Sri Lanka: It’s a zoo out here!

Hanging out in a 300 year old ebony tree

Zoos are wonderful and frustrating at the same time. It’s awesome to see all the exotic creatures – but the barriers and cages are a drag. Are they content in their enclosures? Maybe. Am I the only one who feels like opening all the doors then standing there with my arms open wide, letting them run, fly, jump, crawl and slither around me?

OK, maybe I am. Nevertheless, I think I have found the next best thing. Sri Lanka.

Getting to Sri Lanka

Getting here from Cyprus was not easy. Some legs of this trip have been nearly as easy as opening a door and walking through. This one was more akin to punching a hole in a wall and building a door out of the scraps. Bus ride to Northern Cyprus, flight to Istanbul, overnight in a hotel, flight to the United Arab Emirates, and finally an overnight connection flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Some people have the enviable superpower to sleep anywhere. We are not those people. By the time we arrived at 4:30am, Eli was literally vomiting from a combination of airsickness and complete exhaustion. Jake was close. We stumbled through the airport, buying our visas, and getting through customs, Eli holding an airplane puke bag the whole time.

The silver lining was that our guest house had arranged airport pick up for us – saving us from having to figure out transportation on arrival. If there was ever a time to splurge on such a luxury, this was it. We were so happy to see a nice man holding a sign saying “Matthew” outside of customs. We followed him outside into the wave of humidity and collapsed into his van for the three hour drive south to Weligama.

Top of the Hill

Our temporary family in Sri Lanka

On our arrival at “Top of the Hill Guesthouse”, we were greeted by the manager, Saman (far right). The property is an oasis of simple buildings carved out of the jungle just a few kilometers outside of town. All around us coconut palms and mango trees form a canopy which seemed to host a whole ecosystem unto itself because the one on the ground was already full.

Peacocks roamed the grounds constantly (did you know they sound a lot like very loud cats?).

Mongoose (mongeese?) would streak the property.

Wingless dragons (land monitors) basked in the sun.

Overhead the branches were alive with personality. Inky black ravens, rose-ringed parakeets, and numerous others. Even the ants were interesting: almost every tree had a globe of leaves carefully knitted together by carnivorous weaver ants. On our second day there, Jake was bitten by one on the foot as he raced out to see the band of purple-faced leaf monkeys that had invaded our yard. Or maybe we were the intruders because the monkeys took to the palm trees and started aiming coconuts at his head! Luckily Jake escaped unharmed and only a little shaken.

One night Owen raced into our bedroom at about 10pm.

rhinoceros beetle

“Something just hit the fan in my room! I thought it was a rock but I think it’s a . . . HUGE BEETLE! . . . and it’s still in there!” He had a look on his face that was 50/50 fear and fascination . . . ok, maybe a little more fear. And as soon as I saw the beast for myself I understood – it really was huge. Almost 2″ long with a horn on its head and strong enough that every time I tried to pick it up it could push my fingers off its smooth black carapace. Eventually, I scooped it into a wooden box we found and snapped a quick picture. Then we closed the lid – which was quite stiff – so that we could get some daylight photos in the morning. No dice – it pushed it open and escaped! Turns out it was a coconut rhinoceros beetle.

Snorkeling with sea turtles

Even though it felt like we were living in a zoo, the natural wonders continued beyond Top of the Hill. On our third day in Sri Lanka we went snorkeling with a few guides from the Weligama Dive Center. One took Eli’s hand and the other took Ben’s. The rest of us followed along, fascinated at the numbers and variety of reef fish, running into a local who was harvesting some to sell to aquarium stores, and then . . . then, the grand finale: a wild green sea turtle!

(I have video of this excursion, but here’s some screen shots)

When it comes to sea turtles, Sri Lanka is pretty special. It is home to five of the world’s seven species – all of which are endangered. Several groups have figured out how to combine conservation and tourism by operating sea turtle sanctuaries. We took one of the crazy local buses (they race each other to the next stop to maximize their fares – which are dirt cheap) to one about 12km west. Not only do the volunteers harvest eggs from the beach to protect them from poaching, but they nurse injured turtles back to health. What an opportunity to see these rare and fascinating creatures up close!

Sri Safari

Mention safari and everyone thinks about Africa. At this point you might not be surprised to hear that Sri Lanka also offers a pretty epic safari experience. And ours was made even better because our new friends, Rita and Tikhon from Russia, joined us!

We left at 5am and traveled two and a half hours north to get to Udawalawa Park. There we transfered to a jeep and entered the park. Within fifteen minutes our driver, Ayush, had located a herd of Asian elephants! These gentle giants are the stars of the park and they didn’t seem to be bothered in the least that our jeep would creep up to within a few metres of them. Up that close we could really appreciate the incredible dexterity of their trunks and, surprisingly, their big, flat feet too. They would step on the woody stems of bushes, loosening the bark, then peel it off with the finger-like appendage at the end of their trunk. Amazing animals.

But there were more than elephants to see at Udawalawa. We also saw crocodiles basking in the sun, water buffalo basking in the water, monkeys eating in the trees, a jackal and many kinds of birds including flying rainbows. Ok, they’re called bee eaters, but they should be called flying rainbows – just look at the picture.

For the entire 9 hour day we paid about $180 for the six of us. That’s value.


The last stop on this Sri Lankan wildlife tour was one that Linds decided to opt out of: the snake farm. Anura, one of the friendly staff at Top of the Hill, crammed me and the four boys into the back of his tuk tuk and drove us about 10km north of Weligama into the countryside. We arrived at what was clearly more of a family residence than farm. Then I looked more closely – the window grilles were shaped like cobras and the garage was lined with cages.

Within minutes a small man – who turned out to be a third generation “snake farmer” – was bringing out snake after snake. He brought pythons and vine snakes and encouraged us to hold them (“Oh yes, they’re very friendly”). The boys spent the next ninety minutes with some kind of snake either in their hands or draped around their necks. At intervals the man would disappear into the garage for a moment and return with a venomous cousin on the end of a one metre metal hook. The most awesome of these were the Indian cobras which would hiss and strike at the man’s feet as he taunted the serpent. He was wearing flip flops. I asked if he’d been bitten.

“Six times.” He didn’t elaborate.

How much? $15 for all five of us.

Final thought

Sri Lanka is bursting with wildlife – so much that it starts changing the way you think about yourself as a human. In Western civilization we’ve largely managed to set ourselves apart from nature. In a place like Sri Lanka, on some level, you feel like just another animal in the zoo.

Our big family packed into one tuk tuk!


  1. Great perspective on life and integration with the world we live in Matt! Think your calling is travel blogs and life advice probably more healing than medicine

    1. You may be right. I’ve had many conversations with many people over the last six months about health care systems – a HUGE topic and these conversations have broadened my perspective to be sure. I would hesitate to give anyone advice about their life (!) but as for little old me, I feel like traveling with my family IS the most important job I can be doing right now.

      I am also genuinely happy to be able to share our travels here.

  2. Matt,
    This is a great post. And the title of the post is perfect!

    I was born in India and left when I was a teenager. I can totally relate to the buses racing to get to the destination, tuk tuk packing as many people as is impossible (“there is always room for you”, they would say) and wildlife roaming around you to show the beautiful harmony between man and animal.

    The boys seem to be so at home with the snakes! It must have been such an exhilarating visit!

    Looking forward to the video, whenever you get a chance 🙂


    1. That’s really cool to hear that you have similar memories of India!

      Eli was quite apprehensive of the snakes at first so I just left him alone. But he deserves a lot of credit for facing the fear and working his way all the way up to holding the 15 pound python all by himself. There was another tourist there – a big Estonian guy – who wouldn’t even get close to it! Definitely exhilarating 🙂

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