If you’re looking for a bit of adventure while in Cambodia, Mondulkiri Province in the country’s wild north-east is as good of a place to start. While much of Cambodia is low-lying, tamed and dominated by rice fields, this remote corner is a little special, and remains largely untouched and blanketed with dense jungle. If you dare to venture into the jungle, you may stumble across all kinds of wildlife, and even meet some indigenous Bunong people! For the ultimate jungle experience, I decided to go with the Mondulkiri Project, who promised very close and genuine interactions with elephants, a chance to meet the Bunong people, stay in the jungle, while still practicing sustainable travel. In short, this meant I wouldn’t be seeing overworked elephants carrying tourists for human entertainment but instead would be meeting happy and well-loved elephants!
Mondulkiri Project Day 1: Cambodia Elephants
There were 15 other travelers visiting the elephants along with me, and from the rapid background chatter, it was clear everyone was as excited as I was. We were collected by pick-up trucks at 8:30 am and piled into the back to head into the heart of the jungle. After a few kilometers the road ran out, and we were shaken about on a dirt road track. Soon that ran out too though, and we had to walk the last few hundred meters. We were met by Mr. Tree at a small wooden hut which commanded a striking view of the endless jungle stretching before us. This was where some of us would be sleeping tonight!
Mr. Tree, who formed the Mondulkiri Project in 2013, captivated us for an hour as he spoke passionately about the welfare of elephants in Cambodia, the unique lives of the indigenous Bunong people and the state of the jungle, and also what is being done to preserve the future for these. It was a fitting and interesting introduction and made me pleased to be supporting an organization so genuinely concerned with promoting sustainability. Any questions we had were answered and then it was time to meet the elephants.
Everyone gathered as many bananas as they could hold from a huge pile – the elephants must be hungry! – and followed the trail down to a river. There, as if waiting for us, was Lucky, the first of the three elephants we would meet. For many, myself included, this was the first mesmerizing glimpse of an elephant in its natural habitat, and it was a special moment. She ambled nonchalantly in our direction, her true gigantic size becoming increasingly evident the closer she got until she stood just meters from us. We gazed at her and she gazed back. I couldn’t believe how close we were! I reached out a hand and softly stroked her coarse, wrinkled trunk. We each had a bunch of bananas which we fed to her one-by-one. Considering her size, it was amazing how gentle she was.
After her banana breakfast, it was time for her morning bath in the river, which we watched until another two elephants suddenly bounded from the jungle. This was Princess and … and they were hungry too! We repeated the feeding. These elephants were far more energetic and playful (or just hungry and greedy!) and their trunks contorted frantically between us on the search for bananas, which they snatched from us and flung into their mouth, before swinging their trunk around again looking for more. We had to be careful to hide our bananas behind our backs so they didn’t steal all of them at once!
Feeding the elephants and watching them splash around in the river had been so engaging that I hadn’t realized a couple of hours had passed already; it was time for our lunch. A mat had been laid out on the floor of the wooden shack with dishes of rice, pork, and green vegetables. Each dish was delicious and the staff ensured they remained well topped-up. It was a great chance to chat to some of the other travelers and relax during the midday heat.
Elephant Bath Time
The highlight of the day was still to come, however. At 2 pm we left on another trail which took us to a waterfall with a large pool of water below it. Given the heat, we all jumped straight in to splash around and cool off while we waited for the elephants to arrive. We had been told that the Mondulkiri Project wouldn’t force their elephants to do anything they didn’t want to; if they didn’t want to swim, they wouldn’t swim.
We were interrupted by a sudden rustle in the jungle and one of the mighty elephants emerged from the shadows, and came straight into the water alongside us, splashing us with each of its heavy strides. It was the perfect scene, even better than I had dreamt when booking the experience. ‘I’m swimming in the pool below a waterfall, in the Cambodian jungle, with an elephant’, I reminded myself. It doesn’t get better than that!
As before we each fed a bunch of bananas to the hungry elephants, and we also washed them which is important for their health. We used buckets and our hands to splash water on their side and back as we used a long broom to scrub the dirt away. The female elephants seemed to enjoy the spa treatment and pampering, and they seemed completely happy and relaxed. So relaxed in fact, that ‘nature called’ for Princess who pooped in the water. The giant balls of dung swirled around the pool and brought the session to a dramatic end. We all laughed and began to hike back to the cabin, very content with the day.
For the 13 people who had only booked the one day trip, this marked the end and they piled into the pickup trucks which would take them back to Sen Monorom. For the 3 of us who remained there was still lots of adventure to look forward to.
Our dinner was local cuisine prepared in the traditional manner. I was impressed by the way the Bunong guide cooked eggplant soup on a wood fire, inside a length of bamboo. Previously, with no pots and pans bamboo has been used extensively for cooking and boiling water. While we waited for dinner we were each given an elegant bamboo ‘shot glass’ filled with homemade rice wine and we raised a toast, “leuk dach” as they say in Cambodia, to an excellent day.
Again, plenty of food was served for dinner, and it was amazingly tasty, particularly the bamboo soup. The shack is perfectly placed facing out to the west, and therefore providing spectacular sunsets (which justifies doing the 2-day trip alone, if you ask me!). With full stomachs and complete satisfaction, we watched the end of another day in the jungle, as the sky turned from blue to red and eventually settled on black, with a smattering of stars.
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We collapsed into the hammocks which had been strung up inside the shack for us, and all quickly drifted off to sleep. I woke once or twice in the night and found myself strangely comforted by the nocturnal sounds of the jungle. The jungle seemed alive with the constant static of beetles and insects clattering, cicadas wailing, and the occasional bird chirping. It was the perfect reminder of where I was which immediately lulled me back to sleep.
Mondulkiri Project Day 2: Trekking Through the Jungle
The first soft rays of sunlight seeped through the jungle and fell across our mosquito nets and stirred us from our sleep. This is the liveliest time for nature, and the pulse of the jungle beats the fastest. I felt well rested and after devouring a few banana and chocolate pancakes, and a coffee, I felt more than prepared for the long hike.
18km of hiking through the jungle lay before us until we finished at a small Bunong village. The trail descended down to cross a river before climbing up and over a hill on the other side; it was a challenge, but the pace remained relaxed and casual. I think the trek would be suitable for anyone of moderate fitness.
As we hiked, the guide pointed out many things we would have missed otherwise. I was amazed by their incredible knowledge of the jungle and its uses for humans. He pointed out trees which had bees and honey inside, leaves which would relieve a headache, and trees from which you could gather tar to waterproof a canoe. As we walked, we passed people from the village who were collecting different ingredients from the jungle. This insight into a unique way of life, completely different from my own, was fascinating.
The trek remained mostly among the trees and therefore hidden from the harsh sun, but even in the shade, it began to get uncomfortably hot around midday. It was a great relief to discover that there were three waterfalls about a kilometer apart, and we could swim in or shower under each of them. The second waterfall was the most impressive; I stood directly under and let the water crash down on top of me. After 8 hours we reached the top of one final hill and were greeted by the village. We celebrated with a beer before the pickup truck arrived to take us back to Sen Monorom.
What Makes the Mondulkiri Project so Sustainable?
The Mondulkiri Project prioritizes the welfare of Cambodian elephants above anything else. This means no-one rides the elephants, not even the Mahouts who care for them. But it goes deeper than this – In his speech, Mr. Tree told us that there are three ways in which elephant projects can acquire its elephants;
- Firstly, the elephant can be loaned on a day-to-day basis from local elephant owners when there are enough tourists booked on a tour.
- Secondly, the project can loan an elephant from an elephant owner for a fixed term of perhaps a year or two.
- Thirdly, the project can buy the elephants itself.
Under the first two ‘rental’ arrangements, after the agreed period is over the elephants return to the owner who is free to use the elephants for riding or for heavy work. In comparison, the third option, by far the most expensive, ensures that the elephant project can safeguard the future of the elephant and prevent it being ridden or mistreated ever again. The Mondulkiri Project owns all three of its elephants. They will never be ridden again!
But, it goes even deeper still! While the Mondulkiri Project could buy several cheaper elephants, which would attract more tourists – the more elephants, the more appeal, right? – they instead decided to buy one of the youngest elephants in Cambodia (which also happened to be the most expensive!). This is part of the organization’s ambitious plan to reintroduce a breeding program to Cambodia, to help the countries dwindling elephant population. It is a shocking statistic that not a single elephant has been born in Cambodia in 30 years.
I feel very pleased to have supported such a responsible organization as the Mondulkiri Project, and wish them further success in rescuing more elephants. I hope one day to hear about the tiny patter of baby elephant steps in Mondulkiri, the first in 30 years.
My Overall Experience
The Mondulkiri Project was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Cambodia. The experience of getting up close and personal with the three magnificent elephants was extremely unique and special. I was glad I stayed for the second day; for only an extra $30, the experience of sleeping in the jungle with new friends, eating local food, and a trek with a knowledgeable guide incorporating some beautiful waterfalls, is great value and definitely recommended!
For up to date prices and information, head on over to the website of Mondulkiri Project
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