Cambodian Safari Part II: Elephants in Mondulkiri

July 2014

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The Elephant Valley Project

Motorbike engine

Going into the mountains

When will it come back?

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

This is the second post about a recent trip to north-east Cambodia (see Cambodian Safari Part I). After a few days in Kratie we headed across to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, to visit the Elephant Valley Project.

The predominant mode of transport between Kratie and Sen Monorom is public minibus. Minibuses depart daily at around 8 a.m. from the main depot. Tickets are 30,000 riel ($7.50), and the trip takes about five hours. This bus service can get very crowded; we waited about forty-five minutes to leave Kratie while the ‘minibus manager’ (a bossy man with a shaved head and a silver whistle around his neck) squeezed as many bums onto seats as possible. We stopped to pick up more passengers along the way and at its fullest I think the bus must have been carrying about 35 people, plus babies on laps, big hessian bags of supplies, and a motorbike (that at one point started leaking oil down the aisle). The minibus probably stopped as often as Sorya did, but it was much faster (at times frighteningly fast, with scenery whooshing by and the driver honking at every corner) and got us to Sen Monorom exactly on schedule. Travelling to Phnom Penh from Mondulkiri at the end of our trip, however, was even better: we booked tickets with the Kim Seng Express Van service ($11 per person), which got us back to the city (about 350 kilometres away) in less than five hours. The Kim Seng vans are really comfortable, fast, and only seat about 12 passengers.

Wet early morning

Trees shake with wind and water

Not raining but rained

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

Almost as soon as you cross into Mondulkiri province the landscape changes. The terrain is more mountainous, there is mist, the air is much cooler, and the trees are a different sort of green. It seems to be almost always raining, at least a little bit; showers come in waves, like gusts of wind. Sen Monorom (the provincial capital) is small – I think the population is around 8,000 – and has only recently (thanks to the improved road between Mondulkiri and Phnom Penh) become a tourist destination. We had a few brochures and maps handed to us as we got off the bus, but weren’t hassled very much at all.

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Nature Lodge

We stayed at the Nature Lodge, a $1 moto-taxi ride from the centre of town. The Nature Lodge is a sprawling collection of bungalows and tree-houses, run with ecological and social responsibility in mind (like Le Tonle in Kratie, they provide jobs and training for local people). Staying at the Nature Lodge reminded me simultaneously of being on a farm, in the forest, and on a school camp. The rolling green land is shared with cows and horses, and the information leaflet notes that “As we are in natural settings, you may encounter a little friend like a gecko, bird or squirrel”. Our wooden bungalow (just $10 per night) was very cosy, and came complete with a hot shower, ingeniously powered by a gas bottle (very welcome on cool Mondulkiri mornings). The central bar/restaurant is full of comfy booths, and its jungle-like design felt like something out of The Magic Faraway Tree. Friendly cats, veggie burgers, very generous glasses of red wine for $2.50, homemade apple pie, and good music made us very happy.    

Mud is everywhere

Sucking like a kid on thumb

Brown like chocolate

(-Mondulkiri haikus)

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Bousra Waterfall

We had a couple of free days in Sen Monorom before seeing the elephants. Some of that spare time was spent writing (hence the haikus) and relaxing, but we also headed out to explore the surrounding countryside. The staff at the Nature Lodge helped us rent two motorbikes, but as soon as I got on mine I realised I wasn’t going to be able to ride on the extremely muddy and slippery roads. My boyfriend kept his, and I hopped on the back of a moto-taxi. We headed first to Bousra – arguably Cambodia’s most famous waterfall – about 40 kilometres out of Sen Monorom. Parts of the drive were very difficult (thick, sucking red mud had a few cars bogged on one particularly bad hill) but generally the road was good. At Bousra we paid a 5,000 riel ($1.25) entry fee, and walked a short way down to the waterfall. It was a sublime sight in the truest sense of the word: beautiful and terrifying. A huge amount of roaring water tumbled over jagged black rocks and sent up a constant spray in our direction. It became difficult to tell what was waterfall and what was rain.

On the way back my moto driver stopped by the side of the road to show us a traditional Bunong house (the Bunong are the indigenous people of Mondulkiri province). The house was low to the ground, long, with a thatched roof. Inside a fire burnt in the middle of the floor, and the walls were lined with raised benches. Some piglets darted in and out. I tried out my basic Khmer skills and asked a few questions of the woman living there: How many people? (2 families) How long? (10 years). It was interesting, but felt a little strange to wander into someone’s house largely uninvited.

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Coffee cherries

Our last stop for the day was a coffee farm, where we drank strong Mondulkiri coffee from little white cups, and then wandered through rows of trees hanging with green coffee cherries. There were a few little plantations of pink strawberries, too.

On our last day in Mondulkiri we donned raincoats, pulled on our hiking shoes, and went in search of elephants with the Elephant Valley Project. EVP is one of many elephant-tourism projects in Mondulkiri, but (in my opinion) it is the most ecologically sound. EVP is part of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E), an NGO dedicated to protecting elephants in Cambodia. There are about 260 wild elephants left in protected areas of the country, and about 140 of those live in the Seima Forest in Mondulkiri. Of the approximately 83 captive elephants in Cambodia, about 54 live in Mondulkiri. EVP (started by Englishman Jack Highwood) strives to rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have spent most of their lives in captivity – either with a Bunong family or working in the logging or tourist industries (i.e. giving rides to backpackers around temples in Siem Reap). Sometimes EVP will take elephants that are sick or tired for short ‘rest’ periods. Elephants that come to the Elephant Valley Project are allowed to roam in large amounts of forest, accompanied by a mahout whose job it is to make sure they eat enough, bathe daily, and keep off farmland. Visiting elephants with EVP as a tourist means hiking into the forest and observing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Because these elephants have spent much of their lives around people they are not shy, and while most of them didn’t approach us, they didn’t seem at all bothered to have us following them around.

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Mud

Because of the rain and the resulting slippery roads the only way to get out to EVP’s section of the forest is (at least for the moment) by four-wheel-drive. About eight of us (plus our guide) piled into two cars and bumped and slid our way to the edge of the jungle. From there we walked, careful not to slip on red mud and green moss. We passed through farmland, where bright green rice was supplemented by corn, cashews, and cassava (apparently this root vegetable is in great demand in China, where they are somehow able to turn it into a biofuel). We then crossed a rapidly flowing stream (water up to our knees), and finally spotted our first elephant.

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Bath time

How to describe an elephant? Big. An outlandish creature, like no other animal in appearance. It still amazes me that these animals are real – in some ways it is easier to believe in unicorns than elephants. They are hairy close up, and muddy-coloured (at least, before they take their daily bath). Their ears are pink at the edges and seem thin and floppy, like ragged cloth, and they flap them back and forth when they’re happy. Huge, intelligent eyes; agile trunks that move like they are creatures of their own. Toenails the size of bathroom tiles, they can crush a banana tree log with a tap of a foot. Slow, plodding, and gentle, but so large that it is frightening when one walks towards you. They spend most of their time eating (everything – grass, fruit, bamboo); they need to eat 10% of their body weight each day. While they eat they socialise – they touch each other with their trunks, and make a huge variety of sounds: the classic, happy trumpeting, but also a deep rumbling, and a chirping-squeaking that reminded me of birds. They are perfectly adapted to their jungle environment – if it weren’t for humans, they would thrive. Their ability to exist in such dense forest, to disappear so quickly and completely into the green, is incredible.

Over the course of the day we met nine different elephants in two different areas of the forest. Each elephant has its own personality, and I could easily get carried away writing about each of them. But for this post I’ll stick to the two that I found the most memorable – Onion and Easy Rider.

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Onion

Onion was the first elephant we met, and (remarkably, given her history of ill-treatment) the most willing to approach us. She had been suffering from a toothache, so one of our guides had brought in some bananas and some long leafy lemongrass to help ease her pain. Onion came to EVP after being over-worked in the logging industry. She was so exhausted she just stopped working, and to keep her going her owners cut a hole in the front of her head and put a hook into the open wound. You can still see the scar on her forehead. She hasn’t managed to make friends with any of the other female elephants at the project, but for a while she was very close to a male – named Bob – who recently died. The staff at EVP were careful to keep Onion away from the place where Bob is buried, as apparently it’s not unusual for an elephant to die of a broken heart.

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Banana tree logs before elephants …

Easy Rider is one of two elephants that EVP tried to purchase from an owner in Phnom Penh. Before she came to the project she spent some time helping to hunt down poachers in the forest, and one day walked into a metal trap which pierced her deep into her side. Her owners at the time called Jack Highwood out of desperation, and Jack (who is not a vet) had to study books of elephant insides in order to put her back together. With limited resources, he had to seal her wound with superglue! Years later, when she came to EVP, Jack was amazed and delighted to realise that she had survived.

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… banana tree logs after elephants

I’ve always been a little in love with elephants, and this was by far the best pachyderm experience I’ve ever had. It was magical to observe these animals in an environment so close to their natural habitat; to see them chatting, munching, relaxed and happy.

Other Mondulkiri tips …

-There is no international ATM in Sen Monorom, so make sure you bring enough cash for your trip (unless you have an Acleda bank account).

The Greenhouse Bar and Restaurant is a great place to stop in town for a meal, information, and Wi-Fi. They also had some adorable puppies when we visited.

The Hefalump Café (opposite the Greenhouse) is a good place to stop off for information on other eco-tourism projects around Sen Monorom (as well as coffee and cake).  

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