Weekend 3; Mondulkiri and the Elephants

Ever since hearing about the elephant projects in Cambodia, it had taken little convincing of Zac to head to Mondulkiri to play with wild elephants. With an early bus in the morning, we stayed in the city the night before at a hotel near the bus station.
It’s a gruelling 7 hours North East to Mondulkiri and we weren’t expecting to be in before late lunch.
I hadn’t slept the night before; we’d found an ideal hotel in terms of location, but it was so noisy.
Doors banging, lifts chiming and our fellow Asian hotel guests screaming and shouting at all hours. The only time I did manage to fully drift off, I woke up to the smell of cigarette smoke, convinced, in my half-asleep stupor that someone was setting fire to the room.

A longer post, you’re more than welcome to skip to here for the video of our weekend.


rough night, early start, we were awake before the bakery.

After tossing and turning, I was just glad to leave the hotel and get going.
We’d practised the walk to the bus stop the night before, just to be sure we knew where we were going.
We’d also double checked our tickets were valid, and tried to scope out the kind of bus we’d be on – it looked like we’d be crammed in to one of the standard mini buses.
After the night I’d had, I was just glad to get on the bus.

We were given water and some crackers and Zac tried his best to settle in to his seat.
Pretty soon I had a seat nearly fully reclined on to my knees, and he was stretching out over local luggage.
Clearly tourists, everyone else was going home for Phcum Ben (naturally they needed to take everything with them) and with our small backpacks, we weren’t afforded the same space we usually managed.

The only downside to the journey was the couple sat behind me, who, before we had even set off were complaining about how uncomfortable they were, digging their knees in to my back through the seat, commenting that they were in the worst place if the bus crashed. They noisily announced they were going to listen to a Radio 4 podcast they’d downloaded and I tried not to be irritated by them, assuring myself, it was just 7 hours on a bus and I could definitely manage that.
I plugged myself in, and blasted some Frank Turner to drown out the couple’s moaning’s, trying to ignore the hair raising driving.
That being said it wasn’t until we were nearing Mondulkiri that I really started to fear for my life: overtaking on a blind corner at 100km in the rain: all in a day’s work, of course, but it offended my Western sensibilities and two decades of drilling road laws.

you find them on every trip, but why did we have to find them here?

I’d picked up some over priced banana chips at the half way point, rationing them to last me the whole long weekend, and tentatively nibbled on them.
They’re just bananas chips of course, but somehow they’re different, like they’ve been fried, not just dried.

(One of the boys in my 007 class had thrust a banana chip into my mouth the day before, simply saying: “Teacher, delisher.”
“No, Odom, del-ish-uss, sss, sssmmmmmm, woah. Ok, thanks sweetie, but you can’t just put food in people’s mouths, you have to ask first”
“Oh. Teacher? Delicioussssss?”)

When we got off the bus, the lodge we were staying at promised us a pick up, scrambling to find the right number, Zac dialled the number and then thrust the phone in to my face. The lady who picked up had near impeccable English, and reassured we’d be fine in this otherwise ghost town we plonked ourselves down on a bench and watched with amusement at the Radio 4 couple stomped off.
“She’s clearly on a mission.”
I heard Zac mumble, more to himself that anyone and I sniggered, laying my head on his shoulder, tired and hungry.


Concerned by the ants, or maybe it was the beetles, or the snake…

It had been 20 minutes when a chap on a bike with 2 helmets appeared, convinced we were his charges, trying to take us to wherever he was going. We looked skeptically at the bike, barely enough room for him and Zac, let alone me and our bags and refused to touch the helmet, lest it committed us to the ride.
Zac was trying to negotiate with him where they were going, and naturally he was agreeing with everything Zac was saying. Thankfully, this time I stood my ground, and told him we weren’t going with him convinced that I’d read somewhere we should be picked up in a car, and, learning his lesson, Zac listened to me.
(As it turned out when we were getting the bus back to Phnom Penh, we would have been taken more than a few kms out of the city if we’d got on the back of his bike)
Within a few minutes, a particularly badass Khmer lady appeared in an equally badass pickup and told us to jump in the back.
Khmer girl crush, for sure.

We were just getting comfortable in the bed on the back of the truck, when the Radio 4 couple hailed us down.
Despite walking away in the wrong direction, they were actually supposed to be coming with us, staying at the same lodge, on the same elephant tour.
I tried to sigh inwardly, but somehow it made its way out.

You of course find people who just can’t get along with on every trip, but why did we have to find them here?
Try as we might, there was just something so grating about them, their attitude, barely hiding how much better than us they knew they were, how much more cultured and sophisticated. Even their fancy cameras were twatty.
(For anyone who’s lived in Cambodia, or rather Phnom Penh for any length of time will get it when I say they’re the kind of people who think dining at Romdeng is a cheap night out.)
We suffered through dinner with them that night, after listening to them complain about their room, their shower, the incredible 234km nature hike they did in under an hour for funsies, the fact they’d forgotten to download the latest Radio 4 podcast…

Zac and I couldn’t help but innocently wind them up, Zac (intentionally or not) expertly hitting the line between ignorant Aussie and educated irony.
They weren’t amused.
I was.

it’s beautiful. really. but can someone turn the nature down?!

I for one was thrilled with how secluded the lodge was, they did a cracking curry at the  ‘restaurant’ and I love lying in a bed underneath a mosquito net.
It just feels…regal almost, at the very least it feels colonial and given it’s likely my ancestors were keen explorers (it’s in my DNA I’m sure), it resonates with me.
It makes me feel peaceful.
Its also a pain in the arse to get out of quickly when you need a midnight pee, but that’s half of the fun.

*rustle, rustle* *muffled noise* *thud* “Owie.”

The only downside to all that serenity was once the sun set, nature really started to sing. Dogs and crickets and cicada’s, all chirping at the top of their lungs, demanding their solo to be heard.
Add to the cacophony the chickens and the local celebrations, it wasn’t the easiest night’s sleep, yet we still felt rested when we woke the next morning, filled with excitement at the prospect of elephants.

lumpy’s. real life lumpy’s. first we fed them.

The next morning we piled in to a pick up with 6 other eager elephant hunters and began to drive to the jungle, where we’d find our four legged friends.
Half way along the increasingly bumpy dirt track, Mr. Tree got out of the truck with a spanner and started fiddling around saying he was changing to 4 wheel drive.
We continued along as the track disappeared and we got deeper in to the jungle, before stopping at a thatched hut.

The obligatory ‘this is why we do it, this is where your money goes’ talk out of the way, we were armed with bananas, still laughing about the cut and dry way Mr. Tree had told us about condoms and why we ‘must protect’ to stop the education crisis, we all headed off in high spirits to find the lumpy’s.

A little too jovial, we were shushed as we got deeper in to the jungle and before I knew it, we’d stopped in what could barely pass for a clearing, but had a clear elephant path.
We’d already been warned the elephants were greedy and we were to hide the bananas behind our backs so they couldn’t see them.


I still can’t believe this is one of our photos and not something I’ve Googled.

I’ve spent my whole life in love with elephants, I knew how kind and gentle they were, I also knew that I’d never heard a story of an elephant eating a human, but when face to face with one of these giant creatures I was suddenly terrified, fixated on the fact I didn’t know if elephants had teeth.
I’d been thrust to the front of the group, and had too late hidden the bunch of bananas behind my back.
Struggling to break a fruit off I was fumbling as Comvine came closer and closer to me. I was taking steps backwards, away from her, my heart pounding until my back pressed against a tree. I was loosing my footing and worried about what would happen next.
She reached her trunk around me, I felt how rough, yet soft it was and waited for her to pick me up, or crush the life out of me.
She pulled me slightly closer and I mumbled something hysterical about elephants having teeth while I heard the rest of our pack laughing, she kept on reaching though – not intentionally pinning me against a tree, she’d seen the bananas and she wanted them.
There was a slight tousle behind my back, before I gave in, she scooped the whole bunch in to her mouth and then began to walk away.


Zac’s first encounter with a real elephant, more tentative than I, stroking Happy’s trunk before feeding her.

As the morning went on, I got bolder and bolder with the elephants and by lunch I was happily hugging them, nestling my face behind their huge ears, wrapping their trunks around my shoulders and putting the bananas straight in to their mouths.
Each lumpy had their own personality, their own story.
They were all beautiful and I was completely besotted.

I was sad when we had to trudge back to the lodge for lunch, I could have spent all day talking to the elephants, all previous concerns about their teeth quelled.
Tongue after fleshy elephant tongue had wrapped around my hand in search of food.
They were living out their retirement in style, their main concern bananas.

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I’ve had good days, but I just couldn’t wipe that smile off my face.

Lunch turned out to be turtle soup with fresh morning glory and rice.
We filled up, feeling the rice stodge our insides and I was glad to follow it with handfuls of dragonfruit.
Hammocks were already strung up for people who were staying the night and doing the trek the following morning, so we snuggled in alongside each other and had a post lunch nap, while Zac talked to a fellow elephant lover about joining the police.

lumpy’s. real life lumpy’s. next we washed them.

Fed and presumably watered, it was time for the part of the day Zac had been most excited about: washing the elephants.


“I know the way! Follow me!”

We followed the lumpy’s down to the river.
As we approached the water, everyone was already stripping off to bikinis. Feeling a little self-conscious, wishing I’d remembered to pack my tankini I took my shirt off and looked skeptically at the murky water.

I don’t know why I have a fear of water. Or rather open water.
I’m a swimming teacher, I love swimming, I love swimming in the ocean when I get the chance, but if I can’t see the bottom, if my foot touches something I can’t explain, my heart starts to beat a little faster and my breath catches in my chest.
Step by tentative step I made my way in.
Zac holding my hand and cooing soothing words at me, knowing about my irrational fear, and knowing what to say to calm me down.
The other’s weren’t so sympathetic and as I slipped, freezing in a 5 second pose in the most awkward position as I heard an elephant coming my way, Zac casually explained I was fine, I was a great swimmer, I taught swimming in fact, I was just scared when I couldn’t see the bottom.

“And I don’t know if there are leeches or snakes in here.”

As soon as the elephants arrived, all my ridiculous fears were washed away with the mud falling from the lumpy’s heads.
Some of them stayed as long as we had bananas, having to work quickly to clean them, reaching up with a scrubbing brush washing off all the dirt they’d only just been throwing on to their backs.
Happy however loved getting her bath. She fell asleep as we scrubbed her and threw water over her head, lazily opening and closing her eyes and waving her ears.

I hadn’t realised I was covered in mud from standing behind the lumpy’s as they flapped their muddy ears.
Zac told me to just pour a bucket of water over my head, get it over with and wash the mud off. I looked at him skeptically; the river was cold, not quite take your breath away cold, but certainly uncomfortably cold compared to the muggy jungle temperature.
As soon as he’d pointed it out, the rest of the group started giggling at my muddy face and I said that I’d do it, but only if he took a photo.

5 buckets of water later, he’d finally got the shot.
I suspect 3 of those buckets were unnecessary, but with each bucket, I felt more alive and a strange sense of zen came over me, as though I finally knew what people meant when they said to live in the moment.

We eventually left the river and went to find Comvine and Sophie bathing themselves.
As I stood beside the river, I could feel myself being bitten.
River mosquitoes love me, and rookie that I was, we’d forgotten to bring more bug spray with us after the little we’d applied had washed off in the river.
I looked down at my legs to find 4 nibbling away at me.

I was getting tired, I’d had such an exciting day so far, but I was tired and hungry and I just wanted to get away from the mozzies.
We trudged back from the river, muddy and still trying to process everything we’d experienced that day.
I awkwardly jumped in to the back of the pick up and leaned back on the door, only to realise it wasn’t properly shut and spent the rest of the ride to the lodge clinging on for dear life.

I was ready for a hot shower, or at least a warm one.
Zac was already planning what he was getting for dinner and I was doing everything I could to resist scratching the welts that were forming on my legs.

I got in an awkwardly flopped on to the bed, after noticing a number of ants outside our room.
I heard Zac start the shower up, and staring up at the gecko in the light I let out a long contented sigh.
Bucket list day.
Without a doubt, it had been a bucket list day.


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