Week 20 – Phnom Penh, Mondulkiri

I am in Cambodia!!! Nate and I had a bit of a scramble morning trying to get ready to go and getting some last minute things done. I went with Nicole to the Greek restaurant in town to get some lunch for our ride. Then, we were off on our bus to Phnom Penh. We had to stop at the border, which was easy because our bus driver had the passports and did a lot of the work for us. Then, we arrived in Phnom Penh! We walked to our hostel which was right along the river. Phnom Penh is an interesting city because there are parts that are really nice, but there are also parts that a a bit grungy. Our street was a bit disheveled, but the street near the riverfront was beautiful and had a lot of amazing restaurants. The restaurants were a bit more expensive, but served a lot of western food and even $0.50 beers! We went and ate at a local restaurant that night and then had a bit of a walk around. We noticed as we walked that there were a lot of old creepy white men by themselves in this town. We joked that they were filming an episode of To Catch a Predator in town. Then, we saw why. We went down a street where all of the bars had very seductive names and out front were many girls dressed up aging from about 16 to 25. There you saw white men sitting with them and them all over him. It was really disturbing. I guess we found the red light district, but this made me really sad that sad old white men from around the world come to Cambodia to get cheap prostitutes.

Our tuk tuk ride with Poh

The following day we arranged a tuk tuk tour through the city with one of the workers in our hostel named Poh. We left at 9 am and he first drove us an hour out of town to the killing fields. Between the end of Vietnam and the beginning of Cambodia, I have learned a lot of depressing things about Southeast Asia. In Cambodia in the 1970s there was a military coup to take over the government. This spurred on a revolution of a Communist Group in Cambodia called the Khmer Rouge led by a man Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge gained support in the countryside due to the US bombing that spread over from Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge began fighting the military leadership in the countryside and on April 17, 1975 marched into Phnom Penh and made everyone leave the city with the lie that the US was going to bomb the city. The cities were full at this point because a lot of the people from the countryside had gone to the cities to avoid the US bombings. The Khmer Rouge set up work camps all over the countryside and worked people for 12-14 hours in the fields farming crops that they then sold to China for more weapons. They took away all property, made everyone wear black clothing, and gave the very little food. If you were educated, spoke multiple languages, worked for the prior government, or wore glasses they took you to killing fields and they shot you and your entire family. This went on for 3 years and in those 3 years close to 2 million people were killed from these killing fields, starvation, or disease. Given that the population of Cambodia was only about 7 million that is over 1/4 of the population that was killed in these 3 years. Eventually, Vietnam came in and fought off the Khmer Rouge to the countryside, yet all foreign countries recognized them as the ruling body for the next 10-15 years. Only now are the leaders of the movement being tried for war crimes.

Riding through Phnom Penh with Nate

During the day, we visited one of the killing fields where you could still see teeth in the ground and they said they had to pick up bones and clothing after heavy rains. We had a really good audio tour through the grounds where they described the history and you heard testimonials from survivors. The worst was a killing tree where they bashed heads of infants in front of their parents eyes to get them to confess to crimes. The people were not killed with guns, but instead with anything they had on hand like hammers, garden hoes, and machetes. Sometimes they would not die and were buried alive. At the killing fields the memorial was made up of human skulls and bones that they had found on site categorized by age and weapon that was used to kill them.

Case of clothing found and the memorial of skulls

The killing tree

We also stopped at S21 Torch Prison. This is where they sent political prisoners and tortured them for days or weeks before they sent them off to be killed. Again, we had an audio tour and it was really difficult to see the living conditions and methods of torture that they used on the prisoners. The most interesting part was a women that we saw who told her story of how she survived those years. Since this is a depressing topic I am going to stop now, but I will highly recommend reading a book called First they Killed my Father by Loung Ung. I bought this book from a landmine victim in Siem Reap and it is the story of a 5 year old going through those years and trying to survive. It gives a good idea of what is was like to live through the genocide and I believe they are going to make it into a Netflix movie.

S21 Torch Prison

They following day, we left very early on a bus to Mondulkiri. I had never heard of Modulkiri, but I was reading my lonely planet and I saw that they had Elephant Sanctuaries there where you could walk through the woods with elephants. I knew that I never wanted to ride an elephant because that is inhumane, but this seemed very good alternative because they were trying to rescue the elephants so I insisted to Nate that we go there. The bus ride was a bit insane. The pot holes in this country are crazy! We stopped a couple of times for the bathroom and to eat. At one stop, I even saw a stand selling cockroaches, crickets, maggots, and tarantulas. Some of the locals on the bus bought bags of them to take with us. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

We finally arrived in Mondulkiri and needed to figure out how to get to our lodging. We saw a sign that said The Nature Lodge pick up point and the man there said we could leave our bags, get lunch, then he would drive us up. So, we ate lunch and then we found a moving market. This market had everything from shampoo, clothes, shoes, food, and even mattresses. Since this village is in the middle of nowhere we imagine that everyone stocks up on items when the market comes to town. Nate bought a couple of T shirts and I even found popcorn! Then we walked around town and found a couple of other items we needed such as bug spray and a phone case. Then, we returned to the office and the guys told us the van had already left. Nate said that he needed a haircut so that guy then drove Nate on his motorbike to get a haircut while I stayed with a cup of tea and read a book. Then, the guy drove us to the Nature Lodge. He was so nice!!

One of the trees on our hike

At the Nature Lodge, we had booked a double cabin, but they made a mistake and gave us a triple instead. It was a little paradise. We had 3 double beds and one of them was on a loft! It was a neat place and had a really nice restaurant/bar area, but the prices were really expensive for just mediocre food. The next morning we caught motorbike taxis into town and got a really good inexpensive breakfast before being picked up by The Mondulkiri Project for our elephant tour!

It’s like she is smiling for the picture!!

We booked a two day elephant tour where one day we would hike through the woods to some waterfalls and the other day we would feed and bathe elephants. They picked us up at the restaurant and drove us to the tree bungalows where we were informed that we would be hiking the first day and hanging out with elephants the second day. Initially I was disappointed because I wanted to see the elephants, but after I was really happy that we did it in this order. They drove us in a tuk tuk to the house of our guide in a local village named Crem. He was indigenous to the area and even spoke a different first language other than Cambodian. His English was only so so but he knew the whole forest like it was his backyard. We started hiking through his village then into the rice fields. Everything was so green! Finally, we entered the forest and it was like hiking through the jungle again. There were many paths and I am not sure how he knew which one to take.

View from our hike

Then, we came across our first waterfall which was falling from high above and you could even hike in behind it. We stopped here for a rest and some fruit and saw what they said was a cave, but was barely a whole in the wall. Then, we continued on to the second waterfall. There was a lot of people here including the guy that helped us that day before. Many groups stopped here for lunch because you could also swim at the base of the waterfall. We were all really hot so we changed into our bathing suits right away and hopped in. The water was freezing! It was a refreshing way to cool off though. Then, we had a lunch of white rice with vegetable soup we could put on top.

Waterfall and pool at our lunch stop

After lunch, we changed back into our clothes and headed off to the third waterfall. We had to hike down a steep slope to get there and it was a bit muddy. This waterfall was the biggest one by far. It was beautiful and put off a huge amount of mist. Finally, we started on our final 2 hour trek to the place where we were going to spend the night. On the way, one of the guys with us bumped his head really hard on a low branch and Crem jumped into action. He grabbed a leaf from a plant nearby and said it was medicine then told the guy to push it on the cut. He then grabbed another and dripped the leaf juice on the cut. Finally, he declared that the bleeding would be stopped now and it was! So, after that we called him Dr. Crem. It’s amazing that they just know all of the local medicines and can find them so easily. At the end of the hike we crossed a bridge that I could have sworn was going to fall apart when we crossed it. Boards were going in every direction and it definitely creaked as we crossed.

Last waterfall
Our last rickety bridge

Once we arrived, the place that we were going to stay was so cute. It was all built out of wood and the main area had a beautiful view of the whole property. We got there and changed our clothes and then had a couple of beers looking at the view. Then, they set a mat out on the floor and we all gathered around for dinner. We had a chicken and vegetable stew and bamboo soup for dinner with rice. Then, as what happens with any homestay, out came the rice wine. Crew brought our 3 water bottles full of it and had us take shot after shot of rice wine. That stuff is very nasty! The cool part about this though was that we were taking the shots our of shot glasses that Crem has made himself out of bamboo and then he let us keep them. He even signed them!

Our camp for the night

Dinner for the night and the terror on my face when I didn’t know Nate was taking a picture of me.

Well, now after the beer and the rice wine we are feeling pretty good. So, we all decided to play mafia together, which is a game that I usually play around a campfire. We all were having a great time until they wanted us to go to bed at 9 because they wanted to hang the rest of the hammocks. Nate and I got lucky and got the two hammocks closest to the railing so when we woke up in the morning we could look out at the vista. After mafia, we played president for awhile and then eventually went to bed. It was a bit odd sleeping because all the hammocks were so close together I felt like I was basically in bed with both of the guys next to me.

Sunset and the day view from our lodge

The next morning, we woke up and had a delicious breakfast of pancakes with nutella and banana then we were off to finally visit the elephants!! The elephants are allowed to just roam around the property, but they know the time each day that people come down with bananas. We were told to grab as many bananas as we could hold and hike down onto their property. Not far down the path we encounter our first elephant named Lucky. All of the elephants had previously worked as laborers or for elephant rides. They each suffered a bit of abuse and one even had a broken back from the elephant rides. They are also all female because they are scared of the temperament of male elephants around tourists.

Our first elephant Lucky

Lucky was one of the older elephants and she was a bit shy. We all also had to get used to how to feed the elephants as some wanted the bananas right in their mouth verses others wanted them in the trunk so they could always have a banana on deck when they were finished chewing. Since everyone was surrounding lucky I continued down the path a bit more and found Princess running up the path. Princess was about 45 which is young in elephant years and she was a banana hog. She was always putting her trunk at you and nudging you for more bananas. She could smell the bananas and even chased Nate around a tree to get the final bananas we were trying to save for another elephant that he was keeping behind his back. She was the most comfortable with people and I think that is why I really like her.

Princess who was a bit greedy with bananas

The third elephant we encountered was Sophie. She was the oldest elephant and the biggest of the 3. She was in charge of the little pack until the sanctuary obtained the fourth elephant Comvine who was the youngest and largest elephants. Comvine was also the only elephant that could still potentially bear children which could be really important to the sancuatary as there are no other viable elephants that live in the region. Yet, since the arrival of Comvine, Sophie had become more of a shy elephant and always was trying to avoid Comvine. I really loved Sophie because she was stare at you and you could almost see this old wisdom in her eyes. I felt like she was looking straight into my soul. We definitely had some quiet moments together when everyone was off with the other elephants.

Sophie and I had a moment

Comvine did not come until the very end and we had very few bananas left. Yet, she was still so picky about her bananas!! She did not want the green bananas or the heavily bruised bananas. Talk about a picky elephant. She was the biggest by far. Just gigantic and she moved so fast through the woods. After we were out of bananas, we just walked through the woods after Comvine watching her eat from the bamboo trees. It was amazing to see how they used their trunks so effortlessly like hands. She was also so powerful that she could just rip down entire branches and shove them in her mouth.

Comvine came late but she really wanted bananas

After feeding the elephants, we went back up to where we slept the night before to have lunch and give the elephants some time away from people. We also took an hour and a half nap on the hammocks. Then, we went back down to see the elephants again and give them a bath! We were all brought down to a waterfall where they would bring Princess and Comvine for their bath lured there by the promise of bananas. They told us that they could bring the elephants to the water, but it would be up to the elephant whether or not they wanted to get in. On the way down, we learned a lot about elephants feces. If the feces have really ground up material the elephant and if they feces are not digested well than the elephant is older. Our guide was really excited to tell us these facts!

The first elephant to come to the water was Comvine. We all weren’t quite ready and in the water yet because the ground was slippery and the water was cold and Comvine took advantage. I was one of her first targets and let me remind you that she was a huge elephant. Well, I broke off a banana in one had and was trying to feed this to her, but she was having none of that. She wanted the 10 other bananas that I had in my other hand. So, what does she do? She reaches around me with her powerful trunk and starts pulling me towards her. Let me remind you that the rocks are very slippery, but she was determined. I ended up having to give her the whole bunch of bananas just so I would get pulled down by her. I wasn’t her only victim in this either.

Here comes Comvine!

Finally, we lure her into the water and start pouring buckets of water on her and scrubbing her with a brush. Since elephants throw mud on themselves to cool down their skin, she was very dirty! I was fun to wash her, but all of us had a difficult time with the top. Once the bananas were gone, Comvine left and Princess joined us practically running down to the water. She got in right away and loved her bath.

Washing Comvine

After, we went over to watch the older elephants bathe themselves. They weren’t too excited about it since it was a bit of a colder day. Sophie just took a quick walk through the water and got out the other side. Lucky sprayed mud all over herself then sat on the shore. They were really cute and it was refreshing that no one made them do anything. Our guide just said, well they don’t want to go in today so there is nothing we can do. I was really sad to leave the elephants, but we walked back up and then had to hike on out. We were picked up by a truck and driven back to our accommodation. We went back to the Nature Lodge again to sleep and woke up early the next morning to go to Kratie!

The elephants were probably my favorite part of Asia so far and I hear you can do this again in Chang Mai!!

2 thoughts on “Week 20 – Phnom Penh, Mondulkiri

  1. wow , you need to read Modoc book about a boy and an elephant that he raises . great news ie your next job. will look up where that island is.


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