Delightful Provincial Cambodia 7 – Mondulkiri Elephant Outing
We are decided to arrange our Mondulkiri elephant outing without the services of a guesthouse. With the help of Matt Jacobson's "Adventure Cambodia", we drive eight kilometers out to Pahlung village.
— VILLAGE 1 —
Clean houses of wood or straw with clean-swept dirt courts line the road. Norah, my Khmer lover, talks to a few villagers. Everybody speaks Khmer, but ethnically they are mostly Vietnamese or Phnong, the local hilltribe variety.
At least 4 families have elephant on tap, and we've come to book a pachyderm for the next day. But we hear:
– elephant working somewhere in forest, maybe comeback tonight, maybe not
– elephant working somewhere in forest, but had accident, not sure if can take tourist
– elephant come back tonight, you to talk to owner tonight.
We hear in Pahlung that we will sit on the elephant without any chair, two people plus mahout, even four people plus mahout.
All this is too uncertain. We decide to simply use the prefabricated elephant outing offered by our guesthouse, which leads to a waterfall. I want to call the guesthouse right now – but my handphone with the Cambodian sim card says "VN Mobiphone"; it logged into a Vietnamese network.
— INTO VILLAGE 2 —
Next morning in Pech Kiri guesthouse, the trip should start at 8 am. At 8.45 we are ready, because Norah had to do a dash to the market for whatever reason (our food is arranged by the guesthouse). At 9 am Madame Deu is ready to guide us to the elephant village. In the car, she and Norah chat away about business opportunities and land prices in Sen Monorom – this is what Khmer ladies mostly talk about, in my experience, second-next to food.
Two business junkies in one cabin. We learn that land is sold not by square-meters, but by "meter-through"s or "meter-long"s – slices of real estate one meter wide and thirty, forty or maybe even sixty meters long. One long "meter-through" around Sen Monorom town costs around 3000 USD, short ones still fetch 2500 USD. These prices are quite high and indicate that people believe in a tourism boom.
First we drive about 15 kilometers back on the road towards Kompong Cham. Then we turn south onto a small dirt road and take to the hills. Through bare, rolling humps the piste takes us up and down. In the sea of grass and soil, there is hardly any human activity visible – until we meet a five-piece-family walking on the track. Obviously they hike to the same village that we are just driving to. They belong to the Pnong hilltribe – you can see it from the wooden baskets they carry; otherwise they look not much different from rural Khmers, they even wear kromas around their necks, the trademark Cambodian chequered cloth.
I stop the car next to them. "We take them", I suggest? Ok, Norah and Madame Deu gesture from inside they could jump onto the cargo bed. The family stands around the pickup jeep. They make excited faces. They seem happy to get a lift to their village – but they have no idea how to climb the car. Resolute Madame Deu jumps out and simply heaves our passengers onto the cargo bed.
"They started walking in Sen Monorom town at 5 a.m. this morning", reports Madame Deu, back in the cabin. A mother and four children, plus baskets filled with young chickens, a young dog and vegetables. Now it's almost 10. We drive on through empty land for twenty more minutes, saving our family some hours of walking. In the rear mirror I see the kids' happy faces – they look thrilled as if on a rollercoaster. Their very first car ride!
— VILLAGE 2 —
Finally we stop in the village. The family jumps off. As I get out, the Pnong mother approaches me. She folds her hands to a wai and says "Awkhun" – polite Khmer style to say thank you, and here quite moving. Somehow the gesture looks helpless as if it is all foreign language and ritual to her, but what do I know. Norah distributes grapefruits among the very happy family, before they put on their baskets and trek off.
A few villagers have gathered, Madame Deu talks away in Phnong. What a hard language – full of coarse consont-clusters and exploding sounds. Norah says she hears not the slightest connection to Khmer. Despite all this it seems that Madame Deu uses a tone as if a housemaster talks to sweet, but dull children.
And see, there parks our elephant. The animal is stuck in a small piece of bush and slowly comes out, back-end first, then turns around. Our elephant looks relatively small and drab, quite a difference to the colossal, well-fed pachyderm that's that takes tourists around Wat Phnom back in the capital.
Norah grabs for one of her plastic bags – and look what she had to buy in the morning: a bush of bananas. She breaks off a few and starts to feed the elephant; I get more bananas to feed it too. Then a villager approaches Norah and asks politely in Khmer: "Can we eat a few bananas too?" Norah looks somewhat awkward; she has to learn that bananas are something special for the people here and never go to the elephant.
I once had another elephant outing in the remote village of Khiet Ngong, southern Laos. There people had built a gangway to get you up the towering animal and into the tourist seat. This time they want to bring us up with a ladder. Norah climbs up with no problems and squeezes herself into the passengers' box. When I follow her, the elephant moves a bit – the ladder slides away and I almost end up under the pachyderm. For the second try, I go up without shoes. Up on top I have to walk some steps on elephant's skin – a funny experience, the animal doesn't seem to mind.
I find riding an elephant quite boring. It is so slow, and you don't see much of the animal – mostly you see the mahout sitting in front of you, steering his meat loaf by kicks behind the ears. But I like to see elephants close-up.
— RIDING HIGH —
This elephant trip is disappointing. One-way to the waterfall we need more than 90 minutes. Most of the time we pass open land with no shadow, and just more and more rolling hills – equal to what you see from the car window. At lunchtime, the food is as mediocre as the waterfall, seating in the forest is difficult, and from the pool above the unspectacular chute Norah brings home a leech. I had sincerely hoped that for lunch the elephant would stay with us, but not so: The animal is sent out to roam the riverside forest on its own. The mahout catches small fish in the waterfall's pool and cooks them on a fire. To retrieve his pachyderm for the ride back, he roams the forest for half an hour.
Sitting in the tiny tourist box on the elephant is a pain – the box is made for children, not for western adults. Leg space ends around my upper thighs.
I estimate the elephant's speed at about 1,5 miles per hour. Occasionally the mahout shouts "HNNNPFF! HNN-NNN-NNHH-PFFF!!!", and he hits the the elephant on the head with a thin stick. Then the animal jumps in highest gear and proceeds astonishingly fast – for about 50 meters, where it falls back to the old snail's pace.
Most of the time I'd actually prefer walking next to the slowly proceeding animal. The mahout does this from time to time – walks in the grass, elephant follows like a puppy dog.
Occasionally we meet water crossings with very steep, 1 meter high riverbanks. There the elephant carefully walks down on its forelegs. At that point our seat has a slope that we almost fall out – I expect to roll over the elephant's head into the muddy mess. On folded hind legs the elephant then slides down into the gully. Quite a maneuver.
In the short wooded parts of our sojourn, the mahout cuts off all small branches in our head space with a machete. Some branches are too big to be removed by hand. Then the mahout just cuts them down halfway and shouts: "HMPF!! DMPFFF! ARC+GEW&%$PFFDMPP-MBHF!!!" Upon which the elephant grabs the big branch with its trunk and removes it with a snap.
One four meter high tree stands in the middle of the trail, and the elephant must walk around it left or right. But the mahout makes the animal stop and then shouts "ARC+GE-HMPF!! DMPFFF! DMPPFF-MBHW&%$HMMPFFF!!!" This is the secret command for the elephant to simply walk the tree down. One time in the open grass the elephant steps two meters besides our trail, then stands still; then impressive dropping sounds can be heard.
At one point on our super slow journey the mahout whispers "Oh! Oh!", grabs his machete, slides down the elephant's head onto the ground and throws his tool into the grass. A big black bird, the size of a chicken but much more graceful, slowly rises into the air and peacefully sails away. No fowl tonight on mahout's dinner table. But a little later he finds some majestic mushrooms at least – they are easier to get your hands on.
A great series.