The road to Mondulkiri was once known as the Death Highway. Our Bunong trekking guide said in the late 90s it would take 15 days to drive from the town of Sen Monorum to Phnom Penn. The air-conditioned van I took barreled along a mostly smooth highway to arrive at the provincial capital in a mere 5 ½ hours. Mondulkiri is a hilly eastern province of Cambodia, thick with jungle and wildlife, sparsely populated with people. It is also cooler and breezier than most of the country during hot season.
I came to see the elephants. Other Peace Corps Volunteers had shared tales of the marvelous Mondulkiri Project and popular Elephant Valley Project. Both are sanctuaries for retired or abused elephants. They both offer tricked out lodging and package deals for trekking and hanging out with elephants. Both are run by foreign NGOs and are wildly popular with tourists. But I noticed a few Trip Advisor reviews by some who complained that the foreign run organizations cheated locals, who by rights should be running the show. On one hand, Westerners may have more experience with what pleases foreign guests. On the other hand, this land belonged to the Bunong people—and the wildlife in the jungle—long before tourists ventured over the hills to disturb the peace.
It was by chance that I found another trekking option through Greenhouse, which engages Bunong villagers in the Elephant Community Project. The Bunong people traditionally live in big round huts and farm in one place for five years, then move to another area. It keeps the land from getting over-farmed. The villagers have kept elephants for heavy lifting or logging in the past, but now a lot of that work is more easily accomplished with machinery. The elephants don’t have much work to do, so like retired elderly aunts, they move from family to family for care and feeding. The Community Elephant Project is a way for the elephants to earn their keep.
Early in the morning of our trek, I boarded a van with a group of young Australians and Canadians who were on the second day of their adventure. The previous evening they drank rice wine with the villagers and slept in a Bunong hut. We rode a long ways out of town, then were each given a couple of long stalks of sugarcane—hostess gifts for the 93-year old matriarch and her lady friends. We hiked for about 45 minutes, and then paused by a river with a waterfall. Hundreds of butterflies dipped and swooped along the river: some like flying orange leaves, some the color of lime sherbet, brown ones with owl eyes, and tiny translucent grey and white butterflies caught in the breeze, twirling and circling, all in a great hurry to get to who knows where.
We hiked to a clearing in the jungle. The elephant’s trumpet call reminded us why we were there, then a low purr like a Harley Davidson rumbled through the valley. A bit unnerving, hey chaps? A large sound. Our guide said the elephants were excited about the meet up. The old girlfriends hadn’t seen each other in months. The three greeted each other with growls and puppy-like squeals, touching trunks, exploring ears, mouths, under bellies and butts. (The elephant version of a group hug.) Then they noticed the pile of sugar cane. They lined up and graciously accepted the broken bits we offered, crunching the pithy stalks loudly, obviously enjoying the treat. Our guide said they don’t often get to eat sugarcane—when they do, it gives them special pow-wah! After they devoured the sugarcane, the elephants with their skinny boy mahouts astride their great freckled heads ambled off to a private lunch date.
We picnicked by the river on fried rice in Styrofoam packets, then swam and dove under the waterfall, enjoying the cool quiet. About half an hour later, the lady elephants returned to join us. The butterflies encircled their great mahogany brown heads like animated wreaths as the elephants entered the water. They submerged themselves and their mahouts. Some of the Aussie kids swam out to the elephants and climbed on for a ride; they didn’t seem to mind. I had already dried off on the bank, so didn’t swim with them. Rather glad, too, when the old girls let go a series of poo bombs as big as coconuts, which floated in the water like Sugar Pops in green milk.
Our Lady-Most Matriarch got out and watched the others on the bank for a few minutes, then waded back into to the water, lifted her trunk and trumpeted, charging the others, not mean, but emphatic. The kids in the water cleared out. A few minutes later the other elephants did the same. Mama said it was time to go. Off they went, trunk to tail, single file through the jungle.