Cambodia time; A time of peace

by Margaret Elizabeth Johnston
Elephants in Cambodia

Getting around Thailand’s outskirts, and by that I mean Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and now Cambodia, I found myself in a jungle on the North East parts of this country walking and swimming with of all things… elephants! My journey started January 2015 and is still going strong, falling in love with and now aiming on settling at some point, in SE Asia. Thailand has my heart along with Bali in Indonesia but I am not done trying out new places and spaces. I am here in Cambodia for one month, on to some of the islands in Thailand for the holidays and Jan/Feb, then Vietnam and then Papua New Guinea before regaining my sanity and going back to Bali to explore more of Indonesia. Back to the elephants in the jungle now…

Sen Monorom and Banglung are two places a bit less explored on the backpack/expat trail in Cambodia but still esternised enough for me to be able to have my cafe lattes and WiFi. In Sen Monorom in the Mondulkiri Province, there is an elephant sanctuary called The Elephant Valley Project. There the locals, with some outside academic help, have put together a wonderful haven for the elephants and for people to interact with them without riding them. Elephants are rescued from being captive working Asian elephants and rehabilitated back to their natural habitat on a 650 hectare ground space with jungle and rivers. I spent 3 nights in the province and enjoyed a full day of hiking into the valley, feeding some sugar cane to them to get the elephants used to us (there were only about 5 of us “tourists”).

Heading back to a small camp/village of indigenous tribal folk that don’t speak Cambodian but have their own language for a locally sourced meal, resting along the river in a hammock after lunch and then heading back into the valley crossing bamboo bridges to wade into the water with the elephants as they took their afternoon swim. We scrubbed them with mud and washed off the dirt so that they can enjoy some loving touch from us humans and we got to experience something that most people aren’t privy to, especially if all they know is to take the normal “ride the elephant” treks when on holiday.

Since this article is for Expat Life in Thailand, I won’t bore the readers with too much info on why we shouldn’t ride elephants however for those of you who read this that do not know, here are some simple facts:
1. Elephants live in herds and are social animals, they play and forage and swim naturally with each other, being held in captivity deprives them of their most natural existence.
2. When they aren’t working they are often times kept on concrete floors and chained so hard they can’t move, not to mention the pain of standing on concrete floors all night.
3. Arthritis, foot and back injuries are common among captive elephants and they die decades short of their normal lifespan.
4. Elephants never forget and the sad truth that we subject them to this humiliating torture can only be left up to us as caring humans to refuse to ride them.

rubber tree

OK, enough of that, but please remember to not ride them. Watching the elephants from afar is one thing, but being able to be right up close and personal was thrilling, a bit scary but also so touching as they let you wash them and feed them without robes or chains on them roaming free in their jungle. After my incredible elephant experience, I was ready to head north a bit closer to the Laos border to a place where they are mining for zircon called Banlung in the Ratanakiri Province. Banlung’s coffee is also a plus as it grows in local coffee farms along with cashews. Taking a day tour to see the fields of beautiful agriculture is rewarding when feasting on cashews, coffee and dragonfruit! Another bonus to the Banlung area is getting to see the rubber tree plantations however there are problems with the rubber trees taking over the zircon mining due to the former being more profitable. The lifespan of the rubber tree is only 20 years so must be cut down and this depletes the soil after too many generations, but as in all things, a balance must be struck. Even with the elephant excitement I was aware that the only reason I was getting to experience swimming with the elephants was
because they were captured in the first place.

Cambodian miners

The miners have hard lives, going down into holes deep in the ground to chisel out stones that you hope are flawless to sell to the random tourist that comes by, of course there are companies that buy up the best of the best but the miners try to make some ends meet here and there. I took a tuk tuk about an hour out of town to get to some of the more “secret” mines to see if I could score some nice stones, help the locals financially and learn about the rubber tree plantations. I ended up having an indigenous woman present a grubby bag of some rocks to me that I dug through eventually purchasing a nice brown/amber coloured zircon that I’ll enjoy making a pendant out of with silver when back in Bali later this year in the spring. The rubber trees are beautiful with the inside of the bark having all sorts of colours; orange, green, browns, sienna, yellow and purples. What an interesting first week for me back in SE Asia after spending the summer back in the states re-organising my life to live overseas permanently for the next decade or so!

I am still lugging around a suitcase with my paints/paper and brushes doing the odd painting when I have time and a space to set up a mini art studio. While in the forest I came upon a frog on a waterlily that I took a picture of and couldn’t resist doing a fun painting of it! One day I simply must put together some of these paintings into a book for people to be inspired to take along a craft/hobby as they travel… it keeps one inspired with one’s own creativity and also is healthier than a common expat hobby, pubs!

Lotus painting

I am writing this article on the balcony of a guesthouse on Koh Rong, an island off the west coast of Cambodia and am enjoying some lazy beach time before heading to Kampot, supposedly a sweet old 19 th century colonised French town with cafes and some artsy shops. I’ll know more about that after being there however there are bike rides through salt, rice and pepper farms, bat caves and rides along the Praek Tuek Chhu river. I’m excited to have durian there too being well known for that famous “some loathe it some hate it” fruit… me being part of the latter group! Kampot used to be one of Cambodia’s most important seaports before Sihanoukville on the west coast where I took off on a speedboat to come here to Koh Rong.

I only am spending one month in Cambodia, heading to Siem Reap, Ankor Wat, near the end of my time and then bussing it to Bangkok end of the year. I am pleasantly surprised how congenial the people here are towards me, an American spoken lady even though I’m travelling on my UK passport. There is no animosity, that is as far as I can tell, being projected on me. The kids are all using their smartphones and wearing the latest trainers, albeit, fake ones, but, who cares, they are enjoying the next generation of thinkers, how to prosper and make money for their families and increase their understanding of the western world. I look forward to being able to feel like I’ve gotten a taste of this part of SE Asia after my month is up. I know there are business visas available for a few hundred dollars and retirement visas for no particular age range, it is an easy place to be an expat. Personally, I enjoy a fairly “new-age” community and I’m not finding that in Cambodia as in Thailand and Bali, but the living is cheap, the people are friendly, the food is good and there is plenty to enjoy in this beautiful country!

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