We are often asked about Elephant Trekking and Elephant Rides in Cambodia. We used to offer elephant treks in Mondulkiri, but Englishman Jack Highwood has shown us another way – and offers an incredible experience in the East of the country. Senior Travel Advisor Anna, visited for us….
Elie sounds like a girl’s name, but in the frontier town of Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, ELIE means elephants. Elie actually stands for Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment, which is a bit of a mouthful – and it is often known simply as the “Elephant Valley Project”.
Mondulkiri is a little remote – perhaps not in distance, but certainly in travel time. Roads are not good in places, so the dry season is definitely the best time to visit for an easy ride, although many sights are better in or just after the rains, when the rolling hills are lush, and the waterfalls are at their most spectacular. As in Ratanakiri (to the North), the Jungle is under pressure by development, with cash crops rubber and cassava (used for biofuel) being planted.
Sen Monorom is a good day’s travel from Phnom Penh (or Siem Reap), although many stop at Kratie (for dolphin spotting) or the riverside town of Kampong Cham. Accommodation is also basic, although the Khmer-Italian owners of the Nature Lodge do produce some very good food to enjoy with a drink after your journey. Elephants are the reason to come here though…
Jack loves Elephants, and his passion is contagious. Jack and his team rented a valley from the local tribes and minorities. This elephant “Heaven”, abotu 30 minutes outside Sen Monorom stretches 650 hectares across pristine jungle, hills and valleys and the sight in the shimmering morning sun just takes your breath away. The jungle screams with life, moisture is rising in misty threads amongst the giant trees and vines – a world away from the flat rice fields of Siem Reap. In this valley, Jack and his team take care of 12 elephants in total, leathery ear flopping giants rescued from tourism, agriculture and logging industries. Free and able to be just elephants again. And this is the dream – no dragging trees, no laps around the Bayon – however well cared for a working elephant might be, they are not allowed to live a natural life.
This is a great experience and a sustainable alternative to what comes into the minds of many when Cambodia is mentioned: elephant riding and trekking. This project also provides jobs for around 40 workers who share passion of protecting their natural forest and jungle. Rather than riding the route – following the well-worn trail, just walk with them. Explore this lush jungle, meet one or two of the small family groups that live in the elephant nirvana, play with them at waterholes. Enjoy the elephants as elephants, and not as tourist rides. A day’s visit allows you to walk with the elephants, observe them in their natural habitat and you may even participate in their washing splashing routine.
Bob, the only male in the ELIE herd, is a bit grumpy (and is the only elephant to have a rider), but the rest are all females with friendships and hierarchies, and accustomed to human contact. Many of them worked for decades, and were abused and may shy away from humans – but this is a sanctuary for them. And a gift of bananas is always well received, and a shortcut to an elephant’s heart. Working here has also expanded opportunities for the locals. One of the staff accompanies any group, and they all have their own elephant-related stories, secrets and nuggets of knowledge, and will answer all questions you may have. Some of the answers are surprising, and challenged our views on elephant trekking and working.
Jack’s passion shines directly out at you from his intense blue eyes. His views are firm and uncompromising, yet ring true and it is refreshing to find somebody actually cares for the welfare of animals in Cambodia (Jack’s history with elephants goes way back and reaches across many countries) and puts up everyday battle for this worthy cause. He wants elephants to be elephants, and we can’t help but be swayed by the strength of his arguments – and the chance to spend time with these hugely strong, yet sensitive, playful, and thoroughly individual animals can’t help but make us agree with him. Walking with elephants is much more magical than riding on them.
By mid-day we were just about finished with our jungle adventures and back up the hill we headed across another valley to the project’s home. Here volunteers can stay and lend a helping hand for as little or as long as they like, community spirit prevails and the atmosphere is laid back. The views are stunning – rolling hills and not a sign of civilization as we know it in sight, screeching jungle on your doorstep and the food just amazing.