Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka

Gal Oya National Park is the perfect place to see elephants responsibly in Sri Lanka.

A while ago I wrote a post about responsible tourism and the use of animals in tourist attractions. I feel that, as a travel blogger, I have a duty to influence people to travel in a way that is more respectful of the cultures of the countries we are visiting, of their nature, and also of their animals.

Unfortunately, too many people still think there is no harm in riding an elephant; no harm in tipping a snake charmer; no harm in swimming with whale sharks – as long as they are out in the sea – and so on.

Sri Lanka
A chained elephant used for Buddhist celebrations at a temple near Kandy

The Use Of Animals In Tourist Attractions In Sri Lanka

When I decided to visit Sri Lanka, I knew I would find myself in situations where animals would be exploited.

My first taste of it was in Anuradaphura. I was biking around the massive archaeological site and came across a large group of people, all standing in circle to look at something. I approached, curious to see what had captured their attention. I was horrified to see that it was a dancing monkey – in chain, dressed, like it would never happen in nature.

I filmed the entire scene including when people tipped the owner. They were rather amused by the fact that I was filming. I guess they thought I was just another tourist finding this a fun scene.

I was just as horrified when, towards the end of my trip, I saw a group of tourists in Galle Fort handing down a few notes to a snake charmer. I suppose that snakes aren’t considered as animals having feelings, or suffering. I thought of saying something to those tourists, but I know that I would have come across as intrusive, and eventually the conversation would have heated up and we would have had an argument. I left it, thinking that I may as well get my message across via this blog.

On one occasion, though, I completely lost it. I was riding a jeep in Sigiriya, and an area notorious for the presence of free elephants. I was going to the Rock Fortress. But as the jeep pulled across a junction, I saw a clearly western couple riding a chained elephant, the owner walking along with them, poking the poor giant.

I stuck my head out of the car, and I yelled at the two, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves. I am quite sure they heard me – they turned around to see where the crazy screams were coming from. I am not so sure they got the message. I hope they did, and I hope they felt ashamed.

Care to be a more ethical traveler? Make sure to check my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”

Gal Oya
Gal Oya National Park is one of the biggest, yet least visited parks in Sri Lanka

Am I missing the point?

Maybe it is just me… maybe I am the narrow minded one.

When I was in Koh Chang, Thailand, I met other travelers that had gone on elephant rides and when I told them how irresponsible that was, they said things such as “elephants here are much like pets” (except they are taken from their mothers when they are still very small, and tortured in order to be trained, which isn’t exactly how I treat my beloved cats).

Others use the “local economy” argument: the “poor locals” are just trying to make a living, never mind if someone is suffering for this. And forget about the fact that responsible tourism can also ensure a large revenue, one that is way more sustainable in the longer terms.

Besides, can anyone help me figure out what’s the fun in riding a chained and poached elephant – especially in a country where elephants can be seen in their natural environment, wandering around freely and happily? Which is exactly what I did at Gal Oya National Park, a gorgeous 26000 hectare protected area around Senanayake Samundra reservoir, where over 32 species of mammals live.

Mind you, I didn’t see hordes of elephants. In fact, I only saw one, from such a distance that I had to use binoculars and I hardly managed to capture the moment on camera. But it was such a sight – that huge male (so the guide explained) chewing on grass (or so it looked from a distance), surrounded by nature and other free animals.

Gal Oya
Taking in the beauty of Gal Oya National Park

The Boat Safari At Gal Oya National Park

I was on a boat safari organized by Gal Oya Lodge, the only accommodation available that provides access to Gal Oya National Park, and for which responsible tourism isn’t just a brand, but a way of life and a mission.

Together with 5 more persons and Arun, the guide, I had left before dawn, boarding a jeep headed to Gal Oya National Park. Our mission was to spot animals. I had been told that I may be able to see crocodiles, lots of species of birds, buffalos, spotted dears and elephants. That’s it – that’s what I wanted to see. I was there to see elephants.

The staff at Gal Oya Lodge had made it clear that there was no guarantee I would see any elephant at all. They could not predict their movements in such a vast area, and sure enough they wouldn’t go about chasing them just so that I could get a photo.

I was happy to hear that, actually. Yet I kept high hopes I’d be able to at least spot one.

The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park
The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park

So we boarded a small boat, to go around the lake in search of animals. There were only two boats on the lake that day, aside from a few fishermen boats. Indeed, Gal Oya National Park doesn’t nearly get as many tourists as the more known Yala National Park.

The boat moved slowly, so that the accustomed eyes of the guide could spot animals. And he sure did! There it was, in the distance! I silently screamed (we had been clearly instructed not to make noise, so as not to scare the animals), so happy I was when I finally managed to focus my eyesight and see it too.

The morning continued with more animal sightings and a fabulous pic-nic on the shores of the lake, from where we could enjoy the nature and the silence surrounding us.

Gal Oya
A storm is approaching the lagoon near Gal Oya Lodge

Gal Oya: A Place To Unwind

It is places like Gal Oya Lodge and Gal Oya National Park that make me hopeful that something can be done, and something is indeed being done, to protect the environment we live in and to make sure that both humans and animals can make the most of it.

The lodge is completely immersed in nature. A short and easy walk from the lodge takes to a beautiful lagoon. The scene is as rural as it gets: the odd motorbike or bike slowly pushing along the path; children playing in the water – some of them are actually bathing! – calling on passersby to join them; the odd cow chewing on the greenest grass; and a few simple houses scattered around.

Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge
Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge

The only noise to be heard is that of the wind, and of the animals that live freely in the area. It’s blissful at night. It had been a while since I could sleep so peacefully, and not having any phone reception or any internet access made me finally unwind from all the stress that owning an online business implies.

Bungalows are beautifully rustic: large, cozy rooms with incredibly comfortable beds, open air bathrooms, and in line with the policy of environmental respect and protection, no air conditioners. Furthermore, in an effort to reduce plastic waste, only purified water is provided, instead of bottled water.

There’s only an onsite restaurant, that serves delicious food prepared using local ingredients. The tilapa fish is caught in the nearby lake!

There is only one thing I regret about Gal Oya National Park and Gal Oya Lodge: not having stayed longer! Having spent 3 full weeks in the country, I can say it was by far my favorite place and I would love to visit again.

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Make sure to also read Everything You Should Know Before Backpacking Sri Lanka and Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka.

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Gal Oya Lodge during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

4 thoughts on “Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka”

  1. To answer your question, you’re not narrow-minded. People from our part of the world who go to another to join in exploitation should rightly be ashamed of themselves. I’m happy you’ve called people out for it. Interestingly enough, it’s on Koh Chang where we almost rode an elephant, before seeing the conditions in which they lived. We left and did more research, realizing what a horrible thing that the riding industry is. Just thought I’d share that. Seriously, I am with you on this and am happy you shared through your writing. Looking forward to following more of your adventures and staying in touch. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Carl, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I wish more people like you took the chance to do some research before joining in unethical activities!

  3. Great post Claudia! When we travelled to Chaing Mai, Thailand we got the opportunity to go and visit Elephant Nature Park which is a refuge for abused working elephants in SE Asia. It was this experience that really changed our outlook on tourism in general. We are major advocates for sustainable, responsible tourism in every way. We constantly hear of stories like this and it just breaks our hearts. The interactions we had with these elephants at the park were remarkable. They are such caring individuals with such personality. But thank you for speaking of your experience and view. You are not narrow minded, the industry needs to change. Thank you for sharing.

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