Ok…this experience was really special to us. It’s one of the parts of the trip we had started planning long before we ever left the UK. We have always wanted to get up close with elephants, particularly in their natural habitat. We were lucky enough to feed some of them when we were in Thailand, but now it was time for a closer encounter.
There are plenty of places in the world, particularly S.E Asia, where you can go on elephant rides. They are widely advertised and almost an expected part of some people’s holidays. However, we had done a bit of research before travelling and uncovered a few too many articles about how uncomfortable this can be for the elephant. So we went looking for something more natural. A chance to see them in their natural habitat. We found so much more.
The Mondulkiri Project is unlike most elephant experiences in S.E Asia. There are no chains, no feeding platforms, no rides and no bullhooks. Instead there is a large area of unspoilt jungle, a wonderful group of local villagers and one man in particular; The charismatic and ever enthusiastic Mr Tree. Elephants at the project effectively live in retirement, free to roam in the jungle and cared for by the villagers.
Our day began with a bumpy drive along dirt tracks, leaving the small town of Sen Monorom and heading in to the jungle. Two in the front, four in the back and twelve in the flatbed…Cambodian’s know how to maximise space in a pickup! Arriving at a small cluster of wooden huts, we took a seat and Mr Tree gave us an introduction to elephants, logging, the challenges of rural lifting Cambodia and the hopes of the project. This was clearly a man who cares.
Setting off on a trek into the jungle, we were amazed at just how thick the foliage was. Our guides pointed out different plants and trees used in traditional medicine as well what we edible. All of this distracted us so much that when we rounded a corner and met our first elephant we were caught off guard. There she stood at the edge of a clearing, feet from us, a grey giantess. This was Comvine. Standing in the clearing we took turns to offer her bananas as Mr Tree chatted about her personality and her back story. When she decided to go for a stroll we followed at a distance. Watching her disappear in to the undergrowth, it was hard not to marvel at how such a large animal can blend in to her surroundings.
Over the rest of the morning we met Lucky, Moon, Princess, Happy and Sophie. These marvelous creatures were so delicate, so graceful despite their size. Each had a glint in their eye, perhaps delighted to have left a life of logging far behind them. We felt very lucky to be able to walk amongst them in their natural habitat. But more was to come after lunch.
We trekked down to a river and promptly jumped in for a dip, glad to have the cool water splashing over us. Then all of a sudden in the distance, we noticed one of the elephants wandering towards us led by a villager. Seems it was bath time for the elephants too! Tempted in by the odd banana, she wandered in to the river and sat happily while we splashed and scrubbed her. All those years of washing mum’s 4×4 came in very handy. It was amazing how docile she was, content to have an army of smiling, laughing humans get her all sparkling clean. Two more elephants followed suit, blank and blank, indulging in our pampering. I’m not normally one to enjoy cleaning…but sitting in a river cleaning elephants is definitely an exception to that rule.
That evening some of our party headed back to town. But for an intrepid few of us, a new adventure was just beginning. Dinner and sleeping in a jungle hut, then a full day of trekking in this wonderful natural jungle….