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Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara

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The Lahugala Reserve, occupying a mere six square miles in the jungle east of Arugam Bay, is one of Sri Lanka’s smallest national parks. We combined a short tuk-tuk excursion to the reserve with a visit to the remains of a legendary queen’s palace.


It may be small in size, but a tremendous variety of animals prowl the grounds of the Lahugala Reserve, including leopards, sloths, barking deer and the rare Rusty-spotted Cat. But we were most likely to see elephants — a herd of up 150 lives in the park.

Our visit was timed to coincide with the elephants’ meal time, but unfortunately also coincided with darkening skies and a late afternoon storm. A solitary elephant had ventured out to the feeding grounds, where there are usually up to fifty (elephants are apparently as lazy as humans when it comes to rain). Oh well. We had recently gotten lucky with the big guys in Habarana, and hadn’t paid anything to visit Lahugala — the highway cuts through the reserve and passes the elephants’ favorite stomping ground, making a ticket to the park’s interior unnecessary.

So Lahugala wasn’t a resounding success but it was only part of the excursion. Our next stop was the ruins of the Magul Maha Vihara, which date to the 5th century AD and are said to have been the palace for one of Sri Lanka’s most famous queens.

According to legend, good King Kelanie-Tissa had been tricked by his wicked brother into murdering an innocent holy man, whose body was then tossed into the ocean. Furious at the injustice, wrathful sea gods unleashed a storm whose waves surged over the land and killed many people. In order to appease the gods, the king was advised to make a terrible sacrifice: that of his only daughter, Devi.

The king was grief-stricken, but the lovely and pious Princess Devi bravely accepted her fate. Content that her death might save countless lives, she allowed herself to be strapped down in a golden ship, then pushed out into the storm. The sea gods were impressed by her courage, and decided to spare the princess, re-routing her ship to the nearby realm of King Kavan-Tissa.

The soldiers of Kavan-Tissa who had been patrolling the shore were astounded by the arrival of the golden ship, but even more so by the beautiful maiden they found unconscious within. They carried her to the royal palace, where Devi finally opened her eyes. Dazzled by the opulence of the King’s court, she assumed that her sacrifice had been accepted, and that she was in heaven. When Kavan-Tissa (who had fallen in love with her at first sight) explained the situation and asked Devi to be his bride, she immediately accepted.

The ruins at Magul Maha Vihara were the palace of this fortunate Queen, who was much beloved by her subjects, and who eventually gave birth to King Duttugemunu: one of the island’s greatest heroes. It was just recently that had I heard the story of the princess, and I had assumed it to be nothing more than a legend. But Princess Devi existed… and here was her palace as proof! So how much of the story was true? Her father’s crime? The floods? The terrible sacrifice? The golden boat? The love-struck king? It’s impossible to say where fiction ends and fact begins.

Although we didn’t have much luck with the elephants, this was a great day trip, easy to arrange with any tuk-tuk driver in Arugam Bay. Definitely worth your time, if you find yourself with a free afternoon.

Location of the Magul Maha Vihara on our Map
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Temple Near Arugam Bay
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April 17, 2012 at 11:10 am Comment (1)

Elephants in Habarana’s Eco-Park

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Cuddle Elephants

The two well-known national parks near Habarana are Kaudulla and Minneriya. So we were more than a little skeptical while listening to this guy pitch the Hurulu Eco-Park: a little-known reserve that didn’t even appear in our guidebook. “Don’t worry!” he cried, “All the elephants are in Eco-Park!” Sure they are, buddy. But what were we going to do, claim that we knew better?

“I just know that this is a rip-off, Jürgen. We’re not going to see any elephants.”

Panik Elephants

Wrong! That guy knew what he was talking about. We saw so many elephants, I wasn’t even able to count them all. At around fifty, I gave up… and then another herd sauntered into view. It was amazing. These were gorgeous, wild and occasionally angry elephants; nothing like the friendly, damaged characters we’d met at Pinnawela.

For the first 45 minutes of our tour through the Eco-Park, I had felt my worst fears coming true. We had only seen an eagle, and a green beater bird (rare, according to our driver, who I wasn’t yet inclined to trust). But just as I was getting depressed, Jürgen spotted something big and gray in the woods. Our driver backed up, and there: a young male elephant eating a lonely meal of leaves.

Soon after that, tipped off by another jeep, we drove into the brush and interrupted the dinner of an entire family. Four large elephants, a couple adolescents and two very young babies. Although visibly annoyed by our presence, they continued their meal. Our driver felt we were too close, and turned the jeep around “in case they attack”. This happens a lot, as we would later witness.

The best part of the day came towards the end, when we arrived at a field where an incredible number of elephants were grazing. A few other jeeps were there, too, but the park wasn’t anywhere near as over-crowded as we’ve heard Yala can get. We parked and watched the elephants eat and play for almost an hour, keeping a respectful distance. Another jeep got too close, provoking an ill-tempered youngster to charge. Exciting, and to be honest, I was kind of rooting for the elephant. It wasn’t our jeep (or lives). But they sped away unscathed.

We had a great time at the Eco-Park and paid a lot less than what we would have coughed up at Yala or other National Reserves. Make sure to consider it as an option if you’re looking for something to do around Habarana.

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April 12, 2012 at 3:55 am Comments (2)

The Millennium Elephant Foundation

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Awwwww! Baby Elephants!

Spurred by the popularity of the Elephant Orphanage, the area around Pinnawela has become something of a strip mall for elephantine adventures. Up and down the narrow road leading from the highway are signs and shops touting “Elephant Rides!” or “Pet an Elephant!” It’s a little dispiriting, but after our positive experience at the orphanage, we decided to push our luck and visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation before heading back home.

One Happy Elephant

We should have saved our money. The Millennium Elephant Foundation’s aim is to provide a home for old, retired elephants. Sounds noble, but no sooner had we stepped out of the taxi, than we were pounced upon. “Would you like the 30-minute Elephant Ride?” No. “Then the 45-minute Ride, yes my friends, only $40, step this way!” No, we don’t want any elephant ride! (Anyway, what kind of rest-home for retired elephants encourages people to ride on top them?) No, we just want to see the elephants and help wash one. “Oh”, the friendly smiles vanished, “Well, then just it’s $6”.

After being hurried through a small “museum”, we were ushered down to the river, where an enormous elephant was laying on his side. A guy working there showed me how to scrub the big guy with a coconut shell. This was kind of fun. The elephant was totally loving it, and I really had to scrub hard! But it was impossible to fully enjoy, because the scrub-master kept grabbing my arm and asking for money. Literally, every twenty seconds. “Yes, my wallet is on shore, just a moment!” Nothing I could say stopped him from touching me, pushing his cupped hands towards me, or making pitiful “I need money” faces. After a few minutes of this, I threw my coconut in the water, stomped up to shore, and got him his damned bribe money. We were done with this place in like fifteen minutes and left disgusted.

Foreign volunteers can pay to work at the Millennium Foundation, and I spoke with a few of them. They seemed to be positive about the experience they were having, so it must be different when you’re actually spending a lot of time with the elephants and not being constantly hassled. I don’t know, though. If you’re just passing through, I would steer clear of this one.

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February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am Comment (1)

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

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Book your Hotel in Pinnawela with overlooking the Elephant River

Established in 1975, the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has become one of the most popular touristic destinations in Sri Lanka, for reasons that should be obvious. What, you need it spelled out? Fine: Orphan Elephants. Baby Orphan Elephants. Lots and lots of baby orphan elephants, that want to cuddle with you, and then frolic and play in the water. What kind of person could say “no” to that? Honestly, who could be like, “Nah, that sounds dumb”.

Pinnawela-Elephant-Orphanage Sri Lanka

We had an amazing time during our visit, as we knew we would. The elephants were remarkable. Beautiful, utterly friendly creatures, who’ve been lived their whole lives in the orphanage and are completely comfortable with humans. The day’s only negative was provided by the people working at the park. The “guards” who, from the moment we entered to the moment we left, were looking for money. Tips for petting an elephant. Tips for feeding, tips for pictures. Tips, just ’cause. Their wearisome greediness never abated. If an elephant approached you, a guard would appear like magic, angrily shooing it off with a pointed stick. Then, he would turn to you with a smile. “You like touch elephant?”

But this was a minor annoyance and it was hard to stay angry, surrounded, as we were, by at least sixty elephants. Besides, try as they might, the guards couldn’t keep up with everything. Once, a baby elephant the height of my chest waddled up to Jürgen and I, with its trunk extended. He squeezed my hand, and then pulled me close alongside his body. I figured he wanted a hug, so I gave him one. We had a full minute alone with this little guy, and it was a minute I’ll never forget.

The day’s highlight was bathing time. The elephants were led in a giant procession to the nearby river, where they were allowed to splash and play for two hours. The little ones rolled around in the water, while the adults sprayed water onto each other and cuddled. I could have watched them bathe all day long. So many elephants congregated in one place — I’m sure it’s possible to see something similar in the wild, but this was truly a special experience for us.

So we wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The money-grubbing guards are annoying, but as long as you’re prepared to ignore them, you’ll have an unforgettable experience.

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February 24, 2012 at 11:48 am Comments (15)

Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

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Different Kind of Buddha Statues

Immediately after visiting the quiet water temple of Seema Malaka, we decided to check out Gangaramaya. Built in the 1800s, this is the most important place of Buddhist learning and worship in Colombo. The sprawling complex is a bewildering assault on the senses. Packed with worshipers, tourists, clouds of incense, chanting, elephants (alive and stuffed), and a collection of everything even the slightest bit related to Buddhism, there is enough here to occupy a huge chunk of time.

Gangramaya Buddhas

When visiting temples, we usually maintain a quiet composure and respectful behavior. There’s nothing more hideous than a sunburned tourist in a place of worship, with safari hat and fanny pack, laughing and yakking as though he were at Disney World, and snapping pictures of the funny little monks who are clearly there for his amusement. But when we entered Gangaramaya, the first thing I did was run over to the resident elephant like a blathering idiot. “Can I touch it, huh? Huh? Can I?” I guffawed and posed while Jürgen took photos of me with the gentle giant, whose name is Ganga. The usual dignity? Out the window. Shucks, I’m touchin’ a real-life elephunt! Gyuk-gyuk.

Having to pay Ganga’s caretaker 500 Rupees brought us back down to earth, and we composed ourselves before exploring the rest of the temple. First, we ventured into the image room — fantastic. With a massive, golden Buddha decorated with elephant tusks and surrounded by various other gods, this room was breathtaking. Nearby, there’s an ancient Bo Tree, which worshipers were circling. I love this aspect of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Every temple on the island has a Bo Tree, which is subject to almost as much veneration as images of Buddha himself. According to the faith, it’s the tree which Buddha sat underneath while obtaining enlightenment.

We spent a lot of time inside Gangaramaya’s strange and delightful museum. A guide led us on a tour of the wide-ranging collection of bric-a-brac and Buddhist memorabilia. There were gifts from other Buddhist nations, including a Japanese sandalwood cabinet which our guide claimed was worth at least a million bucks. And we saw the world’s tiniest Buddha, smaller than a thimble, which revealed extraordinary detail underneath a microscope.

Gangaramaya is one of the top sights in Colombo. Don’t pass up a visit to this amazing, living center of Buddhism.

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Gangaramaya Temple
Main Buddhas
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Helping Hands
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Smallest Buddha Figure
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Munching Elephant
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February 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comments (6)
Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara The Lahugala Reserve, occupying a mere six square miles in the jungle east of Arugam Bay, is one of Sri Lanka's smallest national parks. We combined a short tuk-tuk excursion to the reserve with a visit to the remains of a legendary queen's palace.
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