Hoping for an amazing elephant life experience, we instead found ourselves facing questionable elephant treatment in Sen Monorom. The jungle awaited us as we bumped along in a beat up “VIP” minivan towards Sen Monorom in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. We sped along on a road so bumpy it could have moonlighted as an amusement park ride. Five hours later, with severe brain shake, we sipped on a beer at the Nature Lodge. This made for a tasty new creation we call the Foamy Beer Special, despite Cambodian beer being of the flat and watery variety.
Many accommodations boast to be a “home away from home”, but most fail to deliver. The Nature Lodge is the exception to this rule. With a large, rustic main building, that provides food, drink, games, books, comfy chairs (futons on a raised floor), and the most delightful staff, we were in good hands. We were staying in a bungalow set on a farm-like paddock with cows and horses grazing at their leisure. A hammock was tied up on our front deck and the bungalow had a moderately sized room with a double bed and mosquito net, with rustic wooden furnishings. The bathroom was out the back of the bungalow and had an indoor-outdoor design, with a wall up to head-height, an open section and a roof over top. When it rained (and boy did it rain) the water thundered on the roof. Like clockwork, the skies opened up every afternoon. One night I stood outside in the bathroom whilst the thunder rattled the walls and the lightning lit up the sky. It was my Forrest Gump Lieutenant-Dan-faces-the-wild-storm experience.
The highlight and draw card to heading into the jungle was to see the Cambodian elephants in the wild. To cut to the chase, I’m still not sure whether or not I enjoyed the experience. Let me explain. We went with the Mondulkiri Elephant Project, one of the many organizations providing an “eco‑friendly adventure” to walk with the elephants. We started the tour by being picked up in the most beat up van we’d seen yet, driving for 20 minutes on a dusty dirt road, and promptly being booted out onto the grass. I had expected a visitor center or some sign signalling our arrival, but instead it was a little hiking trail into the wilderness. Ok, I thought, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The guide handed us some floppy walking sticks and off we walked into the trees. Within a few minutes of descending a hill I saw an elephant in the distance. I was poking Ben in the arm enthusiastically and demanding he zoom in further on the camera to get a better shot. Little did I know the elephants would walk right up to us and start eating our walking sticks. It turned out they were actually sugar cane stalks and we were feeding them. From the little I know about animal welfare, I do believe that feeding animals that are “in the wild” is a no-no. We soon learnt that each elephant had a “minder” whose job it was to bring them over to the tourists for photos, and that all the elephants were rented from their owners so they could “roam free in the wild”. I hate to overuse the quotation marks, but nothing really seemed to be that eco-friendly. However, despite this, the elephants were amazing to see. They wandered around in front of us, eating grass with their long trunk that had a little grabber on the end.
We continued to hike around the wilderness and taking in the lush jungle. I had been craving the great outdoors, so this was a welcome adventure. Later in the day we hung out in the volunteer village, which had a strange lack of volunteers. We had a nice locally made lunch and went for a swim in the river. It was a little swollen and brown from the recent rain. After that, lo and behold, the elephants turned up in the village for an afternoon swim/feeding. We were given more delicious sugar cane sticks and we walked the elephants down to the river to “wash” them. The guide told us the elephants did not like to go in the river, but they did it so they could eat the sugar cane. Apparently, the bathing was good for them, but I’m not sure if I believe that. I think it was more because the tourists enjoyed it. However, swimming with a two ton beast isn’t something you get to do every day.
The guide informed us that the Cambodian elephants are a dying breed. According to our guide, and I say this with zero confidence, Cambodians believe that elephants should not mate unless they are married and elephant weddings are expensive, so there are very few elephants that are breeding. This means the elephants we saw are probably the last generation of Cambodian elephants. Whilst this is heart-breaking, I’m thankful to have seen them despite the questionable practices of the organization. I love animals as much as the next person, but traveling in South East Asia is making me more of an animal activist every day.
As we walked back out from the volunteer camp, one of our party of seven squealed. I soon learnt the reason for the squeal was because of a worm. Well, less of a worm and more of a leech. A horrible, blood-sucking, homicidal leech. To make matters worse, they were everywhere. Wearing hiking shoes, long socks and long pants I felt disgusted, but fairly protected. Oh how I was wrong. The little blood-thirsty monsters are happy to crawl through the stitching in your clothing. I had little hope to stop the one that climbed through my sock (and I had some serious weave in this sock) and bit its little jaws into my skin while I screamed like a baby. The great thing about leeches is they inject a toxin to stop your blood clotting, so after you rip its head off it bleeds everywhere, while the disembodied head remains buried in your skin. By “great” I mean horrible and by “rip its head off” I mean scratch violently at my foot in a blind rage. The ensuing leech paranoia was intense. A would-be terrorist doesn’t need weapons of mass destruction; it just needs to drop a few leeches from the sky and watch as civilization screeches to a halt, madly scratching at their legs.
On one of our days in Sen Monorom we hired a tuk-tuk driver to explore the sights. He took us to the Bu Sra waterfall, an hour from the town. Along the way we stopped in local villages while the children ran around us, ogling how tall Ben was, and saying “hello” in English followed by a giggling fit. It was refreshing to interact with the local people in their own setting, as most Cambodians we have met are on the tourist trail and seasoned sellers. The waterfall was much bigger than we expected and I dangled my legs over the side of the raging water. On the road back from the waterfall, we stopped to see the locals drying peppercorns on tarpaulins on the road. The aroma was fragrant and strangely intoxicating.
We continued down the road and veered off towards the river. The driver took us to a swimming spot where he drove the tuk-tuk straight into knee-deep water. Ben and I went into the river for a swim, while the driver cleaned his ride. A local family were there with us, who had driven their truck into the river as well. They were cleaning their clothes and washing themselves. Despite the obvious differences between us and a lack of common language the family greeted us, pointed us to the best spot to swim and waved goodbye when we left. The tuk-tuk spluttered out the river, spitting water out of the exhaust. We climbed aboard and went to our next destination, a plantation. The plantation grew coffee, green tea, papaya, cashew nuts, and avocados, to name a few. I had the most delicious iced coffee I had ever had. Although to be fair, I don’t drink coffee often, but Ben agreed that it was a tasty brew. Our final stop was a lookout over the town. At this point it poured with rain (the scheduled 3pm deluge) and we hid under a Buddhist shrine while it blew over.
We spent countless hours watching the world go by from the lodge. Each night thunder rumbled overhead and lightning lit up the sky. We played pool in the evenings while the resident cat ran around the table catching bugs that were attracted to the low pool table lights. Whilst I loved the jungle, I wasn’t looking forward to the drive back to Phnom Penh. The “VIP” bus back had the tiniest seat pitch I’ve seen yet. Ben assumed the best yogi position he could and we jammed ourselves into the cargo-filled van for our bumpy trip back. At least we had a nice hotel booked in Phnom Penh to wash away the pain.
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