See Elephants in Mondulkiri the Humane Way
When I first came to Southeast Asia as an exchange student in Thailand almost a decade ago, riding an elephant was one of the more memorable experiences I had. Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I partook in this unnatural and traumatic industry. There’s a lot of nasty stuff going on behind the scenes, including baby elephants having their spirit broken entirely in order to make them ridable. I’m a little older and hopefully a little wiser, so for my return to Asia, I opted for a more humane elephant interactions with the Mondulkiri Project.
Even when trying to avoid riding elephants, things are not so cut and dry. More and more people are wizening up to the fact that riding elephants is not a good thing, so tour companies are offering trips that involve feeding, cleaning and watching elephants rather than riding. The problem is that some tour companies hire elephants both to be ridden or cared for, depending on what the tourists want to pay for. So one day the elephant might have a leisurely time. The next day – unbeknownst to tourists – the same elephant will be forced to carry tourists.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with the Mondulkiri Project. I booked a one-day “elephant adventure tour” through the Nature Lodge and was joined by about a dozen other tourists. We crammed in the back of a pick-up truck and went on a rollercoaster ride of a dirt road. We ended up at the rustic lodge overlooking a beautiful part of the forest and settled in for a lengthy lecture from the tour guide. I forgot his name, but he spoke for more than 30 minutes about how the Mondulkiri Project works with tribal families to provide food and medical support while training the villagers to be tour guides. Hearing the struggles of the local tribes was compelling, but the talk was a bit dry.
Meet Sophy and Princess
Fortunately, we soon started a short hike where we saw a couple of the elephant’s caretakers sitting around. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, two elephants emerged from the woods. Sophy, who is 65 years old, was probably one of the fattest elephants I’ve ever seen. She eagerly grabbed bananas from our hands with her trunk and fed herself. There was also Princess, who was shorter at only 55 years old (or maybe it was 45 years old?). She was described as lazy because she wouldn’t reach for any of the bananas with her trunk but would open her mouth in our direction to be fed. One of these elephants was once used for labor, and the other was used to carry tourists. Both seem content with their new life and were very friendly.
We stayed down here for about an hour and it was great seeing the elephants in their natural – albeit domesticated – element. What interested me most was learning about the economics of elephants among the tribal families. Typically several families own a share of an elephant, which can be passed down for generations. The elephants are rented out to tour companies on a case-by-case basis. What the Mondulkiri Project does is work with owners to convince them to give up damaging – yet lucrative- work for the elephants. They offer some payment, which is less than what some of the tour companies offer, and are close to bringing in a third elephant to their organization.
After a vegetarian lunch and a traditional two-hour Cambodian siesta, we walked about 20 minutes to a small waterfall with a basin good for swimming. Princess was there waiting to be bathed, and we all hopped in to take turns splashing and scrubbing her. This was a lot of fun, and a couple random villagers were there to enjoy the scene. Afterwards, we trekked in the opposite direction to watch Princess be cleaned by her handler. Since Sophy was abused in the past, she’s a little more uncomfortable around people and can only be washed by one person at a time.
Most of the group stayed overnight in the lodge to go trekking the next day, but I was done for the day because I had to return to Phnom Penh. The $50 was definitely worth it.
Alternatively, in Mondulkiri, the Elephant Valley Project has a stellar reputation and its emphasis is solely on elephants but comes with a higher price. The Elephant Valley project is an actual elephant sanctuary with nine elephants under their care. It’s a bit more expensive, with a day visit for $85. Or you can volunteer for part of the day and pay only $55.
One day elephant tour: $50, Two-day elephant/trek tour: $70
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I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?