When we arrived in Cambodia, we had three major stops we wanted to make. The first was Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary.
Mondulkiri is the easternmost province of Cambodia. It’s filled with lush jungle and rolling hills, and we were told it was a bit cooler than the rest of the country, but we didn’t really notice the drop from a balmy 108 degrees in Phnom Penh to a brisk 100 degrees up in the hills. It was still hot, just with more trees now.
When we were coming up with ideas of places we really wanted to see and things we really wanted to do on this trip, elephants were immediately at the top of our list. We both love elephants and care a great deal about animals, so we wanted to make sure that the place we chose was ethical and that the elephants weren’t mistreated in any way. After much research we learned that there are a lot of unsavory elephant tour operations in southeast Asia. Fortunately, one in particular stood out as a sustainable, well-meaning, caring operation: The Mondulkiri Project.
Instead of capturing wild elephants and then making them perform for tourists, the Mondulkiri Project is dedicated to rescuing working elephants from plantations, circuses, and other tours. They will purchase the elephant and then restore it to a natural habitat in the Sen Monorom region of Mondulkiri province. The elephants in the Mondulkiri Project are free to live as they see fit. You cannot ride the elephants, and they aren’t made to perform any tricks or behave any differently than they would otherwise. As former working elephants, they are familiar with people, so they aren’t as shy as truly wild elephants, but they aren’t forced to interact with us. It is completely up to them.
We lucked out because our guide, Mr. Tree, is the founder of the Mondulkiri project. His passion for conservation and elephants shone through in everything he did. He truly cares about the elephants as well as the indigenous people he hires as guides and cooks. In addition to saving elephants, Mr. Tree is dedicated to stopping poaching, deforestation, and other unsustainable practices. His project strives to preserve as much land as possible, and he hires local indigenous people to give them a source of income that does not rely on taking animals from the jungle or clearing land for plantations.
Feeding the Elephants
On our first day, Mr. Tree and another guide took our group into the jungle, each of us hefting as many bananas as we could carry. Once we were close to where the elephants usually hang out, the guide began to call for them. There are no guarantees that you will see any elephants on this tour, but a healthy supply of bananas generally ensures that at least one elephant will come around for a tasty snack. Sure enough, within a few minutes, we met our first elephant.
It was an unbelievable feeling to see this giant creature saunter through the trees toward us. It took some coaxing, but eventually she came close enough to reach out with her long trunk and take a banana…and then the game was on! She would try to sneak bananas from your hand if you weren’t watching, or she’d gently give your arm a tug with her trunk if she felt her banana needs weren’t being adequately satisfied. After about ten or fifteen minutes, she moved on with her belly full, and we headed off to another spot to call a different elephant.
All in all on our tour, we met six different elephants, each with her own personality and temperament. Some were a bit bossy like Happy, others were very warm and affectionate like Sophie. All of the elephants had some tragic history of abuse, and many bore the scars of being hit with sticks, burned, whipped, or even struck on the head with an axe.
Later in the day, we had a chance to bathe some of the elephants in the river. Not all of them liked being around people when they went for a bath, so some we only watched from a distance, but some of them loved being scrubbed and splashed. One even did a full roll in the water and sprayed us with her trunk! It was an amazing feeling to be so close to these wonderful creatures, but also knowing that they were here of their own volition. They weren’t shackled or captive, and they were free to come and interact with us if they pleased, but equally free to avoid us altogether and keep to themselves in the jungle.
After a delicious dinner of local fare, we played some cards with our guide and his son, and drank some decidedly potent home-brew alcohol. Something like a mixture of gasoline and nail polish remover is about the closest description I can give, sort of like drinking liquid fire with a lingering aftertaste. After dark, we helped set up the hammocks we’d be sleeping in under the stars on a platform overlooking a vast jungle valley. It was relaxing but eerie to lay back in a hammock with only a mosquito net between us and the jungle night. The sound of the cicadas in the evening was one of the most horror-movie-esque things we’ve ever heard!
Making a Difference in the World
The Mondulkiri Project was easily one of the highlights of our trip. Mr. Tree was an inspiration and his passion for his work was palpable. He told us of his parents’ dismay that he would be taking all of the previous year’s proceeds to buy another elephant to rescue it from abuse. They thought that maybe he might prefer to buy a nicer house or a newer truck, but in his words, “How could I think of those things when I know there are beautiful creatures like these out there suffering and there is something I can do about it.” Inspirational words from a dedicated conservationist. If you ever find yourself with some time in Cambodia, take a few days and head to Mondulkiri. The scenery is gorgeous, and your support for good operations such as the Mondulkiri Project is much needed. Live life; love life.
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Written By Magda and Brent
Magda is an Oxford Seminars graduate with an honors degree in biological sciences. She loves traveling and has been to nearly twenty countries, with plans to see them all! She spent a year and a half teaching English and Science in Incheon, South Korea, and is looking forward to many more opportunities to teach and travel abroad on the horizon.
Brent has been involved in ESL as a teacher, Oxford Seminars TESOL/TESL/TEFL instructor, and writer for much of the past decade. His teaching exploits have taken him to South Korea, the Czech Republic, and most recently to Taiwan. As both a teacher and avid traveler, he looks forward to every opportunity to explore new cultures, sample new cuisines, and meet new people. There’s no better way to see the world!