“I’m [beginning] to realize how important it is to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it, and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.” -Roald Dahl
For as long as I’ve been in Asia, elephants have been a serious (and sometimes deeply saddening) topic of discussion. Petitions fill my Facebook feed to create awareness of mistreatment, ‘Save the Elephants’ fundraising campaigns advertise on coffee shop walls, and there’s endless talk amongst travelers who seem to be getting wise to non-reputable tour operators exploiting these helpless animals. And although it’s likely not news to anyone reading this that in countries like Cambodia, these gentle giants are used to transport people on their backs around temple ruins and through jungle paths, it’s probably not all that often that one stops to think about what the elephant has gone through so we can enjoy the ride.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve complacently supported this industry multiple times. On both of my visits to Chiang Mai, Thailand I joined a group of other tacky tourists to photograph, touch, bath, ride and feed these beautiful creatures. Of course I felt alarm when I witnessed baby elephants chained up at the ankle to thick fence posts, sharp hooks being used to control their behaviour, and was overcome with sadness as I looked into the eyes of these gorgeous mammals and saw an undeniable tale of captive pain. However, it seems no matter how strongly one feels about the ethical treatment of elephants (or animals in general) what can a single person do to make a difference? It’s an incredibly delicate subject to broach because of the cultural and socioeconomic factors involved and frankly something that I, as a westerner, know very little about.
So with three weeks remaining in a country I fell so hard for that I would do just about anything to enhance it, I decided it was time to educate myself on the topic and be the change I wish to see. The more I travel, the more I believe that it’s no longer enough for me to throw my hands in the air and wait for someone else to save the world… I’m just as capable as any other superhero.
Lucky for me, I had a superstar sidekick in my presence for those last days in Cambodia. My sweet Canadian friend Leah spent her holidays from work visiting me, and gave me the all-encompassing power to plan our time together. Poor Leah! I mean, the girl is well-travelled … but as with most passionate love affairs, my lust for this country overcame me and I suppose over time it blinded me from the somewhat shocking reality of what is. Filthy streets lined with limbless beggars, putrid smells, holes for toilets, a consistent omission of cleanliness that results in the most vile of stomach adventures. . . and this was all before we’d even left Phnom Penh. From the city, I transported that unsuspecting angel all across Cambodia by bus; from the northern mountains to the southern beaches (sometimes in one long, 15-hour day of transportation hell).
If the Mondulkiri Project hadn’t been as special as it was, I think Leah may have never forgiven me for that cramped mini-bus ride to Sen Monorom (a village in the north east of Cambodia close to the Loas border). I remember looking over at her squished into the all-dreaded seat number 14; knees up to her nose, broken air-conditioner in the 32 degree heat, and completely surrounded by Cambodian locals that just longed to tell her about their families for six hours straight. At one point, as it started to thunderstorm, the bus broke down in the pitch dark and our handy driver proceeded to open plastic water-bottles and dump them over the steaming engine. We all jumped back into the van, the engine tuned over and off we went… only in Asia!
Once we safely arrived at our destination, a staff member from Tree Lodge collected us at the bus station in his pick-up truck and brought us to our nature-inspired, rustic-chic home for the night. It was really starting to pour rain at this point (something I hadn’t seen in almost five months), and we made our way upstairs to the common area of the lodge to stay dry. Here, we enjoyed great food, a game of Yahtzee and shared conversation with other travellers until the power went out from the storm. It wasn’t until the light of the following morning that I could really appreciate this space; the wooden restaurant deck was decorated with log furniture and had a gorgeous view of the surrounding jungle from high above. It soon became the perfect place to rest our tired feet, eat salty popcorn and duck egg omelets, and drink cheap beer while enjoying the stunning sunset.
Our room was just my favourite little place on earth! For a $7 bungalow (split between the two of us) I had little-to-no expectation, but it really was out of this world. The beautifully illuminated boardwalk, knitted hammock out front, handcrafted log-frame bed, and an outdoor (heated) shower with gorgeous shale rock greeted us and all the worries of our nightmare bus ride seemed to dissolve away.
We both woke early the next morning; Leah because of the time change and me because I swear I heard the Hariharalaya wake-up gong all the way from Siem Reap. We practiced yoga on our balcony and then enjoyed a delicious breakfast before setting off on a couple days of adventure in the jungle.
Cambodia (and Asia in general) is so funny in the way tours are operated; completely omitting important details like the fact that we’d be strenuously hiking into a dense jungle for eight hours, we’d sleep in a hammock in wall-less treetop shelter made of bamboo, oh, and did they forget to mention the plethora of leeches along the rainforest floor? I could only imagine the waivers that one would be required to fill out in the western world to participate on such a tour, yet somehow in Asia, fitness level, health status and allergies are just completely disregarded.
Leah, myself, and a couple from Switzerland piled into the back the pick-up truck and were taken to the side of a dirt road to begin our rainforest trek.
La, an absolute gem of a man, was our trusted jungle adventure guide (although he deserves recognition for effortlessly wearing so many other hats throughout the trip; comedian, nature encyclopedia, Khmer dictionary, entertainer, mudslide fall break, leech exterminator, and bedtime tuck-er-in-er).
For two days he educated us on all things jungle; teaching us about farming in the area, the indigenous people,
the bugs (futuristic avatar popcorn beetles!), rubber trees, and the sheer magic of how plants can be used naturally cure just about any ailment.
We refreshed in cool lagoons, swung from thick vines, and ate lunch (packed in biodegradable containers) alongside a cascading waterfall.
My neon pink Reebok’s didn’t seem to fare out so well and I was forced to demonstrate some yogic agility as the rain from days earlier softened the earth and created (somewhat dangerous) mini-mudslides on the downslopes of mountains. Needless to say, there was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment as the four of us reached the village that evening and, in true Cambodian tradition, we were greeted with cold Angkor beers and a family of smiling faces. Like a beautiful dream, we sat together and admired the colourful sunset over the jungle from high above in our treehouse home.
The absence of clock-time makes it impossible to say exactly when we zipped into our hammocks to sleep for the night, but I imagine it couldn’t have been any later than 8pm. I relished in the fact that in the fresh mountain air, I was able to snuggle up and doze with a blanket for the first time in months.
The combination of a pesky rooster, our early bedtime the night before, and the palpable excitement of seeing elephants meant the next day began at the break of dawn. The hill tribe family cooked us a breakfast fit for champions; pancakes with Nutella and bananas and this amazing thick, chocolatey, dark coffee with sweetened condensed milk (resulting in an energetic buzz Starbucks could never compete with). It was after breakfast that the real magic began as we were graced with meeting the wonderfully inspiring Mr.Tree.
In a culture where people live day to day and don’t often think ahead into the future, this guy just GETS it! His concern for the environment, his ability to see animals as something other than flesh that fills a Styrofoam take-away container, and the support he demonstrates towards the destitute souls in his province is just so refreshing.
For close to an hour this local hero poured his heart out to us about what he sees happening in his beloved community and why he’s so determined to make a difference. I quickly learned that this project isn’t just about the saving elephants from mistreatment, there are problems to be solved that go far deeper. Mr.Tree explained that it begins with the local indigenous community, the Bunong (hill tribe) people. For these people everyday is a struggle for survival; filled with long, labourous work days to simply provide food and money for their families to eat. Even the sick and elderly are made to farm the land, collect food from the jungle, and walk more than fifty kilometers every day to town markets just so that they don’t starve.
The hill tribe people have resorted to cutting down large sections of forest in this area to sell the timber to Vietnam and to clear space for rubber plantations. As their population grows so does the demand for land to farm food, and he feels that it is only a matter of time before the entire Mondulkiri Province is deforested.
Mr.Tree’s vision is to protect the forest so it can be used in ways that will still provide these communities with an income, but without destroying nature. And in October 2013 he brought his dreams to life with the Mondulkiri Project; a conservation endeavour that not only saves the environment, but creates jobs to improve the quality of living amongst Bunong families. His hard work in educating the hill tribe population is paying off, and an agreement has been made with the indigenous elders to stop logging in a large area of forest near Sen Monorom. This now protected land provides a home for all kinds of endangered wildlife such as; frogs, birds, oxen, deer, wild pigs and buffalo… and most recently, elephants!
Heartbreakingly, every day in this part of the world, a baby Asian elephant is captured from it’s mother in the wild to be sold to an organization for tourism. As a result, a population of hundreds of thousands of majestic wild elephants has been diminished to less than two hundred in Cambodia; a figure that’s further dwindling due to added human stressors like deforestation, poaching and pollution. The truth is, extinction is not only a threat for this endangered species but a reality in as little as a decade.
Once in captivity, terrified infant elephants are trained for a career to cart tourists around on their back all day. Capturers make the animal submissive through abusive processes designed to break it’s spirit and enforce action based on fear. They are made to live in cages so small they can’t sit or move, starved, stuck with nails, stabbed in the ears, sleep-deprived and beaten with bull hooks. This practice called “crushing” has been going on for centuries, yet laws in counties like Cambodia are not strong enough to protect elephants from such cruelty and they continue to be treated worse than the livestock in our western world.
After training, elephants are hired out to tourist camps to work giving rides all day and not allowed to do what elephants need to do in order to survive (eat 12-18 hours a day; consuming 200-600 pound of leaves and drink 50 gallons of water). Instead, they are forced to trek back and forth on the same path all day long becoming dehydrated, hungry and sick. On average, an elephant in captivity will live only half of it’s eighty year lifespan, and most are inhumanly killed when they become too unhealthy to work.
The Mondulkiri Project is working to rescue one precious elephant at a time from this confined existence. The protected Sen Monorom forest has become a sanctuary in which captive elephants can once again live freely; eating (lots of) bamboo, playing in the mud and swimming in the river. These emotionally intelligent animals could not be more loved and well taken care of in the hands of Mr.Tree, who nurtures them back to health after they arrive sick, malnourished and extremely fearful. At this time there are six happy, healthy female elephants living at the Mondulkiri Project. As purchasing an elephant is an extremely expensive endeavor (upwards of $40,000 in a country where the average salary is $150/month), Mr.Tree instead approaches animal owners and offers a monthly ‘lease’ payment to keep the animals in his care. All of the money raised from the elephant sanctuary and jungle treks is used to pay to rent the forest and to support the local Bunong hill tribes with employment, medicine and food donations. It’s such a beautiful and synergistic relationship! The indigenous community and the elephants are contributing to each other’s vision for a better life. The project aims to one day host a male elephant and start a natural breeding program to facilitate in the long term survival of the Asian elephant.
For Leah and myself, the whole experience was truly life-changing. After feeding these beautiful creatures bananas, we spent hours watching in awe as these angels gracefully moved around the forest on their own free will. They all seemed to have their own quirky personalities, and Mr.Tree has grown to know every mannerism. In a beautiful tale of undying friendship, the project has reunited two older elephants who met years ago while carrying artillery and logs for the Khmer Rouge. Moon and Sophie spend their days consistently in the company of each other; bathing and eating in tandom (literally one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed).
The highlight of the whole adventure in Mondulkiri, and for me of my entire journey to date, came in the afternoon of the third day. Leah and I were taking a much-needed swim in a nearby waterfall to cool off.
In true ‘Jurassic park’ style, the trees in the surrounding forest begin to move and moments later a five ton elephant emerged from the jungle. She calmly sauntered towards us, walked into the water where we were frolicking, and collapsed to submerge her hot body into the refreshing river below. We were able to scrub and bath this beauty for a long while, and soon, other elephants began to follow suit. It was an experience I will never forget, and something the two of us talked endlessly about for the next weeks as we continued to explore other parts of the country.
I left Mondulkiri with a heart full of love and excitement. What a blessing it was to have not only had these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but to have been in the company of such inspiring beings. I feel charged to do everything in my power to support an organization I believe so passionately in. And judging by this overwhelming feeling of fulfillment throughout my being, I’d say that it’s true; we really do lift ourselves up when we vow to help others.
So with this post, I encourage all of my beautiful friends to join me in representing the positive change we wish to see on this planet. Please support a good man in his good cause. In whatever way you are capable of helping; share this link and donate to the project, create awareness by simply speaking to others about it, or best of all, visit and experience the magic of this place and these people for yourself.
Let’s come together and be a bright light unto this world and hurt it not. Let’s seek to build and not to destroy, and vow to lead by our shining example. Choose to make every moment of your life an outpouring of love; the kind of love that gives all and requires nothing in return. Bring peace to the Earth by bringing peace to all those lives you touch; simply be peace. And perhaps most importantly, practice living simply so others can simply live. Because in the end, the most useful asset is not a pocket full of money or even a head full of knowledge, but instead a heart full or love and two hands that are willing to help.
**Read more about the Mondulkiri Project by clicking here