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A big draw for me to go to Sri Lanka was its wildlife. As an island nation, Sri Lanka’s plants and animals have evolved for centuries with little external influence. As a result, the island is home to hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna, including more than a dozen unique species of mammals.

If you’re interested in seeing Sri Lanka’s wildlife, one of the best ways to do it is to take a safari.

Yes, a real life safari! *squeal of joy*

(It had been a dream of mine to go on a safari since I first learned as a kid that such a thing existed.)

After a week of exploring the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the rock fortresses in Sigiriya (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the scenic landscape of Sri Lanka’s tea country, and the picturesque mountain town of Ella, it was finally time to make my safari dream come true.

I did research on the best places to see elephants and leopards in Sri Lanka – the animals I was most interested in spotting – and arranged for two safaris at Udawalawe and Yala National Parks.

Yet, despite all my research, I really had no idea what to expect on the safari itself. What should I wear? What is the proper safari etiquette? Will I get dirty?

To save you from having to guess like I did, here are all of the things I wish I would have known before my first safari in Sri Lanka.

The roads are not paved.

Really, Marissa? THIS is your lead observation?

I know it’s obvious. But hear me out on this one. Think about what unpaved roads mean. 

Lo-o-O-o-ts   o-O-f   b-O-o-o-U-u-n-cing.

The safari vehicles may have comfortable seats and decent suspensions, but they can’t completely absorb all the shocks. So take some aspirin before you depart and keep a good grip on your camera. I also found that sitting in the front row reduced the shocks, because you aren’t directly over the wheels where all the bouncing takes place.

Safari vehicles in Sri Lanka

The roads are littered with potholes.

And do you see that bank on the right side of the road? You’ll drive on that too, which will make you feel like you’re completely sideways. It’s a bit strange at first but you get used to driving on it after a while.

You can get a sunburn.

Sure, there’s a roof on the vehicle. But your arms and one side of your face will still be exposed to the sun at different times. Take a lesson from my friend Evginy, a fair-skinned Russian whom I met the day after his Yala safari. He hadn’t worn sunscreen and ended up with a big red burn up the entire left side of his body.

You can wear whatever you want on the safari.

You’ll be in a vehicle the entire time anyway. You might get dusty, but it’s not like you’ll be rolling in the mud with the water buffaloes.

Do wear clothing that is light and provides good coverage from the sun (see #2). If your safari begins in the early morning, bring a long-sleeved shirt or a light sweater for the morning chill.

Marissa on a safari

I wore a skirt in Udawalawe National Park, because why not? It was light and kept me cool. For the Yala safari, I opted for a light jacket, t-shirt and hiking pants.

You will probably be moving when you want to take a photo.

The safari drivers do the best they can, but remember, they can’t always stop immediately upon seeing an animal. They’ll stop eventually, but sometimes the sheer presence of the Jeep will cause an animal to make its exit. So, often times either you or the animal will be moving and neither of you will be in the perfect position for a photograph.

My advice? Put your camera on sport mode and keep it at the ready. It can be hard to steady in a moving vehicle, but once you’re stopped you can immediately begin snapping away.

Also, the safari drivers are responsive to instructions. If you need them to pull up because a shrub is blocking your view of an elephant, say something. They’ll work with you.

Deer at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

We found these chital (spotted deer) in a small clearing at Yala National Park.

You won’t be the only vehicle in the national park.

As much as I wanted to have a private playdate with a herd of elephants, the reality is the national parks allow in dozens of safari vehicles at a time. And each one has the same goal as you: to witness Sri Lanka’s incredible wildlife in its natural habitat.

The result? Expect to be the only vehicle on the road some of the time, within sight of one or two other safari vehicles much of the time, and to have at least one experience where you get stuck in a puzzling safari traffic jam that will leave you wondering if you’re actually in Zootopia.

And yes, another vehicle will get in your shot (or fully block your view of the animals) at some point.

Elephants and safari vehicles in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

The safari vehicles outnumbered the elephants in this case.

There’s a lot of downtime on a Sri Lanka safari.

The animals won’t exactly be lined up along the side of the road to wave to you as you drive by. They’re living their lives, doing their animal thing away from the roads for the most part. Though the safari drivers know the best places to spot animals, there will still be plenty of downtime when you’re just driving.

But don’t worry, the surrounding landscape is a worthy sight in itself.

You can take a bathroom break if you need one.

However, it will disrupt the safari. Some safaris are longer than others – at Yala National Park, many safaris build in a bathroom break because they last 5+ hours. At Udawalawe, we spent three hours animal spotting and didn’t take a break. While it’s important to stay hydrated, be mindful of how much water you’re drinking if you want to avoid the bathrooms.

Oh, and don’t forget the first point in this post! All the bouncing doesn’t help a full bladder either.

There is such a thing as safari etiquette.

Don’t block the shot of a fellow safari-goer. If you have room to move around the vehicle while you’re stopped, feel free to do so, but be respectful of other peoples’ space and their sight lines.

Also, don’t shout or do anything that could disturb or startle the animals. And stay in the vehicle at all times unless your guide gives you permission to exit.

Safari vehicle, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Elephant sighting!

Your hotel or guest house can book the safari for you.

Just tell the host when you arrive if you want a morning or afternoon departure, and what day you want to go. They can usually arrange a same-day safari unless the vehicle is completely booked (which I never encountered). When I got to Pearl White Villa in Udawalawe – my favorite guest house of the entire two-week trip – they were able to get me on a safari that left an hour after I arrived.

I stayed at Hotel Bird View in Tissamaharama, and they also arranged for the safari after I arrived. In both cases, the cost of the safari was on par with or cheaper than the estimate my Lonely Planet guide had provided.

Have cash ready at the beginning of the safari.

Don’t try to pay with a credit card, and have exact change if you can. Any tip for the driver should be included in the total price you were quoted.

You will absolutely see things that will take your breath away.

Ok, you probably knew about this last one or you wouldn’t be interested in going on a safari in Sri Lanka.

There’s no feeling quite like finally spotting the animals you’ve traveled so far to see, and to witness nature in its full glory. The minimal discomfort you’ll experience on the ride is totally worth it when you see animals like these in their natural habitats.

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