Bob’s head appeared to crumple inwards at the temples. His concave appearance made him look exceptionally skeletal. He guzzled his food, yet a thin, sagging ribcage betrayed a body tortured and fatigued from a long working life in logging.
He moved heavily, as though any act of pulling his weight around caused him great fatigue. But he seemed happy; he was retired now and ready to live out his remaining days in this valley called Heaven with his girlfriend, Onion.
Bob and Onion are two of the Elephant Valley Project’s residents, sent here to recuperate from a tiring and often traumatic working life; to be taught, as the EVP likes to put it, “to be elephants again”.
Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project lies in Cambodia’s northwestern province of Mondulkiri, not far from the province’s main Wild West village of Sen Monorom. We had booked ourselves in for a $70 per person full-day visit, though I would recommend trying an overnight stay and putting in some extra volunteer hours for a worthy cause. The day included following three herds of elephants on their rambles through the jungle.
The EVP is a non-governmental cooperative that is part ecotourism project and part animal conservation site. It consists of 650 hectares of natural forest in which overworked elephants can come to rehabilitate or retire with minimal human contact.
In brief, the project compensates elephant-owning families for their loss of income while their elephant recovers from fatigue or injuries. More impressive, though, is the work the EVP does to rescue abused elephants from cruel work practices, buying them off their owners and retiring them in their animal haven.
The downside to this praise-worthy project is that visitors are encouraged to keep their distance – the elephants are here, after all, for their own benefit, not ours – but we were still indulged with a brief petting session while we were there, before jumping quickly out of their way for fear of being trampled.
The advantage to visiting the EVP is the sheer pleasure of watching the elephants relearn natural elephant behaviours.
Elephants, I learned, have individual personalities attributable both to their environment and their natural predispositions. They are sensitive creatures with strong memories.
My favourite herd was a girl’s trio. The smallest elephant, Ruby, was an adventurous, lively creature who explored her surroundings with unmatched enthusiasm. Born in the wild, she readily embraced natural elephant behaviour as if she were remembering her childhood experiences.
Not ten minutes after we’d drenched ourselves as we threw buckets over her wrinkled hide to purge her of several layers of dirt, she cosied up to a muddy embankment. She massaged her body over the squelching cliff and spewed mud from her trunk onto her back and stomach. It was, our guide explained, an excellent sign; elephants needed the layer of dirt to protect them from insects.
Her companions were not so readily enthused. Mae Nang was a skittish creature, poorly abused throughout her life. She issued low insecure rumbles and nervously cradled her trunk in her mouth. Ning Wan revelled in mothering Mae Nang as if she were her charge. She crooned softly and stroked her trunk against Mae Nang’s as if wanting to hold hands.
Not all the elephants were so fragile.
After dining at the Elephant Valley Project lodge with a horde of longer-term volunteers, we were sent into another valley to meet Buffet, Easy Rider and GeeNowl. Clouds hung low in the sky and a steady drizzle introduced a humidity attractive only to mosquitoes, but the elephants didn’t seem bothered by their pesky presence.
Easy Rider and Buffet were concerned with only one thing; establishing who was boss. They trunk-wrestled in the water, in much the same fashion as two grown men like to assert their alpha male qualities through arm-wrestling. Buffet showed she was top boss, the mother hen of the herd, as she glided her trunk into Easy Rider’s mouth or else rested it in the groove atop Easy Rider’s head.
The elephants we saw that day all bore physical scars, fleshy pink marks that constantly reminded us of the traumas each one had endured. Yet while psychological scars were clearly there, it was impossible to walk away from the valley heavy hearted.
I could only think of Ning Wan gently patting Mae Nang’s glands to comfort her, Ruby showering herself in dirt and trumpeting triumphantly, Buffet and Easy Rider wrestling for dominance, and GeeNowl contenting herself with a good bodily scratch, upsetting great tree trunks in her bid to ease an itch.
See More of Cambodia
Cambodia has got plenty on offer for the modern backpacker. Check out these other sites and activities: