3 Nights in Bentota: Sea Turtle Project, River Safari, & Elephant Festival

We arrived in Sri Lanka at night and took a taxi from Colombo down to Bentota. (We quickly learned "Sri Lankan" time which means everything is about a third longer than you're told.) We were greeted by Ramesh and Ishara, two Sri Lankan men in their early 20s left to look over the villa we were staying in whilst the owners (a Russian couple) was in Malaysia until the following day. Ishara made us coconut waters from the tree outside but we weren't much for company and quickly went to bed.

 Hello, Heaven.

Hello, Heaven.

The next day, Ramesh took us via tuktuk to the sea turtle conservatory down the road. We paid a small fee and we're taken to a tank of two day old hatchlings swimming and fluttering around. Our guide said they buy them off the underemployed so the eggs do not get sold to restaurants (it is illegal in Sri Lanka to eat seat turtles or their eggs but it still happens). They then rebury the eggs in a fenced in area so they can guard them from predators until they release them at night. We ALSO learned if we come back in the evening we could pay to release them! Vic almost lost her mind.

5 Fun Facts About Green Sea Turtles:

  1. An adult green can hold their breath for 5 hours whilst a hatchling can only do about 1 minute.
  2. Green turtles do not start laying eggs until 20 years old!
  3. Green turtles can live to 120 years but typically live around 40 - 50 years.
  4. Green turtles enjoy their necks being rubbed.
  5. Green turtles can feel the surface of their shell.

After holding and learning about the turtles we went to the beach to work on our tans and eat lunch. The beach Ramesh brought us to was empty of anyone but staff and the occasional local. We had vegetable curry, popadoms with mango chutney, a shrimp cocktail and split a large Lion lager to wash it all down. In the evening we went back to the sea turtle project and released 4 baby sea turtles into the surf. The price was a bit steep but we hope it benefits the cause and hey, when else are you going to get to release baby sea turtles? After, Ishara walked us around the rock shoreline of a new hotel and we got to see where the river meets the ocean (I also saw what I thought was an owl but was actually a bat with over a two foot wingspan!)

The next day, Ishara took us via tuktuk to his friends for a river safari. Immediately we spotted water monitors (Komodo dragons), kingfishers, comorans, and HUGE bats. Later on we would see a 3 meter long crocodile(!), a water monitor that had recently eaten, a baby crocodile (that I held! Vic nearly shat her pants) and monkeys. It was pure bliss, only slightly tempered by a "surprise" stop to the herbal doctors where they educate you about ancient local herbal remedies and then hard sell you (don't worry they take USD, rupees, Visa or MasterCard).

Once the river safari was over, we told Ishara we wanted to go back to the villa to rest (it was been 90 F and sunny all morning). He agreed but wanted to surprise us first. We raced around dogs and children on the single carriage roads until eventually we stopped and saw many locals gathering in a clearing, and there eating coconut branches was an elephant! We each fed him a banana and went a bit further to where another elephant was being kept. After that, we saw a baby elephant with his tusks, rocking back and forth as if dancing. And again, once we were leaving we came across two more chained to coconut trees - this one I went to feed a banana and the handler grabbed by hand and put it in his mouth so I could feel his tongue! (Which I thought was incredible until a minute later I saw the elephant pick up an enormous stalk of coconut branch and split it like celery in his teeth.)

Once back, we relaxed and took a long walk along the beach. On our walk, we found most Bentota tourists keep close to the resorts, beaches and occasional river safari. That night, Ishara's friend cooked us a meal at the villa. He had picked up fresh millet from the market that day and grilled it with garlic and other herbs. He served it with a fresh salad, rice and of course Lion lagers.

After, the villa owners, our chef and Ishara all walked down to the annual Buddhist elephant festival with us where we would see a parade of fire dancers, decorated elephants (23 in total from around Sri Lanka), discus spinners, whip crackers and other manner of dance I don't really know how to describe. Ishara was in his element parading his tourists around whist his gaggle of school friends laughed and teased him. Ishara, in order to help Vic see as she is so short and the crowd of people so large, kept yelling at people to get out of the way (his friends joined in as well) until he eventually borrowed a stool from a local shop and presented it to vic as if he had found her long lost child. The parade was spectacular and everyone in Bentota had crowded the streets with riot police on standby with face shields and big trucks. They didn't seem too concerned however as we caught at least a handful taking pictures and video on their mobiles. It is around this point it was clear the Sri Lankan people are quite universally relaxed and friendly. Unperturbed by missed timelines (we arrived an hour late to our river safari as Ishara had tuktuk tire issues) they have a relaxed, often barefoot, gaight that is only interrupted by their manic driving no matter tuktuk or car, through sleeping stray dogs and occasional head-on incoming traffic.

When we left Bentota the next day, Ishara had tears in his eyes and made sure we exchanged emails so when we come back we stay in Bentota again so he can be our tour guide and plan our itinerary (he's quite pushy but we learned over time it's comes from a good place). Vic and I have both agreed: no where has effected us so quickly as Sri Lanka. The landscape is as stunning as Iceland only it's tropical with unspoiled beaches, smiling people and unending wildlife. The only part we found disconcerting (that we would learn is primarily in smaller, more traditional towns) was the lack of presence in local women. Ishara told us no local women work in Bentota and that gave us this general uneasiness that underlied a few of our interactions with older local men. We also learned from our Ishara and our cook that drugs (mainly due to unemployment) and drinking while driving are also issues in Sri Lanka. That said, we are already incredibly moved by Sri Lanka and are already looking forward to the rest of our trip and coming back in the future.