This wasn’t on the itinerary. Kellie and I were sitting in a beat up shuttle van, bags packed and in the back ready to head in a totally different direction. At this point we are both frustrated, its noon and extremely hot in Siem Reap, our van doesn’t have ac and 45 minutes in our driver has already made 3 personal stops and had disappeared into a house leaving us sitting in the van without explanation. Sometimes when you travel you have those moments where you know something amazing is down the path you are headed on, this was not one of those moments and Kellie and I both knew it. We looked at each other and with hardly any discussion were grabbing our bags from the back and changing our course. We found wifi, put our packs down and had some lunch while we decided where to go and during that time Kellie found what was soon to be the highlights of our time in Asia.
We hadn’t planned on going far from Siem Reap so 7 hours on a night bus was definitely a change of plans but after getting an idea of where we were going it could have been longer and we still would have jumped at the opportunity. Our night bus dropped us off in Mondulkiri at 2am. We stepped off of the bus and everything was silent and dark and as it pulled away and the diesel engine faded into the distance I think we both felt a little strange. The walk to our lodging was not an easy one, it was 2am and everything was pitch black, there are no real road signs or directions to follow so this was not a google maps situation. The other very disturbing element to this little midnight voyage was that we are in rural Cambodia, and if you live in rural Cambodia you have a dog or dogs to protect your property. These dogs as you can imagine aren’t the friendliest to two tourists with giant backpacks crunching down the rocky road in front of their homes, and they let us know it. The symphony of snarling, snapping and barking dogs echoed behind and ahead of us as we walked. Not knowing when or where the next dog would lunge or bark from is extremely nerve-racking and we were both relieved when we finally saw the sign we were looking for. We got our key from under the mat and promptly passed out after a long and stressful journey to Mondulkiri.
After a few hours rest it was sunrise and we were in the back of a truck bouncing down a rutted, muddy road leading into dense jungle. Our destination was the Mondulkiri Project – a sanctuary for retired and rescued local Asian elephants. What made this place so special to us and worth going out of the way was the way they treat their elephants. Unlike the hundreds of elephant attractions all over Columbia and Thailand the elephants here cannot be ridden, they are no longer poked or hooked and are never restrained or chained. Elephants have hollow spines that are easily and severely damaged when they are ridden by humans, something most tourists don’t know and many elephants owners don’t care about. I am very passionate and adamant about while traveling is ethical tourism especially when it comes to animals and interacting with them so these were the only conditions that I wanted to see an elephant during our trip and I couldn’t wait to see them. Our truck came to a stop at the bottom of a hill in lush forest where all that stood were 2 large a frame roof structures with wood floors that were open to the jungle. We met the founder of the Mondulkiri Project Mr. Tree who gave us the history of his project and a little bit more information about what they do. Mr. Tree saw opportunity and solutions for elephants in the area that most wouldn’t have, and built an award winning sanctuary on some pretty simple ideas and a lot of hard work. The Mondulkiri project rescues elephants that are being abused by buying or leasing them away from their owners – whose typical sole motivation with them is to make money to support their families and villages. Not to take away from the providing role the animals play in these local families lives but also wanting to save the Elephants from the harm that comes with it the elegant and simple solution that Mr. Tree came up with was to lease or buy them away from these owners. The owners sign a contract and release the elephants to the sanctuary where they are able to roam free and the owners continue to support their families through the lease effectively removing animal cruelty from the equation and giving many of these amazing elephants their first steps without a chain or being prodded with a bull hook.
After a short hike further into the jungle we came to a clearing near a small river that split the forest in two, here were were told to wait, the elephants would be coming soon. I think one of the most impressive things about these elephants is their ability to move through a dense forest of bamboo almost completely undetected. As we are waiting my eyes and ears are darting around waiting to hear what I think will be the distinct snapping of branches as they move through the trees but there was nothing. As if it appeared out of thin air all of the sudden there is a big female Asian elephant not 20 feet in front of us coming through the bending bamboo as if they were curtains on a stage. I had never been so close to something so big on land, the Asian elephant is small by elephant standards but still huge by mine. The sanctuary houses 6 elephants, 5 of which are female and 1 male. We spent time with all of the females who were curious and gentle giants, I found it hard not to get lost staring into their eyes, something about pupils and the sorrounding skin makes them appear almost human, something that I think is reflected in some of the photos I captured. Some of the elephants had scars from their past, one with a hole in her ear where she was hooked one too many times, another with a visibly bent spine from being ridden by tourists. I wondered if they could tell the difference between us and them, the good ones and the bad, the owners that abused them and the visitors today who mean no harm. After the elephants curiosity was peaked and there were no more bananas to keep them interested my favorite part of the entire experience happened; the elephants walked away from us and disappeared into the jungle – a choice they got to make on their own.
We spent the night sleeping in hammocks under the open air palm thatched a-frame zipped up in our mosquito nets listening to the sound of cicadas blaring their mating calls throughout the jungle. The next morning we would start our 10 mile hike through the jungle to the neighboring village where our elephant adventure would come to an end and our next adventure would begin.