We said goodbye to Siem Reap, our home for the last 5 weeks early Saturday morning and began the 12 hour journey to Mondulkiri on a public bus, with lots of locals joining us for parts of our journey. The difference between Siem Reap and the rest of Cambodia is huge. All we saw on our journey was either countryside or poverty stricken towns that couldn’t really be called towns, just a few shacks here and there. It was just really sad to see how much of the country is living in such poor conditions and that the government seems to be doing nothing to help resolve the problem.
Mondulkiri is high in the mountains, around 700 metres up and dense jungle surrounding it. We arrived at the Elephant Valley Project Sunday evening. I will now try and briefly explain what the project does and why! The EVP was set up by a man called Jack basically as a retirement home for elephants and their aim is to rescue elephants living outside of their natural environment of the jungle. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all the elephants have been treated badly, (although some of them certainly have) however none of them have lived the life that an elephant should have; roaming free in the jungle and not being ridden by humans (which we were told frequently!!!) All the employees at EVP are local people, with the sanctuary also supporting the local community, contributing to healthcare and education as much as they can.
Most of the elephants are basically on loan to EVP, with the organisation actually paying many of the local Bunong people and others outside Mondulkiri who’s elephants live in the sanctuary in order to keep them there and look after them. The Bunong people traditionally have always raised and worked with elephants for centuries, believing heavily in animalism and the spirits within elephants in particular. Each elephant within the sanctuary has their own Mahoot, which is the elephants human best friend who trains and looks after them 365 days a year. Many of them come from the local village, however others come with their elephants from places such as Phnom Penh and make sure the elephants are healthy, eat enough and get from A to B every day.
The sanctuary is home to 10 elephants, run at the moment by Chris, Conner and Tara all from England and Australia. We spent our week visiting all of them, trekking through the jungle, getting to know their stories and giving them a health check at the end of the week. One of the elephants, Sambo probably had the most interesting and sad story, having been the only one of 5 elephants in a family to survive the Khmer Rouge and was then sent to Phnoem Penh at the end of the war to work. Sambo spent 30 years walking the streets of Phnoem Penh with her owner, who loved her but didn’t know what to do with her really. She gave rides and lived on a diet of beer, fizzy drinks, cake and pancakes. By the time she got to EVP she had no idea how to be an elephant is still learning to behave and live as one. She also has an awful infection underneath her front right foot, which has been being treated by the team at EVP for the last 3 years and they estimate it will be about one more year before it’s healed. Although the story is sad, it has a positive ending as once Sambo was rescued to EVP, there were officially no more elephants left in Phnoem Penh, marking the end of a harmful industry in that city at least.
I could go on forever about our week but again will try and keep it brief! It was an incredible experience (despite the return of stomach problems for many of us- Jaz and I spent one night in a lovely motel in Mondulkiri which was an experience in itself!) The non existence of wifi was refreshing and living in the jungle for a week was so peaceful and honestly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. It was such a great week and I am SO happy we had the opportunity to go to EVP and work with elephants and the people who live in the community as well.
We are now heading to Sihanoukville tomorrow for our last full week, lots of us are already starting to feel so sad about leaving this country- however it’s not over yet! More updates soon!