It is akin to watching a little boy make a mud pie, seeing an elephant prepare himself a tempting mud bath. Baku repeatedly stomps his chunky cylindrical leg at the crumbling soil of the river bank. When it it falls into the water, the same foot blends it to just the right consistency. Next comes his trunk to collect it before he satisfyingly spews it over his back with great gusto. Maybe sitting so close to the action, wasn’t my finest idea!
We are spending the day walking with elephants near Sen Monorom in the province of Mondulkiri in north eastern Cambodia. Torn, our guide is the brains, brawn and passion behind the Bunong Elephant Project. This elephant sanctuary is an eco-tourism project dedicated to promoting the welfare of both elephants and the local indigenous community. Here the elephants spend their days in the project’s forest, and are no longer used for elephant rides, heavy farm work or logging.
Our guide makes a point of starting each walk with the guests feeding the elephants a generous serve of bananas. Baku, the male, knows this and gets quite excited when he hears Torn’s voice, so his Mahouts (elephant carers) keep a watchful eye on him. His girlfriend, Happy Lucky (yes really, that’s her name!) is much more laid back about the whole process. I might just add that Happy Lucky is a prize cougar as she is 50 years old whilst Baku is well and truly her toyboy at a mere 33 years!
After we have fed them the contents of the sack, we follow them down to the stream. This is not a fast process, elephants like to meander and eat. I thought the bananas would have filled them up, not so. We stop for a temping snack or two or three of bamboo leaves, then it’s time for a dust bath. The dust bath is the first of their three baths today.
Just when I am thinking these elephants live the life of Riley, I learn that one important thing is missing. In order for the elephants to breed, they must first marry, for elephants to marry it is a very lavish and thus expensive affair. The Bunong people who own them are very poor and cannot afford this. Torn has had many discussions with them on this point as the elephant population is ageing. But it is their firm belief for the elephants to breed without marriage it would bring bad luck to the community. Torn’s hope is that with increased visitor numbers to this project it will support the marriage of elephants and thereby start a breeding programme.
After a delicious lunch of locally grown ingredients we again meet up with the elephants at the river for their next bath. Happy Lucky wades into the shallows gracefully. Baku, a typical boy heads for the deepest spot where you can only see his head and occasionally his trunk protrude. Now folks in the interest of taking photos I did not partake in the washing of elephants but I did watch and I can assure you they were very clean elephants afterwards. Not that it lasted. Happy Lucky had other ideas about her final bath of the day. She found a prime muddy spot at the edge of the river and lavishly coated herself in mud. The mud is obviously doing the trick for her because she had her toyboy happily following her home!
It was an utter privilege spending the day with these beautiful creatures and with Torn, who is so passionate about their welfare. I know the next time I watch a child playing in the mud I will think of Baku.
Tips for Walking with Elephants
As the name suggests there is a lot of walking involved, and a fair bit of it is up hill in the forest. Good walking boots are essential, as is tropical strength insect repellent (use one with the active ingredient Picaridin in it rather than Deet, it doesn’t stink and is just as good if not better).
Water is provided and other drinks are available for sale with lunch. Lunch is included in the tour price which was US$35 for the day including collection and drop off at your hotel in Sen Monorom.
We stayed at the Indigenous People Lodge whilst we visited here. James loved it, I found it a bit basic, (thatched hut, mattress on floor, mossie net, no air con but a fan, very low doors BUT I did have my ensuite!). The food was excellent though and it was exceptionally cheap US$15 a night for both of us, room only.
Sen Monorom is a 6 hour minibus trip from Phnom Penh. We bought the bus tickets for Kim Seng Express online from Australia with BookMeBus for the princely sum of US$11 each. It was a fascinating, if long bus trip through the Cambodian countryside. It is a minibus so no loo on board but we did stop twice for loos, snacks and for a leg stretch.