Elephants for Christmas! 🐘🎄
Being away from home is hard on Christmas. So I made the day special by heading over to the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri.
The journey was really difficult. I was sooo sick all day, with this upper respiratory infection that I think I have as a side effect from taking the anti-malarial medicine. Felt nauseous, pounding headache, coughing, runny nose, dizzy, fever. Blurgh. And the trip ended up taking 15 hours… 6 hours on the first ‘normal’ bus to Phnom Penh + 1 hour looking for a bus from Phnom Penh (with my awesome tuk-tuk driver😍) + 7 hours in an extremely overcrowded van, driven by a 18-year-old dude chugging Red Bull (I almost walked away, in the middle of nowhere, when we stopped for an hour to fill the van with fertilizer bags and then pile bags of cables on top of the van).
The little girl was throwing up every time we stopped. When I looked at her, she had the same face:
I just kept telling myself the whole time, “The harder the journey, the better the reward. (repeat)”
When I got to the hotel in Sen Monorom (at 9pm) that I booked on booking.com, the girl working was in the entryway, laying on a cot watching TV and didn’t know english. So she got the guy who knew english, and he didn’t have any record of my reservation. I just started laughing at this point, I was so sick and so tired, and I quickly decided it would be totally all right if I laid down on the tile floor right where I was and went to sleep. Finally, though, they checked an found an open room! Sleep at last, sleep at last! Thank God Almighty, I get to sleep at last!!
And I was right – the journey was totally worth the reward!
Elephants have been my favorite animal since I’ve known they existed. My #1 prized stuffed animal when I was a child was Ellie, a wind-up musical elephant, whose head moved from side to side as the music played. (She was later replaced by Ellie 2 after an unfortunate cops-and-robbers accident… and Ellie 2 later replaced by Ellie 3, the newer and shinier version).
At any rate, I LOVE elephants. Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri is where I got to spend my day – I signed up for a half-day trek in the morning to see the elephants and a half-day of volunteering and doing work on the site. Because I don’t have hardly any clothing, I pieced together an outfit based on the fact that the EVP told me that I couldn’t wear flip-flips (I have two pairs of shoes: flip-flops and winter boots).
Boots and wool socks were burning up on my feet! But I’m glad I wore them, definitely were needed:)
They also said we had to wear long pants, but c’mon – I can’t follow ALL the rules. We walked about 30 minutes through the jungle, down into a valley and caught up with four elephants roaming around on their daily routines! There are eight elephants total at EVP, all females. The youngest is ~25, and the oldest is ~60. The smallest is Ruby (my favorite), and she only weighs 2.5 tons (the largest weighs 3.5 tons).
The EVP rescues elephants from local Cambodians who own them and are using them for either labor or tourist rides. There are only a few hundred elephants in Cambodia. The EVP negotiates with the local people to either buy an elephant out-right or to ‘lease’ them for 10 years, with the plan to eventually buy them at the end of the lease. They’ve also worked with the locals and the government to secure the 1,000 hectares around the EVP to have the government officially give ownership to the local tribe and also to secure it and (try to) keep loggers off.
Most of the elephants at the project used to do manual labor in logging – they have scars, enlarged and bent spines, and destroyed feet showing the wear and tear on their bodies. When they come to the project, they’re assimilated with other elephants, and they get to have a social life again! The matriarch elephant (appointed by her peers) takes care of the newest ones… she taught the newest elephant how to give herself a mud bath☺️ They’re such gentle and smart and beautiful and wonderful animals.
Ruby is undersized because she was so malnourished in her formative years.
Ruby was trying to herd us the whole time. She’s developed the role of ‘security guard’, and she tries to round up the people while the other three elephants go to another area😂 She thinks she’s a sheepdog.
Mom: Our sweet little guide, John, (standing to Ruby’s left, in a Santa hat) is from CEDARVILLE, OHIO. He got all excited when I told him you’re from Xenia:)
They are watched all day by “mahouts”, which is the word for elephant-rider, but in this case, they’re really their trainers and overseers. The elephants are able to roam free, but if one of them gets away from the herd and too far out of the valley, the mahouts will go gather them back. At night time, they’re actually put on a 25-meter long chain, each with their own area, so they don’t stray far and into anyone’s land, where they might be hurt. They sleep only 4-6 hours a day, the other hours are spent eating, so having their own area to roam overnight lets them continue to eat. The chains are able to be broken, in case of emergency, and some of the elephants know this, so they will randomly decide to break free (not often). When the mahouts arrive the next morning, if they see an elephant is gone, they go to the nearest banana farm and always find them… they lovvvveee bananas😂
One of the girls used her finger to actually undo the clasp that the chain was attached to and let herself free! When the staff realized she was doing that, they started putting some of her poo on the clasp, and she doesn’t touch it anymore! Just like us, they don’t want to touch their poo😂
The mahouts give them a bath every day because the mud will damage their skin if they leave it on too long.
Ruby HATES baths! And she’s always the first to get out:) Pearl loves baths, and she is the one laying in the water and playing.
After their baths, they immediately went to a nearby tree to scratch their skin!
After they scratch, they go to the nearest mud hole and put mud on themselves again😂
My second half of the day was for volunteering… I was picturing shoveling manure. BUTTTT, since it was Christmas Day, they let us off the hook from manual labor (I was going to ask to ‘supervise’ anyway…)! Instead, we got to take a trek through the jungle down to a waterfall and swim😄 Now that’s the Christmas Spirit!
After the elephants caked themselves with mud, we were following them through the jungle, and I got mud all over me by brushing against the branches that they rubbed their mud on:)
The day culminated with a buffet Christmas dinner at a local Aussie ex-pat’s restaurant and a skype call from my fam😍 A very strange, very awesome Christmas Day!
Next up: Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam