Two days at the Mondulkiri Project in Cambodia
Ever since I can remember elephants have been my ‘thing’. As a kid, I had elephant posters, elephant toys, even a blanket with an elephant that my mum sewed onto it one christmas. I have faint memories of sitting atop one on a family trip to Singapore, looking down and seeing the short, dark bristles that covered the leathery skin of its head as I swayed around a small enclosure.
Now older, I know better than paying a few US dollars to have a ride on a (usually) severely overworked and tragically underfed elephant in a tourist hotspot. In fact, its the one thing that you absolutely should NOT do; if you want to spend time with elephants, do what I did this time and seek out a rescue or conservation company. (Even better if it’s locally run!)
Getting to Sen Monorom from Siem Reap was a trek. One night bus, a one and a half hour 5am wait at the bus stop, three tuk tuk’s and one very bumpy minivan later, we arrived at a small bus stop in the centre of Sen Monorom where we climbed into the back of a pick up with all our bags and got driven to where we were staying for the night.
And it was paradise.
14 hours of travelling across Cambodia and I would have done it all again and more for this view. We were completely isolated, with good food, a beautiful sunset and a strong wifi connection (Thanks Tree Lodge Bungalows!). After a quick dinner we fell into bed exhausted already.
The next morning after a hurried breakfast we were picked up again in the truck (but this time we were allowed to sit inside) and dropped off at the start of the track leading into the jungle. Ten minutes, and one very impressive fall from me later we arrived at the jungle lodge, the starting point for our tour today and where we would be sleeping that night.
After an amazing discussion with the Project’s host, Mr Tree, we were given a bunch of bananas and herded deeper into the jungle in search of elephants.
Quick side note about the Mondulkiri Project: the whole thing is run for the benefit of the local people: profits go towards getting food for the older villagers so they don’t have to walk the half-day trek into town and back, training local men as guides for the treks and of course, rescuing elephants from tourist traps like Siem Reap and relocating them into their very own part of the jungle. The funds also go towards wages for the Mahouts, men assigned to each elephant full time to make sure they don’t get into trouble. Oh, and it also doubles as a forest conservation project. It’s pretty awesome.
Back to the story.
After about ten minutes, we turned to our left and following alongside us were two enormous In what I can only describe as the most surreal experience of my entire life, they let us come right up to them to feed them bananas and follow them around.
After feeding them, it was back to the Jungle Lodge for a quick lunch before we headed down to the river to swim and wash the elephants. Unfortunately, I have very few photos of this as we decided to just enjoy the experience of luring the (reluctant) elephants into the deeper water so we could scrub the dust off their backs.
As most of our group were only on the one day tour, they headed back to Mondulkiri, while four of us prepared to stay the night in the jungle. Our tour guide for the next day, Duo, cooked a traditional Khmer eggplant soup for us. Prepared in a stick of bamboo over an open fire, and mixed in with chilli, lemongrass and rice, it was by far the best meal I had in Cambodia. After dinner and a few shots of local rice wine we headed to bed – hanging from the rafters in the open air lodge.
It was an early start for all of us the next morning as we packed up the hammocks, plastered ourselves in Deet and sunscreen and prepared to trek the 18 kilometres out of the jungle to a local village.
The first hour was entirely uphill. And the second. And the third. By lunchtime, we collapsed exhausted beside an idyllic waterfall, having walked through open fields, dense undergrowth and winding roads. After a group nap and a lunch of fried rice and pork, we were off again, Duo promising each hill we came across was definitely the ‘last one’.
Though definitely not for the faint hearted, the trek was enjoyable and beautiful, with changing scenery and stops at bat caves, waterfalls and huge fig trees that were wider than my bedroom at home.
At around 4pm we reached it: the final hill. Winding up a dusty red road and so steep we couldn’t see the top of it, it seemed impossible that we could make it out. But we smashed it. Red faced (the selfie is below) and sweating we arrived at Duo’s village just in time for our ride back to Sen Monorom.
This was by far the highlight of our time in Cambodia – not only did we get a taste of the local culture and food, but we were also able to support a great local project that simultaneously rescued elephants and helped the surrounding community.
I would without hesitation recommend this amazing tour – even if you don’t fancy the trek, the one day experience is definitely worth the journey.
Tree Lodge Bungalows: $7 US per night, standard double bungalow