The Truth about Udawalawe National Park

Me on safari in Sri Lanka

I heard lots about Udawalawe National Park before I went and discovered the truth for myself. In this blog, I answer the question “is a Udawalawe national park safari worth it?”…and a few others that are probably on your mind!

Seeing elephants is one of those “bucket list things in Sri Lanka.” And for me, seeing some at an elephant orphanage wasn’t going to cut it – I wanted to see WILD elephants.

With limited time (and money) like many travelers, I had to decide where I was going to have my elephant safari experience.

Based on what I heard from other travelers and research I did prior, I decided Udawalawe National Park would be my best bet to see elephants in the wild.

After going on a safari in Udawalawe National Park I discovered that it wasn’t exactly what all of the rumors and blogs said it was – and there are a few things you should know about going on a safari here before you go!

Here is the truth about an Udawalawe National Park safari including important information you should know before you go.

Large male elephant in Udawalawe National Park
a close up of just one of the elephants we saw that day!
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You WILL See Elephants

If you came to see elephants, you are in the right place!

On a safari in Udawalawe National Park, you will undoubtedly see elephants. In fact, chances are that you will see many of them – babies too!

The reason for this?

Udawalawe National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s smaller national parks at only 308.2 km². It is estimated that within this space over 500 elephants live. It’s simple really, a smaller space with a high density of elephants increases your chances at seeing them!

On my safari, we saw tons of elephants. Within minutes of entering the park, I saw a group of about 7 elephants. Then, throughout the safari we saw many more including a mother with two babies (one was very small) as well as large male elephants crossing the road only meters from our jeep!

Any time of year it is pretty much guaranteed you will see elephants on an Udawalawe safari – this is a great reason to visit!

Udawalawe National Park is one of the best places to see elephants
A mother with her two children in the national park

You’ll also see lots of people

The downside to the “elephant guarantee” is that there will be lots of other people too.

I visited Udawalawe only days after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks (which meant there were actually WAY fewer tourists around than normal) but there were still quite a few. We were told that it was quiet, but it didn’t feel that way when all of the jeeps lined up at the entrance gates at 5:30 in the morning.

As you drive into the park there are tons of jeeps everywhere you look. If your guide spots an elephant, or any animal for that matter, chances are the other guides will have too. This creates a traffic jam around the elephants.

Basically, don’t expect a peaceful jeep safari in Udawalawe with just your group and driver. There will likely almost always be another jeep (or 10) nearby fighting for the prime spot to watch the animals.

Crowds of jeaps in Udawalawe National Park
Sometimes we really felt bad for the elephants and think all the guides should undergo training to stop them from being cornered like this one.

The jeep drivers are competitive

The jeep drivers/guides all want you to tip them so they work hard to find you as many animals as possible.

That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t actually.

The drivers all race each other around the park trying to find the animals first to get their group the closest spot. They are all speeding around each other and getting as close to the animals as possible to box other drivers out. It is all very intense to be honest, and feels pretty hectic.

This “competition” and race to get to the animals first is one aspect of the safari in Udawalawe that I didn’t like.

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elephants being followed in Udawalawe National park
This elephant was being followed by around 10 cars and honestly just wanted to getaway!

The “Wild” Elephants

The other thing you should be aware of is that while these elephants are free in the wild, they are almost tame. These elephants have become accustomed to hundreds of jeeps and people around them every day that they don’t react the same as how a regular “wild” elephant would.

The elephants in Udawalawe just go about their business no matter how close the jeeps get or how many of them there are. Eventually, if they get sick of being bothered they will walk off, but for the most part, they seemed unfazed.

While this was good for observing elephants, I couldn’t help but think about how “normal” this way of life has become for the elephants. A real wild elephant would likely walk away immediately from people or cars, or could  get aggressive/curious and approach the people (thus becoming potentially dangerous.)

So, don’t think you’ll be observing elephants in the wild how they would normally be on this safari, these guys are just too used to people!

Fun fact* Did you know 300 people die every year on average from elephant conflicts?! Yes, these guys may seem like gentle giants but in the wild they can be unpredictable and somewhat dangerous.

watching elephants while in our rental tuk tuk in Sri Lanka
Fun fact, this elephant actually attacked me and Bailey as we drove our tuk-tuk through another national park. We found out first hand how dangerous wild elephants are!

But the elephants are amazing

Despite all the chaos and touristic-ness of it all, you can’t deny how amazing elephants are. When I was on the safari I was in awe the entire time at these incredible animals. Observing them from afar or getting right close up, they are incredible!

Seeing elephants on a safari like in Udawalawe is a once in a lifetime experience, and one I’ll always remember.

It isn’t all about the elephants

But enough about elephants…a safari in Sri Lanka isn’t supposed to be ONLY about elephants, right?

When I went on the safari in Udawalawe I also saw water buffalo, monkeys, crocodiles, lizards, a variety of birds, and insects.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by how many other animals we saw on the safari. People had told me that I would ONLY see elephants in Udawalawe, and this wasn’t the case at all.

No leopard though. In fact, you won’t see leopards in Udawalawe. You need to go to Yala National Park or Wilpattu National Park for that.

This is one sacrifice you need to make if you choose to do a safari in Udawalawe. No chance of seeing leopards, but a 100% chance of seeing elephants!

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Water Buffalo in Udawalawe National Park
A Water Buffalo plays in the mud as we watch!

Check out these tours to Udawalawe:

A few other factors to consider when deciding if a  Udawalawe National Park safari is worth it…

The Prices are Confusing

You need to know how much it costs to properly answer the question “is it worth it” – right?

Well, I asked, and asked, AND asked when I was in Udawalawe town to try and figure out how the prices work because it is all very confusing.

We were getting told it would cost us 11,000 rupees for the two of us to join four other people in one jeep (so a full jeep) or it would be 4,000 plus entrance fees for us to get our own jeep…what does this even mean?!

After much research I finally found the answers to break down how the prices work.

First of all, the entrance fees to national parks in Sri Lanka are confusing. There is a fee paid per person, then a fee paid per vehicle, a service fee, and then a tax added on top of all of that.

So basically, if you go in a group your overall total entrance cost is cheaper because you all split the entrance fee for the vehicle, the service fee, and your guides entrance cost between the number of people. Whereas if you go in your own jeep, you must cover the total entrance fees for everything on your own.

mother and bay elephant in Udawalawe National Park
We loved seeing the mothers and babies!

Here are the prices for a Udawalawe Safari broken down:

  • Entrance Fee per person (foreigner) – $15 USD (yes it is officially in USD so depending on the exchange rate the entrance fee (which must be paid in rupees) changes
  • Entrance Fee for a local (your driver) – 60 rupees
  • Service Charge – $8 USD per group (again the exchange rate fluctuates the price in rupees) 1440
  • Jeep fee – 250 rupees
  • VAT (tax ) – 15% of total
  • Jeep and driver rental fee – 4,500 to 5,500 rupees for a half-day safari depending on the company and booking commissions

What this means is that although it seems like it isn’t much more for your own private jeep, it actually is.

I think they make it this confusing for a reason as they get to charge tourists more since nobody can work out the entrance fees.

The cheapest we could find a safari was 5,500 rupees each on a full (6 person) jeep. We estimate getting our own jeep between the two of us would’ve cost us around the 14,000 rupee mark.

It was a bit of a hassle organizing our safari once we arrived in Udawalalwe. In fact, we got really lucky that four people had already booked and we could easily just sneak on a jeep for free. If you don’t want the hassle, I recommend booking your safari online in advance – it saves you time, stress, and potentially money too!

A large lizard in Udawalawe
A massive lizard that at first we thought was a crocodile!

You may get dirty

I think this is true for any safari anywhere. The jeeps have open sides which means you’re exposed to the elements whether that be rain, dust, mud, or anything really! Wear clothing you are okay with to get a little bit dirty.

Plenty of places to Stay in Udawalawe

You can easily go on a day tour from places like Colombo, Galle, Ella, or Hikkaduwa to Udawalawe. In fact, many tour offices will try to sell you this option.

One thing I learned was that on the border of Udawalawe National Park is actually a small town with tons of accommodation to choose from!

I recommend actually going to spend a night or two at Udawalawe town. Not only is it a nice little getaway from the cities, but this way you can choose to do the safari whenever the weather forecast is looking the most favorable.

We stayed two nights in Udawalawe and it was perfect. When arrived and then were able to organize a tour for the next morning. We left for our safari at 5:30 am and returned to our guesthouse around 11 am where they had breakfast waiting for us.

Elephants in Sri Lanka
Watching wild elephants was a very special moment we won’t forget!

That afternoon we visited the elephant transit home (read below for more information on this wonderful place) and then got a good night’s sleep before hitting the road again. We weren’t too rushed and actually had time to enjoy everything.

If you dont want the hassle of organizing a safari when you arive in Udawalawe then book online in advance! This particular safari is really good value and with a repuatale tour operator!

Some great options for places to stay in Udawalawe…

The Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort

For budget travelers:

River Edge Holiday Resort – This small family-run guesthouse offers budget travelers a comfortable room with a fan, breakfast included, wi-fi, and a private bathroom all for $11 USD a night!

A to Family Guesthouse – Another cute family-run guesthouse. These guys really treat their guests special and go above and beyond for them (and they have the reviews to prove it!) Only $13 USD gets you a private room with breakfast included, wi-fi, an ensuite, and a balcony!

Those with a mid-range budget:

Green View Safari Resort – This small hotel offers guests incredible service and private cottages with everything you would need. For less than $50 USD a night, you have your own cottage with air conditioning, wi-fi, breakfast included, and a TV!

Ele Camp Udawalawe – These guys are perfect for families or groups as their large rooms sleep up to four people for only $85 USD! Breakfast is included in the room rate and served at the onsite outdoor restaurant (right next to the pool!)

If you’re looking for a bit of luxury:

Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort – This place in paradise in the jungle! They have a massive pool, beautiful rooms, and gardens that will remind you that you’re on holidays! With an onsite restaurant and bar as well as a kiddie pool it is the perfect vacation getaway for families or couples.

Jungle Paradise – These guys offer luxury at a reasonable price! They have a gorgeous onsite pool and restaurant and offer large rooms with balconies for relaxing. The staff here are also very friendly!

The Elephant Orphanage in Udawalawe

Baby elephants getting fed at the elephant orphanage in Udawalawe
Little babies getting fed!

One of the main reasons you should spend more time in Udawalawe is to visit the elephant orphanage. The elephant orphanage is just on the outskirts of the national park border near some shops and restaurants in town. It is called the Elephant Transit Home.

Here you will find dozens of baby elephants who were orphaned by their mothers!

Every day at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 6 pm they feed the baby elephants and you can watch! This is a really humane way to see baby elephants as you are in a viewing deck from afar. No touching the elephants, no getting close and no interacting so the elephants have as little human contact as possible and will grow up to be able to integrate back into the wild.

To visit costs 500 rupees per person and this fee helps support the orphanage.

I honestly really enjoyed visiting the elephant orphanage and would highly recommend it to anyone.

Udawalawe elephant orphanage
Another baby eating some greens after getting his bottle

Is Udawalawe National Park the best places for a safari in Sri Lanka?

In all honesty, probably not. I would say going to a less touristic place like Minneriya National Park or Kaudulla would be better.

Some people think Yala National Park is much better, but I have heard a lot of mixed reviews on this so there is really no right or wrong answer.

If you are really coming to Sri Lanka for the wildlife then I recommend going on more than one safari anyway, so Udawalawe might as well be one of them!

Check out some other great safaris around Sri Lanka…

Is a trip to Udawalawe National Park Worth it?

YES!

Worth every penny in my opinion. I loved seeing the elephants and other wildlife. Although it wasn’t perfect, it was enjoyable, affordable, and a great safari experience.

If I were you, I would go!

-Bailey

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The truth about Udawalawe National Park