A reserve and retirement home focused on rescuing and rehabilitating Cambodian elephants from lifetimes of drudgery and abuse, Elephant Valley gives tourists a chance to observe the world’s largest land animals in their natural habitat and relearning how to act according to their own natural behaviours.
Elephant Vally Project offers full day experiences as well as multi-day volunteering opportunities, led by charismatic, passionate programme leaders, Englishman Jack Highwood and Australian Jemma Bullock, together with their merry, and similarly passionate, team of staff and volunteers.
We joined a one-day trek and volunteer trip though, as we landed just before the Bunong New Year, were treated to a big party instead of an afternoon working in the fields.
An early start was soon followed by a gentle hike into Heaven Valley, and it is heavenly, where we were to meet four of the nine elephants who live at the Elephant Valley Project.
The four girls — Ruby, Ning Wan, Mae Neng and Pearl — all live in the forest with their mahouts, who are paid by EVP, as are the families (sometimes several) that own them. As we waited for them to come down for their morning bath, our irrepressible, delightful guide filled us in on their histories, personalities, and relationships with one another, as well as some spectacularly so-bad-they’re-funny elephant jokes. Don’t even let him start. It was fascinating and fun.
That was the start of a morning spend meandering the forests, following the elephants as they did their thing, and it was very much their thing. The aim of the project is to allow them to rediscover their wild sides, to rebuild habits that will have died hard a long time ago.
Watching and learning about them as they roamed, rooted out figs and interacted with one another was an infinitely more rewarding, and intimate, experience than lumbering along on top of one.
Once that was done, we headed back to the main complex, where the restaurant and dorms are, for lunch and a bit of a nap. The food was amazing, and plentiful.
Throughout the course of the day, we learned just how extensive the work EVP does is. They address the issue of elephant protection from every angle, including providing health insurance to more than 2,000 villagers, education, and helping to protect their land title, as well as securing their own access to the 16,000 hectares they need for their own elephants to safely and comfortably roam in. They help to ensure communities are not compelled to fall into traps as a result of sudden impoverishment through ill health, or dispossession of land.
You can come for one day, or several, and the accommodation was in very good order. Dorm rooms are simply equipped with wide, very comfortable beds, with mosquito nets and fans. The shared bathrooms are spotlessly clean. They also have private cabins with private bathrooms, and beautiful views across the valleys.
The team is happy to answer questions about elephant biology, behaviour, and conservation in Cambodia, and the ins and outs of running an operation as complicated and involved as a Cambodian elephant rescue organisation. The main goal is to observe the elephants in their natural environment, but if you are lucky and have come in the rainy season, you may get to pat the elephants or wash them in a creek. You can also learn about how the mahouts handle elephants using just voice commands.
Tours start at $55 for one day of visiting the elephants and volunteering, to $85 for a full day with the elephants, all the way up to $455 for a full five-day/five-night immersion with a private cabin.
This was one of our favourite trips we have done in Cambodia. The passion and commitment of the team and everyone we met was more than palpable, and a joy to behold.
Do note that elephant treks through many other outfits can be arranged through just about every tourist agency and accommodation in Mondulkiri. However, it is NOT OK to ride elephants. Do not take one of these tours. Despite their huge size and strength, they are not designed to carry weight on their backs. Their strength is in fact principally in their necks. If anyone offers you the opportunity to ride the elephants, please refuse. Read more on the ethics of elephant riding.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 22nd May, 2016.