Feb 16, 2012
After our good and scenic rest at Ella, we took off further south to Tissamaharama – Tissa in short – our base for exploring Yala National Park. A former capital of Sinhalese Kingdom of Ruhuna, today it is a town running close along the man-made lake Tissa Wewa (which dated back to the time when the kingdom was present), with businesses lining the main street and otherwise surrounded by (burnt) paddy fields.
We have opted for a late afternoon/early evening safari at Yala National Park but considering we arrived at Tissa quite early, Claire and I decided to explore the main street by foot after we checked in to a hotel at the edge of the town. As we walked, we were reminded that we were no longer in the hill countries. We definitely felt the heat of the late morning sun.
It took us a good 20-25 minutes walk to reach the main street, passing a couple of bathers at Tissa Wewa (oh people here seemed to bathe rather openly, in lakes, rivers and at waterfalls) and the Tissa Maha Dagoba of Solosmasthana – also called Santagiri – one of the most sacred sites for Buddhist pilgrimage on the island. The dagoba which houses relics of a sacred tooth and a forehead bone stands majestically at just over 55m in height, and has a circumference of 165m. Against the background of flat paddy fields, it looked most impressive indeed.
The town itself was not quite as interesting as we thought it’d be. It was bustling with people and traffic alike, but we can’t seem to locate a good place where we can grab some lunch without risking getting upset stomach. Most eateries which we went past were empty of customers and in any case, the food was left out openly in the heat (no fan spotted anywhere), making us a bit weary if we should enter or not.
We didn’t, and for that we paid dearly too for a couple of sandwiches at our hotel. The hotel itself, while clean and comfortable, was as dead as a doornail. (If anyone’s looking for a location for a horror/slasher hotel movie, this is it! It even has a pool perfect for the scene with a floating body…) It took about an hour for two chicken and cheese sandwiches to be prepared, and horrifyingly, they were just plain sandwiches with half of each sandwich filling being thick slabs of margarine. We didn’t think the total amount of the shredded chicken scraped out from both sandwiches could even make half a chicken breast. The cheese was, well, sliced Kraft cheddar cheese variety. Still, since it was a hotel restaurant service, we were expected to pay the price accordingly. Worst meal of the trip and most expensive crappy sandwich ever. Never again.
At last an open jeep came along to pick us up for the safari. From various guides and notes, we’ve learned that we should not expect a safari to the tune like those of Africa. Fair enough. We also could not visit the national park unless we did it with approved vehicle, so we hired a jeep. It felt a tad too extravagant for us to hire an entire jeep just for ourselves plus our driver, but we had no way of coordinating jeep sharing with other tourists either as there were no one else staying where we were. In fact, we were sure we were the only guests there that day…
It was great though to have wind blowing on our faces while watching the countryside we were passing by. Soon we were trailing red earth untarred roads before quickly coming to the ticketing building of the national park. More money forked out, this time for individual entry tickets as well as vehicle charge and an official guide. After paying for the tickets accordingly (15 USD each for us foreigners, 120 LKR for both our regular and the safari drivers, 250 LKR and 900 LKR for the jeep and the guide, plus VAT of 557.40 LKR), we were off. With only five people on the jeep, ah sure plenty of space for everyone.
We zipped along various natural paths of the national park, encountering other jeeps of tourists every now and then (and hey, that was the couple from our hotel in Ella in the other jeep!) and constantly keeping an eye out for interesting animals and birds alike. I was personally rubbish at seeing camouflaged animals in the undergrowth etc but luckily we had a good guide and everyone else seemed adept at finding them and pointed them out to me. Oh well…
From smaller animals such as birds, peacocks and peahens, to larger mammals such as wild boars, monkeys, deers, buffaloes and elephants, to the elusive such as snow leopards, it was rather magical for an afternoon. The tricky part was when all the jeeps congregated and jammed up a spot when certain animals were spotted (especially where the snow leopards were sighted) – as there were way too many jeeps (and sadly most are barely filled, like ours) some people were bound to not see much, others couldn’t get in/out to let others share the sighting, etc. I also wished I had a kicked-ass camera during leopard sighting – it came out miniscule when viewed on full size but at least it’s still visible. Looking by naked eyes there and then without help of binoculars was near to impossible! Thank you 14x-optical-zoom-on-compact-camera.
The jeep safari is obviously a very popular activity in the region, and lucrative for the operators when visitors are split into small groups rather than jeep sharing – the jeep hire cost is normally per jeep, not per number of passengers – and without a limit in the number of jeeps entering the national park by the authority, it does raise the questions of ecological impacts (too much noise, disturbances of animal spots, etc) and resources wasted (fuel for each jeep) as well as sustainability for this form of tourism.
In the past, the park was also usually closed during the dry season (which incidentally, included September, which was the month when we visited) but in the last 2-3 years, the park has remained opened throughout the year and instead brought water in to fill the lakes for drinking waters to the animals. Again, the question of sustainability arises.
After some 3 hours at the park, we ended up at the beach of Patanangala for a little walk and to stretch our legs after being confined to the jeep throughout the safari. Here, a structure erected, marking the height of waves that hit Yala directly during 2004 tsunami brought back a somber reminder of the strength that natural destruction could bring.
This was also the first time we saw the coastline of Sri Lanka since the start of our roadtrip. From this point on there would be more coasts and water in the horizon, replacing the hills and mountains that we’ve got rather accustomed to, as we made our way from Tissa to Galle along the southern coast and from there to Colombo in northward direction. Nearly the beginning of the end, as we have only a couple more days to go before finishing up our roadtrip in the capital of Sri Lanka.
Ps: don’t forget to click through the Flickr links for the full sets of photos from each leg of the trip.
All posts in this series:
Sri Lanka: Ceylonese Tales
Sri Lanka: Trekking Sigiriya | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cave temples of Dambulla | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cultural evening in Kandy | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: We sort of saw Nuwara Eliya… | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Morning hike at Horton Plains | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: A room with a view in Ella | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Tissa, Yala and safari | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The southern coast | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The old fort of Galle | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Roadtrip ended in Colombo | Flickr Photoset