There’s a lot of controversy surrounding elephant tourism in SE Asia, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia. In Cambodia, for hundreds of years, remote communities have captured, domesticated and used elephants for transporting heavy loads, agriculture, or hunting in otherwise impenetrable jungle. Much of that jungle has since been destroyed, roads have been built and elephant numbers (both domestic and in the wild) are in decline. Elephant “conservation” projects have popped up all over Cambodia claiming to protect these magnificent animals. Some do, but some exploit the animals and local communities.
When planning our Cambodia itinerary, trekking in the jungle was high up on our to-do list. Mondulkiri in Eastern Cambodia is one of the best places in the country to go jungle trekking. It also happens to be one of the best places to see elephants. Of course we wanted to see the elephants during our visit, but we also wanted to be sure we were supporting a responsible project.
Mondulkiri is a 6 hour minibus ride from Phnom Penh. Sen Monorom is the provincial capital. It’s a small town but has lots of guesthouses and a few great restaurants and bars. We highly recommend Chantha Sreypich Guesthouse, which is where we stayed. Super clean, very friendly, and cheap; only $6 a night for a private double. Perfect!
Elephant Projects in Mondulkiri
We didn’t book a tour before arriving in Mondulkiri, we wanted to assess the situation on the ground first. Here’s what we found out:
There are many conservation projects in Mondulkiri, and there is a lot of bashing going on between them. There appeared to be two types of projects:
There are three sanctuaries in Mondulkiri. The sanctuaries buy plots of land and buy or rent elephants from the Bunong people; the indingenous people who own the elephants. The sanctuaries claim that the Bunong people over work or mistreat the elephants, and whilst in the sanctuary they are rehabilitated or taken into retirement. Tourists can visit the sanctuaries and get up close and personal with the elephants for around $50 for the day. Many people visit the sanctuaries and they seem to get great reviews.
Bunong Community Projects:
The Bunong people are indigenous to Mondulkiri. They have lived with and used elephants for hundreds of years and their relationship with the elephants is deeply spiritual. Logging in particular is threatening the Bunong people’s livelihood and culture by destroying the forests from which they live. With support from organisations such as the WWF, the Bunong people have developed their own eco-tourism projects that aim to protect the community, the elephants and their habitat. Going on one of these tours costs around $35 for the day and you visit the elephants that live with the Bunong people.
The locals claim the sanctuaries are often foreign owned, take income away from the local community, and are generally bad for conservation.
So How to Choose?
There are 3 main things to consider when choosing who to support:
- The community – Protecting the indigenous Bunong people, their culture and land are key to conservation in the area. The area is at most threat from logging and increased poverty is forcing the Bunong people to sell their land off cheap.
- Elephant welfare – The elephants should be treated exceptionally well; no if’s, no buts.
- The experience – You obviously want to have a fantastic experience.
The picture in Mondulkiri is certainly complicated and there is lot of conflicting information and mudslinging from both sides. Our rational was as follows:
- Despite allegations of overworking, through our conversations with the locals in Sen Monorom, we were actually more convinced that the elephants are better off with the Bunong people.
- The experiences on offer all sounded very similar. Quite rightly none of the tours were offering elephant rides which most people now understand is an unsustainable and cruel industry.
- The community projects are slightly cheaper; not that this would sway us if we deemed the project irresponsible. We think this is because they don’t have to rent or buy the elephants and there are no middle men.
- Being community based and with the absence of middle men (foreign or not), it’s logical to assume that more employment and support goes back to the local community.
All this considered, we booked a tour with a community based project called Elephant Community Project. We chose a 2 day tour that included 1 day with the elephants and 1 day of trekking, with an overnight in a home stay. We booked it at Green House Guesthouse in the center of Sen Monorom for $65 per person.
Wow...where to begin. This was perhaps one of the best experiences we’ve had on our travels so far.
We spent the entire morning with two female elephants in the jungle, first feeding them sugar cane in a clearing and later swimming with them in a waterfall. I made a quick exit from the plunge pool after both elephants decided to relieve their bowels; that didn’t seem to bother Hayley though, who continued to bathe with them and their poo.
Chomping on some sugar cane
Taking a bath with the elephants
We stole some from the elephants
The elephants seemed extremely well cared for. We were told about how they are essentially free in the jungle but their Mahouts (owners and carers) watch over them and make sure they don’t get into any trouble; for example by entering one of the surrounding farms and eating all the crops.
We had two guides from the Bunong community and the project organiser Sam Nang with us. All the guides were fantastic and we learnt a lot about the elephants, the community and issues facing them and their habitat. Sam, who is sponsored by the WWF to promote eco-tourism in the region, in particular was extremely knowledge and cast no doubt in our minds that this was a legitimate conservation project.
Sam our guide talking passionately about the elephants
One of our Bunong guides - she knew so much about the forest
Fetching a pale of water in the Bunong village. It was hard work!
After a fantastic lunch cooked by the wife of one of the guides, we went on a short trek where Sam talked more about the region and introduced us to a variety of edible goodies found in the jungle. One berry we tried apparently had the same goodness as five apples; it was far too bitter for our palates though. In the evening we visited a Bunong village where we met some elderly ladies the project had been supporting.
We spent the night at one of the guide’s houses which overlooked the jungle valley; it was truly a stunning setting. Our host kindly crafted us some bamboo shot glasses and we knocked back a few rice wines.
The next day we did a 19 kilometer trek, which after weeks of travelling and doing relatively little excercise was a killer. We cooled down periodically in some stunning waterfalls and lunch was cooked in bamboo over a fire; it was perhaps the tastiest meal we’ve had in SE Asia.
The view from our homestay
Found this critter under my bag in the morning
Lunch cooked in Bamboo, yum!
We 100% support Elephant Community Project in Mondulkiri and the work they are doing. We would highly recommend a trip with them. It was clear that the elephants are well looked after and that the project was community centric. We also had a blast.
We can’t confirm or deny the allegations aimed at the sanctuaries. I’m optimistic that most projects in the region have good intentions. Hopefully in time they can begin to work together rather than continuing to bicker, after all, this would be best for conservation in the region.