Gal Oya National Park: A Wildlife Lover’s Escape

If you love variation in your wildlife and scenery, you won’t want to miss Gal Oya National Park!

Gal Oya National Park was established in 1954 to protect the great Senanayake Samudraya reservoir, the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka. It has become a major ecotourism venue filled with a stunning assortment of flora and fauna. It’s home to thirty-two species of mammals, and one hundred and fifty species of birds. Evergreen forests fill forty five percent of the park is covered by evergreen forest, while savannas occupy thirty three percent.

Gal Oya National Park has three mountains – Danigala, Ulpotha, and Nilgala, but the real highlights are the boat cruises and safaris. The boat cruise will take you through Bird’s Island, (which serves as a nesting ground), the Makara Kata tunnel, and the Deegavapi stupa. The Deegavapi stupa is believed to be the site where Buddha meditated during his third visit in Sri Lanka. Thousands of pilgrims flock there every year. Just one of the many reasons to visit Gal Oya!

Image of Beautiful Lake Mountain Landscape in  Galoya National Park
Landscape in Galoya National Park | Picture by: ThePhotographerSL/Shutterstock.com

Things to Do

Wildlife Watching and Jeep Safari

Due to the local wetland, Gal Oya Park has a mixture of savannah grasslands and rugged grasslands called Pathana. Forty five percent of the park contains an evergreen forest filled with remedial plants and bushes. Herds of elephants, deer, leopards, sloth bears, and water buffaloes linger in the park around the grasslands. Four species of butterflies also have been recorded here. It is truly a great spot to enjoy Flora and Fauna, learn more about nature and spot some animals!

Gal Oya National Park has several entrances accessible by jeep. Experienced guides and a trained driver lead the jeep safaris. You may enter on your own but it is way safer to travel with a designated guide. For research purposes and video taking you have to apply for documentation, which you can do on the government’s website.  They’ll take you to the best routes to spot wild animals. Visiting the park in morning or evening gives you a better chance to spot elephant herds, leopards, and water buffaloes. Gal Oya National Park is a beautiful place to visit and learn more about wildlife!

Duration: 2-3 Hours

Cost: USD $ 30 per person plus jeep fee

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 8 hours, via bus 11 hours, taxi or drive 6.5 hours

Opening Hours: 6 am to 9 pm

Location: Inginiyagala, Ampara 32000, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: About 70 km away from Ampara, take a local bus or drive to be there in 1.5 hours

Bird Watching

The Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir is an ideal place for bird watching. Especially aquatic birds and local birds like Gray Hornbill, Koel, and Grey Dove. Watch for Teals, Cormorants, and Pelicans during the migratory season. Evenings and early mornings are preferred watching times, because chances are bigger that you will see some wildlife action. Make sure you do not bother the animals! There are also designated tours to enjoy and learn more about locals birds and history of the park.

Boat Safaris on Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir

Boat safaris are conducted by the wildlife office. This is the only national park that offers a boat service inside the park. Have you ever seen an elephant swim? If not, you must come! The boat safari’s at Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir are the best way to spot elephants swimming to the small islands. You can fully enjoy the boat safaris during mornings or evenings, where you can catch the sunrise or the sunset as well.

Veddha Clans in Gal Oya

The Rathugala tribe of Veddas are initially from Danigala in Gal Oya. Unfortunately, they’ve had to move after the reservoir was created, but still remain a village at the southern area of the park. They follow a different social structure than other Sri Lankans. Visiting their villages would be a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. Don’t forget to buy you can some of their pure bee honey. If you visit the Veddas make sure you wear appropriate clothing and you respect their culture. Learning about their history and culture is an amazing opportunity.

Dragon’s Mouth (Makara Kata) Natural Tunnel

Gal Oya is the main resource for the Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir. Where Gal Oya falls to the reservoir, water flows in a natural tunnel known as Makara Kata (Sinhalese for Dragon’s mouth) or simply Makara. Getting to the Makara is by no means easy. The road, however, lay across picturesque jungle and grassy plains. Make sure you are comfortable with a lot of walking and trekking, and you have a guide to take you. Due to dry weather the Makara is mostly sand now with huge rocks.

The Buddhangala Sanctuary and Monastery

The Buddhangala Sanctuary and Monastery has ancient ruins of a stupa and other structures in the deep jungle at Ampara. The Monastery addresses 1280 acres masking 5 rocks the place the state of the historical monastery can be noticed. The temples were built by Prince Dihayu during the Digamadulla Kingdom in the 4th century. A newly built stupa and replica of Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya also can be seen in the monastery premises. The old stupa of Buddhangala enshrined relics of Buddha and his two chief monks Mugalan and Seriyuth Theros.

Duration: 1-2 Hours

Cost: Free of charge – you may donate to the monastery

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 8 hours, via bus 11 hours, taxi or drive 6.5 hours

Opening Hours: 8 am to 6 pm

Location: Buddangala, Ampara 32000, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: About 70 km away from Ampara, take a local bus or drive to be there in 1.5 hours

Japanese Peace Pagoda

This peaceful, round shrine in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle acts as a beacon of peace. The pagoda is a little hard to reach, as it lays on the top of the hill. Niches containing gilded Buddhas contrast superbly with the whitewashed body of the temple. To reach the site, follow DS Senanayake Rd from the clock tower, which heads towards Inginiyagala, passing scenic Ampara Tank. After 3 km, a short right turn brings you to the pagoda. The view won’t disappoint you, and as it is not on a main road, you can expect less tourists as well.

Duration: 1-2 Hours

Cost: Rs 200 per person

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 8 hours, via bus 11 hours, taxi or drive 6.5 hours

Opening Hours: 8 am to 6 pm

Location: Buddangala, Ampara 32000, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: About 70 km away from Ampara, take a local bus or drive to be there in 1.5 hours

Image of Beautiful Island lake standing asian elephant in gal oya national park
Elephant in Gal Oya national park | Picture by ThePhotographerSL/Shutterstock.com

Near by Attractions

Kataragama Devale

This temple was constructed in the Kandyan style instead of the South Indian Tamil design that is most common with other buildings in Badulla. Kataragama Devale is a temple complex dedicated to Buddhist guardian deity Kataragama deviyo and Hindu War God Murugan. There are a lot of legends around the temple, containing historical bits on Vedda and Islamic culture. This temple is great to visit with a guide or a local so you can learn more about culture and Sri Lankan history!

Duration: 1-2 Hours

Cost: Free of charge, you may donate to the temple

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 8 hours, via bus 11 hours, taxi or drive 5.5 hours

Opening Hours: 7 am to 7 pm

Location: Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya, Kataragama 91400, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: It is about 100 km from Badulla, you can take a taxi or drive there in 1.5 hours

Website: http://www.kataragama.org/home.html

The Muthiyangana Viharaya

This large Buddhist temple complex is in Badulla, which features a whitewash dagoba set in its spacious grounds. It has a lone resident elephant that is used during festivals. Muthiyangana Raja Maha Viharaya is just one of the Badulla many landmarks which will carry you to the time of Buddha. It is said that the complex was built at the site of Buddha’s sermon. It will truly mesmerize you with its rich history and beautiful building.

Duration: 1-2 Hours

Cost: Free of charge

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 8 hours, via bus 11 hours, taxi or drive 6.5 hours

Opening Hours: 9 am to 8 pm

Location: Station Road, Badulla 90000, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: You can easily walk to this destination in 15-20 minutes or take a tuk tuk

Dunhinda Falls

In Badulla, this is the most renowned waterfall in Sri Lanka, and features different-sized pools and light-fingered monkeys as residents. The best time to visit is June and July, but it is a great spot for a picnic the whole year round. The Dunhinda Falls is one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful waterfalls.The waterfall, which is 64 metres high gets its name from the smoky dew drops spray,  as “Dun in sinhala” means mist or smoke. It is also located only 5 km away from the city centre.

Image of Giant Asian Elephant feeds at Gal Oya National Park
Giant Elephant in Gal Oya National Park | by  ThePhotographerSL/Shutterstock.com

When to Go

Gal Oya National Park is a great choice all year around. There are both dry and rainy seasons, so if you prefer the more sunny and dry days, it is best to avoid this region from October to January. It is also very busy during Christmas time, because most tourists travel on holidays. June to August is a good choice, when the weather is not too hot and there are very little rainy days. Make sure to check out the religious festival which are usually in July!

Where to Sleep

The Gal Oya Lodge

The Gal Oya Lodge specializes in high-end, ecologically responsible tourism. The nine-room wildlife lodge is built from natural supplies that have all been locally sourced. Spread across twenty acres of private forest, it’s the ideal place to connect with Mother Nature. At Gal Oya Lodge, you can enjoy boat safaris, jungle drives, walks, or just relax by the pool.

Thompukandam Village Resort

Thompukandam Village Resort is nestled in the eastern province of Sri Lanka and is an ideal hideout! Take in the eco-friendly ambiance of Thompukandam Village Resort while listening to the birds singing overhead. Bring your family! This is a very traveler-friendly space.

Where to Eat

If your hotel doesn’t have an in-house restaurant, Ampara is the next closes spot for eating. But there are not many high end options. Below are two of the safe picks popular with both locals and visitors:

Terrel’s Chinese Restaurant

One of the best restaurants in Ampara. It serves western and oriental cuisines. Perfect place for a fancy drink and dinner. They offer Chinese and Sri Lankan dishes, including stir-fried cuttlefish. Noodles and snacks (short eats) are also available. Food is delicious and reasonably priced.

New City

This comprises several budget eateries that serve a decent rice and curry during lunch and lots of short eats for on-the-go eating. The place is a small shopping center with food and grocery shops.

Getting In and Around

Due to its enormous size, Gal Oya National park has multiple entrances. It is the easiest to enter from Ampara or Badulla.

Colombo: Colombo is about 300 km away from Gal Oya, on the west coast of the island. Via the hourly bus travel to Wellawaya, then travel to the local bus towards Ampara to reach the national park in about 11 hours. You can also travel by a taxi or a private car to be there in 6 hours.

Negombo: Negombo is 320 km away from Gal Oya, just above Colombo. It the easiest to travel to Colombo with a local bus then take the hourly bus towards Wellawaya. You can also go with a taxi to reach Gal Oya in 6 hours.

Kandy: Kandy is 200 km away from Gal Oya , in the heart of the island. You can travel with a train which goes twice a day to Wellawaya, then transfer to a local bus to reach Gal Oya, with a total trip time of 10 hours. There are also options for taxis and private cars to be at the national park in 3.5 hours.

Ella: Ella is 150 km away from Gal Oya, on the south central region of the island. The easiest is to travel to Wellawaya which is only 30 km away then take a local bus towards Ampra to be at Gal Oya in 4 hours. Via private car or taxi you can be there in 2.5 hours.

Galle: Galle is 310 km away from Gal Oya, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. You can travel with the direct bus towards Ampara, which goes 5 times a day to be there in 9 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can reach Gal Oya in 5 hours.

Dambulla: Dambulla is 200 km away from Gal Oya, in the upper central area of the island. Sadly there are no train routes or local buses which would easily take you to Gal Oya or Ampara, so it is the easiest to hire a driver or rent a car to reach the national park in only a few hours.

Dress code

Make sure you familiarize yourself with dress codes before you travel to Sri Lanka. Since religion plays a very important role, it is best to dress accordingly.

Always take off your hat when you enter a store or restaurant, and cover your shoulders and knees when visiting sacred places and temples. Most temples only allow in visitors who taken their shoes off. Do not worry – there are people who will keep an eye on your foot wear!

Beach clothing and bikinis are only acceptable around the beaches, please do not wear them on the streets.

A light t-shirt and trousers are a great choice on everyday basis! Do not forget to pack some cardigans and jackets, because early mornings and late evenings can be chilly, especially when hiking.

Budget

There are plenty of options for everyone in Sri Lanka, does not matter if you wish to have a luxury vacation or a more budget friendly trip.

Sri Lanka offers beautiful, high-end hotels with luxurious spas and suites ($90+), mid-range family oriented hotels ($30-50) or hotels and hostels for those who wish to spend less on accommodation ($10-30).

Entrance fees depend on the given site, but mostly around $5-10 USD, museums usually charge $2-5 USD ticket prices. There are plenty of great locations you can visit for free! Temples are free to visit, you may donate a small amount.

Safaris and tours are on the bit more expensive side, but these need to be pre-booked and you can request a quote as well.

Transportation is around $1-3 USD, or you can hire a professional driver ($50) to take you around – and this way you can learn a lot about culture and history as well.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to get in touch with nature, go on a wild adventure—literally!—or see a new side of Sri Lanka, Gal Oya National Park is the place for you! Go on a boat ride on the Senanayake Samudraya Reservoir and catch a glimpse of elephants swimming, or take a jeep safari through the forest with our local guides. If you love bird watching, there’s plenty of that here as well! Check out the Gal Oya Lodge to help you arrange fun activities and make your stay memorable, as well as a safe, beautiful place to rest your feet at night. Ampara offers many delicious options for food when you need an energy boost. What are you waiting for? One of the most beautiful national parks in Sri Lanka is waiting for you!

Image of Gal Oya Reservoir In Ampara sri lanka
Gal Oya Reservoir | by Yasiru /Dreamstime.com