Meet Bob. With sallow, sunken skull and steely “don't fuck with me gaze” this is one angry man i'm not going to mess with. In fact we've been told to stay 20m away at all times. Bob is the oldest male here in camp at the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri Province. When he first arrived he'd been worn to death in the logging industry and left without food or water. He is, as a result, very very pissed off.
Jack the founder went to his rescue and offered him a banana:
“He almost pulled my arm off taking it. At first i thought it was because he was trying to thank me ...Now I realise he was just trying to pull my arm off...He's been called “Bob The Bastard” ever since.”
Mondulkiri is in the East of the country and takes 8 hours on the bus from Phnom Penh. After another night at The White Rabbit and Lok Lak for dinner – ( a Cambodian speciality of chunks of beef that looks a little like Pedigree Chum but tastes pretty good) ...I get ready to depart.
I arrive at the bus station with only ten minutes to spare - only to discover i'm at the wrong bloody station...
“What am I going to do!?” I exclaim to the bank of motorbike taxis and tuk tuk drivers standing laughing at my frantic arm gesticulations.
“Don't worry we take you!” They shout back in unison.
A few words are exchanged and one lucky chap hefts The Bastard (my backpack) between himself and the handle bars then steering with one hand and juggling his mobile in the other - he manages to call the bus company to let them know he has a “falang” who may be a few minutes late.
Once he has a spare hand free he gives my thigh a good old squeeze. Cambodian dress is very conservative so I think i'm crossing a few boundaries, even in the capital city, by rocking out in a pair of short denim shorts and a vest top.
“I love you” he feels compelled to declare.
“If you get me to the bus on time i'll love you back” I mutter under my breath.
We screech in just on the dot.
Heading East the broad leafed banana trees and brilliant green
rice fields soften and flatten into great golden plains of grass. It feels like we've somehow driven out of Asia and into Africa...we are higher too so the humidity of the city gives way to a cool mountain breeze and swaying bamboo becomes the darker branches of pine.
Just before we arrive most of the bus get off for a wedding. They leave pulling fruit trees, baskets of fruit, bright pink nylon ribbons, huge bags of rice, a rubber tyre and even some shelving with them - all drawn out from the back of a bus like the bottom of Mary Poppin's handbag.
On the bus I meet a dimply, Chinese girl - Ling. We hike up the hill for 20 mins away from the capita Sen Monoram - to stay at Vibol Guesthouse. Its set in beautifully manicured gardens. We share a room with AC and HBO for $4 each and step out side to a sky full of burnished gold and sunset spectacular. Ling has bought a hammock which is heavy to drag around with her, but whereever she lays her hat she also pegs up her hammock – I like her style. . .
The Elephant Valley Project is a sanctuary set up and run by louche Brit Jack -who trained as a Mahud (elephant trainer) in Thailand before creating this eco project. Jack by name, Jack Russel by nature, he's short and wiry with a cocksure attitude, Rasputin blue eyes and strangely self absorbed enthusiasm. Then again I guess you need a few of those qualities to set up your own elephant sanctuary in the middle of Cambodia. We get picked up in jeeps and taken over rough jungly terrain. The path has dried into deep split lips of caked mud from the rainy season and the Jeep sways and jumps its way down the paths one point driving through a river that swills over the hub caps.
“Elephants are not actually that strong and they are not domesticated animals like horses. They are wild animals. When you think about it its actually a bit weird to want to ride one...I mean – you wouldn't think of riding a giraffe, or a hippo – get a pair of goggles on and go for underwater dive... (although that would be pretty cool actually) but you wouldn't do it!” says Jack.
of elephants in Asia suffer abuse being worked to death in the logging or tourism industry giving fat falangs a ride. The project takes in sick, abused animals and nurses them back to health allowing them to become elephants again, roaming in the jungle free from work. You do not get to ride the elephants at this project and it was one of the reasons why I chose to come here, safe in the knowledge that my hard earned traveller pound was going to a genuine eco project I knew looked after its animals. The money raised goes towards providing jobs, healthcare and support on land rights for the local community.
A Cambodian family can make $20 a day from owning an elephant. Bob has only one tusk as each piece of ivory can be sold for $1000. The tails are cut off and the hairs sold separately to make magical good luck rings. When the average national salary is a $1 a day you can see why they want to milk the most they can out of this valuble resource.
After his introduction is over we wander through the long gold green grasses of the plains and
down into the jungle and stop at a plateau to look out over Elephant Valley: a canopy of pale almond trees, twisting vines and lots of juicy bamboo for the ellies to munch on. The sun is scorching today and the heat is intensified by having to dress modestly out of respect to the local community, so no bare shoulders or thighs, always a challenge for my wardrobe.
We pick our way across a little bridge made from a fallen branch and settle ourselves next to a river to wait for the elephants to come down. First up we meet the aforementioned Bob The Bastard, and his new girlfriend Onion. At 35 years old – Onion is a mere slip of a gal, and the best hope the project have of making a baby.
San, one of the Mahuds, grasps her big fat flank and lets out a squeal of delight.
“ I feel baby, I feel!”
But they are not sure. If she is with child, Onion will be pregnant for 2 years before giving birth... I clench at the very thought.
Next up we meet three ladies. Mae Wan, the matriarch of the clan omits a low rumbling growl. Its a sound used to reassure the more nervous in the tribe. They have stayed awake all last night, munching on bamboo, so they are sleepy today and sometimes they close their long feathery eyelashes for a quick snooze standing up. We get to stroke their sides and their long leathery trunks spiked with tough black hair then walk with them as they continue to feast on the forest.
At the river we get to help bathe them by wading in and throwing buckets of water over their muddy hides.
One guy urges his girlfriend to have a go:
She looks like she has come prepared – Jungle Jane is in her full length camouflage trousers, and smart linen shirt.:
“No! I don't want to get wet”
“Aw come on honey! its only a little bit of water,”
“NO! I said I do not want to get wet!”
She remains, pristine and dry on a rock while every one else shrieks with delight as they slop the water about.
Once bath time is over we head back for our first lunch. The accommodation is fantastic, a huge sprawling jungle camp with chill out lounge and open roof that looks out over the canopy of tree tops and gets prime views of the awesome Mondulkiri sunsets. Lunch is sweet and sour fried fish and rice and tofu and fresh fruit.
It costs $30 a day to spend the morning with the elephants in Elephant Heaven followed by an afternoon volunteering in some “light” construction work around the project. If you would like to spend the full day with the elephants and shower and water them in the afternoon it costs $60. To stay at the camp accommodation and get all meals included is a further $15 dollars a day. Both the food and the accommodation are of a high quality...although the mark up on a Snickers bar is exorbitant, Jack certainly knows he has a captive audience.
For the first afternoon of volunteering we are told we will be transporting buckets of sand and stacks of bricks from one side of the project to another – to assist in the construction of a new Elephant hut for the Mahuds. We must form a chain gang to the hut so that each of us has to walk no further than 10m each with the buckets or bricks.
Its not for nothing I noramlly gain the nickname “princess” within two days of being in any group of people, manual labour just ain't up my street. But hey! this is for a good cause so it will be character building right? Yeeees maybe... or I could just happen to meet three other people exactly like me....
April's a hippy dippy from Byron Bay with a swathe of golden hair, huge blue eyes, milky skin and far away gaze. Laura is an effervescent, leggy brunette with a goofy smile and that effortless breezily outgoing nature that Aussies seem to have; Rich is a laconic, fellow escapee marketer avoiding the 9 – 5. We join forces.
April wafts over in floaty summer dress and strappy sandals: Jack eyes her dubiously:
“You don't look like you about to do an afternoon's light construction work...” he says.
I somehow I thought the voluntary work would involve the elephants more directly. An assumption that obviously comes from the part of their website that states you will be assigned your own elephant for the day to look after. This doesn't happen.
We start the chain gang. I am placed in a ditch. A girl, ruddy cheeked and keen, runs over to me with a stack of bricks.
“Its ok you don't need to rush...” I say.
She runs enthusiastically back to her spot. I amble over to April who is standing a little way away. She inches a bit closer to the edge of my ditch...
“Psychologically I feel better with you in that position...” I say.
“Really? “ she says “And how do you feel emotionally?
“Emotionally i'm uplifted, and spiritually its a knockout” I say... and then we dissolve into giggles. It all seems so inane. The evil commercial side of my brain goes into overdrive – all this resource to achieve such a small impact? Why don't I give just give them $10 and they can buy a couple of wheel barrows. See... Terrible volunteer!
"Oh he's not stupid," says Rich
"He knows people want to volunteer on an eco project, it makes them feel good about themselves. That's why he does this. He's not getting a huge amount out of it from man power/resources perspective."
After an hour of passing bricks – the slacker end of the chain gang- April, Rich and myself – decide to instigate a break. We pass word down the route to the enthusiastic hard working end of the chain (run by Canadians and Germans) that we have decided we are all going to pause the production line for a while. About 20 minutes later we decide to start work again. Rich and April wander down to the ditch and then come back in hysterics:
“It looks like the other end of the chain only took a 5 minute break, the ditch is filled with bricks. Typical German efficiency!"
The Canadians start monitoring the number of bricks we are moving via keeping a tally on their phone. Apparently they are landscape gardeners so this must be a serious misuse of their talents. When we have calculated we've moved enough – one comes sweating and puffing down the chain, his mobile held aloft in front of him. He thinks we've miscalculated by about 6 bricks..
The next day we are told we need to cut our lunch break short by an hour to help move a new delivery of sand....April, Laura and myself go down to our room to “apply suncream and mosquito repellent.” By the time we come back Rich is sprawled in the lounge with a cat like grin on his face...
"Why arent you volunteering?!" I say.
“When I got there it had all been done....any way! I notice you three didn't exactly rush on out first to get things moving!”
By now i'm mildly resentful of the fact that not only are we paying to help them out around the site but they are also telling us to cut our lunch hour short by an hour.
Later Jack asks why i've decided to leave early and I say:
“Volunteering...meeh its just not my thing”
Which he looks slightly taken aback by and lets face it sounds a tad self indulgent. But i don't like it when i don't think my time is being used productively and once i've lost respect for the system then that's it. Its an attitude that means i've parted ways with the corporate world for now but hey i also like to think its the attitude that will help me earn my millions!
So even though I intended to stay the full working week and volunteer every afternoon, after just two afternoons of walking 10m to pass someone a pile of bricks or a bucket of sand, i think: Sod this for a game of soldiers i'm just going to pay the extra and spend all day with the elephants on wednesday and then leave. April, Laura and Rich cut short their week long stays too.
Spending a full afternoon with the elephants means we get to man the showers – which is like a big Car wash station only for elephants. The animals are led down to a concrete platform by the mahuds and made to stand still, whilst volunteers take turn to feed them water from hosepipes and scrub their backs with enormous brushes.
After they are all clean the Mahuds lead them up the hill so they can roam and feed some more and we join them, taking a seat under a lone tree to watch them meet some more of their elephant friends, like Milot, Happy Lucky and Buffet, The Banana Slayer.
Milot is the Greta Garbo of the elephant world. She suffered years of abuse in her former life being put to work in both the logging and the tourism industry, beaten with sticks when she was too tired to give falangs a ride and the baskets she was made to carry them in created abcesses on her back. To add insult to injury she had her labia (outer lips of her vagina) sliced off and sold to women in the local village to aid their fertility. She came to the Elephant Valley Project in Monulkiri province – Eastern Cambodia – “hardened, aggressive with emotional scarring.” Normally elephants form families and move around with their companions but Milot just “vants to be alone” and I, for one, can hardly blame her.
Milot's mahud is fierceley protective of her so when Happy Lucky and Buffet The Banana Slayer...lumber over to see if she wants a quick game of trunk wars (the elephant version of thumb wars where they entwine trunks to try and push the gland in the mouth of their opponent, thus asserting their dominance.) He shoos them away by throwing gravel and straw at them. Which, because we are all feeling a little sentimental by this stage, manages to bring a tear to the eye.
I have been critical of the volunteering portion of the project, it simply wasn't for me. Having said that I'm sure many people get a lot out of it and i would still recommend this project to anyone travelling in Asia who would like to see elephants. It is so much more worthwhile than contributing to the continued abuse and exploitation of these animals in the tourism industry over here.
One of my very favourite travelling moments of the last nine months has been sprawling on the golden grass of the Serengeti like open plains in Mondulkiri watching as the huge grey bulks of these beautiful beasts wander freely across the landsape behind a sun caramelising into the horizon.
And as for The Elephant Car Wash - I can't describe how happy it made me - sloshing great buckets of water over their muddy hides whilst these beautiful, gentle creatures stood by and watched, every now and again fluttering their long feathery eyelashes and curling up their trunks to receive water from our hosepipes. You get absolutely soaked of course. But hey... in case there was any doubt, I'm definitely the type of girl that likes to get wet.