The amazing elephant orphanage of Sri Lanka

ElephantIt’s bad enough at children’s bath time, telling the little darlings to desist from displacing the water all over the walls and floor. Imagine trying to bring order to 20 baby elephants as they gambol towards a river for their daily session of splash ’n’ squirt at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

It certainly makes for an impressive sight as the little ones roll around in the water while the adults spray each other and have their tummies tickled. The elephants that is, not the spectators.

Each day the wrinkly-skinned creatures are led by their handlers in a great lolloping procession to the Maha Oya river for their session of aqua-fun in what must rate as one of the most uplifting few hours a visitor can spend in Sri Lanka. At any time there are some 80 elephants being looked after at the orphanage, which was established in 1972 to nurse and house those abandoned by their mothers.

Because there’s not much food that the elephants can gather on their own, visitors are encouraged to feed them, with milk for the babies under three years old and heaps of green stuff for the grown-ups (and boy, do they pack it away – each adult can eat around 550 lb of jackfruit, coconut and sugar palm a day). The elephant looms large in Sri Lanka’s history.

For much of the country’s past, the majestic animals have been seen as symbols of power while being pliable servants. Under Dutch rule of the island they carved out the canals while, under the British, they cleared the jungles for tea plantations.

Sadly, the Edwardian British were later to regard the elephant as destructive pests and began shooting them in big-game hunts, at one point reducing the population from 30,000 to 15. Although it’s only the same size as Ireland, serendipitous Sri Lanka is home to an incredible variety of wildlife, from crocodiles to leopards.

Spotting them is just one of the many reasons why increasing numbers are taking the 10-hour flight to this fascinating island between India and the Maldives. The biggest reason Sri Lanka is booming is that it’s finally reaping the peace dividend.

When its 26-year civil war ended in 2009, a huge modernisation programme was launched, upgrading the roads, restoring neglected colonial buildings and opening a swathe of new hotels. Even the capital Colombo, once a chaotic nightmare, has now undergone restoration with swish new hotels and the cultivation of lush parks.

But while I criss-crossed the island in just five days, visitors should set aside enough time to see just what this fascinating destination has to offer. Allow at least a week to discover the interior (where there are no fewer than eight Unesco-listed sites) before relaxing on one of the many glorious beaches on the south coast.

Hiring a driver who doubles as a guide will cost around £120 for a week and is absolutely worth it. You need one just to negotiate your way through the dogs and tuk-tuks that lurch on to the roads.

One of the first great sights that my guide, an insightful man (and a cricket expert) called Garmini, delivered me to was Kandy, a sprawling town set on a giant lake, surrounded by hills thick with tea plantations. Much of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was shot in the nearby jungle.

But it’s for another holy place that Kandy is better known. The Temple of the Tooth is a hallowed Buddhist site to which pilgrims flock to see the golden casket in which lies the tooth said to have been snatched from Lord Buddha’s funeral pyre.

Inside the extraordinary temple, families offer alms to the monks and inspect frescoed walls depicting Buddha in his 550 incarnations. The island may have had its troubles but its people, with their smiling faces and gentle humour, are simply happy to see tourists return and expect many more in the future. So go now. (Express)

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