Stained for Life

As the bus climbed its way up 800 meters towards Sen Monorom, the view through the window was that of trees perched upon verdant rolling hills. The flora was a vibrant color of deep, untouched green, overgrown and full of life contrasting the bright red clay dirt on which it sat. The fauna buzzed about, filling the air and leaving their marks upon the ground. It all coalesced into the portraiture of pristine and untraveled Mondulkiri, the Meeting of the Hills. Well, that’s what it should have been.

Instead, I got a torrential downpour with monsoon-esque winds and thunder to boot. Out the window, all I could see was the oceanic current coming down upon us. My life was involuntarily placed into the hands of our bus driver, who between the oversized bus and “construction” on the roads was required to weave his way in and out of cars, motos, and potholes. Even in the jungle, the fringes of Cambodia development are felt. Also, who decided that a charter bus was the most appropriate mode of transportation to take people up a mountain? But thankfully, our driver was adept enough to get us there without incident. And as I put my feet upon the ground, the hawks swarmed.

By hawks, I mean moto drivers. Their prey: foreign travelers. The ride to our stay wasn’t quite what I expected. Namely, the road was unpaved and the rain had transformed the dirt into a slick mud that made motoing difficult. Basically, our lodgings were almost unreachable in the rain. But we got there, even as Brenna’s moto gave up half way, afraid to cross the rickety bridge, requiring her to hop on the back of mine as it howled trying to make it up the hills. Once we finally arrived, we walked the muddied path to our humble bungalow, adorned with a pseudo-hot shower, princess mosquito nets, and friendly cows.

I’m not sure if you could tell, maybe my banner didn’t make it too apparent, but I LOVE ELEPHANTS. There is something just so cute about that trunk and their floppy ears juxtaposed with their lumbering bodies, able to crush you but so gentle at the same time. The thing to do in Mondulkiri, and the main reason I wanted to come, is to hike with the Bunong’s noble elephants who roam through the forests. So, obviously, I had to give it a shot. We met our grand steed, Bon, the largest of the three elephants for our group (we were accompanied by some French travelers as well on our hike) and his trainer, Houc, and soon set off on our trek through the jungle. We quickly realized that Bon has a bit of a rebellious streak, stopping to eat every so often and veering off the trails whenever he spotted a particular delicacy. He is a big boy and requires a lot of nutrients, so I could hardly blame him. But while riding Bon, each of his strides inflicted a dull, slow, but nevertheless excruciatingly uncomfortable feeling as his shoulders rammed into my groin area. Hannibal must have been a certain kind of masochist to cross the Alps on the backs of elephants. And I may also never have children.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, we stopped at a river to swim and eat lunch. Soon after, the elephants made their way into the river in order to be bathed and cool off after their workout. Maybe the most magical experience was the ability to help wash the elephants as they played in the water, flapping their ears and waving their trunks around. But it is all fun and games until an elephant poops on you. I thankfully was able to quickly dodge the mass as it floated down the river, but it was a CLOSE call. Thankfully, the current was relatively strong so it didn’t linger. After a little more bathing (and making sure there weren’t any remnants of elephant poop on me) we hopped on so that they could carry us out of the water. The balance of these gentle giants as they ascended the bank of mangrove roots was astonishing.

Bon brought us back to our lunch spot to pick up our stuff and we rode off into the sunset. Or up the mountain in the afternoon heat, still as uncomfortable as before (the former the more romantic, the latter the more realistic). In order to cool off, Bon thought it would be cute to snort elephant snot on his head. Maybe he forgot that I was up there, but it really wasn’t that cute. Neither were the ants on the branch that Bon wanted very much to eat as he swung it around trying to free it, sending the ants flying on top of us. Other than that, the trip back up was just as portrait-worthy, with my pal Bon taking us through lush jungle and beautiful landscapes. Once Bon dropped us off back at the village, our adventures had sadly come to a close.

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The jungle Bon took us through

As the day came to a close, it began to rain again. Not quite the downpour of the first night, but long enough to where we had to walk to our bungalow in the rain from the hotel restaurant (no way we would try and find food outside the compound) with only the lightning flashes illuminating the path. The falling water along with the brisk mountain air makes for one cold Chris. Who would have thought that in the humid tropics of Cambodia I would sleep happily underneath a comforter blanket? Ok, cold might be a slight exaggeration, but for Cambodia, it might as well be frigid in Mondulkiri.

After the first day, the clay had stained my swim trunks red and my shoes and pants were muddied with earth of Mondulkiri. My clothes and shoes might be stained for life, but it’s a stain that I wouldn’t want washed away in the summer rain. Meeting Bon, getting to ride and swim with him, along with seeing Cambodia outside of the cities, was truly an experience of a lifetime. And I just love elephants so much. Is it really too much to ask for a pet elephant!?

Don’t change the program, as Mondulkiri Day 2 will be coming your way shortly.

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