… you haven’t truly experienced the Elephant Valley Project.
Filthy? Check. Muddy clothes have been discarded.
Sweaty? Double check. As in, “My clothes, right down to my socks, are soaking wet and I didn’t cross the river today.”
Exhausted? Yup. Bedtime at 8pm it is.
The Elephant Valley Project (EVP), located a short distance from the remote eastern Cambodian town of Sen Monorom close to the Vietnam border, enables overworked and abused elephants the opportunity to experience life in their natural environment, while their owners are compensated for the elephants’ short or long-term stay. The NGO also provides a range of other programs to support the local community and ecological conservation. Check out their website and facebook page.
Further below you can read Cate’s perspective on what we learned and experienced with these incredible animals, but I wanted to paint a picture of how physically taxing our two days there were… ‘cause we are so freaking proud of how Cen, Meskie and Cate rose to the challenge – one that many adults would find daunting. They were the only kids there, and they not only kept pace, they often outpaced. No whinging or wining. They simply embraced the experience and all it had to offer.
Located on a breathtakingly beautiful forest hillside, the EVP has an eco-friendly base camp, with electricity only between the hours of 6pm – 9pm and no hot water (yup, cold showers).
Over the course of two days, we:
– hiked down steep and sometimes muddy paths to the river valley (and up and down and up…)
– manoeuvred over slippery, narrow wooden planks and log bridges
– walked through thigh-high, fast moving rivers (and emptied boots full of water and mud)
– chopped down banana trees with machetes (Yes, we let a 7, 8 and 10 year old loose with the sharp instruments.) When Cate was advised that one of the trees might require adult strength, she showed us all and chopped that sucker down.
– hauled heavy tree trunks, banana leaves and banana clusters both up and down the hillside to feeding stations
– washed elephants (and cleared muddy platforms)
– fed elephants the fruits of our labour
– ended each day muddy, sweaty and exhausted
At the end of our stay, the kids declared that the experience was more fun than our time at the Singapore Water Park. Heavy labor is more fun than sliding down a water park roller coaster? Proof positive that we often underestimate kids’ capacity and their desire to contribute to meaningful work.
It was without doubt one of the highlights of our trip so far. If you are ever in Cambodia, you should definitely check it out.
P.S. Shout out to the cool people we met at EVP: Team members Jack (aka Jake or Mr. Banana), Jemma, Greta, Linda, Kim, Tull and Khnurn, and fellow-travelers Rachel, Ben, Hannah and Georgia.
And now a word from Cate…
Let Them Roam Free
On September 1-2, we visited the Elephant Valley Project, where we got to observe, learn, feed and bathe the previously abused and captive elephants who came to the project for rest and recuperation. I left with a new-found knowledge and fascination about elephants.
We started off our exciting and awesome two days with a hike down slippery, steep paths to meet four female elephants: Ning Yen, Menang, Ruby and Onion, our guide, Jemma, leading the way. We crossed a fast-moving river and walked the Log of Termites.
When we made it to the four elephants, we got to observe and pet them (and admire their gorgeous bums). As EVP founder Jake says, “I spend most of my day looking at elephant asses.”
Sadly, it was a nerve-racking day for Ning Yen, Menang and Ruby, and a traumatic and upsetting one for Onion.
When Onion first came to the Elephant Valley project, she was scarred both mentally and physically. Although in the wild, females stick together in herds and male elephants are solitary creatures, Onion didn’t join the other female elephants at the project. Instead she struck up a close friendship with a male elephant: Bob.
But Bob tragically passed away the weekend before we arrived, and Onion was very distressed. As a result, the mood was tense, but we were still able to observe the herd and see the beginnings of a friendship between Ruby and Onion (something Jemma was overjoyed to see). We also learned quite a bit about elephants and these females’ stories from her.
Some of the stories are very sad. Many of the elephants worked long hours, were beaten, abused and not fed properly. And although the elephants were treated very badly, we do have to understand that the people who own the elephants are often extremely poor families. To make enough money to buy food, clothes, education for their kids and pay medical bills, they are driven to overwork the elephants or cut down trees from Cambodia’s protected forest area, threatening the elephant’s habitat.
Some of the elephants are at the project on short-term plans, coming here to get fat and rest before returning to their work in tourism, logging etc. Other elephants are at the project on long-term plans or have been purchased from their owners to live out their lives in the forest. While the elephants are at the project, EVP provides families and communities with income. It is a win-win; the families receive enough money to survive and the elephants can enjoy rest time.
After our very cool (and tiring and sweaty) morning, we walked to the Elephant Valley Project’s lodge or, as they put it, “The Middle of Somewhere.” We checked out our family room (of course a quick break to catch our breath was required before we headed down to “Ning Yen’s Hut”).
We were in a jungle, of course, so we weren’t expecting Park Royal or anything. We had to adapt to electricity for only three hours per day, no hot water and no air con. Yup, we were roughin’ it for a night, but this is the jungle, people! It’s supposed to be unexpected, exciting, an adventure!
After lunch (guess what, Dad, they only have one meat option!), we hiked down to the river valley again to see more elephants, Easy Rider, GeeNowl and Buffet (pronounced Buffie) the Banana Slayer (so called because she plowed down and ate a banana plantation worth more than a thousand dollars in one night!)
We returned to the base camp dirty and exhausted, had a dinner of fried tofu, mashed potatoes, veggies and mangosteen, and then dropped like fleas into our beds.
Volunteering came the next day. Imagine three kids 10 and under carrying huge hunks of banana trees on their shoulders over rickety bridges. Then picture them hacking down trees with machetes. In Canada, land of hyper-safety this would have been banned. BANNED, I TELL YOU!!!
None of us were decapitated, though, so I suppose that jusitifies that kids are plenty capable of using machetes and not accidentally commiting suicide. And it was very fun. Unleash the machete-weilding children!
In the afternoon, we truly got up close and personal with some of the elephants: we washed them (i.e. the ones who were raised in captivity so didn’t learn how to do this for themselves in the river). This activity was incredibly cool! Splashing water, scrubbing and hosing down the elephants was really fun and very memorable! How lucky are we?
Later we fed the elephants our leaves and banana trees. Boy, elephants eat a lot!
We returned to Sen Monorom, tired and dirty. A warm shower was looked at in a whole new light! [Of note, we had a couple of wonderful days in Sen Monorom, and will post more about that in the next day or so.]
That’s all for now! Bye!