Yala National Park – The Ultimate Safari in Sri Lanka

Yala National Park is the place to visit of you are up for a great experience!

Many graceful, beautiful leopards lives in Yala National Park in high numbers, so if you want to see one, this is the place to visit! The park is made up of five sections, but only two are open to the public; Ruhuna National Park (referred to as Yala) and the most well known block, Kumana National Park (referred to as Yala East). These two sections of the park are divided by a river, which makes crossing very difficult. Because of this, the park is approached from the two sides as if it were two separate parks. It’s the second largest National Park.

Along the shores of Yala, you can find beautiful mangroves and coral reefs, as well as signs that the area has been inhabited for several millennia! Decrepit reservoirs and evidence of an agricultural civilization which dates back to the 5th century B.C. have been found. There are various important archaeological sites as well, making Yala National Park a cultural site as well as an ecological site.

Things to Do

1. Jeep Safari

Yala National Park is known as one of the best places to do a safari in Sri Lanka. As it has the highest density of leopards in the world, jeep safari in this park would be a high chance of seeing an elusive leopard. Yala National Park has five blocks, and each has an entrance with selected routes to roam inside the National Park. Block 01 is the busiest area with two gates, where you can get a guide from the department of wildlife conservation. Also, block 05 is the right area for animal sightings, including the WeheraGala reservoir. Block 02 is also open for the general public, but you need to have at least two vehicles together to get into that area. 

Since the safari drivers in the area from the local communities, they know the park well. They will take you along the designated routes inside the park. For a better safari, stick into the rules that drivers obeying, and don’t get down from the jeep other than designated areas. As most vehicles have open windows, it is easy to look around and search for the fantastic wildlife inside the park, such as leopards, sloth bears, and elephants. Each year Yala National Park is closing in September as it is the dry season for the area.

2. Leopard Sightings

Yala is known as a leopard paradise in Sri Lanka. Due to the high population in the Yala National Park, most visitors come here to see leopards. Currently, Yala block 01 has around 95 leopards identified by photographic identification. Dawn and dusk are the best for leopard sightings, and sometimes it is always good to be early at the park. When it is still misty, leopards climb up to rocks to get some sun, also walk around to get the coat dried in the morning mist.

Even the leopards are nocturnal animals; in Yala, they are well adapted to the daylight as well. You need to be very patient if you are only looking for a leopard. If you are with an experienced safari jeep driver or guide, you may have a chance of seeing a leopard as they know the territories of each leopard. Leopards like to rest in the shades, so when it is still hot outside, they might be sleeping on a tree peacefully. Since then, you need to focus on the movements in the surroundings as they get camouflaged well in the bushes. It’s always nice to follow the alarm calls of spotted deers; they warn the others about the danger in high pitch sounds. 

3. Birdwatching 

Yala National Park is known as one of the important bird areas in Sri Lanka. There are 215 bird species in the park premises, including six endemic species as well. Yala has excellent spots to see birds such as serpent eagles, fish owls, and hawk eagles. Also, Sirkeer Malkoha and Blue-faced Malkoha are two rare finds in Yala National Park. The Little green bee-eater is the most photogenic bird you will find in Yala more often. This park consists of different vegetation, such as scrub forests, lagoons, and grasslands. Since then, the high density of migratory birds is also there from November to June. Especially in block 01 of the park has several large tanks and lagoons where you could see many aquatic birds. In some years there are hundreds of flamingos are also visiting looking for food in bays. 

If you wish to visit Yala National Park for a birding tour, don’t forget to pack your binoculars as some birds are timid to come out from the bushes. On a sunny day morning, you can easily find around 100 species of birds if you pay enough attention to the thick scrub forests.

4. Stay A Night Inside Yala

Yala National Park has several campsites and bungalows inside the National Park for the visitors to enjoy an overnight stay inside the park. The department of wildlife conservation maintains these properties so that you can book through the website. There are 8 Bungalows named Old Buttawa, New Buttawa, Warahana, Kuda gal amuna, Mahaseelawa, Heen wewa, Thalgasmankada and Ondajje. All these are located inside the National Park, where you could stay in the night after a safari. But due to the high demand, you may have to check the status before a month of the booking.

Other than staying inside the park, you could get accommodation outside the park in the buffer zone of Yala National Park. These hotels and luxury camping sites are the best way of exploring the wilderness in the area. As those are in the buffer zone, where the human activities are allowed, you get a chance of exploring the wild on bush walks as well. 

5. Sithulpawwa Raja Maha Viharaya

Yala National Park has two critical Buddhist temples in the Block o1 area. One is known as “sithulpawwa” built-in the 3rd century BC. It was a monastery for thousands of novice monks during that time. This rock was called “Chittala Pabbatha” in the meaning of a moving mind. So Buddhist monks used it as a place to calm their minds. As the temple premises have a magnificent complex of caves, there are still a few residing monks on daily meditation. On the top of the rock, there is a colossal stupa, where you can see the entire Yala block 01 from the top. 

Other than the temple, there are few caves with image houses at the base area. Some of the ruins have been restored with the image houses. And mostly the Buddha statutes are set aside in new homes. Since the support of ten giant warriors built the rock temple, there is an inscription about their hard work as well. You can visit the temple from the entrance of Katagamuwa in block 01. Also, on the road to the temple, you can see some wildlife as you travel through the National Park. 

6. Buduruwagala

BuduruwaGala is a hidden gem among the ancient ruins in MonaraGala District. It is a complex of a temple with some impressive stone carvings made with granite over a thousand years. As it is mentioned in the name “BuduruwaGala,” these Buddha statues are on a rock surface in a line. These are not all Buddha statues; one central figure is a Buddha image which is the tallest in Sri Lanka. Next to that, there are a few other statues of Bodhisatva, a local goddess and a diety. Since these are from the 10th century, it is known for an era with the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. The central statue was brightly painted during that time, and you can still see the left orange patterns in the robe. And there is something that not very famous, and a mustard oil lamp carved into the stone beside the statues. It is a cut with the shape of a flame and always wet with oil for no reason.

It’s just a silent and serene place away from the main road, MonaraGala- Buttala road. Just driving for about four kilometres, and you can enter the statues complex after buying a ticket which is around 2$. If you are driving to Yala from Ella or vice versa, you will get to pass this and its all worth to spend time there. It is less touristic and a great place to have a break next to a lake with a beautiful view as well.

7. Tissamaharamaya Temple

Thissamaharama temple is a great place to visit and have a look if you are touring in the area. It has the largest pagoda in the southern region with another few image houses with statutes. It was built in the 2nd century by a great king called Kavanthissa. The pagoda is reaching 150 ft on a granite foundation and enshrining lord buddha’s bone relic and left tooth relic as well. Next to the temple, you can see the ruins of a building with old medicinal artefacts. The medicine trough is like a bathtub, filled with herbs that used for the teachings of ancient medicine to the monks. Since the holistic medicine of Sri Lanka has a long history, this temple was a significant milestone in the medicinal lessons among monks.  

Than the pagoda and image house, this temple has a statue of Viharamahadevi, wife of King Kavanthissa. She is known as a heroine in Sri Lankan history for sacrificing her life to the sea before the marriage. It is said that the temple was built on her request and turned to be an educational centre for Buddhist monks. Since then, a few other types of equipment are placed in the temple museum next to the temple. It is in the heart of the Thissamaharama town that has direct access from the main road. With an excellent location close to the lake, this giant temple is all worth visiting for a peaceful break from your drives and rest under a neem tree. 

8. Katharagama Kiri Wehera

Dated back to the 5th century, Kiri Wehera is known as one of the holiest temples in the country. Not just for the Buddhists, other religions also visit as the temple for various reasons. Other than as a religious place, this temple is significant as an archaeological site. The main attraction of the site is the stupa as it is mentioned in the name Kiri Wehera itself. During Lord Buddha’s visit to Sri Lanka, he preached his sermons in this temple and also it is known as a place where the relics enshrined. You can see a statue of King Mahasena, who did a fantastic job by supporting to build this giant stupa. This stupa which is 95 ft. in height, is close to the temple of Local diety God Kataragama, around 800m away. You could pass the Devalaya and walk in the sand road to reach the Kirivehera Temple. Offerings are on sale beside the way, in small huts full of Lotus flowers. 

Since the crowds visit the temple of Local diety God Kataragama in every day, they usually visit the Kiri wehera as well. As this temple is known as 16 most sacred places in Sri Lanka, thousands of pilgrims visit this every year. Especially during the festival time of the Devalaya, for God Kataragama. Along with the ruins in the complex outside, an inscription mentions the Buddha’s visit to Kataragama right before the entrance of the Stupa. There are no visiting hours restricted to the temple and no entry fee as well

9. Katharagama Devalaya

Kataragama Temple, known as ‘Ruhuṇu Kataragama Dēvālaya, is devoted to God Kataragama. He is a local deity who lived in the southern region and has been worshipped by thousands of pilgrims per day. Since he is also known as a Buddhist guardian deity, the majority of Buddhists visit this temple. After defeating the Tamil waders including King Elara, it was a time to pay back the god by King Dutugemunu”. So this temple is dated back to the 13th century when the country had a peaceful era. Its located near the River, which has an essential place in the history of the area. You can visit the temple in a few different routes, and it is around two kilometres away from the city. If you wish to walk, crossing the bridge from the town is the easiest way to get into the temple premises. 

This temple complex has one main shrine and several other shrines around it for various gods — also, a Bo tree which is a sapling from Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura. However, with the influence of Hinduism, most of the areas of the complex are related to Hindu gods. Since then, Hindus from North and East walk along the forest and reach this temple before the festivals every year. This temple has three services for a day for pilgrims to offer fruits and flowers to God. Early morning around 4 AM and then around 11 AM. The last one is the most crowded one, at approximately 7 PM. If you get time to visit this temple, don’t forget to offer a fruit basket to God and ask for a good life. 

10. Okanda Devalaya

Okanda devalaya is also a part of the temples devoted to God Kataragama. Its located in the Panama area, close to the Kumana National Park. When the annual pilgrim walk starts, this is known as the starting point before entering the forest. However, this was a Buddhist temple in the 70s, and they eventually changed it into Hindu temple after the LTTE attacks happened in the area. You can follow the small road right before the ticket counter of Kumana National Park to reach Okanda Devalaya. The temple is built on a rock surface close to the beach. It is believed that God Kataragama sailed here for the first time by a boat and it became a rock once he arrived. Since then this rock is known as “Ran Oru Gala” with the meaning of a golden boat rock”.

There is no time to visit this temple, and most people visit here before the festivals start in Kataragama. The main temple is devoted to God Kataragama, and another small temple is there for “Valli Amma”. She is known as the wife of this local god and believes dhe has a power of bringing blessings. Howevr, it has also some ruins of an image house closeby, so it could be a Buddhist monastery as well. Since it is far from the usual touristic areas, visiting this temple is a different experience to explore Sri Lankan history.

11. Bundala National Park

Bundala National Park is another excellent place to do a safari in the Southern area of Sri Lanka. Bundala is the first wetland that declares as a RAMSAR wetland in Sri Lanka. You can drive from Thissmaharama town to Kirinda road and get access to this National Park. As a migrating bird site, Bundala has around 197 species of birds. During the migratory season, it increases the number of species, and the greater flamingo is a highlight of this National Park. As this park has five shallow, brackish lagoons, the high number of waders and saltwater crocodiles are there in the park borders. 

Other than birds, Bundala is a home for larger mammals such as elephants, Axis deer, Wild boar, water buffalos and leopards as well. Compared to other National Parks to the area, Bundala is a less touristic park. Since then, it is an excellent chance of enjoying nature with minimal disturbance. Also as the park is bordering to the Indian Ocean, you can have a look at sea turtles from the cliff next to the beach. And also you can have a closer look at the traditional Sri Lankan salterns next to the National Park. Local communities are operating safaris in the National Park, and with their expert knowledge, you will have a great time in the wilderness. Even it is a half-day drive, and you can spot some beautiful wildlife as a lifetime memory. 

12. Kumana National Park

Kumana is another excellent safari destination in the southern area of Country. As it was a part of same Yala East National Park complex, it is much similar with Yala with the same vegetation. This park was opened back in 2003 as it was not open to the public due to LTTE attacks. Later in 2006 name changed as Kumana National Park. During the annual pilgrim walk to Kataragama, people use Kumana National Park to reach the Yala border. As it is bordered to the Indian ocean from the south, there is a 200 hectares mangrove swamp. In some months the park is full of seawater as well. This swamp area is the right breeding area for birds. Especially it is an essential site for the rare black-necked stork which is seen often in Kumana National Park. This area is home for about 255 species of birds, April to July is the best time to see birds in Kumana National Park.  Also, Kumana is famous for its elephants and leopards as well. Since not many people visit Kumana National Park, it is hard to spot leopards as they are scared of vehicles. However, within the past two years, there were excellent sightings of leopards in this park during safaris. Other than that this area has boars, buffaloes and axis deer as well. Local communities have safari jeeps in nearby towns to give you best out of the wilderness in Kumana National Park.

Dress Code

Be aware of the cultural standards and habits while staying in Sri Lanka, as it is a religious place with a very rich history. Women must cover their shoulders and knees when visiting temples and sacred places, it is inappropriate not to do, so make sure you are respectful towards the culture. Do not forget to take off your hat when you enter a building. Swimwear is only acceptable near the beach, do not enter shops and restaurants in bathing suits. A casual top and jeans should be a great option for everyday activities, but bring a jacket with you if you plan on hiking or being outside in the later hours, especially while on the Safari. The average temperature is 25 degrees in each month, so plan your outfits accordingly.

Where to Sleep

Some of the places near the Yala National Park are here:

Gen River Edge

This eco-friendly hotel is surrounded by lush greenery and is usually in high demand, so book in advance! If you have a private car, this is the best place to stay, as it’s located seventeen kilometers from the park.

Cadjan Wild

This hotel provides every modern facility you could need! Cadjan Wild is affordable and highly recommended.

Heina National Resort

This eco-friendly resort provides a pleasant experience and a natural serenity. If you are a nature enthusiast, book your stay here!

Where to Eat

Wila Safari Restaurant Yala

If you like Indian cuisine, then this is the place! Enjoy the delicious greenery after a long day of exploring. With fresh ingredients, delicious options, and large servings sizes, this is all you could want!

Getting In and Around

Yala National Park can be reached via two routes from Colombo. One through the historic town of Galle and would take four to five hours. The second route runs through the lush green countryside of Ratnapura. This route would take around 6 hours. A private taxi is recommended, but you can also take a bus. Get off the bus route at Tissamaharama. Expect a nine hour ride.

Colombo: Colombo is 250 km away from Yala National Park, on the west coast of Sri Lanka. Travel by the hourly express bus to reach Kataragama in 8 hours, then transfer to a local bus or a tuk tuk to reach the national park in a few minutes. You can take a private car or a taxi to be at Yala National Park in 3.5 hours.

Negombo: Negombo is 260 km away from the national park, on the west coast of the island, just above Colombo. Take a bus or taxi to Colombo, then transfer to the direct bus to Kataragama. Via taxi or private car you can at Yala National Park in 4 hours.

Kandy: Kandy is 250 km away from Yala National Park in the heart of the island. Sadly public transportation is not the best around Kandy, but you can take a local bus or train to Buttala where transfer to a bus towards Kataragama to reach the national park in 10 hours. Via taxi or private car you can be at Yala National Park in 4 hours.

Ella: Ella is 100 km away from the national park in the central region of the island. Travel to Buttala with a local bus then transfer to a taxi or a bus towards Kataragama to reach Yala National Park in 4 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can be there in 1.5 hours.

Galle: Galle is 180 km away from Yala National Park, on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Take an hourly bus from Galle to Hambantota, where you can transfer to a local bus towards the national park, or a tuk tuk to be there in 4.5 hours. Via private car or taxi you can reach the national park in 2.5 hours.

Dambulla: Dambulla is 250 km north of the national park, in the up north region of Sri Lanka. From Dambulla take a local bus to Dehiattakandiya, where transfer to the once a day bus towards Matara. From Matara take a local bus towards Kataragama to reach Yala National Park in 15 hours. Via taxi or drive you can be at the national park in 5 hours.

When to Go

Yala National Park is beautiful all year around, and it is not really affected by monsoons. The average yearly weather is 20-25 degree, with the highs of 32 degrees as well. The best time to visit is from May to September, because the dry season brings all the animals to the national park for water. The national park is closed for a few months from September, when it is leopard breeding season, so the animals are not interrupted in any ways.

Budget

This beautiful island with a rich religion and amazing culture is a fantastic place to visit. If you plan a visit, make sure to prepare yourself for some expenses. Sri Lanka is relatively not expensive in everyday things, like transportation ($1-10) and street food ($1-3).

You can easily find beautiful luxurious hotels with an unforgettable view, spas and restaurants ($100+),  mid range hotels which are more family oriented ($20-60) or budget friendly hostels ($10-15). These prices help families, luxury lovers and backpackers to enjoy their trip to the fullest.  Safaris and entrance fees are on the more expensive side, but you can get good deals if you have a larger group. Jeep safaris are around $75 per person which includes the entrance fees as well, and elephant back riding is $55+.

Conclusion

Yala National Park is clearly one of the places you need to stop for a stunning, natural experience! There’s more than just animals and birds to see here, but lush stretches of very dense jungle and beautiful flora to go with it. Unlike other National Parks in Sri Lanka, Yala is ripe with many historical ruins and religious monuments. Visit the Tissamaharama Temple, climb aboard a Jeep safari, or go for an elephant ride! What could be more fun than seeing a Sri Lankan jungle from the back of an elephant? There are local accommodations that you can stay at for a comfortable night and many places offering delicious cuisine. Don’t wait! Come visit Yala today.