If you know me well, you know I love elephants. I’m not overly obsessive or anything, just fully appreciative of these majestic, gorgeous animals. Maybe I relate to them a little — I’m empathetic, gentle, fairly intelligent, I have a pretty good memory for things that happened a long time ago, and, well, I’m big.
Okay, not elephant big, but bigger (okay fine, taller) than most of my friends.
Whatever it is that draws me to elephants drew Madison and I to the Mondulkiri Project in Eastern Cambodia. After spending a few days in Siem Reap and loving it (the Old Market and the War Museum were both noteworthy sights) we took off to Phnom Penh as a stopping point on our way to Senmonorom (aka Mondulkiri province). It was a six hour minivan drive outside of Phnom Penh, but Madison and I were determined to visit a proper elephant sanctuary, and not one that just puts ‘sanctuary’ in its name and pretends like that counts.
Madison and I were determined to visit a proper elephant sanctuary, and not one that just puts ‘sanctuary’ in its name and pretends like that counts.
For how many elephant experiences are in Southeast Asia, it’s surprisingly difficult to find an actual rehabilitation centre where elephants aren’t exploited. Too many promise that they take good care of the animals, when in reality they’re kept in a small pen, on chains, or not given nearly enough food and water between trotting around with too many tourists on their backs. It’s sad, pathetic, and not okay for people to turn a blind eye. I’ll be the first to admit that I made the wrong choice once (three years ago, you can read about it here) and I will now be damn sure to never support something like that again. We’re only human and we all make mistakes, but be diligent and do your research — make sure wherever you go to see elephants is actually helping them (and not just their owners’ wallets).
But back to Mondulkiri. The Elephant Adventure Tour that we booked was a one-day trek, but started at 8:30am and went until 5ish so we booked two nights at the Tree Lodge surrounding the visit. The Tree Lodge works directly with the Mondulkiri Project, and is the only hotel (sorry, treehouse?) in the area that has free pick-up and drop-off from the tours. It made sense and it seemed like an authentic (read: cheap and rugged) stay so we thought why the hell not.
I made the wrong choice once and I will now be damn sure to never support something like that again.
The Tree Lodge was as expected — a wooden structure that served as the restaurant and common area with multiple treehouse-style bungalows running along one side. Each room is fairly basic (just a bed or two, surprisingly comfy mattresses and completely lumpy pillows included), plus an unfinished bathroom that has hot water but open pipes so that the water just drains through the rock and dirt floor. I tried not to look around too much for spiders and instead opt for ‘ignorance is bliss’, and the overall stay was a great one. The staff speak really good english, and the place was surprisingly packed. We hadn’t seen a single other foreigner the whole way to Mondulkiri, and yet as soon as we walked in the door, there they were. White people everywhere.
Bright and early the next day, we woke up and scoffed down a quick breakfast of muesli and fruit before going to the Mondulkiri Project. As promised, the truck picked us up and so we all loaded into the open-back eagerly awaiting the trek. The site wasn’t far away, but the road turned into quite an uneven one and so Madison and I had troubles not sliding around, especially considering we still had one injured leg each from our accident.
I tried not to look around too much for spiders and instead opt for ‘ignorance is bliss’.
As we reached the peak of a hill, the truck stops and we all climbed out to walk the rest of the way. It’s cooler here than it had been in the city and downhill (thank god) but Madison and I still strugged a little bit to keep up with everyone else. Doesn’t matter though, the experience was still exceptional.
The trek starts with an informative session from the Mondulkiri Project’s founder, Mr. Tree (yes, really). He tells us about how the project is a recognized NGO in Cambodia, how their money goes to renting the forest from local families (so people can’t log it), employing the locals to work at the sanctuary, and, of course, buying elephants. I never knew what an Elephant cost, but Mr. Tree told us that the cheapest they had cost an astounding $28,000 USD, and that the more expensive ones fell more around $40,000. It depends I suppose on age and the shape of the elephant, but they invest everything they have to save as many elephants as possible, give them the veterinary care they need, and give them a place to live out the rest of their days. These elephants will never leave the sanctuary, and will never have another tourists (or even mahout) on their backs again. In fact, they just recently bought a large male elephant (his name is Big Mike) and they’re hoping to have a baby elephant soon. Imagine: an elephant born and raised in Cambodia without being subjected to torturous tourism practices at all. That’s the dream people.
The Mondulkiri Project is a recognized NGO that saves the forest, employs local people, and saves elephants.
And while yes, this is a form of tourism as well, there is no harm done to the elephants. Mr. Tree explained to us over and over that they never make the elephants do anything they don’t want to do, and so maybe they’ll come find us, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll bathe in the waterfall with us, or maybe they won’t. That decision is left entirely up the elephants, and we were equipped with little else than an arm full of bananas to tempt them our way.
But Bananas — man, do they work. After walking just five minutes through the jungle we came across two elephants: Happy and Sophie. Happy is currently being rented by the Mondulkiri Project until they have enough funds to buy her in full, and Sophie is one of the older elephants. After the pair poked at us with their trunks to discover as many bananas as possible, we moved on and came across Lucky. Apparently, Lucky is a bit more of a introvert — shy, a bit scared of the other elephants, and doesn’t like to be social for long. She ate some bananas and then ventured back off into the forest, leaving us in awe as the final two elephants ran (yes, ran) over to us. These two were probably the most comical, and their names are Comvine and Princess. Comvine is by far the largest elephant (and also the one they’re hoping will become a mother) and Princess is smaller, but Comvine follows her everywhere she goes. As for big mike? Well, we weren’t allowed to see him because he has a tendency to be a bit aggressive.
Maybe they’ll bathe in the waterfall with us, or maybe they won’t. That decision is left entirely up the elephants, and we were equipped with little else than an arm full of bananas to tempt them our way.
After all the bananas were gone, we took to the Jungle Lodge for lunch and a rest before walking back through the Jungle to the waterfall. It was along the way that Comvine came running through the bush, joining into our single-file line and blocking the path for anyone who still had bananas (urging them, of course, to pay the toll). She was the first one in the water when we got to it, and while two other elephants also came by for a bath, Madison and I sadly had to watch from the sidelines as the wounds on our legs weren’t quite ready to get wet. Especially when there might be elephant pee in the mix. I mean, you never know.
If you’d like to donate to the Mondulkiri Project so they can keep their NGO running and save more elephants, you can do so here. Or, come to Cambodia and know that your money for the trek is going to a great cause!