We have not long returned from one of the most memorable experiences of my life so far, a visit to The Mondulkiri Project, an elephant sanctuary working in the north east of Cambodia.
I thought this would be something the kids would love, and of course they did. What I didn’t expect was I would feel an even greater awe and exhilaration after a day with these magnificent animals…
Mondulkiri is part of the Sen Monorom province of Cambodia. It’s a 6hr bus trip north east from Phnom Penh (some companies will tell you they can do it in 5. They can’t. Plan accordingly!)
Many tourists never make it here due to the distance but I am so, so glad we decided to do it. Here we spent the day with the four elephants the project has rescued from a life of hard labour. We saw the way they interacted with each other, the way they ‘talked’ with each other and had the immense privilege of walking with them and then swimming with and washing them in the river.
There are only 70 elephants left in Cambodia (!!!) and the majority of them are work elephants – either in the tourist trade in Siem Reap where you can still ride elephants or in the rural towns.
The Mondulkiri Project has three aims, to repatriate elephants who have been treated badly by their previous owners, to protect the jungle from logging and to provide education and employment for the local people. They also dream of beginning a breeding program.
During our day with the elephants they were roaming freely in the jungle area leased by the project. They are not ridden by tourists or the mahouts nor do they do anything they don’t want to do. Yes, we all have bananas to offer them but if they don’t want to eat them then they don’t and they are able to wander away from us, back into the jungle anytime they wish (and they do). If they don’t want to have a bath in the afternoon then they don’t. The project is very upfront about this, while they want their visitors to have a great experience they won’t compromise on their values and goals when it comes to how they care for the elephants. Fine by us! Not only does this fit with our values, it was also a magical experience to see these grand animals so close, coming and going as they pleased.
Two of the elephants, pictured below, had developed a really close friendship and watching them calling to each other, staying close to each other – touching and smelling one another was …spectacular.
The morning was spent learning about each elephant, the local tribes history and challenges they are facing. Then in the afternoon we went to the waterfall and two of the elephants came down for a swim. We were told that the first elephant did not like children and that we should not take the kids into the water with her. They think she may have had bad experiences with dogs when she was younger and can’t see clearly enought to distinguish a small child from a small animal!
The second elephant was fine with children so our three small people, aged 4, 6 and 8 had the amazing opportunuty, along with he rest of us grown ups, to bathe , scrub, feed and general play with Princess in the river. Yes, it was and OH&S nightmare that could never happen in Australia but I’ll let you decide from the pictures how amazing it was…
Rescuing an elephant is no cheap endeavour, the recent elephants that have joined the Mondulkiri Project have cost in the vicinity of US$40,000. They hope to add a male elephant next in the hope of producing a baby. Here’s to their success!