Visiting Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary
All about the experience of visiting this ethical elephant sanctuary in Cambodia!
The Problem with Elephant Sanctuaries
One of the most common activities to do in Southeast Asia is to visit an elephant sanctuary. These sanctuaries normally house elephants who have been rescued from hard work in logging or from giving rides to tourists at temples (which you should NEVER EVER do by the way!) While the idea of an elephant sanctuary sounds great in theory, there have been many sanctuaries that were probably started in order to help the animals, but have since cared more about turning a profit than actually helping the animals.
Most of these places include a variety of activities that you pay for, such as feeding, bathing, and riding an elephant. Riding an elephant severely damages their back, and these activities are normally forced, whether the tourist knows or not. I’ve even heard of such places that poke elephants with hard, spear-like poles, and place a decorative blanket for riding over their body in order to hide the scars. And yet, people continue to pay for the experience, not understanding what really goes on, and the cruel cycle continues.
For those that know me, I’m a HUGE animal lover. When I was planning out my first trip in Southeast Asia, visiting an elephant sanctuary was at the top of my must-do list! However, after hearing really terrible things about these place, I didn’t want to help contribute to over-tourism and animal abuse. I spent a lot of time researching ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and Cambodia, when I finally stumbled upon Mondulkiri Project in Cambodia.
Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Cambodia
This sanctuary is way up in the jungle, essentially in the middle of nowhere. The other sanctuaries en route weren’t fully convincing me, so I decided to take the trek and make a trip out of it! Mondulkiri Project made it all worth it.
The website seemed authentic, even including short bios of the elephants. The reviews were great, and the experiences didn’t include riding an elephant so I decided to give the place a shot!
How to get there
The town it is based out of is called Sen Monorom, which is in the northeast of Cambodia.
There is also the faster, but slightly more expensive option of a minivan or of course paying for a private taxi.
Where to stay
There are a few hotel options in the town, and if you do the tour, Mondulkiri Project picks you up in the city centre. Alternatively, you can stay on the outskirts of the town, out in the jungle and with nature. In this case you can contact the company, but may need to book a taxi or rent a car to get to the start of the tour.
There are two options for the Elephant experience. The first one costs about $50 USD and is a one day tour where you will spend the day with the elephants. The second option costs $80 USD and allows you to spend the night in the jungle (with a local meal included), and an additional jungle trek the following day. I was short on time and money so I just did the 1 day trek, which was AMAZING. You can read more about the options on their website.
To begin the trek, we walked downhill into the jungle for what felt like ages. Finally, we reached the first spot where we would meet an elephant.
After waiting a few moments, our first elephants arrived! They were two girls; one who had previously worked at the temples in Siem Reap and had permanent back problems, after carrying so many tourists from day to day. The other had spend her life in the logging industry, carrying trees to and from. On the plus side, they could now spend their days in freedom.
We spent a few hours walking through the jungle, where we would periodically stop in a certain spot, call for the elephant, and hope we had an elephant experience.
What I loved about this sanctuary, is that the elephants were completely free rein. They came to see us because they had gotten used to the whistles that the guide would make and knew that there would be bananas if they came. If the elephants didn’t come, that was fine. They didn’t have to. At one spot we waited 20 minutes because we thought an elephant wouldn’t come. Right when we were about to leave, she finally showed up, excited to eat all the bananas.
We also did a ‘bath’ with an elephant with the same context. The elephant didn’t have to get in the water if it didn’t want to, although most of the time they would enter the water in search of bananas. In other sanctuaries, the elephant is forced to enter the water in order to let the tourists bathe it.
At the end of the tour, we hiked back up the top of the hill that we started from and had a delicious meal cooked by some of the locals, followed by a nice nap in the hammocks. They then brought the one day trekkers back to their hotel/city center, while the two day trekkers stayed.
Overall, I highly recommend booking with Mondulkiri Project! It was a great experience, and I honestly felt that each and every person working there truly cared about their work and the animals. I hope in the future, they’ll have the budget to be able to save more elephants.
It may not seem like much, but just one person at a time choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary over other options can make really make a difference.