Pete and I had the pleasure of experiencing 5 days at Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia. It was one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of our lives. Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center (based in Northern Thailand, with projects in Cambodia & Myanmar as well). Volunteers come from all over to help and visit. They have executed dozens of rescues all over Southeast Asia, allowing for these sentient creatures to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort. Find out more on their website.
Two beautiful female elephants live at Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia. There are about 12 rescued monkeys, a group of geese, ducks and chickens, and dogs and cats that live at the park. We slept, ate & worked at the park for 5 days. They provided us with fresh and delicious home-cooked vegan cuisine. As volunteers, we had various tasks to perform each day for a period of time in the morning and in the afternoon. Completing these tasks helps the park to run efficiently. We also had time to rest and to socialize.
People come from all walks of life and backgrounds to live and volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. Some of the nationalities represented were Cambodians, Thais, Americans, French, Canadians, Malaysians & Filipinos. We all worked together diligently to ensure the elephants had everything they needed. All in all, it was a life-changing experience!
Please consider donating directly to Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia by clicking on the link. I've seen first-hand that donations go directly to supporting the well-being and comfort of these majestic beings, in addition to supporting rescue efforts to save more elephants.
Day-to-Day Life at Elephant Nature Park
When we arrived at Elephant Nature Park, we checked in and took a tour of the grounds with Pheakdey, the volunteer coordinator. We received our volunteer shirts and water bottle holders and were shown to our bungalow. The accommodations are modest but you have everything you need. A bed with a mosquito net, and shared toilets and bucket showers. Roughin' it with the elephants!
We had lunch and then got ready for the afternoon work project.
In the afternoon, we jumped in the back of the work truck with a group of workers and we raked dead grass on the side of the road. The purpose was to contain the dead brush as it poses a fire risk. In fact, the day after we left, fires started in the jungle areas of Elephant Nature Park and burned on and off for a few days. It was devastating!
We worked for about 2 hours, with a lot of breaks for water and photos.
The project in Cambodia is fairly new, relatively speaking, and has 2 elderly elephants. A lot of the tasks we did included ways to help with deforestation and with jungle preservation, like this task and some of the ones I'll talk about below! This experience gave us a new outlook and appreciation for many of life's simple comforts that we take for granted. We also received a new perspective of how precious the forest is and how much damage has been done to it due to conflict, logging, accidental/intentional fires, poaching, and more. I feel like we played only a tiny role in solving a very big problem that we should all witness and talk about firsthand.
3:30 pm Feeding Time
Each day at 3:30 pm, it was time to feed the elephants. At 3 pm, we stopped whatever we were doing to prepare their food. They eat a combination of sugar cane, banana tree trunks, watermelons, pumpkin & bananas. We chopped and peeled the sugar cane for the elephants as they are older and weren't cared for properly early in their life, so they have a difficult time chewing and swallowing it with the outsides on, especially Kham Lin. We chopped everything else, too, and carried it over to meet the elephants and the mahouts (elephant handler in Khmer). We got to feed them every day and we got to interact with them every day in different ways. They eat quite a lot!
Kham Lin and Arun Rai
Kham Lin is thought to be around 46-years-old and Arun Rai is about 41-years-old. Both of these elephants were rescued from the province of Ratanakiri and were being used in the logging industry. They were overworked and tired. They now live their lives happily in the forest of Cambodia. On one of the evenings at the park, we watched documentaries about the center and about the girls' rescues. It's a very emotional story and it's clear when you're around the girls, that they are happy now and appreciate the comfort of their life.
After the afternoon work assignment and feeding, there was time to take showers and relax until dinner. In the evenings, we all ate together and enjoyed a few drinks while playing cards.
The next day, we went on a jungle trek with Arun Rai (Kham Lin isn't able to walk far distances, due to her condition). We hiked for awhile with Arun Ria, Pheakdey, and two rangers that were there to keep us safe. There are poachers that still attack the area, as well as dangerous animals, so the rangers are there to protect us (if any animals were to approach, they will simply scare them off, but they would not harm them).
At Elephant Nature Park, they understand that there is a societal issue in asking people to abandon their source of income for an animal rights issue, if the person has no other way to support their family. The sanctuary acts as a resource center for the community in many ways. They provide education about protecting their natural resources, they give water to the villagers (they have a water pump on-site), and they work with captured poachers to provide them a stable salary in working as a guard instead of illegally, causing havoc to the area. ENP does many things to bring their message full-circle.
While on the trek, we each blessed a tree to protect them from loggers. Many times, they find beautiful, old trees that are cut down and left unnecessarily by loggers. It's quite devastating! To help with this issue, volunteers at Elephant Nature Park plant seedlings in pots and plant them around the forest during the rainy season.
Check out the video above to see us bathing Arun Rai and to watch her taking a mud bath afterwards!
Sugar Cane Farm
The elephant eat tons of food! Part of our tasks the next day was to head to the sugar cane farm to chop down sugar cane and banana leaf trees. It was intense work! It was nice to get into the local community to see how they live and to work with our hands to feed the elephants (part of donations go directly to feeding the elephants!). We needed 125 stalks total of sugar cane and about 10 banana leaf trees. It took us about an hour and a half with 5 people working.
Teaching English to Cambodian Children
The next day, we headed out after breakfast to the local elementary school to teach children English and to hang out with him. We received a mini-vocabulary lesson in Khmer (the language in Cambodia) beforehand. The kids were so eager to have us there and to learn from us. Our class had children ranging from 9 to 11-years-old and most of them knew a fair amount of English. Check out the video for some cute footage with the kids.
Afterwards, we went outside for playtime. We played Duck, Duck, Goose and for some reason, they kept picking me! I was not as fast as them by any means. But they got a big kick out of watching me try to catch them time and time again.
They taught me how to count and I taught them some yoga. We played different games for an hour or so, and then we headed back to the park for lunch. We had an amazing time with the kids! I will always remember them. One of the girls gave me a drawing to keep and they made me a tiara from weeds.
Seeing the Monkeys
The monkeys at Elephant Nature Park have all been rescued from various situations. There's one gibbon monkey and the rest are macaques (long-tail and short-tail kind), I think about 12 total. All of the monkeys were stolen in some type of way, usually from their mothers as babies. Lucie, the monkey handler, told us that the poachers will kill the mother so the baby has a traumatic experience and emotionally attaches to the human for comfort. These precious animals are then sold into the tourism industry, into zoos, into research labs, or as pets. In tourism, they are abused and starved as a form of making them dependent on their handler, and then they are trained to retrieve coconuts from trees for tourists. They're also put into circuses and other "safari parks", to live out their lives in prison.
Lucie would love to eventually reintroduce the monkeys into the wild but they are domesticated, for the most part, and she's not sure if it will be possible. Please - never support any tourist destination that supports keeping wild, live animals in captivity and don't purchase products that are tested on animals!
On the last day, we collected elephant poop from around the area where the elephants hang out throughout the day. They also have one to two mahouts with them and in the evenings, they sleep in an area of jungle with a very long rope attached to their leg for the elephants safety. There are guards patrolling 24 hours a day to make sure they are no poachers after them.
Our purpose was to clean the area as well as to collect the poop for use in compost and fertilizer. What's a volunteer experience without getting a little dirty? It was actually fun!