Monday, 26 March 2012

The Elephant Valley Project (EVP)

The EVP was established 5 years ago by a then 25 year old guy called Jack from the UK in order to rescue domesticated elephants who were used as farm labourers and often abused. Elephants, despite being huge animals, cannot carry more than 10% of their body weight. This means that carrying a guide plus a tourist, in addition to the heavy chair that the tourist sits on, is way too heavy. Often they are used for logging and have to either drag or carry wood, creating deformities in their spine. We saw elephants with scars from being shackled and beaten and one elephant called Onion even had a scar from a hook that was put into her forehead to drag her when she refused to walk.

On the way to the jungle

The EVP is located in a tropical jungle valley in Mondulkiri in the north east of Cambodia. It has plenty of lush green plants and trees and 2 streams, perfect for making mud and everything that an elephant needs, thus the name, elephant heaven or the elephant santuary as it is locally called.

 Elephants need to coat themselves in mud in order to protect themselves from mosquitoes and other insects. This mud has to be washed off regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria. Most of these elephants have been domesticated from a young age and thus never learned to wash themselves, thus washing the elephants are one of the tasks of the project.One of the elephants was a tourist elephant and was thus never allowed to be dirty. These days she makes quite a business of making a nice muddy paste and bathing herself in it.

Happy lucky coating herself with mud

The EVP has rescued 10 elephants to date. They have many human traits: Bob and Onion are a couple. Onion adores Bob and follows him everywhere and he just goes about his day and is a bit indifferent to her (typical, isnt it??). Below are Bob and Onion, never apart, even while being washed!

The other four are a bit of a clique and treat the newcomer, Ruby, with some bitchiness. Then the other 4 are made up of a granny elephant of 62 years, a stupid elephant and one who is the brains in the group. These elephants have mostly been bought from their owners. A few are rented when they are too expensive and the owners get money every month. The EVP also employs people in the banana plantations and in the back packers lodge. They provide funding to the children's hospital and finance some of the village kids to go to school, thus they are dependant on the money from volunteers who pay to visit there and work there as well as donors.

Happy Lucky scratching her ass


Elephant Valley

The elephants are looked after by local men called mahouts who walk and wash them. We were a group of 10 people and stayed in little bungalows overlooking the valley.

Ning Wan's nest: the name of our bungalow and also the name of one of the elephants

Our bungalow

Over the course of a week we joined the mahouts in walking and washing them and spent hours observing them and sitting watching them and feeding them bananas. After a while it became quite boring and we opted to do some volunteering. This included cutting the dead leaves from banana trees, weeding the path they are making for the villagers to use in the monsoon (back breaking work in the hot sun with a ton of ants and mosquitoes around) as well as carrying bricks and stones for the construction of more bungalows.

One of the lounges at the lodge of the Elephant project
Evenings were spent in the lounge of the lodge, sipping cold drinks, playing cards and watching the sunset and eating delicious meals prepared by our cambodian chef before heading to our bungalows to kill any insects or spiders and crawl under the mosquito net before the lights went out. We had a fun group which made the work more fun since we would laugh a lot and take too many breaks.

Sunset in Mondulkiri

All in all, a good experience. although we were a bit disappointed that we were not more involved with the elephants than were led to believe.

Its been awesome Asia, but we are now quite ready for South America!!!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

After the drama of the genocide museum we retreated to the countryside for a home-stay. We were welcomed by the people from a rural village who served us fresh coconuts (we watched as the man of the house scaled the palm tree in his back yard to get us coconuts).

3 little brothers at the homestay

the kitchen

the owner of the homestay high up in the tree getting us coconuts

yummy coconut juice

We learned how they make gas for cooking and light from the methyl produced from cow dung, and were then taken to the community centre. Here they explained how the village tries to be independent, how they get money by providing the tourists with accommodation in the home-stays and by the women coming to the community centre to cook for the tourists. The kids are kept from begging by being taught traditional dancing and we were entertained by the kids who showed us 4 dances and then sang for us.

Little girls at the community centre dancing apsara for us

A delicious supper of curry, steamed rice, noodles with vegetables and spinach with pork awaited us after which some of the other people in our group got tipsy on rice wine while the rest of us went to face a night with no aircon. We shared the room with 3other couples, but we had a big room and a big bed with mosquito nets and slept with the windows and doors open and the sounds of crickets and roosters...

Sihanoukville: the beach
We took another 4 hour bus drive on our way to the beach. We stopped at spider city and tasted deep fried tarantulas….crunchy!!

 Then spent the day lazing on the beach with the group. Cambodia’s beaches are pretty dirty and once again filled with the notorious kids selling bangles or ladies selling massages or manicures. The kids here work in the afternoon and go to school in the morning, or some do it the other way around.
The next day we took a boat ride with the group and did some snorkeling-saw the most beautiful coral, and then had a private island to ourselves where we lazed around and had a fish barbecue.

that blob is me snorkelling at sunset

this is our captain and yes that is a beer in his hand and no it was not his first!

Today we returned to Phnom Penh the capital and tomorrow we are off to work with the elephants!!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Khmer Rouge: the killing fields and the genocide museam

In telling the story of Cambodia, one has to tell the whole story, also the unpleasant and not pretty parts. In 1975-1979 Cambodia was ruled by the Democratic republic of Kampuchea and under a man called Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was formed. Their dream and goal was to be completely independant, to have a communist system, to revolutionise the economy and to destroy khmer traditions and culture. In 3.5 years schools, buildings, books, etc were destroyed. People were moved from the cities into the countryside and everyone including women and children were forced into farming which improved rice exportation and the economy. Everyone had to wear black clothing, keep their heads down and work. They wanted no independant, free thinkers, and no educated people and thus these people were all killed. Even their kids and babies were killed so that they could not grow up to avenge their parents' deaths. They used young kids who they brainwashed to be the killing machines and the torturers.

Over 2.5 million people died through killing or starvation in less than 4 years. We visited the school which was turned into a prison. We stood in the rooms where they were tortured and saw the beds to which they were shackled. We stood in the tiny cells in which they were held and saw the photos of the victims and the child soldiers, thousands of faces on the walls...and in the last room, we saw the glass cases filled with the skulls of the bodies which were found in the mass graves in 1980 and the remnants of the clothes that were found in the graves. We saw photos of the tortured, the dead and the dying. It was horrific. We had a guide who told the stories and one can see from the way that he speaks that it is still very very emotional for these people.

After that we visited the killing field. Here the prisoners were taken after the torture at the prison. They arrived by the truckloads: blindfolded, shackled, thinking they were being taken to a new village. Instead they were made to stand in front of the mass grave and then bludgeoned to death with blunt instruments. In the museam one can see the skulls of these people with massive holes in them, skulls with blindfolds still on them and even little baby clothes, blood stained...Walking in the killing fields you can still see bones sticking up from the grounds as each rainy season brings a fresh load of skeletons to the surface....

In 1979 the vietnamese liberated the cambodian people, but only a few khmer rouge leaders have stood trial thus far. Some are dead, some deny any involvement and the money for the trials are drying up...Many of the child killers are now in their forties and live in the countryside, among the people whose parents and family they have killed. The Khmer people are bitter and still have no answers, they still cant understand...

As u can imagine, we had no apetite for photgraphy. We took only 3 photos to remember their suffering and pain and pray that mankind will never repeat these acts.....

killing field

classroom restructured as a prison with little cells

one of the tiny cells
The tour group

We joined the tour group in Siem Reap about 5 days ago. Our group consists of 17 people including our guide. These are australians, candians, new zealanders, an american and a brit, mostly between 25 and 32 or so, and another older couple around 60. Siem Reap is very touristy, lots of bars, shops, restaurants and markets, thai massages, foot massages on the street, fish massages, manicures, etc.

 But the highlight of this place is definately the Temples of Angkhor. These temples date back to the 10th century and receive up to 3000 visitors a day in the peak season. We visited here for a day and man, are they beautiful! Huge stonework with carvings and engravings of dancers and elephants in the walls. In the temple where Lara Craft was filmed the trees have grown over and into the temples. Because we started out at 5am, we witnessed the sunrise over the temples and were able to wander around in them for hours in solitude without the crowds.

Anghkor Wat at sunrise
Anghkor Thom
Trees growing over the temple walls

Wim outside Angkhor Wat Temple

Carving of Apsara dancer on temple wall

Trying to climb the temple stairs with the other girls...very steep..

walk like a cambodian.....

cant remember which temple at sunset..
The next day we visited the houses on stilts  near the lake (now on dry land because its the dry season), took a boat ride to a monastery and watched the sunrise while sipping drinks on a floating restaurant.
Tonle Sap lake and some of the house boats

buddhist monks along the river at sunset

Our tour guide Sarou showing us the river boundaries

Tonle Sap lake at sunset

drinks with the group on the floating restaurant
The evening was completed by dinner with a traditional dancing show followed by a stroll in the night market and a foot massage with the group.

Spot the south african among the dancers

streetside foot massage
 The next day we took another long bus ride to a rural town along the Mekong River. here we rented bicycles and cycled over a bamboo bridge. Let me tell u something about bamboo: that shit is tough. because it was not only our group on bicycles crossing that bridge, but tons of other motor bikes and people and bicycles:at the same time! I had no fear for the bamboo bridge collapsing, but because it was narrow and bumpy and one has to peddle fast and hard in order to gain the momentum to stay moving forward, my fear was of catapulting over the side of the bridge into the prayers saved me again and I reached the other side safely. The rest of the cycle tour was bliss. We cycled through a beautiful rural village island. Wooden houses on stilts set among the green fruit trees, people waving at us, kids standing on the side of the road shouting "hello, hello" in english and raising their hands so we can 'high five' them as we rode past. We visited an old woman's house and sat outside eating huge grapefruit from her tree, we also visited a monastery or pagoda and took a stroll through the tobacco field then watched the sunset over the river before I said my prayers again for the bamboo bridge return trip.
the nightmarish bamboo bridge

note the look of concentration

tobacco fields
The night was completed by a home dinner to a family who cooked an amazing meal for us. We sat on reed mats on the floor and were surrounded by bowls filled with Amok curry (traditional chicken curry with veg), steamed rice, stir fried noodles with veg, deep fried pork and mushrooms and grilled fish in banana leaves. After that supper we were all exhausted and went to bed early. The next day would prove to be quite emotionally exhausting......
Dinner at a local cambodian home