14th February 2014
After colonial decadence and fusion food in Phnom Penh it was nice to be encircled by forests sampling curiously pink custard in Cambodia’s far east! That’s not to say we weren’t grateful for cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents Club - but to get beneath the skin of a country you need to leave the capital and tourist hubs behind…
Sen Moromon is a dusty one-strip town, nestled in protected forested area (though everything has its price in Cambodia) in the ‘Wild East’ of the country. The area has a different feel to the rest of the country, maybe it’s the trees and vegetation – so much of Cambodia’s countryside has been stripped and burnt to make way for the endless rubber plantations that line the pockets of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies. Maybe it’s the lack of Buddhist temples; Mondulkiri Province is home to the Banong people and their Animist traditions.
It’s these Banong people and their relationship with the forests and its elephants that inspired a young Englishman to found the Elephant Valley Project here in 2005 (www.elephantvalleyproject.org). Nearly ten years on the EVP trains young locals to be mahouts, provides health insurance to locals and helps the Banong secure the title for their lands. They also have a unique ‘loan’ program where families can lease their elephant to the project in return for monthly compensation – and a job with the project.
Admittedly I’m not a massive wildlife fan, and I’ve have been left fairly unmoved by elephants ‘in the wild’ in the past. The EVP project, however, is the real deal. It’s as close as you’ll get (in this region) to observe elephants in their natural habitat. We trekked through the forest to a clearing beside a small river as the elephants emerged from the undergrowth and headed for their morning bath. Hearing their personal stories really brought them to life; the loner Onion, still grieving her boyfriend ‘Bob’ who passed away in the forest, the feisty Ruby still bearing the scars of the previous life as a tourist elephant...
Moving onto another provincial capital, Kratie, gave us the perfect opportunity to get closer to the Khmer people – this time by bicycle. The seemingly idyllic small island of Koh Rong sits in the Mekong a few hundred kilometres south of the Laos border. Dusty paths through vegetable farms made for perfect cycling. The soil is perfect for growing juicy sweet pomelos that the island is famous for.
There’s something unique about island communities; whether it’s Khun Thiri island in Burma or ‘4000 islands’ in Laos there’s a relaxed atmosphere, a slow pace of life and plenty of smiles when you leave the tarmac and cars behind. We stopped and rested under the stilted house of a local farmer, Sang Nang, who proudly guided us around his immaculate herb plot. His wife sat beneath the house delicately tying small bundles of lemon basil ready for market. Mans’ delicate balance with our natural environment has always fascinated me; this instinctual knowledge of plants and animals that country folk have - knowing how to use them for foods, construction and medicines. Tragically it was fanatical respect for the simple Agrarian society in Cambodia’s northeast that drove Pol Pot to orchestrate the genocidal destruction of his people and nation.
Later as the sun began to sink beyond the Mekong we took to the river in small boats to observe the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins which inhabit the river pools that dot this shallow stretch of the river in the dry season. We stood on a sandbank island and watched a small group of these rare dolphins feeding just a few metres from shore.
There was just enough time left in the day to ascend a hundred or so steps to the top of the temple hill of Phmon Sombok for sunset. We watch silently as the red sun fell neatly into a bed of pink clouds, above the silhouettes of sugar palm trees lining the banks of the Mekong.