I am staring mesmerized at the little elephant baby. It is tiny, well at least in elephant terms and quite feisty, it seems to know that today is World Elephant Day.
Luckily I am spending the day at the Shangri-La Hambantota in the South of Sri Lanka. It seems a fitting location as there are elephants everywhere in the hotel and it is not far from the famous Udawalawe National Park and the Elephant Transit Home. I am here to explore the hotel and see elephants in the wild.
Sri Lanka is the perfect destination for fans of wildlife and especially great for spotting elephants in one of the many national parks. While all over Southeast Asia there is an ongoing discussion as to what parks and conservation programs are actually ethical and have the elephants best interest at heart, at Udawalawe it is quite simple. The elephants are free to roam but luckily there are enough so you will have almost guaranteed elephant sightings.
“In Udawalawe you will see an elephant in under two minutes,” my guide from Ayu in the Wild promises me. And in fact, it only takes thirty seconds before we come across two mothers and their little ones – the day is off to a good start. It is only the beginning and after ten minutes I stop counting how many I have seen.
After seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild, I head over to the adjacent Elephant Transit Home. This is an orphanage where little babies are raised until they are ready to be taken to the wild again. At noon there is feeding time and a huge group of elephants in various stages of adolescence are fed.
Visitors can watch from a viewing platform but not come close or touch. Any human contact with the elephants is minimized here so they are not getting too used to two-legged friends. While I am itching to get closer it is an initiative I can wholeheartedly agree to.
The Shangri-La is an hour’s drive away from Udawalawe and spread along the beautiful wild coastline. The grounds are huge, taking away from a typical resort feeling and offering something for everyone. Pools for adults only and for kids, a beautiful golf course, a gym, a craft village and a whole lot of palm trees with cozy swinging nests. Enough space for families and people like me who prefer peace, quiet and elephants.
Especially the latter is very dear to the hotel as they hosted Elephant R.U.N. (Reuse + Upcycle = New Art) in 2015. It was a design competition for local artists and meant to show how conservation and art can go hand-in-hand. The artists created elephant sculptures made only from discarded materials. It was done to create awareness of the dangers the Asian elephant faces such as elephant-human conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation, and illegal hunting.
All sculptures, big and small, are still on display throughout the hotel and make for a thought-provoking yet charming decoration.
Incorporating local experiences are an important part of all aspects of the hotel. Instead of just a regular gift shop, you will find an entire craft village in the garden. Here local craftsmen and artists show you how traditional Sri Lankan handicrafts are made and you can buy directly from them.
Unfortunately, my suitcase is already full to the brim and I still have a few months on the road ahead of me. So I focus my attention on another important aspect of Sri Lankan life that you can experience here: Ayurveda.
The Chi spa is as beautiful and serene as they come but the treatments here are extra special. You don’t just get a massage or a facial but a consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner before. Depending on the outcome of this consultation your treatment will be customized to your needs. In my case, that means lots of oil with my deep tissue massage to get my chi flowing.
With the trip I have had, not only my body needs some re-energizing but also my mind. Flowing is followed by flying because during my site inspection I discover Shangri-La’s very own trapeze, and while it is located in the kids’ section of the hotel, adults are allowed too. In a moment of
stupidity bravery, I have committed to giving it a go because what could be better than to start the morning with a proper adrenalin kick? If Carrie Bradshaw can so can I – and eventually I hold on tightly and step off the ledge with a howl.
While the little 8-year old who goes after me puts me to shame with her bravery and I am still shaking once I am safely back on the ground, I am also pretty pleased with myself. Honestly, if you can just let go once in a while, you can do anything!
If trapeze classes, doing laps in a beautiful infinity pool and 2000 palm trees aren’t enough, you can always explore the surroundings. Godawaya, a small fishing hamlet is just down the beach and comes with a fascinating history.
The village itself is sleepy but you can still see fishermen going after their daily business. And while you can’t tell anymore that this used to be a bustling port town on the maritime silk route in the 2nd century the views are still well worth the trip. Make sure to take a picnic and recharge your camera before you go!
From here you can get to the mouth of the Walawe river and get up close with some wild piglets if you are lucky (I didn’t as the water was too deep to cross). Godawaya is also home to five marine turtle species all threatened by extinction and the beach one of the best Leatherback nesting areas.
Those more interested in history can head to the adjacent temple. The temple was the religious and administrative center as old tax records prove. I am more interested in the puppy family that lives here as well as the cricket game that is happening next to the temple. Whatever strikes your interest, I recommend taking a stroll through the village back to the hotel or use my favorite Sri Lankan mode of transport: a tuk-tuk.
After an Asian, street-food inspired dinner I return to my room which faces the ocean. While I cannot enjoy the view any more I decide to sleep with my door open to get a sea breeze in. The waves are almost too loud but eventually, I fall asleep. And befitting for the day – I dream of elephants.
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Thank you for making World Elephant Day so memorable and for hosting me, Shangri-La!