Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Sen Monorom - Motorbikes and Elephants

The Wooky having a well earned rest
My life lesson on this part of the trip was that that despite the fact that I seem to fall off/drop motorbikes on an alarmingly regular basis and they are obviously capable of much greater speeds than your average elephant (and therefore the risk of injury is increased many times over),

I would take a motorbike over an elephant as a means of transport any day of the week.  But more of that later.

After another hair rising minibus ride, we breathed a sigh of relief when we reached Sen Monorom in one piece.  

The roads in North East Cambodia have, apparently, greatly improved over the last three years.  What they actually mean is that they built a road where before none existed except a mud track which turned into a slippery death track shallow river in the wet season.  I dread to think what the journey would have been like on even a dry dirt track because I don’t imagine the bus drivers adjust their speed to the road conditions.  This was our second long bus journey in as many days and not something we wanted to repeat in a hurry.

Our wooden hut at Nature Lodge
So it was with some relief that we soon found ourselves settled into our stilted wooden hut at Nature Lodge, just a couple of kilometres outside Sen Monorom.   We had a large comfortable bed with a mosquito net, a view across the rolling hills, and a hammock on the balcony outside.  Time to relax which we did in no time.

Nature Lodge is a rustic place with about 15-20 wooden huts over a large area so you are about 30 metres from your nearest neighbour, all huts are on stilts, and there is a large bar/restaurant area and lots of friendly resident animals including half a dozen horses, as many cows, a German Shepherd, a Rottweiler and unknown number of cats – that is not to mention the numerous geckos both small and large, colourful birds and butterflies and bats, frogs in toilets, fishponds in the toilets, and beetles falling from trees in the bar.

Our lovely bedroom
We were spending 4 days here and we wanted to meet elephants.  Paul also decided he wanted to do a bit of dirt biking- something he hadn’t done for some time and was itching to do after pootling about on scooters which handle like battery powered roller skates.  I would have been happy to let him head off on his own but somehow he managed to persuade me to have a go too.

Dirt Biking

There was a dirt bike rental place in town which was run by a German guy, Rene, who also arranged tours of the area.  He came up to see us at Nature Lodge and he really was helpful and optimistic.  He seemed to think that because I passed my direct access motorbike test on a 500cc 7 years ago, that getting on a 250cc dirt bike would be a doddle (so long as I had a bit of a practice run to begin with and familiarised myself with the bike, gears etc).

Us on our bikes (minutes before
the baguette incident)
Obviously Paul didn’t need any coaching and just couldn’t wait to get back on a bike with a bit of power but we both knew that me getting back on was going to be a completely different kettle of fish.  Why I didn’t just opt to stay at the Lodge and let Paul and Rene have a fun time I’ll never known but at the same time I was determined to overcome my fear and so off I went on a little practice run and it all went rather well.  To begin with anyway.

It took us a while to get organised with gear and stuff but once I got to grips with riding a geared bike again, and they lowered the suspension so that my feet could actually reach the ground (I’ve only got little legs) I felt much better, fairly confident and off we went.

Where we had lunch
It all started to go horribly wrong when we reached our first stop which was a waterfall.  As I came to a stop my legs didn’t quite reach the ground because I was on a slope so I panicked and promptly dropped the bike.  No harm done except a bruised ego and Rene tried to lower the seat a little further to accommodate Miss Little Legs and after that stopping seemed to go without a hitch.

The waterfall itself was lovely although it as it was the end of the dry season this was one more place which was suffering from lack of water.  It was a beautiful spot nevertheless and we sat here chatting to Rene about his life in Cambodia (his Cambodian partner is expecting their first child and he was clearly over the moon but still in a certain amount of shock at the prospect of parenthood!).  He was an interesting guy, has travelled all over but his passion for Cambodia is obvious, both the country and its people, but his frustration with all things corrupt was clear but then it seems corruption is a way of life and endemic throughout most of Asia.

Us and Rene with our trusty bikes
We also spoke about illegal logging that goes on in Cambodia, the fact that it is the government that benefits from it and therefore it is hard to see what can be done to stop it.  The illegal logging is clearly damaging the landscape from both an environmental and aesthetic point of view.  

Rene had quite a few stories to tell about running a business in Cambodia, all the different branches of the “police” that he has to deal with.  For example, there is a branch of the police called “sign” police.  You must pay an annual fee for some kind of licence to display a sign, but in order to get the licence you must pay the sign police a bribe.  He leaves matters like this to his partner otherwise he admits he wouldn’t have a clue although he does speak Khmer fairly fluently so he is able to deal with most situations.

An elephant with his mahout
After a bit of a chat, a little rest and some time for me to recover after my dropping the bike we set off again.  And I managed to do OK pretty much until I had a crash with a mobile bakery.  In my defence, I was turning left from some scrub land onto a dirt track, I had checked both ways before heading off, when a scooter laden with more baguettes than your average Greggs (a popular high street English bakery for any non-UK readers) appeared to my left and headed straight for me. 

I fell off rather spectacularly (naturally) but the mobile baker managed to remain upright, although his baguettes went flying.  Rene later informed me that he saw the other guy appear over the brow of the hill, travelling quite fast (for a mobile bakery), and had motioned (and told him in Khmer) to slow down.  However the baker clearly didn’t, headed straight for me and crash, down I went. 

Lots of tummy rubbing
The baker apologised, saying he couldn’t slow down because his brakes didn’t work (although that didn’t explain his inability to steer out of the way).  That little nugget of information made me feel slightly more confident in my riding ability but by that time the damage had been done and my confidence was shot.

My injuries were limited to a cut elbow and bruised ego.  Apart from that, it was clear I was going to live to see another day and we quickly set off again before I lost complete confidence!

More tummy rubbing please :-)
We carried on for the rest of the day at a lightly slower pace for my benefit.  Looking back I’m surprised I didn’t ask to be taken back and leave the boys to go back out on their own but they both indulged me and I suspect Paul was a little disappointed but he was kind enough to say he enjoyed himself.

We had lunch at a lovely café alongside a watermill, set in beautiful gardens growing all manner of tropical fruits and riding around we saw some stunning scenery but the highlight was heading to one of the villages to see our first glimpse of elephants.

Watermelon stealing horses
Elephants are traditionally well loved creatures for a variety of reasons and it is easy to see why.  They are obviously absolutely massive but surprisingly gentle and sure-footed. Their eyes belie an intelligence which becomes obvious the longer you spend around them, and while they seem to be constantly hungry they seem to display manners that you don’t expect from a creature that could crush you with its trunk or foot.

After the elephants had deposited the tourists back in the village and we had fed them with some hastily purchased bananas from one of the local people, we watched them  return to the jungle with their mahouts where they would spend the next day or two.  We climbed back on our bikes and set off back to Sen Monorom where I, for one, was glad to get back on two feet again.  Paul loved his day dirt biking, particularly skidding through sand and over uneven rocky roads and I think we have decided that next time, he ventures out alone.

Toilet frog

The second trip in this part of north east Cambodia had to involve more elephants.  At Nature Lodge, where we were staying, they organise various trips involving elephants or jungle trekking and it seems that they are one of the more ethical organisations involved in this type of tourism and they work closely with the local Bunong people.

The Bunong people are an ethnic minority living in north east Cambodia.  Elephants have been a very important part of the Bunong people’s culture for hundreds of years.  They are used for transporting goods and people and are very much an important part of the family.  

We saw this little
fella while we
were waiting for
our elephants
And Bunong elephants do not understand the Khmer language, they only respond to the Bunong language.  Each elephant has a mahout who is responsible for the elephant and who caters to his needs.  Mahouts and their elephants are known to have extremely close relationships and during the Khmer Rouge regime when many elephants were slaughtered, many mahouts retreated to the jungle with their elephants in order to ensure their elephants’ survival.

It is good to know that much of the tourism industry in Sen Monorom works with the Bunong people to ensure that a service which is in demand via tourism is provided ethically, that education forms part of the service, that elephants are provided with the care they need, plenty of rest and enough food to sustain their huge bodies and the work that they undertake.  They work for no more than 4 days per week and for no longer than 4 hours in total on any given day.  Their mahouts are financially rewarded sufficiently to ensure they comply with these restrictions.

The view from our elephant
And elephants can eat their body weight in cashew nuts and fruits, given half a chance although another favourite is young pineapple plants and they do love a banana.

On the day of our elephant trek we set out from Nature Lodge with our guide, a young lad, who had been working at the lodge since he was 10 years old.  He was now about 17, spoke excellent English and was a good companion.  He accompanied us to the Bunong village we had visited on the bikes where we would meet our elephant and mahout.

Another enormous Asian moth
While we waited for the mahout to find his elephant in the jungle and bring him back to the village we visited a traditional Bunong house which is round, made from bamboo and palms, with very low doors at opposite ends, a low ceiling, and a fire in the centre (yes, a fire!).  There are raised seating areas either side which presumably double up as beds.  

As well as family members, dogs, cats and pigs all have the run of the place.  These dwellings are preferred by the older generation but more and more the younger generation prefer to live in more modern structures with modern appliances.

Feeding our elephant bananas
It seems it is the same the world over, the youth wishing to move away from traditional ways and although it’s sad that these traditional lifestyles are dying, it is perfectly understandable.  However, we were tickled that our elephant’s mahout had a modern mobile phone and used it at least as much as any teenager I’ve ever met!

After our visit to the traditional Bunong home we crossed the village road to meet our mahout and his elephant.   Much to our horror we realised that this poor elephant (although no lightweight) was going to have to carry the both of us on his back, while his mahout drove him from his seat on the back of his neck, all the way to the river where the elephant would have lunch (3 hours of munching) and then a nice bath in the river.

Our elephant enjoying
a good scrub
Although we felt a certain amount of guilt expecting this majestic creature to carry us for 2 hours to the riverbank, we were reassured that he was more than able to carry this load.  We also noted that he showed none of the signs of neglect or abuse.  He was, even for an elephant, quite a porky specimen, he seemed in really good condition for his 65 years and although I know nothing about the temperament of elephants he appeared to be gentle and content.  After a little while, the mahout dismounted and walked alongside us most of the way, chatting to our guide (or on his mobile phone!).

Enjoying a good scrub
behind the ears
However, our elephant clearly wasn’t too impressed having to transport the two of us on his back and protested by stopping on a regular basis for sustenance in the form of cashew nuts (a particularly favourite).  I’m afraid I cringed when our mahout used the bull hook a couple of times when our elephant demonstrated a particular streak of stubbornness but most of the time he was persuaded verbally to get moving. 

After a good couple of hours spent clinging on to the wicker basket, being bounced from side to side, we arrived at the river where hammocks were erected for us, and our elephant was sent off into the jungle to refill after his arduous task of carrying the two of us.  At this point we were both nursing very sore bottoms and quite relieved to reach our destination relatively unscathed.

One in, one out!
I cannot stress enough that travelling by elephant is not the most comfortable mode of transport by any stretch of the imagination.  Camel is by far more comfortable which surprises m but nevertheless it is true.  Elephants lumber along and you are constantly in fear of being turfed out of the unstable and rickety basket, wondering how much longer the bamboo is going to hold out, which all provides for quite a stressful journey.

Once at the river, the elephants were dispatched and Paul and I resumed positions in hammocks, and after dinner (rice and vegetables in a banana leaf with soy sauce) we promptly fell asleep for a good couple of hours. We have adopted this native custom of a lunchtime nap with surprising ease and getting out of the habit is going to be tough.

Getting ready to climb on
for the trek back to the village
A few other tourists on similar treks joined us at the river but we weren’t in a particularly sociable mood at that point (and we were asleep) so we remained snoozing in our hammocks until our guides woke us up to tell us it was time to shower the huge beasts.

The mahouts trotted off to retrieve their respective elephants from the jungle and when they returned we fed them bananas (one of the many way to an elephant’s heart) and once all 5 elephants were gathered by the riverside, they were led into the shallow waters and the scrubbing began.

Me and my elephant bringing
up the rear!
I should mention at this point that you are encouraged to help wash your appointed elephant as part of the whole experience.  Unfortunately, I was still suffering the effects of my baguette collision and Paul couldn’t shake off a chest infection so decided we wouldn’t risk further injury/infection.  However, what really decided it for us was the mention of remaining upriver of all elephants at all times in order to avoid wee and poo is huge quantities.  

I had nothing but admiration for the rest of our group who waded into the waters after these words of caution.  Have you seen how much urine an elephant can produce?  Think bath size proportions and you’re on the right track!

Saying goodbye to our elephants
We enjoyed watching the elephant bathing though, almost as much as the elephants seemed to enjoy the attention.  They had obviously rolled around in mud somewhere in the jungle and a lot of scrubbing was required.  Once we had clean elephants, we were ready to head back to the Bunong village.

Paul decided he would give our elephant a rest so I rode back in the basket alone.  It was slightly more comfortable but only slightly.  Once again, I was quite relieved to get off at the other end although quite sad to say goodbye to our elephant.

Bring me a beer!
We returned to Nature Lodge and had a bite to eat and a few beers.  We ended up chatting with the other tourists who had been on the same trip that day, exchanging stories and discovering that we were going to be in Sihanoukville at the same time as Danni and Patricia, two Canadians who were heading back to Canada in a week or so.  We made vague arrangements to meet up if we were in town at the same time (which is unusual for us as we don’t seem to make many friends – we have far too much fun annoying the hell out of each other rather than being polite to relative strangers).

The obligatory sunset shot
from the veranda of our hut
We enjoyed Nature Lodge – the staff were friendly, the food was tasty although the menu a little limited and the animals always entertained.  The horses in particular one morning when they stole someone’s watermelon, as well as the German Shepherd and Rottweiler who were both tarts and were always on the lookout for lots of tummy rubbing.  I could have done without beetles dropping on my head in the outside bar area but it could be a lot worse and you can’t complain when you’re in south east Asia.
And finally, we had the pleasure of the company some more Tokay geckos and although we never actually spotted one, we heard them every night making their distinctive call. 

While it has to be said that Paul was less than impressed with Sen Monorom, I really loved it as it was quiet, not full of tourists and we got to meet elephants.

The pond in the toilet
complete with pretty blue fish
Next stop was to be Kratie where we were hoping to see some endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.  All we had to do was decide on how we were going to get there.  We had to choose between spending about 7 hours in a slow but relatively safe coach, or opt for a roller coaster and terrifying (but much quicker by about 3 hours) ride in a minibus, or travel in an 11 seater minivan which would not try to break the speed of sound but which would squeeze you in with up to 23 other people if the stories were to be believed.

The story of that journey will follow.

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