Friday, October 21, 2011

(Travelogue) Visiting the Elephant Sanctury in Pinnawala: Oriental Outings Day 18

March 18, 2011

A view inside the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Today was one of the main highlights of our three weeks Oriental Outings when we visited Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a place where baby elephants who have lost their parents are brought from the widespread tropical jungles and taken care of in a (close to) natural milieu. Visiting the orphanage was a treat indeed! Tops mozumbus’ list of Must Dos in Sri Lanka.

Three hours bus (plus tuk-tuk)  journey to the sanctuary was not that comfortable, however, completely worth it, more so as it saved us the exorbitant cost of hiring a private car, thanks to Dharsana – our host – who is an encyclopedia when it comes to traveling around Colombo and beyond using public transport!

The day ended with excited us wandering around the capital city to fetch the match ticket, which we already booked online for tomorrow’s Pakistan – Australia World Cup encounter, only to know that the pass will be available from the office of Sri Lankan Cricket Board the next morning!

Animal Kingdom
The Elephant Family

Elephant Family in Focus

Wandering Alone

The Scenery
It was awe-inspiring when we entered the arena, which was a wide bank of the slow flowing river with green jungles in the background, after completing entrance formalities (see below for ticketing details). A horde of elephants, a few dozens if one could count, of all sizes were busy in enjoying the river bath.
No Restrictions

Roaming Free

The Prohat

Posing for Camera
Most importantly, there was no restriction on visitors, and on elephants for that matter, as both can mingle up without a pinch of fear! A live demonstration of human-animal brotherhood!! The environment was authentic and much better than the artificial setting in a typical metropolitan zoo. 
The Radar

A wedding ceremony was also going on in the adjacent Hotel Elephant Bay! The couple must be an avid nature lover to select this unique side for wedding! Nonetheless, elephant is a good luck symbol in Lankan society and the national emblem of the island country.

Moms are Always Possessive!
Cute Baby

Bathing Lesson

Practice Session

Feeling Safe
While the gigantic creatures were roaming around carelessly, the spectators were more attracted towards the miniature type. There were a handful of cute babies also some of which had been born there as a result of affairs between grown up orphans!!

Their mothers were all possessive, sensing that people are interested in their babies they were trying to hide them among the horde especially when one attempts to make a snap! Melancholic memories of their childhood might have made them overprotective, and rightly so, as they did not want their kids to go through the pain they passed through. Elephants have emotions too, and at times more unworldly than we humans have!

Busy in focusing one of the babies too closely, I got too captivated and could not notice that a mammoth object is coming our way depriving us the already little space on a fragile river stone. For the next few moments I couldn’t see anything around except for gigantic brown structures with pillar sized feet and fan looking ears!

Thankfully the big one passed by smoothly without committing any mistake, slightest of which would have been very expensive for me. Soon I managed to peek between elephants to see Urooba safe and sound who was also hanging Misha in the baby carrier worried about trapped me.

Busy Bees
I've Got the Pipe

I Can Stand on it

And Then Slip!!
Having a Quick Massage

Diving in
That was like a big elephant party, all of them looked happy and careless, some busy in playing with the mud, some pushing each other, a naughty one even got a steel pipe and was trying to balance itself on that, while one another found a tree trunk and was using that for quick massage!
Some Busy in the Mud Bath

Having Some Good Time
Their response to people was also friendly and natural, while making on-demand poses and accepting bananas with gratitude, they were not looking nervous, although people did! After a couple of hours I was guessing who the spectator was, them or we!?

Happy Misha
Misha Having Fun

She Can Spot the Baby Too!

Will We Come Again Here??

She Slept Finally
The best thing for us was that Misha had an interest in the happening. She could even differentiate and point out the calves. From then, she can recognize an ‘elephant’ and gets excited while showing the picture album of our trip!

There Were Stories Too
War is Bad, Even for Elephants

I'm Fit!
An elephant that lost one of its legs due to mine explosion – a consequence of the civil war between the Sinhalese army and Tamil fighters – got special attention. He was found wounded in the war zone and then brought to the orphanage where he has grown up now healthy and strong! There was a pregnant mother also. She got tired and took support from the fence where we were standing to have a rest before she could go back to her abode.
One With Chain

And This is Why it is so!
On the other side of the road a young couple was busy in having romance. That was genuine and innocent! An angry one was causing some nuisance as he started fighting and pushing as soon as some other fellow came closer to it. Unfortunately, he was chained with one of his legs.
A Romantic Couple!
It was soothing to watch them so we spent quite some time first in the river facing balcony of the adjacent hotel and then on the other side of the road where elephants reside.

Logistics for Independent Travelers
Colombo-Kandy Highway

On the Way
Collecting Fares

Inside the Bus

Please Read!
We visited the Elephant Orphanage as a day trip from Colombo using public transport and found that doable, however, with a mild level of discomfort, which off-set with the savings we made over hiring a private car. A private car may cost around LKR 7000-1000 while we did that for LKR 1000.

First we made it to the Fort Bus Station, adjacent to the Train Station, from where intercity buses originate. For Pinnawala, it is Bus Route # 1 which runs between Colombo-Kandy. There are two types of buses for the same route; the big one was cheap but without AC and hence not recommended unless one is on a shoe-string budget. The other one charges a bit high (LKR 210 per person then) but it is more comfortable, coaster style, with functional AC. Recommended.

Alight at Pinnawala junction on Colombo-Kandy highway. Inform about your plan beforehand to the bus conductor, who will also collect fares from passengers, to avoid any confusion. From the junction you can take the inexpensive local bus to the orphanage or haggle with one of the tuk-tuks standing there. We opted for the later to save some time and paid LKR 100 after a bit negotiation. From the junction to the orphanage it is a pretty straight forward and a scenic journey.
Pinnwala Junction on Colombo-Kandy Highway
On the way back, we first took the local bus from the orphanage back to the Colombo-Kandy highway where we waited for the bus to Colombo. Rather than waiting for the AC coaster we took the bus that arrived first. And that was a mistake as it was too uncomfortable, slow, and hot! So better wait there and aboard the AC coaster.

In case you are flying into Sri Lanka and want to visit the Elephant Orphanage first thing, then there is no need to go to Colombo first, as the airport is ~40 km away from Colombo city and there are direct transportation options to Pinnawala/Kandy from the nearby town of Negombo.

King Coconuts!

Good One
In any case, don’t forget to drink refreshing coconuts while on the go, especially the yellowish golden king coconuts, from roadside vendors. It’s quite a deal for LKR 30-40 to make up for the lost energy due to tropical heat. For the same price, you can have the pulp of the coconut, just ask the vendor who will not only break the fruit into two but will also make a spoon for you from the fruit skin!

Tuk-Tuk Trap
The tuk-tuk we rode from the junction first took us to a private setup, located on the same road, and was marked as ‘Elephant Safari’. Beware, this is a trap! It was only the rip-off entrance fee of LKR 6,500 that cast a doubt in my mind. A kind passerby also confirmed that it was not the place we were looking for. I shouted at the young tuk-tuk driver who then asked blatantly for another LKR 100 which I obviously turned down and asked him to either took us to the real place without charging a single extra penny or face the (unknown) consequences!

Of Ticket, Money, and Discount!
First Buy the Ticket

Ticket Counter


Normal entrance fee for foreigners is LKR 2000 per person while there is a discount for SAARC nationals, which I was unaware of until I exchanged the USD for LKR from the Ceylon Bank’s branch located inside the vicinity. Timely information by the decent looking lady bank manager and presence of one tattered copy of Urooba’s passport in the daypack saved us another LKR 3000! As far the bank was concerned, the exchange rate was comparable to what I got earlier from outside the airport, 3% off from what quoted on the internet, a fair case I guess.
Bank of Ceylon
Souvenir Shopping
We also bought a wooden elephant from one of the many souvenir shops outside. Haggling is the law; we got our choice for LKR 2000 down from 3000! There was a shop also which claimed that they use elephant dung only for paper making. The idea was appealing however prices were ridiculously high, maybe to exploit the awareness among tourists regarding environment and tree cutting! 

So that is the end of another enthralling day with only one day left before our departure back to home!

Monday, October 10, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 17: From Kuala Lumpur's LRT to Colombo's Tuk-Tuk

Thursday, March 17, 2011
Kuala Lumpur International Airport
It was even before dawn when we left Umair’s home. We had to catch the morning flight to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The challenge was to make it through public transport, i.e. without using a taxi, first from Wangsa Maju to KL Sentral, from where the airport bus/train leaves, through LRT and then to the airport by bus. And that proved to be quite a challenge!
Yet to open: Wansga Maju LRT station

Peeking into it

Another guy waiting

Finally it opened
Morning Walk
We were among the first ones to enter into Wangsa Maju LRT station – as soon as it opened around 6 –after a long walk from Umair’s apartment to the train station. The otherwise easy stroll turned into a strenuous morning exercise partly because of the slope and mainly because of the added luggage, an obvious consequence of yesterday’s shopping!
Long walk

The porter!
(70 km out of) KL-International Airport!
By the time we reached the ticket kiosk outside KL Sentral, the 6:30 skybus had already departed. The next bus had to leave at 7. Keeping in view that KLIA is ~ 70 km away from KL city center; we were left with a thin margin for the 9:10 international flight! With little choice, I started looking for a cab. While I was haggling with one of the taxis, Urooba screamed standing outside the ticket booth!

What I could see from the road that the bus kiosk is surrounded by 4-5 men with Urooba waving her hands crazily. I hurried back only to know that the bus company had decided to operate another bus at 6:45! Good news!

Business Secrets
On the way to the airport, I was pondering why the company bothered to run another bus for 7-8 commuters, maybe to cut on the tax business? More importantly, Urooba’s alertness saved us some decent money and the self-pledge to not using a taxi during the trip.
(Outside) Colombo Airport
The usual one hour journey took only 45 minutes because of the off-peak hours. So we managed to make it to Sri Lankan Airlines counter around 7:45! Rest of the journey – till Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo – was uneventful except that we gained a few hours because of the change in the time zone.
Ask for the front seat

And give the baby some comfort
Getting Connected
Immigration at Colombo airport was swift and within half an hour we were out of the airport. First, I purchased some local currency from one of the bank booths outside the arrival area. Rate was decent and the service was quick. There were also a couple of stall selling prepaid mobile cards. But that was more of a tourist trap because of the exorbitant price; LKR 2,000! The actual price of the SIM was ~50-100 and the rest was the credit in the chip which was too much for our 3 nights stay. So I postponed that until we reach to the town.
Landing at Colmobo Airport
Local Experience
From the airport we had to make it to Pita Kotte, a neighborhood in Colombo, where we would stay with a Sinhalese Buddhist family for the next couple of days.

Do As Locals Do
Encouraged from the morning experience, we decided to give the public transport another try! First we took the old white bus, which they call airport shuttle, to the airport bus depot where we transferred to the coaster style bus heading towards Pettah, the main transport junction of Colombo. Airport shuttle was free of cost while we paid LKR 400 for the air-conditioned coaster, much higher than what they charge from locals. The higher bus fare also accounted for our luggage which was occupying another seat! Anyhow, that was not a big deal for the one hour – ~ 35km – journey.

Saddar, Saddar!!
It was around noon when we reached Pettah, the open-air KL Sentral of Colombo! The ambiance was much like Saddar, the busy transportation hub of Karachi. We tried to catch a public bus to our destination, Pita Kotte, but none of the buses stopped for us mainly due to the baggage!

Of Tuk-Tuks!
Amid the heat and the humidity, and with the empty stomach, we had no choice but to give up our no-taxi solemn oath! With the support of a local guy, who was waiting for his bus, we struck a deal with one of the tuk-tuks for LKR 600! The price included all the luggage plus two enroute stops, one for the meal and the other for the mobile SIM!

The rickshaw driver kept on increasing the fare, citing different reasons, from prolonged enroute stops to the ambiguity in the address. By the time we reached our destination, near Ananda Balika Mawatha, means Girls College, the quote had gone up to LKR 1300! We felt a bit generous on making it safe and sound and settled that for 900!

It was a tough day today but that gave us an authentic feel of the city and the courage to use public buses in the coming days.  

Meeting Dharsana
Dahrsana, our host, gave us a warm welcome and helped us in settling our luggage in the lounge. I had an introductory chitchat with Dharsana, who now works as a freelance cartoonist and journalist, while we had our meal. Unfortunately, we could not meet his wife, Chinta, as she was abroad for a work related assignment.

Though it was not too late for us to go out, but since it was already a long day, we settled for an easy amble around Pita Kotte.

Whats Tomorrow?
Before calling it a day, Dharsana shared with us the photographs of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, which he visited with a surfer recently, and some valuable tips to visit the place within budget.