As sad as we were to leave our paradise island, it was time, for we had arranged to visit an elephant sanctuary in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. It was something we we both particularly excited for, as we had spent a long time deciding which conservation project we wished to support. It's no secret that elephant riding is a tourist attraction within Asia but with many of the companies the elephants are badly abused and neglected and we were quite conscious of choosing a project where the welfare of the elephants was a priority.
We first heard about the elephant valley project through the lonely planet that promoted the companies efforts to return the elephants to their natural environment, the forest. We travelled to Sen Monorom, the town nearest to the project and found ourselves a rather odd hotel. Typically we had chosen a hotel as far from town as possible which meant a long, dark walk back to the town was in store. There didn't seem to be any one else staying there and after having checked in it seemed the staff checked out and we never saw them again! All very peculiar. We had decided to spend a day visiting the area surrounding the town and a day at the project. Originally we had intended to spend a number of days at the sanctuary but it proved to be quite expensive and we weren't sure if we would like it or not so we played it safe and booked a day and a night.
Sen Monorom is a very small town so it was pleasant to take a motorbike to a local waterfall 40km down the road. We then rode the bike to a coffee plantation that was overrun with Cambodian tourists as the next day Cambodian New Year begun. It was a beautiful place with a restaurant to sample the coffees, but due to the influx of tourists Dan and I were banished to a shed that was supposedly an overflow restaurant! Typical. Luckily, the coffee was amazing which made up for the location. We visited the "sea forest" that afternoon which was really wonderful. It was a view point located in a hilltop rural village that overlooked the forest. All you could see for miles on end in every direction was stunning primary rainforest set against a toy story sky as Dan calls it. You know, sea blue with perfectly formed clouds, very Disney-esque.
In the morning we made the long, hot trek into town with our backpacks to be picked up by Jack, the project owner. At just 29 he has built quite the business for himself. I believe he opened a bar in the town at 21 and after running that for a few years he decided to start the elephant valley project. I imagine quite a lot of which was done with Daddy's money as he comes from a rich family in Kent. Unfortunately, he's not a very likeable guy and rubbed us all up the wrong way, I'll go into more detail later. There were quite a few others heading that way too, the was Beverly a lady from Leamington oddly enough who we had met the night before, Yohan who had been there for a week already, Sandee and - two kiwi girls, two French girls and nnnn another bonkers lady from Leamington. It was like a bloody reunion! We all piled into a small van along with a great Dane and off we went. Jack delightfully spent the journey discussing, in graphic detail might I add, the sickness and diarrhoea he had endured the previous night. As you can imagine my first impression was not wonderful, nor was the smell emanating from his body. Yuck!
We arrived and set off with our tour guide Jemma, a young Australian who was working at the project whilst studying her masters. We begun our descent into the valley whilst learning the history of the project. Jack and the project own very few of the elephants, the majority are still owned by local families who had been using the elephants for work on their farms. As many of them did not know how to care for an elephant, when you can't feed your family I'm sure elephant welfare isn't too high on the list of priorities, Jack approached them and offered to rent the elephant and take on the family member as a paid mahout (elephant carer.) The elephant and it's owner would then move onto the project grounds where Jack rehabilitates the elephants. Many of which are in poor health, malnutrition being one of the key problems, along with spinal damage from riding or carrying heavy loads. The elephants all have a history of abuse and neglect and Jack works tirelessly to rescue the elephants from poor conditions. At the moment there are 10 elephants on the site. Some of which have been purchased/rented through his own money, some have been attained through online fund raising efforts. To his credit, he works extremely hard, it's just a shame he's a bit of an a******. He promotes the park to tourists but seems hell bent on ignoring them making you feel so unwelcome. He particularly didn't like our group as we were only there for the day and weren't complete animal right activists coming to stay for a month. It was hard, I really wanted to like him but he made it difficult and it seemed the others in group formed the same opinion of him.
Despite my personal feelings for Jack, we had a fantastic time at the project as most of our time was spent with Jemma, who was great. The morning was spent following the elephants through the jungle to the river where we got to wash them and then feed them elephants. It was really something to see them in their natural environment, I couldn't believe how human like they are in their ways. They certainly have distinct personalities. We returned to the camp at midday to find out where we would be staying for the night and to tuck into a well deserved lunch. I was surprised with the accommodation. It had been advertised as a backpacker dorm with hammocks but when we arrived we were shown to a private room, if you could call it that, it was falling to pieces, what else did we expect really?! The girls had brand spanking new rooms downstairs that were beautifully made up, she as we were thrown a load of bedding by Jack and told to ours ourselves. I hate that guy! Lunch was a treat, freshly fried fish. It was delicious.
After a small siesta we headed back to the jungle for some more chill out time with the ele's. I'm sure it sounds boring as we just sat and watched them for 5 hours or so but it was magical and I felt very privileged to be there.
That evening was somewhat traumatising. Jack and I were sitting on some benches outside as a huge insect flew past us. I jumped obviously not accustomed to jungle bugs but I worried when I saw that Jack too had jumped. He'd lived there for 10 heras nearly what could possibly make him feel afraid! I felt something crash into my back, about the size of a bat and I assumed that was what it was. I leapt from my seat and Jack was claiming it was still stuck to my back. Of course I didn't believe him but as he came walking toward me going 'woahhhhh, what is that?' I got a bit freaked out. Understandably. He came over and said it was some sort of grasshopper or something and said to let it walk up my back and fly away. He the. Started to laugh and sat back down leaving this creature clinging onto my back! I remained quite calm but told him if he didn't get it off me I would take my top off right there and then to get rid of it! That got him moving! Whatever this thing was it had some grip. Jack was pulling and it sold not move, it started to crawl up my neck and he eventually pulled it off. By this time Dan had popped his head over to see what was happening. Jack took the critter up to the others to show them. It was a hugeeeeee grass hopper perhaps 5inches long and 3 wide. Jack said he had never seen anything like it and the girls couldn't believe I had only squealed the once. It was awful. Sophie got a photograph so I'll make sure to show you all!
I decided after my near death experience it was time for bed which was another experience. There were flying beetles, cockroaches, ants, Mosquitos, spiders etc etc etc. I made Dan squeeze in a single bed, top and tailing at 22 and 24 haha, and we tucked ourselves in with a net. I felt like my skin was crawling but tried to settle down for the night. After a while Dan noticed there was a fire fly in our room which was amazing and we fell asleep watching its colours light up the room.
Sunrise in the jungle was beautiful and brought the promise of a new day. We left the sanctuary and spent the morning with the kiwi's at one the restaurants in the town. They were lovely girls and gave us a lot of useful tips for our pending trip to Nz! Time to head back to the capital to stock up on essentials for our New Zealand adventure!