Since its designation as a wildlife sanctuary in 1969, Bundala National Park on Sri Lanka’s South-Eastern coastline has been an internationally acclaimed migratory wetland bird wintering ground. Now one of Sri Lanka’s numerous National Parks, a status it was afforded in 1993, the park became the country’s first Ramsar site in recognition of its importance for wetland birds. In fact, over two hundred species of birds have been recorded at the peak of the migration season (between September and March). The park’s lagoons attract an amazing variety of aquatic birds and the most famous visitors are the park’s flocks of greater flamingoes; although sadly their numbers have shrunk since the country’s 2004 tsunami.
The park is located around 15km east of Hambantota and a similar distance west of Tissa, making it the perfect secondary destination for anyone planning to visit Sri Lanka’s more famous (and far busier) Yala National Park. As well as being home to significant populations of migratory birds, the Park has a rich and varied stock of fauna including elephants, crocodiles and turtles – meaning that it’s not only the birders amongst you that can enjoy a tranquil few days of safari in Bundala!
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Wildlife – 2.5*
Bundala is home to 32 species of mammal which, as an isolated statement, sounds pretty impressive. Among the 32 species are leopard, elephant, grey langur, sambur deer, pangolin, toque macaque, wild boar, grey & ruddy mongoose (the latter being fairly prevalent), civet, spotted deer, black-nape hare, water buffalo, porcupine, golden jackal, fishing cat and rusty spotted cat. However, the problem lies in the fact that many of these species are fairly (or extremely in some cases) low in number, nocturnal, or generally elusive because of their diminutive stature (trying to spot a palm squirrel in a thicket bush being no easy feat). For example, Asian elephants would obviously be a massive draw. Whilst you stand a chance of seeing one or more in Bundala their numbers are as low as 10 depending on the time of year you visit. There are even fewer leopard; so if that’s your main aim I would shoot for Yala where, in stark contrast, the leopard density is reportedly the highest anywhere in the World! The mammals you’re most likely to spot in Bundala are buffalo, ruddy mongoose, spotted deer, grey langur and toque macaque (the monkeys being particularly prevalent).
What’s also of interest in Bundala are the resident reptiles; in particular its several species of crocodile, turtle and land monitor lizard; all of which you stand a strong chance of spotting. Amongst the crocodiles you might be able to spot both estuarine and mugger crocodiles whilst Bundala’s beach coastline will afford you the opportunity to spot loggerhead, green, hawk’s bill and Olive Ridley turtles – particularly if you visit between October and January when they lay their eggs on the park’s beaches.
As I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, Bundala’s ‘pièce de résistance’ are its flying residents. The park has been identified as an ‘Important Bird Area’ in the South Indian and Sri Lankan wetlands by Ramsar (that didn’t mean much to me, but apparently it’s a big deal amongst the ‘highly influential’ waterfowl community) and is home to over 200 species of bird (many being migratory and arriving between October and March). The highlight of these is the greater flamingo – although their numbers dropped after the 2004 tsunami and don’t seem to have recovered as this article attests (in fact I didn’t see any on my visit to the park). I was also a fan of the innumerable Indian peafowl a.k.a. Peacock which can be found not only scurrying along the park’s roads but also quietly surveying passing safari-goers from up in the palu fruit trees. Put simply, if you’re a birding enthusiast then this is probably the best place for you in Sri Lanka.
All of the above said, and as much as ‘wildlife’ category should probably include the flying variety, I’m going to confine my wildlife review to those of the mammalian and reptilian persuasion for the sake of consistency with my other safari ratings. So my rating of 2.5 stars should be read with the caveat that if you’re a birder then you’re going to love Bundala!
Scenery – 4.5*
Bundala is largely characterized by its five shallow, brackish lagoons (some of which are also utilized for the production of salt) that are spread over the parks 14.28 square miles. Beyond the lagoons the park consists mainly of dry thorny scrublands and marshes with sand dunes bordering the park’s 20km of coastline. The combination of sandy beaches along the Indian ocean and the tree-fringed lagoons provides a stunning setting for the park. At sunrise and sunset this is heightened even further, so if you’re a photographer then make sure you’re in the park during the ‘golden hours’. Even if you aren’t a birder I’d say that the scenery alone makes the park a worthwhile place to visit; if nothing else it’ll allow you to escape the crowds at Yala for a few hours!
Accommodation – 3*
Although Bundala is a very quiet national park it benefits sizably from its proximity to the occasional circus-like scenes at the much more popular Yala National park; which sits a mere 30-45 minutes up the road. As you’d expect, a fairly substantial tourist industry has popped up in and around Yala to cater for the influx of tourists and this infrastructure also serves Bundala well. Your best bet is to book accommodation in either Hambantota or Tissamaharama (Tissa). Hambantota lies 15km west of the park’s main gate and offers a number of hotels and Indian-Ocean front resorts including a 5* Shangri-La resort with its own golf course. Alternatively, Tissa is located 15km east of the park’s main gate and is a good location if you plan to visit Yala from the same base. In Tissa you’ll find everything from backpacker-type accommodation and camping all the way to luxury hotels. If you’re looking to splash out or want to stay away from the main towns then there are a few high-end resorts South of Tissa (Jetwing Yala and Cinnamon Wild are two of the main ones) along the Indian Ocean coastline which are about a 35 minute drive away from the entrance to the park. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there are no options available that would allow you to stay within the park’s boundaries.
Access – 3.5*
Bundala National Park is located 251 km southeast of Colombo, close to the City of Hambantota in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. The quickest route from Colombo is a 5 hour drive along the scenic A2 highway. You have two main options for getting to Bundala – car or air – and therein lies the reason I couldn’t give the park anything more than 3.5* for its access rating. Unfortunately there just aren’t any well documented, easy and reliable public transport options by bus or rail.
Your best bet is to either hire a car or a car and driver (Lotus cabs were recommended to me as reliable and decent value if you want to hire a car with driver). The drive from Colombo is on tarred road of good quality along portions of the southern coastline meaning that you could stop en route in other tourist destinations like Galle, Unawatuna or Mirissa (the latter being perfect for whale watching) if you don’t fancy the bum-numbing journey in one go.
If your budget extends beyond driving the distance then you could opt to fly in to Mattala International Airport or Weerawila Domestic Airport by either plane or, at the super fancy end of the scale, helicopter. If that sounds tempting then check out the options available from Cinnamon Air, Sri Lankan Airlines or Fly Sri Lanka.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3*
If you’re a seasoned safari-goer then Bundala might not have enough ‘mammalian’ wildlife on offer to completely quench your thirst. That said, it has a number of advantages. The biggest is that you can really feel a sense of solitude on safari in Bundala. If you’ve been to, or are also planning to visit, nearby Yala National Park then you know, or will soon know, what a huge statement that is. I was in the park for around three hours (I’d focused most of my efforts on Yala because of the leopard and sloth bear photography opportunities) and I encountered just ONE other safari-jeep. By contrast, I encountered 40 vehicles in the queue just to get IN to Yala at 6am. The second major advantage is the scenery. I found Bundala absolutely stunning; largely because of the lagoons and its Indian Ocean boundary (which was where I chose to stop to eat a picnic breakfast). The scenery almost made up for the distinct lack of mammals….almost. The final advantage only comes if you’re a birding fanatic. I’m not, and so found the experience significantly less exciting and hence I felt I could only give it a 3* x-factor rating. If you’re a birder I imagine this would be significantly higher!
Best Time To Visit: If you’re a birder then the best time to visit is between September and March, when the migratory birds arrive. If you want to witness the turtle nesting season then restrict that even further and arrive between October and February. As with most safaris you’re best to arrive at the park first thing in the morning (it opens at 6am) or in the late afternoon (it closes at 6pm).
Guides and Safari Vehicle Drivers: Trackers and drivers (with vehicles) can easily be arranged at all hotels and lodges in Hambantota and Tissa. If you’re on a budget then try and team up with others as the costs quickly rack up for a day’s safari. You’ll have the option of ‘luxury’ and ‘super-luxury’ vehicles neither of which truly lives up to their names. My advice, particularly if you enjoy photography, is to opt for the ‘super luxury’ option. Just remember that tips are expected and you should try and set aside about USD 20 per couple.