Happy Accidents part one: Mondulkiri Project

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the most spontaneously made plans are the ones that result in the most fun. Of course, when you’re as neurotic as me, ‘Spontaneous’ simply means anything which hasn’t been in my diary for the last six months, but hey, I’m making baby steps, people.DSC_1748

After being guilt-tripped into buying a fake copy of a Cambodia guide book from a war veteran/land mine victim, I started seeing what Cambodia had to offer besides what was included in my Bamba Pass. (Lots)

I’m not claiming it’s a perfect country but I’m really interested in the way Cambodia is developing itself. There are places where idyllic islands are being sold to make golf courses and where illegal logging takes place to clear room for rubber farms BUT Cambodia also seems to have really latched onto the idea of sustainable tourism and development, meaning that there’s plenty to do here that helps you learn about the country and also (hopefully) contribute in some way.

The Mondulkiri project was listed in my possibly-fake-guide book as a great thing to visit, and it caught my eye because, unlike in Nepal, you don’t have the opportunity to ride the elephants, just feed them, have a bath with them and hang out with them. This seemed like a much nicer alternative to sitting on them like they were some sort of machine and seeing them beaten when they refused to comply with this illusion. However, I wrote the project off because between the difficulty of getting there and the lack of hostels once I was there, in seemed far enough off the backpacker trail that I worried I could be in for a lonely few days and a lot of expense. It wasn’t until I was in Phnom Penh at a money changers that I saw a leaflet for the Mondulkiri Project again. It seemed like a little yellow and green dare. ‘Go on,’ the leaflet said ‘You won’t regret it. Live a little.’ Just kidding. It actually said that I could get a minibus to Sen Monorom in 5 hours from Phnom Penh ($12 each way, if you’re wondering) and I just knew that, when it was that easy, I didn’t have an excuse. I knew that this was something I would love and I reasoned that if I was going to depress myself by learning about S-21 and the Killing Fields, I might as well uplift myself afterwards by spending time somewhere beautiful. With elephants.

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Two days later I was staying in a treehouse near Sen Monorom, a town with no postal service and no remorks/tuk tuks (Hello, unexpected first ride on a motorbike!) Tree Lodge is run (I think) by Mr. Tree’s family, and Mr. Tree runs the Mondolkiri project. I needn’t have worried about being lonely or poor. I paid $3 a night for a room on stilts with a comfy double mattress, a loo and a cold shower. You can upgrade to a hot shower for the princely sum of $7 per night or even rent a family bungalow, but a bit of cold water is character building, right? 😛 A word of warning: You will need layers here. It’s pleasantly warm in the daytime but in the evenings and at night it’s not as hot as the rest of Cambodia! Although the rooms are private, everyone congregates on the balcony and in the eating area, so I met a whole host of inspirational people: A midwife doing VSO in Kratie on her weekend off, a dancer and NGO worker who lives in Siem Reap, Chris Koch, motivational speaker, farmer and traveller (quoting from his business card) who is on a 6-week trip documented by his talented photographer and film-maker friends Anna, Eva and Ben… so, I wasn’t lonely, and I didn’t pay a fortune to be so 😀

On the day of our elephant adventure we piled into the back of a pickup truck and bumped our way to the forest lodge. Mr Tree then talked to us about the Mondulkiri project. Having spent 12 years as a tour guide, he wanted to set up an elephant breeding centre, since elephants are instrumental to tourism and tourism is instrumental to the economy in Mondulkiri, but he began to see all these interconnecting problems which needed solutions. One percent of Cambodia’s population are not Khmer, but people from hilltribes with their own distinct language and cultures. In Mondulkiri however, this percentage is much higher, I think Mr. Tree said 80%. In Mondulkiri these people are known as the Bunong people. Mr. Tree explained how the Bunong have sometimes struggled to adapt to modern life. Their population has grown and the forest, which they traditionally depended on for medicines, food and small amounts of farmland, has been shrinking. In addition this, the Bunong have begun wanting what other people have — smartphones and motorbikes (Mr Tree’s words!) and so the offers of loggers who want to buy the hilltribe’s forest have grown more tempting.

Challenge No.1: Mr. Tree had to make protecting the elephant’s habitat seem more attractive to the tribes who owned it than selling it off.

Opportunities for the Bunong are limited. They are discriminated against and often do not receive a proper education. Often they are so poor that the short term need (money to feed their family) overtakes the long term need (to educate their children) and so children are sent to work instead of school. The reliance on traditional medicine means that children die of things like malaria, because their parents don’t have the $20 or $50 it would take to send them to hospital.

Challenge No.2: The Bunong need food, medicine and a sustainable way to develop their community in the face of new challenges.

Ta da! The Mondulkiri project was born. The Mondulkiri project takes care of two retired elephants, Princess and Sophie, and rents farmland from the Bunong people. They employ Bunong people as guides, Mahouts and in any other capacity they can and also provide free healthcare to the family member of anyone who works for the project. Mr Tree would like to eventually offer free healthcare to all the Bunong people locally, but the project needs to grow before that is possible. Free education is provided for local children and slowly, more parents are sending their children there. In small steps, things are changing. Mr Tree’s ultimate aim is to get the project to a point that, when he retires, Bunong people will take it on. He also hopes to breed elephants one day.

Mr Tree also uses the project to provide rice to families who are too poor to buy food — ‘But if they come to me and say they’re poor and they have a smartphone or a motorbike, I say no! Sell your phone, sell your motorbike, you need food more..'(I’m paraphrasing here). Mr Tree prioritises people who cannot help themselves; the very elderly or young orphans, those who are sick or unable to work.

After a very passionate speech which I have greatly simplified above, we headed out to meet Princess and Sophie, each armed with a bunch of bananas which the elephants eat (whole!) by the bucketload. Sophie would take the bananas in her trunk and, if you weren’t quick enough in providing the next one, follow you around with her trunk! Princess preferred to have the bananas popped straight into her mouth and she generally didn’t have such a big appetite as Sophie.

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Chris feeds Sophie while Ben films

Seeing these vast creatures up close, I have to admit I was a tiny bit scared of them! I kept thinking of horror stories I’ve heard of mistreated elephants who have finally snapped at their mahouts or at tourists, but these two are definitely not mistreated — they were happy, gentle and in Sophie’s case, cheeky! It’s quite a think to feel awe and affection at the same time for such a gentle, powerful creature. We humans normally have other animals in our thrall, not vice versa! Although not everyone was as wary as me I think that the feeling of awe was shared by all.

After a delicious lunch of fried tofu, beansprouts and veggies and rice we relaxed in hammocks at the lodge until it was bath time.

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Again, the elephant’s personalities differed. Princess loved her bath and didn’t mind us swimming with her as she wallowed for a good hour or so, occasionally spraying us with water. When she eventually decided she was clean enough and we’d got dry, we went to watch Sophie bathe. It was kind of like watching a little kid being told she had to wash her face before she ate: *splash* ‘look I’ve dunniiit, can I go now?’ Mr Tree shook his head; apparently this has just become a problem recently, and bathing is important for elephants.

That was it for my elephant adventure, but I know that Chris, Eva, Anna and Ben went back for a couple of days to provide the project with some photographs to use for social media etc, so you might find more on Chris’s facebook page. The Mondulkiri project also offers trekking adventures for one or two days.

The next day it was back to Phnom Penh for me to get a bus to Kampot, where I’ve been having more unexpected adventures…stay tuned, folks 😀 Xx

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