Sri Lanka – Ella to Udawalawe

We had heard the stories of the beautiful landscapes that awaited our gaze on the train ride between Kandy and Ella. They did not disappoint. Yes there are other ways of navigating your way from Kandy to Ella, but we cannot recommend the train ride enough.

Missed our previous Colombo & Kandy blog post? Read it here

It was a long ride at around 6 hours but the views entertained us the entire distance.

The view from our seats on the train

🚆Kandy to Ella Tip: We booked our train tickets two days before our departure. We were lucky to get 3rd class reserved tickets. 3rd class reserved was not the most comfortable and does not have A/C. However, you can open the windows and enjoy the cool mountain breeze flowing into the carriage. 3rd class reserved tickets go for 400rs/person.

Once we arrived in Ella, we walked into town and found our accommodation, White House Ella. We had booked the more expensive double room with balcony. The room was a little awkward, as the bed was kind of just placed in the center of the room, and the bathroom unfortunately developed a pungent smell every morning. We peeked into the basic double room and it was actually much nicer than ours. Go figure. If you ever choose to stay here, book the basic double room on the second floor.

On our first night, we relaxed and had our first authentic Sri Lankan curry and rice dinner at Jade Green. It was very delicious but a little more expensive by Sri Lankan standards.

Curry and Rice at Jade Green, Ella

For our first day in Ella, we decided to hike Little Adam’s Peak and then walk down to the 9 Arch Bridge. The hike up to Little Adam’s Peak barely qualifies as a hike. We both enjoy hiking a lot so for us, a ‘short walk’ would better reflect the amount of effort required to reach the summit. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the top from our hotel room. The peak provides beautiful views of Ella Rock, Ella town and the surrounding country. After Little Adam’s Peak, we stuck in the 9 Arch Bridge into Google Maps and made our way down a very steep, muddy and narrow path to the railway tracks which we walked along until we found ourselves standing on the bridge. Again, the views were very pretty.

Little Adam’s Peak
9 Arch Bridge

On the second day, we hiked Ella Rock. Our accommodation had given us a sketched out map of how to get there. Get directions from your accommodation before you start this hike. There is a shortcut to the railway tracks instead of having to walk to the train station. Word of warning, do not follow ANY signs that say Ella Rock. These signs have been made by the locals to get you to their place of business. Also, don’t let any locals tell you that you are going the wrong way. They are just trying to sell their services as a guide. There is actually a group of them and they hang out in an area right before Kitalella Station. They are going to tell you to turn down a path near them and that you are walking the wrong way. You are not! Politely say no thank you and continue on you way. Once at the top of Ella Rock, the views are amazing and totally worth the hot, sweaty and humid hike up. We left our hotel at 9am and got back at 1pm so it took us 4 hours. Bring water and a light snack for the top while you soak up the views.

Hiking Ella Rock

The next day we departed for Udawalawe national park.

🚆🚍Ella to Udawalawe Tip: You will need to take two buses. Firstly, the Bandarawela – Wellawaya bus. This bus passes through Ella but we read that it is usually full by the time it arrives in Ella. We took the train to Bandarawela in order to guarantee seats. Once in Wellawaya, you will need to get a Colombo bus that stops in Udawalawe. To say this bus was full is an understatement. In an aisle way designed for a single file line, they pushed in to fit as many as 3 wide. We were crammed like sardines in a bus blaring Bollywood pop. The bus flew down the roads, swerving left and right as we hung on for dear life trying not to let our sweat drip on the person below us. Uncomfortable, to say the very least. On the plus side, the train and bus tickets were extremely cheap.

Once we arrived in Udawalawe, we walked over to our hotel, Sanrik Holiday Bungalows. The hotel was simple and the room was basic with A/C and an a TV. We had originally booked two nights but decided to only stay 1 for 2 reasons. Firstly, the surrounding town was tiny. There is not much going on in Udawalawe town at all. It has only a few basic restaurants and zero night life. Secondly, we decided to do the half day safari which started at 5:45am. We were told that we would be back at 9am for breakfast so we decided that there was no real reason to hang around for the rest of the day. So, we decided to pack and make tracks after breakfast.

Back to the main event in Udawalawe, the safari. Firstly, like all other national parks in Sri Lanka, the tourist/foreigner entrance fee is day light robbery. We arranged our safari 4×4 and driver through our hotel. The cost for the vehicle and driver was 4000rs/25USD. But wait, there’s more. Not only did we have to hire the car and driver, we also had to pay the foreigner entrance fee, a local entrance fee for the driver, a vehicle entrance fee and a service fee (even though we received no service from the park besides a receipt). How much did this come to you ask? 7151.85rs/45.25USD. That totalled up to 70.25USD with the 4×4 cost.

Our Udawalawe Park receipt

You might very well say that by western standards it’s not that much so why fuss? Well, again, for two reasons. Firstly, the discriminatory prices that foreigners pay. A local pays 60rs/0.38USD park entrance fee where as all foreigners pay 2332.50rs/14.75USD. This really got under our skin. It was so blatant that they even included it on our itemized receipt. Secondly, prices in Sri Lanka are cheap. You can get a rice and curry meal, which usually includes pappadams, coconut rotis, rice and 3 – 5 curries for around 400rs/4.5USD. This meal usually is big enough that it feeds both of us until we can’t eat until the next day. So why are the national park fees so damn expensive?? If you are a vacationer, it’s probably no biggy. As backpackers, it really cut deep into our budget.

Safari at Udawalawe National Park

The safari was ok. The landscape had some spectacular views. We were really hoping to see leopards but we weren’t so lucky that day. Perhaps due to the fact that it felt as if we were on a 4×4 rally championship with many other 4x4s all over the roads instead of a quiet, calm and secluded safari. I am sure the noise of all the black-smoke-puffing-diesel engines kept the leopards at bay. What we did see was water buffalo by the hundreds, a fair amount of elephant, many different birds and a few baby mugger crocodiles. Our driver really seemed to enjoy watching the buffalo to the point that we had to tap on the roof of the cab to signal it was time to explore further. I think that service fee that we paid was too cover the cost of our non-existent tour guide as we soon realised that we were one of the only 4x4s without one. Instead we had a buffulo-obsessed-breakfast-munching driver who found any excuse to stop the 4×4. He even stopped the car and killed the engine so we could stare at an old tree for 5 minutes. To make things even worse, he tossed us a book of Udawalawe Wildlife during the safari. Needless to say, we weren’t too impressed. The elephants were a wonderful sight but it definitely didn’t feel like it was worth what we paid. We have had better safari experiences in South Africa and Malaysia Borneo.

Now, to be perfectly frank, if you plan on traveling Sri Lanka for a while we have some advice. HOLD OFF on doing a safari until you come to the end of your time in Sri Lanka. You will see many wild elephants on the road between Tangalle and Arugam Bay. You will see wild buffalo, peacocks and birds everywhere. If, by the end of your time in Sri Lanka, you still haven’t seen as much wildlife as you were hoping for then hop on the overpriced safari bandwagon. Wilipattu, Udawalawe or Yala will provide similar experiences.

Our driver returned us to our hotel where we grabbed a bite to eat, packed our bags and said goodbye to Udawalawe. Next up was Tangalle!

Continue with us to Tangalle and Arugam Bay

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3 thoughts on “Sri Lanka – Ella to Udawalawe

  1. Great post and fabulous photos of beautiful Ella. I agree with your comments about the exorbitant price of the parks and the safaris. We had such great previous experiences in southern Africa so we were hesitant about doing a safari in Sri Lanka. We ended up going to Bundala NP. It was pretty good (the birds were awesome), but really expensive and as expected, it fell far short of our Africa experience.


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