves. For around USD 10 you can rent kayaks from one of the guesthouses and paddle around. The mangroves are fairly compact, but they do have a magical quality and there’s plenty of wildlife. We went out twice and saw monkeys leaping from tree to tree, water monitors gliding confidently though the murky water, and bright blue kingfishers streaking between the branches. We also saw a large variety of birds roosting in the trees, including sea eagles, egrets, and herons. On our second trip to the mangroves the sky burst open and we were caught in an epic downpour. Gliding along the muddy passageways was like going back in time to some long-forgotten primordial era.

Another highlight was a visit to the Mulkirigala Rock Temple. The cave is famous not only for its Buddhist art, but also for its significance...Early in the 19th century a British Colonial found a secret library stuffed with ancient palm-leaf manuscripts. Some of these proved to be crucial in translating another the "Mahawamsa" (a document detailing the island's earliest history, written a forgotten dialect of Pali).

The temple is located about ten miles from town down a series of unmarked roads. At the bottom of the hill were a couple of women selling bananas and some sleeping dogs. Other than that, it was completely peaceful. We climbed up to the first tier where we paid, and the caretaker beckoned us into the first of the caves. Set under the bulging side of the impressive stone hill, the rough ceiling of the
Happy wild elephantHappy wild elephantHappy wild elephant

Yala National Park
temple was covered in murals. There were various scenes of demons devouring helpless women and children, serene Bodhisattvas, and the various events of Sakyamunis life. From there we climbed up some steep stone steps to another cave complex, which was larger, full of more murals and several reclining Buddha figures. From our vantage point, we could just make out the shapes of schoolchildren walking home along the dirt road. Outside the temple the old caretaker sat, carefully arranging the offerings. He looked as though he'd been there since the temple was first built 2000 years ago. From the top tier of temples it's possible to continue to the dome of the hill where a simple white chapel and dagoba stand. Slipping over the rail and descending past some trees there is a viewpoint. We sat for a long time on the curved stone, listening to the wind rustle and admiring the expanse of valley below.

The temple was a very special place. It felt removed; forgotten by history. We only saw a handful of other people there during our morning visit. We returned to the beach where we spent several more days not doing much of anything except exploring

leaving the ceremony, Kataragama
the mangroves, eating, drinking tea on the balcony, and occasionally braving the choppy water. Soon we headed north again to visit two of Sri Lanka's national parks.

People flock to Yala National Park for the opportunities to see wild elephants, monkeys, dear, boars, and a variety of bird life. The park’s biggest celebrities, however, are the leopards. We were lucky enough to see not one, but four.

In order to visit Yala, you must hire a guide and a vehicle. You are not allowed to enter the park independently and once inside, you are not supposed to leave the car. You can either take a taxi to the park gates and barter a fare from there, or make a booking with one of the billion tour companies in the area. They aren’t all created equal. The so-called guides may be incredibly knowledgeable, or they might be complete novices. The vehicles are everything from top-end jeeps to battered pickup trucks with a few extra seats fastened precariously to the back. In addition, you must decide if you want a half or full day tour, to go with a group or by yourself, which section of the park to visit, and what time of day to go.

This was my first experience with a “safari” and I still don’t quite know what to make of it. On the plus side, the animals were amazing and it seemed that the park was doing its best to promote responsible visitation and ensure the animals were protected. The landscape is beautiful too: dry red dirt, low scrubby bushes and trees, muddy watering holes, and wild beaches. And bouncing around in the back of a jeep – a la Indiana Jones – while the driver negotiated the uneven, rocky tracks was a blast. On the downside, it felt like a bit of a circus at times and it does put a dent in your wallet (at least if you consider yourself a budget traveler).

We went with a company called Ajith Tours. We’d read about them on Trip Advisor. We opted for a morning tour, which is when many people see they see the most animals. We were picked up from our hotel at 5 am and driven briskly to the park entrance, which took around 30 minutes. At the gate the lineup began, the guides and drivers waiting for the ticket office to open, chatting casually. Other jeeps began to arrive and by 6 am, when the gate was officially raised, there was already a cluster of cars waiting to go in.

The sun was just coming up as we began the tour. We were first greeted by a large stork atop the broken branches of a dead tree, and soon saw a herd of red deer grazing in the underbrush. Not long after our guide exclaimed with excitement (the majority of people in Sri Lanka always seemed to address Craig rather than me) “Sir! A leopard sir!” And there it was, stalking through the long grass. It was soon joined by its brothers and mother. We watched while they played; chasing and pouncing on one another, leaping over bushes, and making a half-hearted attempt to chase a dim-witted peacock that had wandered into their midst. They were roughly 100 meters away and we had a decent view with the binoculars.

Hearing news of the sighting, jeeps appeared from every direction. They jammed up against one another as their excited occupants produced giant cameras and telescopic lenses; contraptions that would look at home during a National Geographic photoshoot. We
Unhappy, chained elephantUnhappy, chained elephantUnhappy, chained elephant

I hope the monks weren't impressed...
were so boxed in that it took almost another 45 minutes of waiting (long after the leopards had retreated into the shade) to be able to drive on.

Our guide was really excellent. At one point he pointed to a large heap in the road. “Elephant dung, sir! Looks fresh!” Moments later a large elephant wandered nonchalantly across the path. We later stopped to eat lunch by a large lake and later finished the morning at a gorgeous strip of wild coastline. In the distance was a unique rock formation and in the parking lot visitors milled around a monument to victims of the 2004 tsunami.

For our second night in the area we stayed at a hotel in Kataragama. Most foreign visitors, it seemed, passed through the town on their way to the National Park. The town is, however, a very popular destination for domestic tourists due to its religious significance. The town is best known for its series of shrines, all resting within close proximity to one another, and appealing to Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. The most famous shrine is that of the war god Skanda/Murukan, which was built in the 12th century. Skanda was rumored to have hidden out nearby with his lover, who he refused to leave in spite of pressure from his legal wife.

Today, pilgrims come from all over Sri Lanka. Some devotees trek across the entire island, staying in pilgrims’ rest houses, and timing their arrival with an important summer festival. At the shrine people wear white to symbolize purity and bring offerings of fruit and flowers. Many ask for the healing of ailments.

We walked amongst the shrines for the Saturday “puja”. Families were flooding in, their arms laden with platters for making offerings. It seemed the whole town had turned out. Old women fanned themselves in the shade, children played under the banyans, families picnicked, worshippers bowed and burned incense, and makeshift bands roamed around with drums and trumpets. A massive line had formed, snaking around the complex, as people waited to hand over their gifts to priests at the main shrine. Near the temple entrance, I watched a man stopped to ignite a coconut. He stood, eyes closed, murmuring a prayer while it smoldered. After a few minutes he opened his eyes and cast it at the ground where it smashed.

We wandered down the path to the snow-white dagoba, where women sold bouquets of fresh flowers. Along the route were several elephants with chains digging into their necks and ankles. They were tethered to large concrete blocks, unable to move more than a few inches away. Their handlers made them “dance”; waving at them to perform for a crowd of young, saffron-robed monks. I hope the monks didn’t approve. I found it sad that a religion that preaches compassion to all sentient beings condoned the blatant mistreatment of animals in the midst of a sacred religious site. Feeling hot and slightly depressed, we made our way back to the hotel. Near the gate a groups of lazy monkeys sat in a pile of banana peels, making the most of cast-off offerings.

Later that afternoon we went to Bundala National Park. Lacking the big game of Yala, Bundala is much more relaxed and is primarily renowned for its migratory birds. Of the two parks, it was my favorite. There were far fewer people – in fact, we only saw a couple of other vehicles – and the glittering lakes and marshes looked like something out of the Cretaceous Period. Not only that, but we got an up close look at a lot of wildlife: crocodiles, mongoose, storks, sea eagles, plovers, colorful bee eaters, gulls, and even one solitary bull elephant (who was much happier than his chained counterparts back in Kataragama). We finished off the trip with dusk on a windswept section of coast. If it hadn’t been for a small fishing village tucked away beneath the cliffs I would’ve thought we’d literally reached the edge of the earth.

Kataragama was probably the closest we came to experiencing “real” Sri Lanka. On the plus side, it was cheap and the setting was lovely. We stayed in a cheerful orange hotel within walking distance of the bus station. Our balcony looked out at a field where storks and peacocks landed with regularity. Nearby was a delicious vegetarian bakery whose super-friendly owner helped to give us directions. Things were also much cheaper than in more heavily-touristed areas, not only our accommodation, but also the numerous cafeterias that served heaping portions of fried rice for around one dollar. Many of the people that we met were welcoming and curious. On the other hand, we got a fair amount of attention and more than a few looks while we wandered around. There were also several packs of young men who were somewhat aggressive…not in a sense of physical danger, but unwanted stares and catcalls. I am not unfamiliar with this behavior having lived in Central America, but considering that I was dressed conservatively and walking around with my husband, it was frustrating.

Altogether the mix of nature and culture near Kataragama made for an interesting experience, though if I returned I might do a few things differently. In the end, we were eager to return to the coast, so we jammed our bags and ourselves into a cramped bus and careened onward.

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29



Temple complexTemple complex
Temple complex

Safari styleSafari style
Safari style

Bundala National Park
View from aboveView from above
View from above

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery
Temple elephantTemple elephant
Temple elephant

taking advantage of all the leftover fruit

Bundala National Park

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