A nervous traveller’s guide to the far east: Week 6 – The Elephant Valley Project

Sen Monoram, Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia

They say time waits for no one. In Cambodia the opposite is true. Time waits for every man, woman, child, tuk tuk, potato, turnip or bag of rice that needs to get somewhere but isn’t all that bothered about what time they arrive. Having sweated our collective body weight out in Siem Reap, my wife and I hopped on a bus and made our way to Sen Monoram in the Mondulkiri province in the east of Cambodia.

I mention time waiting for everything in Cambodia because...it does. Our bus trip was alleged to take around 6 hours, but it was closer to 10 due to the driver playing dodgems with potholes, cows on the road and turnips rolling around the bus from where they’d fallen out of someone’s bag. But when we got to Sen Monoram we knew it was worth the numb backsides. The capital of Mondulkiri province is small, rural and cooler then the rest of Cambodia due to the higher elevation. It’s still warm but I found 32 degrees far more bearable than 38 degrees.

Sen Monoram

A lake (possibly reservoir) in Sen Monoram

The Bunong

Like many countries, Cambodia has a diverse population and in Mondulkiri the Bunong are one of the last indigenous tribes in the country. They speak a different language to the Khmer and their food is also slightly different (and really tasty!). If you visit Mondulkiri, it is worth doing a bit of exploring and chatting to the locals in Sen Monoram as they are very friendly and eager to talk about their culture with foreigners. Unfortunately the Bunong are in real danger of losing their way of life as land grabbers from other parts of Cambodia and China have been busy logging huge areas of the forests and jungles that the Bunong and the local wildlife rely upon to survive.

Fortunately there are a number of conservation projects in the area which are helping communities and wildlife to survive and flourish.

Elephant at EVP

Worth stepping aside when an elephant is walking towards you.

Who doesn’t want to see elephants in their natural environment? This was something my wife in particular wanted to take part in. Unlike a lot of similarly themed projects in Cambodia and Thailand, EVP does not allow you to ride, feed, wash or touch the elephants. Why?

A helpful analogy

You’ve come home from work after a long day at the office. All you want to do is shut the front door and hop into a nice long bath to wash away your stresses. You get undressed and prepare to sink under the hot water...only to discover there’s a stranger in the bath with you. You freeze and feel awkward, uncertain over what to do. Do you ignore them? Do you get out of the bath? Do you call the police to report the weirdo who’s broken into your house and is now sitting in your bath, holding a scrubbing brush and smiling creepily at you?

What’s worse is that when you go downstairs, another group of strangers is sitting at your kitchen table and holding out handfuls of food to feed you with. Who are these people? And why are they trying to feed you your own food? Do they think you’re a baby? Incompetent? And why the hell are they in your house?

WTF?! doesn’t even come close to covering your reaction.

EVP Entrance

Should read: Jungle this way

No rides, no tricks, just elephants being elephants.

The reason EVP do not allow tourists or volunteers to bathe, feed or touch the rescue elephants they care for is because they are trying their best to provide these wild animals with the most natural home possible. Only the Mahouts (trained elephant carers who have worked with elephants for years) and the vets work directly with the animals they look after. Many sanctuaries let you bathe, feed and ride the elephants claiming the money they make from tourism helps them provide proper care for the animals. That may or may not be true, I can’t comment on other elephant sanctuaries. I did learn the following:

  1. All the other sanctuaries we looked at charge less than EVP and allow you to ride, feed and bathe with the elephants.
  2. Have you ever seen an elephant go to the toilet? Bath time is also toilet time for an elephant. As one of the Mahouts explained, people wouldn’t dare bathe an elephant if they knew what they could catch swimming in elephant shit. Hepatitis A and sepsis are just two of the lovely things you can catch when washing an elephant.
  3. Tourists are not trained elephant carers. Washing an elephant incorrectly can hurt their skin and leave them and you open to infection and other dangers. 
  4. The average Asian elephant weighs between 2.5 to 5.5 tons. Imagine two cars rolling or falling on you and you might think twice about bathing with an elephant. An elephant having a bath might not mean to roll over on you, but it can and does happen.
  5. Elephants are wild animals. They are not domesticated even when they have been in captivity for years and can move fast when spooked. An elephant might not mean to hurt anyone, but its sheer size and speed means that if you’re in the way, you’ll be flattened along with everything else in the elephant’s path.
  6. Many rescue elephants have been treated appallingly by previous owners and often have long term psychological difficulties – we were not allowed to see the one male elephant at EVP. At the time he had an eye infection and his usual level of aggression towards humans had been ramped up to lethal levels. He required 4 Mahouts to handle and even they would not approach if they deemed it unsafe.
Elephants bathing

Time for a bath. And maybe a crap.

Elephants are incredible and beautiful creatures to observe and help. But even rescue elephants can be as unpredictable as their wild counterparts and should always be treated with caution. One elephant at EVP (Pearl) was abused terribly by a previous owner whose little boy was accidentally trampled to death by another elephant who got spooked by a car and tried to run. Pearl was offered as recompense for the loss of the woman’s son by the running elephant’s previous owner. As a result all the woman could see when Pearl arrived was the cause of her son’s death. Pearl is much happier at EVP, but the story should serve as a dual reminder to respect an elephant’s wild nature and discourage poaching.

Mutual understanding and respect

I might have mentioned in a previous post about the Cambodian’s need to save face wherever possible. The owners of EVP work with this cultural idiosyncrasy to assist the local communities and elephants they rescue. I’ve always believed that good education is never about telling someone they’re wrong and should be doing things your way. The key is in observing and listening to someone else’s point of view, understanding how they do things and adjusting your approach. Once you understand someone, you’re in a far stronger position to help them help themselves. This method also serves to challenge your own assumptions, make adaptations and develop yourself. Win-win.

EVP was initially met with local resistance when it began, but Jack, one of the founders started small by observing how the local Bunong and Khmer lived and worked with elephants. One day after observing a local and his elephant, he made a bet with the owner. The elephant was standing very still and Jack knew it was thirsty. The Bunong didn’t think that was the case at all, so Jack bet him that if he provided the elephant a huge bucket of water, the elephant would drink the lot. The Bunong took the bet and Jack won.

Sambo & Ruby

Sambo & Ruby

Sambo's the giant on the left. Ruby is the titch on the right.

Behind every sad story of a rescue elephant at EVP, lies a happy ending. Sambo is the most famous elephant in Cambodia. Serving as a school bus, tourist attraction and cargo carrier in Phnom Penh for nearly 30 years, she was brought to EVP after her owner grew elderly and his family no longer wanted the burden of a 4 ton elephant to look after. They genuinely cared for Sambo but like many former elephant owners, did not know the best ways to care for her in captivity. Sambo was kept under a rickety shelter near the airport for years, home late after a hard day’s work pounding the hard concrete streets and out early before the sun rose to start it all again. It would be too easy to judge an elephant owner for such treatment. Sambo like many elephants, provided her owners a living.

In the past, owning an elephant was a way to feed your family and ensure your children could go to school. Times have changed and in about 30 years the realistic goal is that there will be no captive elephants left in Cambodia thanks to education and economic advances. As things stand I find it difficult to judge people when you see how limited their resources were and often still are.

EVPs methods helped establish trust and have indirectly led to the rescue of many elephants including Sambo and Ruby. They either rent the elephants on short and long term contracts from families or purchase them outright if they can. Either way, they make sure the families are well compensated and invite them all to see how well their elephants are thriving in the jungle. Following years of pounding the hard concrete of Phnom Penh, Sambo arrived at EVP with a very bad abscess on her front right foot which has to be bathed in a bucket of salt water everyday and cleaned out once a week. One of the vets thinks it will eventually heal, another is not so sure due to the fact elephants stay on their feet about 22-23 hours a day. The Mahout who had been looking after Sambo for years, came with her to EVP. The bond and mutual respect is obvious and Sambo responds with both humour and grace. When asked if he was ever going to get a girlfriend by another Mahout, he simply responded “This is my girl” and gestured to Sambo.

Ruby

Ruby hunts for food as her Mahout tries to hide the bananas he uses to bribe her into having a bath.

Ruby

Ruby is small for an elephant, not because she is a baby, but because she was taken from her mother too early and her growth was stunted. Initially bullied by some of the other elephants at EVP (one of whom took a chunk out of her ear), she was put together with Sambo and the two have become firm buddies. Sambo had never seen another elephant or a jungle before arriving at EVP and literally ran out of her crate in excitement when she first saw the trees. Not knowing how to clean, protect herself from the sun (elephants throw dry mud over their backs) or feed herself, Sambo has learnt much from Ruby and the two are now inseparable.

Sambo & Ruby Chilling

Sambo and Ruby pretty much love each other

The EVP method

I didn’t know, nor would I expect any tourist to know what an ethical elephant sanctuary should look like. How do you know what questions to ask? How do you know if the elephants and staff are well treated? All I can recommend is doing as much research as you can before choosing a sanctuary to visit. EVP caught my wife’s eye because they publish a helpful list of questions they recommend asking any sanctuary before you book a visit. If the operators struggle to answer or evade a question, then it’s a good bet that they might not be treating their staff or elephants well.

EVPs operation has helped establish trust and respect within the community they have become a part of. Even the local business owners like them. The owner of the Bamboo Cafe told us he liked EVP because he could see them helping people get to hospital for treatment they couldn’t afford, assisting with local projects and generally working with both the Khmer and Bunong to protect against land grabbing. EVP’s founders and team are mostly Bunong and Khmer with only a few westerners on staff. The Mahouts are paid well and all staff are given the weekends off – you cannot visit EVP on a Saturday or Sunday. This has the double effect of promoting a healthy work-life balance and ensures there is little to no temptation for a Mahout to mistreat an elephant in their care.

If you get the opportunity to visit Mondulkiri and Sen Monoram in the future and are interested in conservation and elephants, I would recommend volunteering at EVP. You will get dirty. You will get hot. You will get tired. But you will be amongst some of the most stunning scenery, observe elephants in their natural habitat and come away knowing that your money and efforts have contributed in helping the elephants and the local community. You will also meet like-minded travellers, swap stories and have a great time.

A small note about staying in a jungle

View from our hut

View from a jungle hut. Our jungle hut in fact.

I’m fascinated by wildlife so having the opportunity to stay in the middle of a jungle was great. However, do not be surprised if you receive a few unexpected visitors at night. Crickets, cicadas, gibbons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, birds, hornets, beetles, frogs and mice are just some of the many locals who live nearby. A few are understandably curious about human visitors and may pop by to say hello. There is little to be frightened of as most of the time, they’ve taken a wrong turn and have come in by accident. Spiders and scorpions in particular shit themselves when they see a human and run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

One of the funniest bits (for me) was when my wife and I were walking back to our hut after an evening at the main base camp chilling out with some of the other volunteers. Our torches lit our way and we were nearly at the door when Jess heard a rustle to our right. The next thing I know her voice went a little high pitched as she said “There’s a massive spider, move a bit faster please.” Turns out we’d frightened a tarantula out for an evening stroll and probably in search of dinner. It was obviously waiting to cross our path not realising Jess was only a few steps behind me and ran out in front of her as her torchlight hit. I stopped to try and get a look, but when Jess’s voice went up another octave, she convinced me to give up and keep moving.

I needn’t have worried as I did spot several huntsmen spiders in the main hut and bathroom along with a stick insect. Jess had a frog drop unexpectedly from the ceiling whilst she was on the toilet which I thought was amazing. I’m not sure my wife felt the same way. The base camp cat, Captain Meow Meow, even paid us a visit on the second night but we wouldn’t let her in the bed. Well...I say ‘we’, but I really mean Jess. I grew up with cats and dogs and am a massive sop (soppy person). Jess also likes cats but is:

a)Sadly allergic
b)Not a sop
c)Values her sleep

She was less inclined to allow Captain Meow Meow snuggle up next to us. Captain Meow Meow’s response was to try and bribe us with a present. A few hours later we were woken up by the cat chasing a poor field mouse across the floor which she eventually scared to death before looking up at us proudly as if to say “Look what I brought you. Will you let me in the bed now?” I patted her on the head before picking the body up with a tissue and depositing it outside away from the hut. Captain Meow Meow looked disappointed so stalked off to bother Rami and Courtney, a friendly pair of cat lovers sleeping in a nearby hut.

Jess: 1. Captain Meow Meow: 0.

Be prepared

Just chilling in my hut

Just chilling in my hut

The point I’m trying to make is that if you’re staying in the middle of a jungle you have to be prepared to meet a local resident or two. I make it sound worse than it was and both Jess and I never felt afraid when we went to bed or were trekking through the jungle with the Mahouts. In fact drifting off to sleep with the sounds of the jungle is probably one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had. The hut itself was large, with a hard ceramic tiled floor, double bed with mosquito net, private bathroom and shower. The room also faced west so you can watch the sun go down in the early evening – a truly spectacular sight. Generator goes off at 9pm so make sure you have a torch in case you need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Bed

Comfortable and mosquito proof.

Nervous Traveller Rating: 10/10

The people we met were great. Sen Monoram and the local communities are lovely. The elephants were amazing. EVP and E.L.I.E. (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) the registered parent NGO are incredible. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again or recommend it as a place to visit, volunteer or work at if you’re a conservationist or simply mad about elephants.

Wedding Ring Status: 

Still can’t get rid of it. (If Jess is reading, that was obviously a joke.)

Sunset in the jungle

Sunset in the jungle

About the Author

John is an award winning science fiction, horror and fantasy writer. He is also a public speaker and consultant and has worked with Time to Change - a campaign to end mental health stigma - and for Wellment - an organisation that delivers mental health at work training. He loves science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and novels. His work has appeared in Vector Magazine, Ink Pantry, Sci-Fi Bloggers, The Huffington Post and more. His short fantasy "Thanks for Applying" won an Honourable Mention Award in the Writers of the Future competition in 2017. HIs short horror "By the Boiler's Hand" was longlisted for the 2018 James White Award and won an Honourable Mention in the Writers of the Future competiton the same year. John has spoken at several events including the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London, Bristol Con 2018, and the Moorfields NHS Trust. He has delivered masterclasses on ending mental health stigma in the workplace for Time to Change. He lives with his wife and a pile of books in the UK.

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