In the north-eastern hills of Cambodia sits the small town of Sen Monorom. Just outside Sen Monorom is the Elephant Valley Project, a non-government organisation dedicated to improving the lives of working elephants in the Mondulkiri Province of Cambodia, and working with the local people whose livelihoods depend on the elephants.
We decided very early on in our holiday planning that we were going to visit the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to interact with elephants and for us to do something a little different and volunteer for a day or two at the project.
Sen Monorom is a five hour bus ride from Phnom Penh and we stayed just outside the town in a place called the Nature Lodge. We booked ourselves in for two days, one over-night stay at EVP with a night at the Nature Lodge on either side. Three nights in total in and around Sen Monorom.
On our first morning at EVP, us and our fellow volunteers were met at a cafe in town by one of the three permanent residents of the Project. She informed us that unfortunately, we could not stay out at the Project as planned because their accommodation was, as of the previous night, temporarily closed on the orders of the Government. EVP were fighting a quiet battle with certain locals to stay open and part of the problem with the accommodation at the site. More on that later.
Nevertheless, we 15 crammed into the van Cambodia-style and speed off into the hills.
Our day started with a talk on the Project and the work it does with the locals. In Cambodia, as in a lot of Asia, elephants can be working animals. Their immense strength makes them invaluable to a farming or logging family and indeed the livelihood of entire families may depend on the health of their elephant. However, elephants can easily be abused or overworked. In order to find enough food to sustain themselves, elephants need to eat for 6-8 hours every day. If they are set to work for 10 hours a day, they aren’t going to get enough sustenance. Most families in rural Cambodia are extremely poor and need the elephant to work as long as possible. Also, many elephants were killed during the civil war and their populations have not regrown. So the domesticated elephants that survived are put to even harder use as they may be shared between families.
EVP works with local families to buy older or abused elephants and retire them to the project. They have been buying up local jungle so the elephants to live in their natural habitat and constructing a centre with kitchen and accommodation so they can take in paying guests to volunteer, interact with the elephants and help support the project. EVP also aims to provide financial and food assistance to the families who give up their elephants and education initiatives.
We were lead down through grass fields and slippery slopes into the jungle proper but it was on the open hill side we met our first elephants and got to get up close and personal.
The elephants are in general allowed to wander through the property wherever they would like. Some of the groups that need more care – i.e. the ones that have experienced trauma – will have human handlers shadowing them but interfering as little as possible with their actions.
After leaving our bags at the main building, we wandered into the jungle to find and follow a particular group for a couple of hours. Here we kept our distance unless the elephants deliberately approached us. Harder than you think. How do you tell if an elephant is heading for You because she is curious or just heading in your direction and expecting you to move? The elephants headed for a pool for their morning wash. One of the elephants needed help from a handler. She had been very badly treated by her previous owner and was learning again how to properly look after herself with assistance by her handler and one of the other elephants whom she had become close to. We stayed back, but threw buckets of water as needed.
After a delicious lunch of local curries and stir fry, we rested while tropical rain storm thundered outside.
The rain wasn’t done for the afternoon though. The activity for the afternoon was giving the elephants a proper wash. In a special area, complete with viewing platform made of rough wood, a stream, trough, hoses and brushes, a group of five inhabitants line up every afternoon to be scrubbed down. Just before the first one arrived, the rain started to thunder down so I have no photos. I wouldn’t have had time to snap away. They came down one after another and we set to work with hoses and buckets, scrubbing legs and ears, trunks and flanks as hard as we could. They must love it! Not as much as we did though. With all the water needed to wash an Asian elephant plus the tropical rain, we were soaked to the skin in minutes, our borrowed wellingtons overflowing with water and filthy with bits of dirt and grass. It was one of the most enjoyable hours I have ever spent.
We had a wonderful day. It was a real pleasure to get so close with such beautiful creatures and spend some time with them. It was also good to see them being treated so well and having such a nice life. We like to support local organisations and charities when travelling but in doing so, you want to be sure that it is reliable and the money is going into the project and genuinely benefitting the people – or in the case, the animals – it purports to help.
It would have been good to stay over and spend another day but we were happy with our one day and it was a real highlight of the trip and scrubbing behind an elephant’s ears is an experience I will never forget.
Problems with EVP and the local population
The presence of EVP is a matter of contention amongst the local population. Catching a taxi back from the main street to our Lodge on the day of our trip out there, we got quite a lecture from the taxi driver about how bad the Project is for the locals. According to him – and one imagine he reflects the sentiments of a certain percentage of the population – the EVP bad-mouth and degrade the locals and their practises for keeping elephants as working animals, EVP also take trade away from the town by hosting guests on site and take business away from any similar local enterprises. Some of these issues are of course correct and valid. EVP does say bad things about the way some locals treat their working elephants, while stressing the circumstances such as family hardship and the atrocities of the civil war. Another objection was that by paying local families ‘compensation’ for their elephants, EVP is supporting them on some sort of dole and the families do not necessarily seek other means for support.
However, EVP bring tourists into an area they would never have visited otherwise. Talking to a few other visitors, they would never have come to Sen Monorom if EVP had not been there. Perhaps if there was a similar organisation or project that was as ‘respectable’ or ‘recognisable’ as EVP, that would be different. But at the moment there are none, so the battles continue between the locals who are claiming EVP is harming the local population and way of life, and the project itself and the money it brings into the area.
If you are interested in visiting the Elephant Valley Project or you would like to read more about their work, please visit their website.
If you’re travelling to Cambodia, check out the other places we visited: Phnom Penh, Kratie, Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor (check out our tips for visiting the Temples). We also bookended our trip with visits to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.