Many indigenous villages are taking their elephants out of “production”, retiring them and setting up tourist experiences. They bring tourists to their villages, they get to touch, feed, photograph at close hand, walk with and bath the elephants. No riding allowed or involved. The elephants roam free, and the villages are regenerating their forests as opposed to cutting them. It brings more money to the villages (if done well) and provides a sustainable income stream as opposed to the massive deforestation that is happening in Cambodia. Slowly, a conservation movement is trying to take hold in Cambodia and much of it is grass roots as opposed to foreigners setting them up to “help” the locals. They have a very different feel and are not as refined, but are real.
So, yesterday we played with the elephants! We were picked up from our hotel in a very clapped out van and taken to the side of the road here we hiked down into a valley. Along the way we met our first elephant, Mekom. She came up the hill (with her mahout). We were so excited. She was a bit shy, but we all took pictures of her and with her and give her a bit of petting. We also fed her a bunch of bananas and sugar cane we had been carrying. I don’t remember how much they eat, but it is a lot. They take 12 inch long sticks of cane, 3 at a time and crunch, crunch, they are gone.
After lunch in the Benong village for this project, we met Chipper. She is also a female. I don’t quite get the story, but Chipper had been at a party with the villagers and everyone was a bit hung over… the people not the elephant. The kill pigs which they eat, but have to put blood on the elephant for good luck…. Or something like that???? Chipper was more gregarious than Mekom and she came to the river for a bath after her meal of cane.
On our way out following a different path we met up with Sterth, a huge male. I didn’t realize Asian elephants were this big. He was a very friendly elephant, young at 32 and a bit…. amorous. His skin seemed much softer than the ladies. Don’t know if it was his age, or what, but he was much softer to the tough.
A very cool and relaxing day with the elephants. On the way back in the van, we stopped at a different Benong village to pick up some hikers we’d dropped off that morning.
Had a chance to see some of the local live stock, interact a bit with the people and finally, we got a close look at one of the “logging” motorcycles. This guy was happy to show us his bike , let Jim sit on it and insisted he (the owner) demo ride it for us (if we’d had time I’m sure Jim could have ridden it as well.) Pretty amazing bikes with double shocks front and back and a swing arm made of welded rebar…
Lots of confusion continues for us in that we got a very different sense and story from the 3 Benong villages we visited regarding prosperity, how they deal with the environment, support (or lack there of) from the government and maintaining their culture. Clearly these people all struggle with how to move forward in a modern society and retain their lives. Some seem to be managing more successfully than others. Cambodia is moving forward quickly and their resources are being exploited but it is not clear many of the people feel in control of their destiny nor happy with the situation.