The singular experience of our trip to Southeast Asia was a three-night visit to the Elephant Valley Project (click HERE for its website), a project of the Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment. Basically, Elephant Valley provides rehabilitation (or re-elephantization) for elephants that have worked, often for decades, as Cambodia's "living tractors." The project's founder, a Brit named Jack Highwood, has rented several adjacent farms to create this sanctuary, which during our visit in January 2013 was home to 12 elephants. These elephants all showed signs of past abuse -- depressed rib cages from carrying loads on their backs, missing tufts from their tails, a missing or half-missing tusk, sunken spaces above their eyes due to malnutrition, and so on.
At Elephant Valley, these elephants roam more or less freely, eat as much as they want, and receive medical care. Visitors to Elephant Valley, whose fees help finance the operation, get to see the elephants up close, to help wash them (elephants need to be washed daily; after a bath they immediately cover themselves with fresh dirt that helps protect their skin), and to help with various chores. This is a pay-to-be-a-volunteer place. We and two other couples were there as individual travelers. Everyone else there was part of an organized group: Australians with Reach Out Volunteers (click HERE), and Swiss, Irish and British people with Globalteer (click HERE). Some people were there for weeks.
Whether you're there as a day visitor (probably staying in Sen Monorom, the nearest real town) or staying one or more nights, your visit is sure to include a lot of walking on steep, rocky trails. You're likely to have to wade through streams or try to step from rock to rock. Or cross a stream on the trunk of a fallen tree. In short, this is a place for able-bodied and sure-footed visitors. You can spend each morning and afternoon in groups with the elephants, or spend time helping out in other ways. I spent most of one morning cutting away dead leaves from banana trees and tearing them up to use as mulch.
Some elephants are brought to a washing station, above, for their daily baths. Others, below, have relearned how to wash themselves in a river.
Sometimes we simply followed as elephants foraged in the jungle (below). This is in Mondulkiri, a largely undeveloped jungle area in eastern Cambodia, not far from the border with Vietnam. It's a five-hour car trip from Phnom Penh.
Below, we had a hut (with a cold-water shower) to ourselves. There are four such huts; most visitors stay in hostel-like accommodations.
Below, the open-air lounge area in the main lodge has a wonderful view of the valley. Electricity was available from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for people to recharge their cameras, laptops, etc. Meals, in a dining room adjacent to the lounge, were basic Khmer food -- stir-fries, rice, steamed fish, chicken, fresh fruit, etc.
I'll end this post with more elephant photos. Each elephant has a mahout, a person who stays with the elephant all day and is responsible for it. Only one elephant, Bob, the only male there, is ridden, and that's because Bob is otherwise very difficult to control. That's Bob with the one partial tusk.
It looks as if Darling, above, is doing a little happy dance. She was one of the elephants we helped bathe at the washing station. Since our visit, her owner has reclaimed her to put her to work, though she'll be back at this paradise when monsoon season returns. Look for Elephant Valley Project on Facebook for updates on what's happening with these wonderful creatures.