Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary at Mondulkiri province

Back in 2015, one week from now, I left Europe for first time. It was a big deal for me, since I had been exploring many regions all around my continent, but never went out of it. I wanted so badly to go to Asia, it had always called my attention, but I didn’t really want to go to the typical tourist spot. Plus I needed to find inner peace at that moment of my life. So going to a country that not many people visit sounded like the right thing to do. So I chose Cambodia, and visited a Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary.

During the first week of my trip, I had been going North. After the capital, Phnom Penh, I departed to the Stung Treng province, where I enjoyed the 4.000 islands of the Mekong river. And then I was for a few days in Banlung, at the Ratanakiri Province, where I had the pleasure to see a few waterfalls and a volcano with a forest and lake in it. However, one of the most exciting parts of my first Asian trip was about to arrive. I ended up in the Mondulkiri province, basically because I heard it was atypical of Cambodia. It wasn’t so hot, neither so low (in altitude) as most of the country.

What is an Elephant sanctuary?

Princess is probably the most lovely elephant Mondulkiri
Princess is probably the most lovely elephant Mondulkiri

Some of you might be wondering what is an Elephant sanctuary. Is it a place where elephants go to pray? Or perhaps is it a location where people go to practice religion and it happens to be surrounded by elephants?

None of those. It’s a home for elephants who have been retired from circus and zoos. Although it might seem it is a sad place, it’s not. Actually, it’s a wonderful area that these elephants can consider a real home. They are usually treated like a slave in the zoos, circus or as beasts of burden. These majestic mammals, due to it’s strength, are used to carry people or goods from one place to another.

In Cambodia, they are a real endangered species. But not only in this country, in the whole continent, the Asian elephant is highly threatened. And that is why there are Elephant Sanctuaries all around Asia. And why there is a foundation, the Save Elephant Foundation that does an awesome work to prevent this from happening.

The Cambodian case is quite a dramatic situation. Only 50 years ago, there were around 10.000 elephants in the country. Now, there are between 250 and 600. In fact, the founder of the Elephant Sanctuary where I went, told me that it’s around 300.

Where is the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary?

Main road of Senmonoron in Mondulkiri province
Main road of Senmonoron in Mondulkiri province

So, how do I get there? As I told you before, the sanctuary is in the Mondulkiri province, not so far from the city of Senmonorom. Although it has 7.000 inhabitants, it’s the capital of the province. This is a very wild region, with difficult access to it, and with lots of tribes spread all around the area. The major minority ethnic group in Mondulkiri are the Pnong people. They have their own culture and language. If you are interested to widen your knowledge about them, and their unique relationship with the elephants, perhaps this recent documentary could be great for you: Last of the Elephant Men.

To reach Senmonorom, you could take a bus from Phnom Penh, or from Banlung (Ratanakiri Province). There are buses coming here from other provinces as well, but they all go through Phnom Penh. And usually there is a change of bus. Be prepared to spend a whole day if you are coming from provinces like Siem Reap, Koh Kong, Kampot or Battambang. Transportation in Cambodia is reaaally slow. And bumpy!

Cambodia bumpy highway
Common bus in a Cambodia bumpy highway – Photo by Michael Coghlan https://flic.kr/p/jxv7PM

Which Elephant Sanctuary did I go to?

Before going to Cambodia, I was obsessed with the idea of seeing wild animals. Or at least free animals. However, I had no clue that it could be hard to see some of them in freedom. Asian elephants or Asian tigers, are rare to be wild. Sadly, they are even rare to be seen in captivity.

So where can you go? I was reluctant to support any organization that preached to be a “Sanctuary” or even just to be an Elephant friendly company. I had heard awful stories about the treatment that elephants receive in Siem Reap, although I didn’t have many details. However, I happened to meet a Dutch girl that recommended me the Mondulkiri Project. It’s definitely a real sanctuary. Elephants are treated here with highly respect.

After giving food to elephantsAfter giving food to elephants in the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary
After giving food to elephants in the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary

It’s true, they have interactions with people, but they aren’t being forced to do any work (except from receiving food from some tourists). In fact, the animals aren’t even brought here by anyone, they come to the small groups of tourists (this is done in purpose, to not overwhelm them) looking for the food. As soon as the bananas run away, they leave to the bushes, searching for bamboo to eat.

The other activity you’d be able to do with them is to have a bath with one of them. The only one who tolerates people to be near her while she’s having a swim in the river. You could wash her and share the happiness that the fresh water transmits to everyone that decides to join her. But only for a few minutes.

Elephant enjoys a shower in the river
Elephant enjoys a shower in the river

Don’t expect to be a whole day with the elephants. This is a respectful ecotourism organization, that cares about animals and their wellbeing. If you are looking for places where you can sit on top of an elephant, or anything like this, this isn’t for you. The kind of activity you are looking for if you want to ride elephants, is in Siem Reap. Where the elephants from all around Cambodia are taken, against their will, and out of their natural habitat. They are forced to work there during the whole day, while people ride them. And they die, within a year, because they don’t sleep nor eat enough. Elephants eat a lot!

Elephant eating bamboo in the jungle of the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant eating bamboo in the jungle of the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary

Jungle trek to the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary

To get to the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary, you have to do a hike. Depending on which option of the 2 that Mondulkiri project offers, you’ll walk more or less. I chose the 2 days trip, and we hiked during one whole day across the jungle.

At the beginning, we left from a small town, with just a bunch of Bunong houses. We walked through a few hills, crossed paths with huge termites nests, and got to some rice fields, next to a river.

Rice fields at the Mondulkiri province
Rice fields at the Mondulkiri province

People in Cambodia usually walk through the jungle and the hills. But from time to time you are able to see some motorbikes, used to carry more heavy stuff. You can observe how creative can Cambodians be. These motorbikes are taken even uphill or downhill.

Motorbike used to go uphill
Motorbike used to go uphill

After the rice fields, we had to go uphill ourselves, by foot, and we passed a couple of waterfalls. The lunch stop happened to be next to this river pool:

Natural river pool
Natural river pool

After the break, we kept walking through the jungle until we arrived to our destination for the night. A house from a woman with her children, next to a wonderful landscape. We had a traditional dinner with some rice wine and interesting facts about local life.

Views from the jungle lodge
Views from the jungle lodge

Comparing this jungle trek with the most recent one in Taman Negara trek, a trip to the jungle, is like comparing apples and oranges. Difficult. In Taman Negara there was plenty of freedom and information about the area. In Sen Monorom I could barely find a few spots. And the hikes, like this one, that I did, were all arranged and with a local guide. I really preferred this one, to be honest. Being with a local person usually adds a special value that you cannot find otherwise.

Prices and timings for the jungle trek to the Elephant Sanctuary

There are a couple of options to do this exciting activity. And as I can see in the website of the project, they keep the same prices for the elephant tour as in 2015.

The shorter and cheaper tour, is 50$ for a day trip and includes the following:

  • Pick up from Sen Monorom, with transport to and from the Mondulkiri Project’s elephant sanctuary.
  • Hand feeding and observing 5 elephants as they walk through the jungle.
  • Waterfall swimming and washing of elephants.
  • Learning about elephants and local hill tribe traditions and culture
  • Delicious Khmer lunch, relaxing and wildlife watching at our Jungle Lodge
  • Unlimited bottled water

They say that the hiking level is easy. Although they prevent you it could be a bit harder in the wet season.

The 2nd package is 80$ for a 2 days trip and has:

  • Pick up from Sen Monorom with transport to and from the Mondulkiri Project’s elephant sanctuary.
  • Day 1 Elephant Adventure Tour as above.
  • Traditional hill tribe meals and the opportunity to try rice wine around the Jungle Lodge campfire.
  • Authentic hammock accommodation at the Mondulkiri Project’s Jungle Lodge
  • Full day jungle trekking with a Bunong Guide, with the chance to see wild deer and monkeys
  • Waterfall swimming and and seeing bats at the Leng Ret cave
  • Visit to Bunong farms within the jungle and seeing wild rice, fruit, vegetable and herbs
  • Unlimited bottled water

Accommodation

There are many possibilities where to stay in Senmonorom. However, you might want to stay at the hostel of the founder of the Mondulkiri project. It’s not the best place in town, but I liked the atmosphere in there. And it was very cheap.

They are in Booking.com or in Agoda under the name of “Happy Elephant Bungalows”.

You’ll need to sleep somewhere the day before the tour, and the day you return from the tour as well. Basically because there aren’t any buses leaving the city in the afternoon.

Tips for this jungle trek

Bring proper hiking shoes. They don’t have to be taller, but it would be great if they are waterproof.

Since the city is above 700 meters of the level of the sea, and due to the humidity, it can get chill at night. Having a thin jumper could be useful.

Definitely bring with you a light waterproof jacket if you come to Cambodia in the rainy season. Plus a waterproof cover for your backpack. You don’t want to end up totally soaked.

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