Conceptually, I like staying awake during bus rides – that way I can see the countryside. But in reality, staying awake usually just means getting carsick. We recently went on a trip to Sen Monorom (the largest town in Mondulkiri, with a population of around 7,000). Lonely Planet describes the road between Phnom Penh and Sen Monorom as “in fantastic shape, including some impressive bridges across the deep river valleys.” That’s wrong – incredibly wrong.
In reality, the road has been mostly worn away – nearly everywhere. Sure, there were a couple of patches of smooth sailing, but I can guarantee that nearly every road I drove on in Ethiopia was in better condition than this one (and that is not a recommendation of Ethiopian roads!).
Additionally, I thought Ethiopians were some of the craziest drivers I had ever encountered, but I am now convinced that Cambodians have them beat. The journey takes large buses anywhere from 8 to 10 hours, Jack (I’ll introduce him later) said it takes him about 6 hours in his truck…it took our minibus 4 hours and 45 minutes.
We arrived into town with rumbly stomachs, but surprisingly, I was feeling well. I say surprisingly, because I never feel well stepping off a bus. But this time, I decided to keep my eyes closed as much as possible. Yes, it meant missing the countryside, but it also meant that I was refreshed and off to a good start for our first afternoon in Sen Monorom (a good thing, since we had a day and a half there).
Sen Monorom is the first town we’ve gone to on our SE Asia trip where we didn’t pre-book a hotel room. Normally, we’ll find something online and book directly through their website or via booking.com. This time, however, our first-choice hotel didn’t have a website, or a booking account, or a phone number they answered. So we showed up in town and began wandering.
We were looking for Phanyro Guesthouse (at $8 a night with air-con and hot water, how could we go wrong?), but were having a few difficulties finding it. We’ve pretty much survived this trip by getting sim cards in each country with 3G and constantly using Google Maps. But we arrived in Phnom Penh during a national holiday and found about 90% of all shops to be closed for the week – including cell companies. Eventually, our powers of deduction kicked in and we followed a couple of poorly placed signs to the guesthouse.
We checked out the room, which had been freshly cleaned, and decided it didn’t matter that the advertised air-con didn’t exist, because Sen Monorom is easily the chilliest place we’ve been during the course of this trip. After returning from dinner, we found fresh droppings scattered throughout the room and spent a rather fitful night trying to get some sleep. A mosquito net would have aided us greatly, alas, the room didn’t have one.
Finally, the next morning arrived. Which brings me to the point of all of this, the reason we were in Sen Monorom in the first place: elephants. Mondulkiri is known for elephants (the region has the largest population of both wild and domesticated in Cambodia) and there are tons of riding/trekking options in the area. We, however, were there for one very specific program: The Elephant Valley Project.
EVP is a sanctuary set up for elephant care, local employment, and is an ecotourism site for international and local visitors. Their main aims are to provide an alternative approach to elephant care in their natural environment, offer options for local families to bring their elephants to the sanctuary for rest and recuperation, retire and rehabilitate working elephants, provide employment for local people, and have visitors who get to spend time observing the elephants in their natural habitat.
This means that instead of joining a program where you ride an elephant (which often requires a box that can weigh enough to alter the curvature of an elephant’s spine) or force one to do tricks, EVP lets you interact with elephants in a more natural setting. You watch them bathe, graze, chat with each other, and you are allowed a minimal amount of actual interaction with them.
Many of the elephants in the sanctuary were treated poorly, and so the staff work at helping them re-learn (or learn for the first time) how to be a real elephant. The foundation was created by an Englishman named Jack (finally got around to introducing him!), and we were lucky enough to get him as our guide. He told us that tours generally contain 10 to 12 people (they cap it after that), but we had come during the lowest two weeks of the year. Which meant our tour included Jack, Chandler, and I.
It was absolutely incredible. In the morning we hiked (and I mean hiked – through ankle deep mud, uncleared forest, and bamboo shoots) to meet 5 of the elephants – Mae Nang, Ning Wan, Milot, Ruby, and Onion. We watched their daily bath-time and then followed them around as they spent the morning munching. During that time (when we weren’t standing in awe or taking photos), Jack told us the history of the organization and the individual elephants. He also told us where our money would go – at $85 a person, it’s not exactly cheap, and it’s nice to know how the money is being spent.
Mae Nang has started to take on the role of guardian of the group – which meant she often tried to lead us astray while the others could hide. Ruby is the smallest of the bunch, and Onion needs the most encouragement – she’s definitely had the hardest life out of all of the elephants at the sanctuary.
We made our way to headquarters just before noon for lunch. Perfect timing, since I was feeling pretty ravenous, and if I was hungry, you know Chandler was getting hangry. After about an hour and a half break (and a tasty meal) we were headed back out to the elephants. I think Jack took pity on me (I wore Keen sandals, which aren’t as adventure-ready as they’d lead you to believe) and he drove us part of the way to our second destination. We spent the afternoon with Easy Rider and Gee Nowl.
I’m pretty sure these elephants have been with the center the longest, because they were definitely the friendliest. One of them nearly bowled me over in her greeting. In addition to their demeanor, they had a better grasp on bathing themselves (the others had needed some help from their mahouts). The afternoon was spent much like the morning, letting the elephants’ roam where they please while we ambled along behind them.
We talked with Jack about just about everything expats can talk about. He certainly leads an enviable life with the elephants – though he never intended to be in Sen Monorom as long as he’s been (nearly 9 years!). The day ended much too quickly, but we were exhausted none-the-less. We had a lot of laughs, learned a lot, and overall, had a day we’ll never forget. (P.S. Jack told us the droppings from the night before were probably from a gecko – we confirmed this and had a much better second night’s sleep!).