If you want to have a more up close and personal elephant experience then I can recommend Inspire Sri Lanka Elephant Volunteering Project just down the road from Pinnawala.
Here you can stay from one week to one year and during your time you will be involved in all things elephant! From daily care and feeding, to learning about anatomy and health and sickness signs, to helping the vet with the regular monthly vet check. As a special treat you will also be shown how to handle your elephant using traditional mahout skills - no other volunteer project gives you that. Plus plenty of riding and elephant cuddling.
There is also an Eco farm which produces fruit, veg and eggs.
They also offer you the chance to help teach English at a local girls orphanage.
All in all a great volunteering project run by an English ex volunteer.
Go check it out!
Read more: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/2115e2/#ixzz1Viq4wG2P
You pay an entrance fee and after walking around the many very touristy shops which sell all things elephants in the immediate vicinity of the sanctuary you go in and can see the elephants grazing.
The next step is that they take the elephants into a small wooden arena area, at the side of this area there is seating for all of the visitors and they lead the elephants in and then strap then with shackles so that they cant move very far. They then feed them, give them wood to play with and let members of the audience feed the babies from bottles.
After all that has happened, you leave the sanctuary grounds and walk past all of the shops in the village again, and the volunteers at the orphanage walk the elephants through the village and down towards the river (a sight in itself!).
Once at the river, this is the elephants bathing time, and you can see them chilled out, washing themselves and playing around in the waters naturally.
There is a cafe you can go to and watch the elephants in the river around lunchtime if you did not want to go into the sanctuary itself.
Now, don't get me wrong, I do give, I am not a rich westerner who visits third world countries and does not contribute in some way - I do, but at Pinnewala I felt like they were taking advantage of the fact that I am a tourist and this time I wasn't standing for it.
I already felt like the orphanage was a bit of a circus for tourists anyway, but hey we were here, we had paid our entrance fee and we wanted to see the elephants. So, when I walked over and stood next to one of the elephants and had my photo taken I did not expect to be poked by the man who was holding the elephant and then be shouted at for money.
Later on, in the horrid arena like area I was asked by one of the guys to come over and feed the baby - of course I obliged, I mean how many other times in my life will I get to feed a baby elephant. But I should have known better, of course he then started demanding money from me too.
In my eyes, if you volunteer you are in it to help the people/animals - not yourself and so I totally refused to give them any money. This just enhanced in my mind that this place exists as a tourist circus and not a "true" elephant orphanage anymore which is a crying shame.