Visit to Kandy and Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

NOTE: I am currently in elephant land, where I don’t have access to internet to post an update. I’ll continue the story from my last post (16 January 2019).

We left Wasgamuwa after our morning of observing elephants and getting our replacement vehicle out of the mud. This was a short field visit, but since Elizabeth and Wendy were only in the country for about a week, I wanted them to have the chance to see other parts of Sri Lanka. Plus, I would be lying if I used their visit as an excuse to act like a tourist. I’m a self-proclaimed workaholic who wouldn’t have stopped fieldwork to take a bit of a break.

We drove to Kandy, one of Sri Lanka’s largest cities. Kandy is much less chaotic than Colombo, and it’s popular among tourists for its central location and the Temple of the Tooth (the site of a relic purported to be the canine tooth of the Buddha). It’s also where the famous Kandy Perahera is located, a festival lasting a few weeks during the summer; elephants play a central role in the perahera. I’ll be back with a friend later in the year to see huge bull elephants paraded through the streets. Sachintha lives in Kandy, so he rode with us and went back to his house after we got to our hotel. Elizabeth, Wendy, and I freshened up a bit (the drive to Kandy was quite nausea-inducing, going through the infamous 18 Bend Road and continuing along a winding route). Needless to say, we were happy to be out of a vehicle for the day, so we walked around downtown where our hotel was located. We passed the Temple of the Tooth on our walk, but we passed on the opportunity to enter. Sometimes there are live temple elephants on ground, and while I smelled one (and later we found fresh dung outside the temple’s exit) we didn’t want to take the chance. We shopped around some local stores instead (we all got batik panels with elephants on them). Rajnish also lives in Kandy, so we met up with him for dinner at a “pub.” The pub seemed to be very popular with western tourists, and I took the opportunity to eat some non-Sri Lankan food.

The real reason that the three of us chose to visit Kandy was that it is the biggest city on the way to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka’s most prominent elephant attraction. It’s not a typical orphanage, in that the facility breeds some of the elephants it rescues or that it receives from private owners. Most famously, many elephants from the orphanage are taken from their enclosure across the road and down a street filled with shops to the Maha Oya River to bathe multiple times each day. We arrived early the next day to make the first bath session, and we purposely chose our hotel in Pinnawala because of its proximity to the bathing river (the balconies of our rooms overlooked the elephants…yeah, we may have a problem). Most tourists visiting Pinnawala only stay for one bath (either in the morning or afternoon), but because we stayed in the hotel for a night, we got to see five sessions. During the session with the most elephants, I counted 43 elephants. Pretty cool, to say the least. In between the baths, we shopped around at a few of the stores by the river, visited the local Pinnawala Zoo, and relaxed and reflected on our past week.

Over the course of the ~27 hours we were in Pinnawala, I took over 800 photos, and Wendy and Elizabeth took many themselves. I chose just some of the best ones to include below:

A bull elephant walking to the river to bathe. He’s carrying a log in his mouth to chew on later, and the chain around his neck is used to tether him in a safe location (this is for the safety of both the elephant himself and people). 14 January 2019.

A bull elephant walking to the river to bathe. He’s carrying a log in his mouth to chew on later, and the chain around his neck is used to tether him in a safe location (this is for the safety of both the elephant himself and people). 14 January 2019.

Female elephants in the Maha Oya during a bathing session. 14 January 2019.

Female elephants in the Maha Oya during a bathing session. 14 January 2019.

A group of elephants in the Maha Oya during a bathing session, taken from the balcony of our hotel. 14 January 2019.

A group of elephants in the Maha Oya during a bathing session, taken from the balcony of our hotel. 14 January 2019.

Elephants from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage following their mahout across the street to go bathing in the river. 14 January 2019.

Elephants from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage following their mahout across the street to go bathing in the river. 14 January 2019.

A few younger elephants playing with each other in the river at Pinnawala. 14 January 2019.

A few younger elephants playing with each other in the river at Pinnawala. 14 January 2019.

A sparring match between two elephants at Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

A sparring match between two elephants at Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

Portrait of an elephant at Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

Portrait of an elephant at Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

A young elephant rests its trunk on the rocky shore of the Maha Oya, Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

A young elephant rests its trunk on the rocky shore of the Maha Oya, Pinnawala. 15 January 2019.

Wendy and I discuss elephants while watching elephants at Pinnawala. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

Wendy and I discuss elephants while watching elephants at Pinnawala. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

Connecting with an elephant at Pinnawala. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

Connecting with an elephant at Pinnawala. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

We couldn’t resist a selfie with the Pinnawala elephants.

We couldn’t resist a selfie with the Pinnawala elephants.

The three of us stayed at the edge of the river up until the moment our taxi driver came to pick us up from our hotel. We had to drive to Colombo so that Elizabeth and Wendy could catch their flight back to the US, and I wanted to join them to make sure they made it without any problems. It was a national holiday (surprise, surprise…), but it still took over three hours to make it to Colombo. Once in the city, we stopped by Barefoot, a popular cafe and shop among westerners. I again indulged in some non-Sri Lankan cuisine (like I would pass up a quiche anyway), and Elizabeth and Wendy shopped for some last-minute souvenirs after lunch. We took the same taxi to our hotel closer to the airport (about an hour away), where I booked a room for the night and Elizabeth and Wendy took a shower before their long journey ahead. We discussed last-minute plans, and both Elizabeth and Wendy offered words of encouragement. It was sort of a surreal moment. In July 2017, the three of us were in the same hotel (in a nearly identical room), reflecting on a week-long trip to scout out potential field sites. Back then, we sat in a circle discussing strategies to fund our grand plans for the project. At this point, we hadn’t really begun our grant search, and I hadn’t even begun my application for a Fulbright fellowship. It is amazing that we’ve made it this far less than a year-and-a-half later, and I’m humbled with the support we’ve received to carry out our work. I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in this position.

We said our goodbyes as the two of them got into their airport shuttle (I didn’t tear up, I promise), and I got a quick dinner at my own hotel. Because the Colombo airport isn’t actually in Colombo (like I mentioned earlier, it’s about an hour outside of downtown), I would have to wake up at 3:30am the next morning to get a ride to the Colombo train station on time. A 5:45am train ride sounded like such a good idea at the time…at least I was tired enough to nap a bit on the train. And this train was faster than the one I took earlier because it didn’t hit most of the more minor stops along the way from Colombo to Anuradhapura. There was even air conditioning! Still a bit groggy, I caught a tuk to run a few errands before doing laundry back at the Elephant Center. I caught lunch with Rajnish and another lecturer at our usual spot in Mihintale, then caught up on emails and work back at the university. I’m writing this update at the end of that day (16 January), as I’ll be heading to elephant land tomorrow morning for a few weeks.

More elephant stories ahead!