Friday, 22 July 2016

Week 14.2 - Mondulkiri

It was an early rise so Kyle could say goodbye to Tola before he headed off to school. There was almost tears when Kyle said he wouldn’t be back next month, so he’s had to say he’ll be back next year! Rith waved us off as we took a rusty old mini bus to the station in town, little did we know that the “VIP” bus we were about to get on was going to be ten times worse! When we arrived with another family of 5 we found that our mini bus was already full, not only that the floor was covered in large sacks of rice, pots, pans and other random belongings. People were asked to move up or sit on the bags to make space for the 7 of us to get on. Turns out you can get 41 people on a mini bus made for 15. 

The journey to Mondulkiri was long and hot, due to the amount of people and belongings on the bus the door wouldn’t close, meaning no air con! We had been waiting 10 days for that too! We stopped at a local market along the way where people bought hard boiled eggs, fish and other delightful foods which made the bus smell amazing….not. We seemed to stop every 20 minutes or so to pick someone up, drop someone off, or exchange passengers with another bus. The journey which Rith promised would take 3 hours, actually took almost 5. But it was an experience we can laugh at now, and at least we arrived in one peace.

Mondulkiri is located in the mountains of Cambodia, and the small town is surrounded by lush green forests inhabited by the tribes. It’s a beautiful little place, and the locals are just as friendly as ever. It’s a shame that the power cuts have followed us here though, they must get their electricity from Vietnam too.

Once we had checked in to the Chantha Sreypitch guesthouse we were met by our guide for the next day, Torn. Torn is a local guide, who will take us into the forest to meet the tribes and walk with the elephants. We chose to have this amazing experience with Torn as no tourists are allowed to ride the elephants, and the tribe are given money for allowing us to eat with them and see how they live. A lot of other organisations mistreat the elephants and keep all of the money for themselves. 

The next morning we met Torn and found that we were the only people booked on for the tour that day, I was buzzing! The drive to the forest reminded me of home, when we drive from York to the Lake district. The hills and mountains are a lush green and covered in trees, with long winding roads, I think Mondulkiri may be the most beautiful place in Cambodia. The short drive took us down a dirt road and into the Bunong tribes village. Here, we saw huge monkeys swinging from the trees waiting for us to leave so they could eat the tribes crops. Torn explained that the Bunong tribe live from the forest, they grow their own food, build their own houses and live in unison with the elephants. Thanks to the increase of tourists to Cambodia, the tribes now make more money renting their elephants out for the day to meet visitors in their communities. 

Walking to the river to meet the elephant was slippery thanks to the rain the night before, and it felt like it took ages as I was that excited. Once at the river, Torn explained a little more about the Bunong tribe. They believe in the after life and spirits, so if a woman is to get pregnant or live with a man before marriage they have to make a sacrifice. They sacrifice, animals! Its the same for the elephants, so the tribe keep the male and female elephants separate to prevent babies. Last time an elephant had a baby it cost them $10,000 in animals. They sacrifice anything from chickens to dogs, thankfully not the elephants though. 

Next we were led down a “ladder”, some planks nailed together and stuck in the mud, and across the river by shimmying across a tree. As soon as we were on the other side, we are met with the most beautiful sight…at 47 years old this elephant was magnificent. We got to feed her bananas and walk with her around the jungle, stopping for a mud bath along the way. She was so clever, digging holes and filling them with mud and water to make a paste, this would protect her from the sun. She even pulls off branches to use as mosquito bats! 

After about an hour of walking in the jungle we headed back to Torns hut for lunch. Over lunch he told us about his business, and his goals for the project. Started only last year, The Bunong Elephant Project has 7 elephants belonging to 3 different tribes. Working with the tribes, Torn shares his earnings with the families and rents the elephants on a rota, this means the money is equally shared and the elephants get a relaxing day once in a while, being fed and washed. Torn hopes that in the future he will have more elephants, and wants to raise enough money to pay for the elephants to have babies in order for the population to grow. If he can pay the tribes, they will allow the sacrifices to happen.

We also learnt that there are over 300 wild elephants living in the forest, these are protected by WWF. However, as the tribes move their homes and farmland every 5 - 6 years, burning down parts of the forest to make new farm land, Torn fears that the elephants will be driven from Cambodia in the future as there will be no food for them to eat. Hopefully, WWF and other organisations in the area will continue to protect parts of the forest.

We got into our swimming gear after lunch and headed to the river, the young Mahout (elephant carer) led the elephant into the river. Once we made our way through the rocks we got to swim with the elephant and wash off the mud from earlier. It was a truly unforgettable moment, and she looked so happy laid down being pampered. When you stroke an elephant, they kind of feel like a kiwi fruit, slightly furry.  We walked with her down the river, until the Mahout led her away, further into the forest for more food (they eat for almost 22 hours a day). 

The walk back to the van was a challenge, whilst we were in the river it had began to rain! This meant that the already slippery and muddy paths became more like a slide. The boys were fine, me however, well I almost fell on my arse at least 10 times, Kyle had to hide round the corner so I wouldn’t see him laughing. It was touch and go in the truck too, Torn thought he’d purchased a 4 wheel drive but it was actually just a 2. Safe to say it struggled up the hills! We had a fantastic day, and I would say that it is up there as one of the best days on our journey so far. So if you’re ever in Mondulkiri and want to see the elephants, please consider using Torn. More information can be found by searching for Bunong elephant project on google or trip advisor. 

I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’ve got that many mosquito bites it’s like having chicken pox. At 3 o’clock this morning I even considered putting socks on my hands to stop myself from scratching. I blame Kyle for this pain, he was too tight to pay $4 for mozzie cream, as we only paid $2 for the same stuff in Kratie. Safe to say he’s now got a constant earache from my moaning about the bites…it’s like being on fucking fire, I don’t think he understands! Although he does keep trying to compare his 5 to my 27.

We hired a ped today to make the most of our last day in Mondulkiri, and headed to a coffee plantation. It was huge, and the coffee produced is some of the best I have ever tasted. Rich, creamy and thick, it tastes like smokey chocolate. My favourite way to have it is over ice with milk, Kyle prefers a small black cup of coffee. We followed this with a journey round the hills, and up to the top of Srous grandfather’s mountain. The views over Mondulkiri were spectacular, you could see all the green fields, forests, lakes and small buildings. There was a temple on top of the mountain, where the elders were empowering red wool bracelets. As we went over to investigate the woman took our hands and said a blessing whilst tying a bracelet on our wrists, this should bring us good luck and fortune.  

As we headed back into town the rain started to fall, so we quickly filled up the ped to return and made our way back to the guesthouse. We made it just in time, we are currently in the middle of one of the worst storms we’ve experienced in Cambodia. The lights are flickering, the powers intermittent and it’s actually pretty cold. I love listening to the thunder and watching the lighting, it also make me laugh watching the locals hide 3 people under one rain-mac, they don’t handle the rain quite as well as us Brits.

Tonight will be an early one, we’re up at 5am to catch a bus back to Phnom Penh to get our visas for Vietnam. I’m so glad that we made the last minute decision to come to Mondulkiri, it has been brilliant and the sites amazing, especially the elephant, a truly unforgettable experience!

Love Carrie xxx

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