Backpacking around Sri Lanka in two weeks - Yala National Park


Yala National Park and safari

Sri Lanka is well known for its food, culture and stunning scenery as I've written about here, here and here but it is also home to a fascinating array of wildlife and jungle. Being avid wildlife lovers we were keen to see all types of fauna in Sri Lanka and we had always wanted to do a safari so our driver recommended taking us to Yala National Park. This was before we did an African safari so we were unsure what to expect but we had heard it was home to wild elephants, leopard, bears, crocodiles and many other species. 

We didn’t stay on the park but instead at a nearby guest house that was homely and adequate, with a restaurant on site and a pool but with hindsight I would have spent more to upgrade slightly and now there is so much more choice. We had a few hours spare so we decided to explore our surroundings and the most memorable highlight was sitting on the banks of an enormous lake watching the local people washing their clothes and children splashing about and swimming. People stopped in their cars and removed their shoes to cool down in the sweltering heat. It was really nice to observe and just soak up the atmosphere and the friendly smiles and shouts of ‘hey blondie’ showed that we weren’t being too intrusive.

After a swim, a shower and some chill time, we were ravenous and set out in search of food. We decided on visiting Refresh Restaurant and walked the 20 minutes to reach it, whilst enjoying the sun setting. The reviews were right that the portions were hearty, the staff friendly and food tasty. With bellies full of delicious food, we still had so much leftover that it felt wrong to waste it. Our waiter suggested we take a doggy bag with us for later when the inevitable midnight munchies hit. Well, the term doggy bag couldn’t have been more relevant as we set off with our leftover loot. Much like other south east Asian countries, there is a stray dog issue and we encountered many friendly mutts just minding their own business during our stay. However the 20 minute walk back in the dark being followed by a pack of wild, hungry dogs was quite an experience! Needless to say, at the next opportunity we gave the leftovers to a local man, as we weren’t sure whether we should exacerbate the problem by feeding the dogs, and they pretty much stopped following us not long after. As I’ve mentioned before, some infrastructure such as pavements and lighting are not always available, so with hindsight, perhaps taking a taxi at night would have been better.

Bright and early at 4.30am our alarm went off and we crept out into the dark feeling bleary eyed to meet our vehicle that would take us on safari at Yala National Park. It was an open sided 4 x 4 jeep and before we even got to the park we’d experienced the need for speed as it raced along dirt roads to reach the park. On arrival, after sorting out our tickets, we explored the 398 square miles of park. It is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka and home to 44 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds, with some of the most important rain forest and wetlands in the country. Not all of the park is open to the public to allow the animals space to thrive but even in the two blocks that are open there is plenty to see. It apparently has one of the most dense leopard populations in the world.

We whizzed around, hair blowing in the breeze spotting animals hidden and others in plain sight. Snakes are especially plentiful so maybe not ideal for those with a phobia but you are kept nice and safe in the vehicle, with just a few opportunities to get out. We saw one leopard but unfortunately not in close range and a bear up on the ridge. 

My favourite spot that day was driving through the forest and completely by chance stumbling across a herd of wild elephants with two babies in the group. The babies trotted between mum’s legs, using their trunks to sense the world around them while the adults flocked to a watering hole. We were within touching distance of them and sat mesmerised watching for what felt like an eternity. I had seen elephants before then but not in the wild and that made it all the more special as they do behave differently. 

I have since done a South African safari over several days and know much more about these fascinating creatures having seen them amongst their own, but this early experience with wild Asian elephants will always be one of my faves.

We were also taken to the most amazing beach in the Yala Park, which is not open to the public and is often frequented by the animals. We were allowed to get out and stretch our legs along the beach. We sat on the warm sand and dipped our toes into the waves, enjoying the sun and breeze on us. The rangers offered us a snack and a drink and showed us the memorial for the 250 people that lost their lives during the 2006 tsunami. It is very heartbreaking to see the memorial and the space that was once occupied by beach huts, completely washed away by the wave. It really brought home how the country was still very much in recovery since the tsunami, when countries like Thailand were pretty much back to normal when I visited in 2010.

This platform used to have a beach house on it but it was washed away while the family inside it were sleeping, which felt incredibly sad to witness. The below memorial stands proud in memory of all of those lost in tsunami and it is very powerful to sit in the complete peace and stillness of this beautiful location and just remember.


We continued on our safari finding creatures great and small and all in all had a fantastic adventure at Yala. I felt that a day was enough for us as we’d seen a lot but if you were an avid bird watcher or reptile lover, you could spend  a couple of days there. They don’t have the big five of an African safari so it's best to manage your expectations but there is gorgeous scenery around every corner, peace and tranquility, as well as the experience of off roading in 4x4 around the park. As well as elephants, there are many leopards but they are elusive so bring your specs.

Come join next time for the final post on Sri Lanka focusing on Galle, Hikkaduwa and Bentota.


  1. So lovely to read about your visit in Yala National Park. Me and Cez went there some time ago and we loved the experience. What was your favourite animal to capture in pictures :)?

    1. Oh lovely, when did you go? Does it look to have changed much? I loved seeing the elephants - especially the babies. :) It's hard to get good photos of animals I find - they're too quick for my shutter!

  2. Wow! We were there in January! You brought all the amazing memories back! Yay! :-)

    Loved reading (and seeing) this post! *insert100HeartEmojis*

    Lloyd & Yaya

  3. Oh fantastic. Where did you go? It really is a special place. All the better for warm people that live there...and the food (always important!). :)


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