I can’t remember where I heard about it, but as soon as I found out I knew I needed to go.
In a province east of Phnom Penh, there are elephant reserves; you can sign up for a trip to go into the jungle and visit the elephants.
When my parents visited for two weeks, we left most of the schedule up in the air, making all of our taxi and hotel reservations last minute. Right before they arrived, I drafted a loose schedule around our tentative plans. Fortunately, it worked out for us to spend two nights in Sen Monorom visiting these wild, fantastic creatures.
It started with a slow, two-hour hike downhill through the mud. We crossed through the Spirit Forest, and met two children who only spoke the native jungle language. We trespassed around their parents’ farm, and picked leeches off our shoes (they were tiny – not as bad as I feared!!).
We reached the top of another hill where the elephants were coming to meet us. Elephants were going to MEET US. A minute passed and sure enough, our guide spotted an elephant over the hill.
And then we saw another.
A guide led them out of the forest and up the hill to meet us. We were amazed to see real elephants in the wild!
To our amazement, the guide nonchalantly encouraged us to go over and pet the elephants. We did not hesitate, but carefully tested our limits.
The elephants were very happy and did not appear disturbed or surprised to see us.
An eruption of paparazzi engulfed the elephants from our small eight-person group.
They didn’t mind one bit.
We posed for photos, and reached out and felt their tough bodies.
It was fantastic to be so close to the giant creature you only ever see boring-ly milling about in a zoo, or from an extreme distance at the circus.
The guide gave us a handful of bananas to feed to them. Elephants eat all day long. Like, 20 hours a day long. They are humongous and vegetarians, so they have to eat a lot.
This picture is hilarious. A third elephant came from the other side of the hill! She was younger than the other two 60-year old girls, at about 35 years of age.
Such impressive beasts. (Sidenote: you can be strong and powerful while not eating meat! I would love to be a vegetarian but the one time I tried it did not go very well. Maybe one day…)
I put my camera down in between petting their long noses and hard heads, but I couldn’t resist picking it back up for a close-up or impressive full-body shot, as every which way they turned they looked even more stunning.
Elephants are herd animals, and love and remember the other elephants in their herd. Older female elephants help take care of other elephants’ babies, and they even have marriage ceremonies, that the humans in this village attend!!
The wrinkles on their face did not do anything to obscure the mysterious beauty in those large, brown eyes.
Surprisingly, the hair on their heads and bodies is extremely coarse, like the bristles on a stiff brush. They cover themselves in dirt to protect their skin from the sun. You may notice their coloring is darker and more reddish brown than that of African elephants. (Asian elephants are also smaller than African ones.)
These elephants were rescued from being used for work in this village. Elephants are often used for logging. They are 80% wild, as our guide explained. Now they are kept in the forest where they can freely graze and roam, as elephants like to do. They interact with people about 4 hours per day when a guide takes them to a visiting group of tourists like us. They are great with people and can recognize and respond to commands such as “[turn] left, right, forward,” and so on.
There are only around 600 elephants remaining in Cambodia to this day. One problem in this village (and probably others like it) is that they believe that elephants are lucky, but that a baby elephant being born will bring destruction to their households. Because of this, they prevent the elephants from breeding – which obviously prevents them from reproducing and multiplying.
Organizations like the one we went with are working with the villagers to help them see that it is good for elephants to reproduce.
The elephants were SO sweet, and I really felt like we were interacting and communicating. I loved talking to them softly, praising their majesty and magnificence. Their eyes were full of emotion, joy, and friendliness.
After visiting the elephants and looking at the photos, I questioned my place in life and wondered why in the world I am not working with animals full time. I love them so, so much.
The three elephants wandered around the hill, squashing huge divots in the unstable earth that made it challenging for us small humans to navigate.
They grazed as they walked, and sought after shade from the hot sun.
We sat on the hill and rested and soaked up the beauty of this treasured day.
P.S. Learn more about the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary here.