As our time in Cambodia came to a close, we had one final trip to tick off our Cambodian bucket list, elephant trekking in Mondulkiri Province. This is something we had been excited to experience since we arrived here but we had never quite managed to trip to the north east side of the country. Mondulkiri is a rural area with outstanding landscapes, lush green fields and dense forests. However like in most of Cambodia the area is under threat from logging, poaching, government land grabs and unsustainable tourism.
Through out our travels we have tried to make ethical tourism choices and support local businesses and NGOs. There are many organisations in Mondulkiri which offer elephants rides, trekking and long stay volunteer options. When we began researching the projects it was clear that they were all in competition with each other to be the most ethically sound option. The most popular organisation is the Elephant Valley Project, having been featured in the Lonely Planet for some time, it takes the lions share of business in the area. Due to its popularity it was fully booked at the time we wanted to visit, we asked the staff if they could recommend another project in the area, they gave us a flat NO and actually encouraged us not to visit any other projects. Having encountered some of their western staff in Mondulkiri it was clear that they thought very highly of their own ability to save the world and had strong opinions of everyone elses efforts. Just because someone is not doing as much good as you, does not necessarily mean they are doing harm, the EVP should take note of this. After looking into a few of the different elephant options in Mondulkiri we decided to use a project run by locals which benefits the indigenous people as well as the elephants. We paid US$45 for a day visit to The Mondulkiri Project and had a fantastic experience. We felt the elephants where well looked after and the project staff showed great care and love for the animals.
We were picked up by our guide Mr. Tree and driven off road through the countryside to a lodge in the forest. Mr. Tree explained the aims of the project and how it ran. Similar to Chi Phat which we visited in the Cardomom Mountains, it is a community based ethical tourism project. The project started this year and with just two elephants and a handful of staff, it is very much in its infancy. Many elephants in the area are used as tractors, pulling heavy loads or carrying tourists around. They are over worked and treated poorly by their owners, this means they are dying younger and unable to breed. The project aims to save some of the overworked elephants and begin a breeding project. It employs local people and supports poor families by providing rice and medical care to them. The elephants get to live in the forest, they do not have to work any more and can spend their days eating, bathing and enjoying being elephants!
We set off into the forest in search of the elephants, due to it being rainy season the ground was very slippery and the short walk down hill to the river was quite treacherous in parts. We waited by the river, each with a bunch of bananas for the elephants to come to us. After a few minutes we saw a beautifully elegant elephant from across the water. It entered the fast moving river gracefully and began making its way towards us. Seeing an elephant in such close proximity is awe inspiring, we stood captivated and open mouthed marvelling its beauty. When it reached us it climbed out of the water and immediately began sniffing us, searching for the bananas. The elephant’s long trunk wrapped itself all around our bodies, sniffing and snorting and covering us in mud. As we got out the bananas and began placing them in her trunk, a second elephant made its way across the water to meet us. We spent an exciting few minutes feeding them and getting to know them a bit better. They were playful and surprisingly calm, we never once felt scared or frightened by them despite their size and power. We stroked their wrinkled skin, which was rough and full of bristles. We experienced a few muddy elephant trunk cuddles as they searched out the bananas from behind our backs.
Once they had eaten everything we had, they made their way towards the forest and began munching on trees, roots, plants, bamboo, anything that they could find. We watched them rub up against trees to scratch their enormous bodies and bulldoze their way through areas of vegetation. Mr. Tree told us a little more about how the elephants came to be in the project and how they had been helped since they arrived. We spent the rest of the morning following the elephants through the forest, watching them pull at the trees with their powerful trunks. The slippery path back to the lodge became a lot easier to walk on, as the elephants created muddy steps for us with their gigantic feet.
We had lunch with Mr. Tree in the lodge over looking the forest, then we all settled in our hammocks for rest, the exciting morning tired us out and we all drifted off to sleep for a while. In the afternoon Mr. Tree took us on a short walk, we crossed a fast flowing river and he told us about the plants in the forest. We found the elephants in a grass field, munching their way through the vegetation. We sat and watched their graceful movements and followed them around for a little while longer.
Next it was time for the elephants to have a bath. As it was rainy season, the water was quite high and fast flowing so we decided not to go in the river to help out. We watched from the bank as the Mahout steered the elephant into the water and lovingly washed it. Mr. Tree explained how it was important to help the elephant wash to remove dirt and parasites from the areas she could not reach. After her bath she climbed out of the water and flapped her huge ears, covering us in muddy water! Then she went to a muddy patch at the side of the river and began to cover herself in fresh mud, grabbing big lumps with her trunk and mixing it with water before throwing it over her back.
The only down side to our visit to Mondulkiri was returning to our guest house to find Emily’s iPhone had been stolen from our room. So if you do visit the area, do not stay at Heng Heng guest house as the staff are thieves! However, we had a wonderful time walking with the elephants and would recommend The Mondulkiri Project to anyone who would like to experience an ethical, safe, elephant trek.