A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia

Elephant Valley Project

Please don't ride elephants...

sunny 35 °C

We had heard about the Elephant Valley Project which works to rehabilitate elephants that have been used for work such as logging, transport and tourism, allowing them the opportunity to live and behave as an elephant should in natural surroundings. After volunteering with EHRA and wild elephants in Namibia I was interested to find out more about the work with captive Asian elephants and the different issues here.

We decided we wanted to visit for 4 days on the project where half the day was spent with the elephants and half the day volunteering, and we had an amazing time...it was great to be so close to these beautiful animals and a real eye opener not only on the treatment of captive elephants but also the problems that the local people face as well.

Jack and his team do a great job and it really is an inspiring project.

You can check out in more detail the project click here...

Here is a sum up of our time on the project...

Our journey to Sen Monorom was our first in one of Cambodias infamous mini buses, where they cram in everyone and everything that they can! We made sure we were there on time to get a good seat but then waited in the bus for an hour and half after it was meant to leave for it to fill up! The next 6 hours were not the most comfortable but the people in the bus were friendly and offered us some local snacks.

We were staying at the Greenhouse Guesthouse for one night before leaving in the morning for the project in Elephant Valley and the view from our room was not too shabby and we were definitely more remote. We tried to catch up with our blog but its tiring work!

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Arriving at the top of the Valley we were met by the team and started our walk down to 'elephant heaven' which is home to 5 of the 12 elephants here. Jack told us that the land used for this sanctuary is rented from the local people and the project provides them rice in return. They also provide jobs and healthcare for the local people as well which provides an incentive to preserve this area for elephants and other animals to live in rather than sell it off and allow further deforestation in the area.

Our first sighting...can you spot them?

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At the bottom of the valley is a river which the elephants come down to bathe in and get muddy. We were only too happy to help!

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Here is Onion, enjoying the mud but also marking her territory...

It really is a beautiful location and easy to see why it is called "Heaven". It was great to see the elephants emerging from the forest and to hear them trumpeting and rumbling to each other.

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We spent the rest of the morning walking with them, watching as they foraged in the forest and behaved as elephants should...

These elephants had all been working elephants and you could see the affects this had had on their bodies such as scars, pronounced spine and dropped rib cage from the pressure of the weight they would be carrying/pulling and ill fitting baskets. Jack told us that even though elephants are big animals they are not as strong as people think and can only carry 10% of their body weight, compare that to an ant that can carry several times its own body weight. Even carrying a couple of tourists around in a basket is heavy for them, and then take into the fact that they would give people rides all day as well. Elephants can make their owners a lot of money particularly from tourists wanting to ride them. If an elephant is ill or hurt they are made to keep working rather than being allowed to heal. This is because if the owner says the elephant can't work they lose out on a lot of money and potentially may not get work from that place again. It seems an impossible situation when you consider the average daily income is $2-5 but with an elephant it can be several hundred on a busy day. The project buys elephants when they can (but this costs $15,000 per elephant!) or rents them from the owners to bring them to the sanctuary to rest and heal, and sometimes they are left here when the owner can not look after them anymore.

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Each elephant has its own sad story of their time as a working elephant but I will tell you about one called Milot. You can see the scars on her back from the baskets she carried tourists in. She was also blind in one eye, they think from a misused hook. The end of her tail had been cut off as elephant hair is considered good luck and she also had skin cut from her vagina to be made into medicine for a woman who was having trouble getting pregnant. Now she can spend the rest of her days at the project, not being worked or mis treated. The Elephant Valley Project no longer allows visitors to ride the elephants which was an important factor in us choosing to visit here.

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After a great lunch (the food on the project is yum!) we were put to work whilst the day visitors went to wash the other elephants. As volunteers we helped wherever needed. Dan did some gardening whilst I sanded and varnished handrails at one of the lodges.

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The communal areas at the project were great especially the lounge area which was an incredible place to relax, listen to the sounds of the jungle and watch the sun go down.

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Here are some of the other creatures we shared the 4 days with...

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The next day we volunteered in the morning (varnishing furniture) which meant we would spend the afternoon washing elephants and walking with them on top of the hill. Many of the elephants come to the project not knowing how to throw mud or water on themselves. This is mainly because when they did it when they were younger they would be punished as it would go over the mahout. Armed with buckets, brushes and hoses we all got stuck in...

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I can not describe what it was like to be so close and actually touch elephants. They looked right at you in the eye as you washed their heads and gave them water to drink. We could see the muscles of their trunk rippling upwards as they sucked up the water and were sprayed when they put their trunks back down for more. Their skin is covered in course bristles and feels tough and smooth at the same time. Incredible!

We had 7 elephants to wash, some being more easy than others and we were all covered in mud and drenched by the time we followed them up the hill. It was great to walk with them and to see them roaming in such a large area.

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We alternated between volunteering in the morning and the afternoon over the next two days which meant we got to go back to 'heaven' and wash the elephants again.

It was a magical couple of days in a beautiful setting and highlighted how important it is to protect areas such as this from being sold off for deforestation as well as protecting elephants.

Safe travels to Jude, Daniel, Darcy, Emma, Robyn,Annie, Brydie and Wan.

Thanks to Jack, Trixie and Kay, keep up the good work!

Oh and the dogs

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Sxx

Posted by doyledan 01:59 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Stop off in Kratie to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins

Having spent most of our time in Phnom Penh organising Xmas and New Year we finally came to a decision about the next part of our travels. We read about the Elephant Valley Project that was located close to the eastern border with Vietnam and wanted to spend a few days there volunteering.

Due to timings when we could join we had a few days to spare and because we had been in Phnom Penh a bit too long we decided to bus it to Kratie and spend a night there so we could experience the Mekong and also find the Irrawaddy dolphins that are rare mammal indigenous to Mekong region.

The beginnings of our trip did not start off well as the bus company decided just to not come and pick us up from our hostel and so we had to get a tuk-tuk and ask around before being shown to our bus (with only a minute to spare). It was early in the morning and making our way out of Phnom Penh still took some time but as soon as we did get out we hit our first obstacle, the road. It was a uneven track that would kick up dust as soon as a car would decide to wizz by making it almost impossible to see what lay ahead. Still the driver remained on course and I was beginning to realise why this trip would take so long!!

When we did reach Kratie we instantly felt as though we were getting further into the rural part of Cambodia. The roads were quieter, the people appeared to have less money but also the Mekong was spread out across the scenery for us to marvel at. The sheer size of this river takes your breath away, and what's more was that by Kratie there is an island within the Mekong River called Koh Trong that takes 9km to cycle round so you can begin to realise the size of it.

Our guesthouse was a short trip away from the centre and we were pleased with our choice as it stuck to its name 'Balcony' Guesthouse supplying a perfect balcony to watch the sunset go down. During our chill out time we met Harriet who was travelling through Cambodia on her own. After a few drinks we found out that she worked in Advertising as well and funnily enough had the same job as me but for a different agency. She also knew people that Sarah had worked with. It is a small world after all.

The next day we made our way to the Irrawaddy Dolphin location via tuk-tuk. The project had been set up a few years back to help sustainability as the species was beginning to see a number of calves die without explanation. The dolphin is recognisable from its bulbous foreheads and tiny dorsal fins.

On our way we got to see the rural life with many people by the road side selling fruit or vegetables or just lazing in the heat. We also got to the see the houses that are built on stilts.

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When we reached the location the set up was very basic but we were shown to our boat and lucky for us within seconds the dolphins were appearing from all angles. Two even came so close to our boat that we saw their bulbous heads and unthreatening eyes. I was amazed to say the least! I wasn't really sure how I would react but to see them up so close was a real privilege, and what's more was that we were the only ones on the river for some time which added to the experience as it was so quiet and a peaceful.

Sarah managed to get some action shots but we saw quite a lot more of them than what came out, its only that the click of the finger was just not fast enough to capture what were saw.

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Stay tuned for more tales.

Dan

Posted by doyledan 04:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia!

A somber beginning....Killing Fields and S21

We were excited about moving on to our next country, Cambodia! Everyone we knew who had been there raved about it and how amazing the people are so we were looking forward to seeing for ourselves.

Having opted for the bus we crossed the boarder at Bavet and it was clear we were entering a country on another poverty level. Travelling down the bumpy roads all the dust was kicked up into people's wooden houses right on the roadside, whilst naked children played nearby. The sun was starting to lower and everything a dusty glow. Very different from the luscious greens that had struck us on our last border crossing into Vietnam. Another thing we marvelled at was how flat the area was and when there were breaks in the trees it was flat as far as you could see.

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Arriving in the capitol Phnom Penh we were met by the usual scrummage of people but instead of motorbike riders and taxis it was tuk-tuks. For a couple of dollars we were soon at our hostel, the White Rabbit, where we would be spending the next couple of days. US dollars are used here as well as Cambodian riel which can get a bit confusing... So ATMs give out dollars, most people will give your change in riel, and sometimes it can be a combination of both!

Having read a bit about Cambodias troubled past we knew we wanted to go to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum to find out more and organised a tuk tuk to take us the next morning. Our driver Stone told us we were in for a sad morning but was pleased we were going and said it was important to know what happened as his mother and father would never forget.

He was not wrong! It was such an emotional experience walking in a place where the reality of what happened is devastating. The realisation that if we had been living in Cambodia at the time we would have met this same fate purely for being able to read or for wearing glasses. Another example of how one mans ideology and paranoia was allowed to result in mass suffering and murder... do we not learn from history?

This is a place that should really be experienced first hand. Once it would have been full of the sounds of terror and anguish but today it is a place of quiet remembrance and on a sunny day with butterflies and flowers it was even harder to believe what happened here. I had been concerned that not having a guide would result in us missing out on information but the audio tour was really well done and provided a more intimate experience and allowed you to take it in in your own time and allowed for reflection. Everyone was silent.

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The audio tour walked us through the experience of the prisoners who were brought here to be immediately executed. As Pol Pots paranoia grew the victims not only included intellectuals and diplomats but peasants, workers, foreigners, women and children, even babies! At its peak 300 people a day were arriving on the pretence of going to a new farm to work. This number was often too many to cope with in a day so they had to be detained overnight. Bullets were considered "too expensive" which meant other tools were used to bludgeon them to death and the sad truth is that many would have fallen into the pits still alive. The serrated edge of palm trees were even used.

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Chemicals would be poured into the pits not only to cover the smell of decay so workers nearby would not work out what was going on but also to kill any of the unfortunate people buried alive in the pits. As we walked in between the mass graves you could see small piles of clothes and bones that had been collected as more come to the surface each year during the rainy season.

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It was discovered that one of the graves only contained remains of women and children. Whilst standing by this mass grave that we were directed to look at a tree that was covered in bracelets that people had left as a sign of remembrance.

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This was the tree that babies had been thrown against before being thrown into the pit. You could the see the exact moment that people heard the significance of this tree as hands went over their mouths in disbelief and tears filled their eyes. Pol Pot was quoted as saying "Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake". It was one of the most shocking parts of the day and we took a moment before going to pay respects at the stupa that has been built to house the remains that were excavated and acts as a memorial to all those who died.

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Back in the tuk tuk Stone told us how even though that period in history was over that there was still a lot of problems for the people in Cambodia due to corruption and he said that money given to Cambodia by other countries never made it to help the people on the street. It was a quiet drive back to the city as we made our way to the next stop Tuol Sleng Museum otherwise known as S-21 (Security Prison 21).

When Pol Pot came to power all the cities became ghost towns within 3 days as everyone was sent to the countryside for forced labour. People considered a threat to the regime were sent to prisons and as education was no longer deemed necessary deserted school buildings like this one were an ideal choice for prisons. The outside of the building was covered by barbed wire to prevent any of the prisoners from throwing themselves out the windows

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Rooms once used to educate children were turned into places of torture, interrogation and incarceration. In some rooms you could still see the blood stains on the floor.

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An array of methods were used to make people confess their 'crimes' against the regime and also implicate family, friends and colleagues too, such as pulling fingernails, electrocution, water torture and also the Gallows. The Gallows was a piece of spots equipment that had been used by children which was turned into a tool for torture where people were hung upside down until they passed out. Then they would be dunked in water to rouse them and this was repeated again and again.

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Some of the larger rooms were divided into hundreds of small individual cells (2m by 1m) with wood for solitary confinement. Occasionally they would be hosed down but as the drainage was poor they would often have to sit, lie & sleep in the water for days.

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It is believed around 20,000 people were imprisoned here and most would have met their fate at the Killing Fields we had visited earlier that day. The regime kept records of each prisoner including photograph and autobiography. Room upon room displayed 100s of photographs and we read several of the autobiographies and "confessions". It brought home that each person was an individual and not a statistic and it was haunting looking at their faces knowing what would have happened to them.

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Needless to say it was an intense morning and we were completely drained when we got back to the hostel.

Our worries about where to stay for new year and Xmas now seemed so trivial!

Sx

Posted by doyledan 04:29 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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