» Jungle boy

Jungle boy

One of only 53 remaining domestic elephants in Mondulkiri One of only 53 remaining domestic elephants in Mondulkiri

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to make my first trip to the eastern provinces of Cambodia: Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri. This is a bit of a dream come true, because I have heard many stories of the wild, untamed jungle that is home to many minority tribes: some so isolated that they rarely come into contact with other Cambodians, not to even mention contact with westerners!

I went with two friends from Siem Reap and fortunately one of them owns a car so we were able to drive over to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, a 9 hour journey, in relative comfort (as opposed to taking an arduous bus journey!). Overall the trip was amazing in every sense, but today I just want to write about one experience I had in the jungle of Mondulkiri.

In this area the local tribes have long engaged the services of elephants to, amongst other things, help drag huge logs of felled trees out from the jungle and also to clear paths through the jungle. Today there are still 53 ‘domestic’ elephants left in Mondulkiri: each elephant is owned by between 5 and 12 families (source: The Mondulkiri Project). There are also some wild elephants in the jungle, but it is hard to estimate the numbers. There is a NGO called the Mondulkiri Project that is working to ensure the survival of the Mondulkiri elephants as well as other wildlife such as deer, pigs and buffalo. They also work closely with the Bunong indigenous tribe to teach these people the benefits of preserving the jungle and its wildlife as opposed to falling to the lure of easy money from illegal tree logging and land clearing to plant rice and rubber trees.

I visited the village of the Bunong hill tribe where I met with the locals. It turned out that one of the kids in the village (I say kid, because he could not have been more than 14 years old) was just about to head out to the jungle on the village-elephant. I was granted permission to follow them, on foot, giving me a fantastic opportunity to take some photos.

Mowgli and Colonel Hathi Mowgli and Colonel Hathi

So we set off: Mowgli riding on Colonel Hathi and me trailing behind on foot. At first I could not understand why they kept the chain on Colonel Hathi, because the long chain just dragged behind the elephant. It didn’t seem to cause any discomfort to the elephant: from the sparkle in Colonel Hathi’s eye I think the prospect of a stroll into the jungle outweighed the small burden of dragging a chain behind him and having Mowgli as a passenger.

Initially we walked through open countryside where land has already been cleared for farming purposes, but I could already see waiting ahead was the dense, seemingly impenetrable, jungle. We reached the wall of trees and I wondered how on earth we would be able to proceed onwards, but Colonel Hathi did not even flinch: he plunged ahead and nature obliged, parting as we went along.

It is here that the purpose of the chain was revealed. The dragging chain flattened all the undergrowth rolling along in a meter wide span as Colonel Hathi drove on through. It is also at this point that I started feeling rather nervous… It dawned on me that now we were in the real jungle: a jungle where to this day new species of snakes are still discovered and home to some serious characters such as the King Cobra, Vipers, Kait and many other deadly snakes. Getting bitten here could be disastrous, because the trip back to the nearest hospital would take at least an hour or more! So here I was: Mowgli sitting high and dry on the back of Colonel Hathi and barang chikoot (crazy westerner) down below in prime striking distance of any snake that bears some animosity to foreigners. I figured the closer I walk to Colonel Hathi’s backside the safer I would be… so I edged closer. This was not much fun, because Colonel Hathi’s stomach was already processing the morning’s grass load and the smells that were released hit me directly in the face! As if that wasn’t enough, without warning the Colonel started dropping green hand-grenades from his behind and I literally had to dive out of harm’s way!!

By this stage I was a walking disaster: gas fumes, hand-grenades and the ever present risk of some monster snake having a go… my nerves were on edge! My 6th sense said to me there is indeed a snake close by and when I get this feeling as clear as that it is never, ever false! I could only hope that whatever it was, that it wasn’t poisonous or in a bad mood. From the corner of my eye I caught some movement in the bush next to me and there he was: a colorful slithery monster eyeballing me! I jumped back to a safe distance and yelped out to Mowgli. Up until this point our conversations had been limited to smirking smiles down from his high throne, but he at least showed some interest in the snake, mumbling something before setting off on the colonel again.

Golden tree snake Golden tree snake

In the meantime the green monster seemed to have accepted that I was part of the Mowgli-Colonel entourage and therefore not a wise move on his part to consider attacking… hence he set off in the opposite direction.

As you can imagine, by this stage my nerves were beyond being on edge and weighing up my options I decided to stick my head back up the Colonel’s behind and continue in a gas plume until we reached wherever we were headed for.

Occasionally I dared to look out and around and I must say, despite the ever-threatening dangers, it was really beautiful to see a true, pristine jungle. I can easily understand why even now new species of animals are still being discovered  in these jungles. For all we know it is not only animals that will be discovered here either!

We reached a river and the Colonel enjoyed a bit of a drink. I figured it made sense to take my shoes off for the walk through the water, because it was about knee deep. By the time I got into the water Mowgli had already steered the Colonel across and they were heading into the thick jungle again… I assumed they would wait, but boy was I wrong again! By the time I made it through, which wasn’t the easiest crossing either, they had disappeared! I think Mowgli had not yet passed his degree in Tourist Management and he simply couldn’t care less about my wellbeing: in his world it is all about swim or drown – survival of the fittest!

Time for a drink Time for a drink

I put my shoes on in record time and plunged into the jungle following the ‘path’ of flattened bushes. They were so far gone that I could not even hear them. I suddenly felt rather lonely. Having said that, there was also something special, almost magical, about being in this position. This really was nature in raw form and to be standing there, all alone is touching… almost like going back to my roots as a human being, back to the beginning of time.

Anyway, magic moment over I figured I would have to start jogging if I was ever to see the light of day again. It took me a good 15-20mins to catch up with Mowgli and the Colonel. I was delighted to be reunited with my ‘friends’, but all I received was that smirk of a smile, a nod and then off we went: I would like to believe that the nod was some sort of approval or an acknowledgement that I had passed some sort of test!

After almost 2 and half hours of trekking we reached a river and Mowgli removed the Colonel’s chain. They went into the water and I could see why the Colonel was so excited when we set off on our journey in the morning: he was going to take a bath and Mowgli would even scrub his back for him! I also jumped in for a swim and to cleanse myself of the fumes that probably left a rotten perfume smell all over my body.

Everyone takes a bath Everyone takes a bath

It was a fitting end to a very adventurous journey and a very special experience for me. Who knows if it would still be possible to experience something like this in the real jungle 10 or 20 years from now. I really hope so…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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