After finishing in Siem Reap I was thoroughly looking forward to getting out of the city for a bit. We’d basically been city hopping since we left Hanoi so were in need of clean air and peace and quiet. Our plan was to get a bus to Mondulkiri Province in the north-east of Cambodia to visit an elephant sanctuary. Of course, we wanted to see elephants, it’s kind of a given in this part of the world. But we did question whether we could see the animals without condoning animal enslavement. It’s not recent news that elephant riding is abusive but I was surprised to learn that it’s considered the most cruel animal tourist attraction according to World Animal Protection.
We were pretty much travelling from one side of the country to the other which required another early morning stumbling around in the dark to catch the 6 am bus. This time the mini van driver was already waiting outside the hostel once we emerged from our dorm. I actually forgot to return my locker padlock to reception which I did feel a little guilty about, although I have to say it’s been an incredibly useful bit of loot throughout the trip.
The mini van was pretty comfy compared to the other buses we’ve endured although the driving was still insane and there were pot holes everywhere. We followed our journey on Google Maps intermittently and thought we were making good time, but we hadn’t been told that the bus was going south all the way back to Phnom Penh first! Gah. It explained why the journey was twelve hours long. That’s just one of the trials and tribulations of travelling in this area of the world; roads aren’t great and journeys are seldom direct, so using a map to plan the order of your trip can be very misleading. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination I reminded myself. Hmmm…
Once we got to Phnom Penh we changed over into an almost identical minibus for the rest of the stretch. A couple on board were clearly seasoned travellers and asked us if we were going to see elephants. They enquired as to which place we were going to and reeled off the names of a few organisations. We couldn’t remember off the top of our heads but checked our details a few hours later during a toilet break. Once we confirmed that we were going to Mr Tree’s project and were staying in the nearby bungalows, the wife “muttered” ‘what are they spending, a thousand a week?’ Cheeky mare! It was $5 each a night and none of her business anyway. Pish tush to her.
By nightfall we finally reached Mondulkiri, much to our relief. We didn’t need to bother with a taxi as Mr. Tree’s wife was coming to collect us. A pick-up truck rolled up to the curb, the woman herself, and she told us to hop in the back. Call me a child but I was way too excited by the prospect of actually riding in the back of a truck. The bumpy roads suddenly became a lot more fun.
The accommodation was unlike any of other places we had already stayed in. We checked in at the main lodge, the family home and a kitchen/restaurant which served the best ginger tea ever – I ordered pots of the stuff during our stay. There was a small balcony and watching the changing colours of the sunset over the expanse of forest isn’t something I’ll forget anytime soon. Past the main lodge were bamboo walkways which led to the wooden bungalows. Each bungalow had a small porch with a hammock, double beds with mosquito nets, and a bathroom built on slabs in the ground. The boiler had gone so the shower was freezing but it was a great little place to stay for a couple of nights.
In the morning we were up early for breakfast and ready to go. We were joined by a few others, and, being the youngest, were squeezed in the back of the pick-up truck again, this time joined by another English girl taking a gap year. The journey was hilarious. The dirt road was like a big dipper the entire way. I’m just glad the breaks were working order!
We reached a bamboo lodge in the forest and were joined by some French travellers who were also trekking through the surrounding jungle. It was there that we met Mr Tree (yes, I was surprised that this was actually his name), a small and extremely friendly man who laughed at everything he or someone else said, even if it was a serious subject.
Mr Tree had originally been a tuk tuk driver – interesting, as it made me consider all the other drivers we’ve encountered – before he set up the project with financial help from an Australian man. He told us of his concerns about the declining elephant populations and the destruction of Cambodia’s forests. Between both of these issues is also the welfare of the indigenous people of Mondulkiri’s forest.
Mondulkiri is covered by seasonal tropical forest but it is under huge threat due to logging, which is often illegal. The demand for timber, particularly from Vietnam and Thailand, is fuelling the problem, and Chinese investors have cleared native trees to create space for pine or rubber plantations. As Mr Tree put it: ‘from your country you come and you love the forest, but in Asia they see forest as money.’ True to some extent, as we are fortunate enough to be more educated about the environmental issues, but some of the products made from the timber must end up being sold in Europe anyway. Any government interventions have been useless, as they are clearly so keen for business. And plenty of officials seem to have done well out of it…
The indigenous communities are extremely poor so will sell the land to provide a couple of years wages for the village. Their population is expanding and even elderly members of the Bunong community must work very hard to farm enough resources from the land and for very little income. The families tend to be huge too, so family income is stretched considerably. Tree told us that he once witnessed a woman with three babies strapped to her whilst working during the day.
Tree talked about the need to provide the Bunong children with education although it will be no easy feat. Education would give them better opportunities and teach them about the environmental issues, which many villages aren’t too concerned about. ‘I hear something about killing the tree which makes the earth warmer and a hole in the ozone. This is correct? I heard through the radio,’ (clearly one of the benefits about increasing access to media). Of course, many families are reluctant to have their children educated: it means less hands available to work, it could mean sending the children away, and many don’t see the benefit. Tree recalled a time when families were offered condoms to help with family planning – the children just used them as balloons! Education would be beneficial but it’s difficult to help without interfering with the community’s values and culture.
Many of the villages in the province rely on elephants for work so the animal as are often under strain for most of their life. On top of this, breeding is costly which isn’t helping the population issue. For the owner of the mother, it means that the elephant is out of work for four years as the gestation period alone is 18 months, and then she must nurse the baby. As many village communities are animists, they believe that elephants must undergo a wedding before they can breed and the cost of this falls with the owner of the male elephant. So yeah, little incentive for anyone to breed babies.
It all sounds rather doom-and-gloom I know, but Mr Tree had a knack of entertaining us whilst relaying all of this, particularly when he said he would like a male because ‘I know Com Vine wants baby because I see the water come from her vageen.’ Everyone cracked up but he insisted ‘I know she does! I know it!’ He also diverged into the differences between African and Asian elephants and said ‘see I think it is strange, if you take African and Asian elephant you cannot make baby but if you take African and Asian human you can make baby, how is this possible?’ A lot of laughs indeed.
So, with all these issues, what is the solution? Tree’s contribution to tackling the issues is to own a chunk of the forest so it cannot be touched by loggers. It also provides plenty of space for the elephants. He employs locals from the Bunong community to create income opportunities that don’t involve forest destruction, and he gives tourists the opportunities to see elephants without compromising the animals’ well-being. Unlike other ‘sanctuaries’ where elephants are rented out for the day, the elephants live in the forest permanently and they are never forced to do anything. Riding is strictly forbidden, even for the mahouts, and Tree observes their behaviour to make sure they are happy. They can be ushered with an ‘ey ey’ call, but if they are unresponsive they are left in peace.
It was a fascinating discussion (and I hope I haven’t bored you to death retelling it all) but by this point I was dying to get going. We walked into the forest where Tree called the elephants. After a minute we could see the foliage shuffling in the distance and then emerged two of the elephants, Come Vine and Princess. It was one of those rare breath taking moments. Seeing such enormous and beautiful creatures walking towards you was immense. I was in love.
Come Vine (Kum Van), the leader and bigger of the two, sniffed out the bananas we’d hidden behind our backs within moments. I couldn’t get over her size, especially the length of her trunk. The texture of the skin was bizarre; very rough, but somehow I liked it.
The other elephant, Princess, is much older, and dubbed the ‘lazy elephant’ by Tree, hence her name. Once she spotted a banana she would her mouth would hang open and she would wait for you to put it in for her, rather than bothering to use her trunk. It made me chuckle. It was clear to see that she was the follower; once Come Vine decided to retreat from us fifteen minutes or so later, she followed suit. We followed from a distance to watch them eating the bamboo and sure enough, once Come Vine decided to join us again, she tagged along.
Tree had five elephants – I’ve since learned that two more have been brought to the project – but the other three, Lucky, Sophie and Chi Chan (‘Moon’), stay together in another herd. Apparently Lucky and Come Vine are both leaders so once Come Vine arrived the group split into two herds. I was most excited to see elephant Sophie, as ridiculous as it sounds, but it why would you not be thrilled to have a namesake elephant. She was huge and seemed to be the most independent of them all (similar personalities maybe?) as she didn’t linger too long and is reluctant to take baths. (For the record, I do like baths.)
After this we walked back to the lodge for lunch which had been cooked by two local women. It was a basic but tasty meal of rice and mixed vegetables seasoned with local herbs. We spent a lovely half hour swinging in hammocks on the balcony. It was so great to just take in the surroundings and enjoy the peace. A proper ‘living in the now’ moment, as my mum would call it. In fact it was so restful I started nodding off and woke myself up with a little snore…
We had a cup of coffee before we set off again, this time with another guide from one of the local communities, trained by Mr Tree. He stopped along the way to point out a few things to us including a resin tree. Locals burn a little hole into the tree and later scoop out the resin. The tree is still alive and recovers before the try another side a few years later. We also got to learn about the digestive system of the elephants with visual evidence provided by the guide who dissected the elephant dung. Wonderful stuff.
Our destination was a small waterfall, one of the spots where the elephants bathe. Four of the elephants prefer to bathe themselves, but Princess, the lazy elephant, enjoys having water thrown over her to save herself the effort. After being called by the guide she began plodding up the stream and submerged herself in the deepest part of the waterfall. We were able to join her to throw water over her and gently scrub her skin. Once she started to stand up we knew that she was finished so left her to return back to the forest.
We then observed the other elephants taking their baths in another river. The mahouts encourage bathing to stop any skin infections developing, a challenge with Sophie who basically just walked straight through the stream. The others submerged themselves for much longer so we spent another half hour watching and taking in the beautiful forest. A magical day.
Whilst in Thailand I saw a poster with the slogan ‘if you can pet it, feed it, or take a selfie with it, then it’s abuse,’ which I think must be the case in most situations. Were we wrong to go to Mondulkiri then? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seemed like a great set up and a win-win set up for everyone: the local communities have job opportunities, tourists see elephants in their natural environment, at least a substantial chuck of the forest is protected, and, most importantly, the elephants are free from any abuse or control.