Volunteering at the Elephant Valley Project

Trip Start Aug 22, 2012
Trip End Jun 16, 2013

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Flag of Cambodia  , Kampong Chhnang Province,
Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ahhh Cambodia... Cambodia time means anything except the real time - your guess is as good as mine. Cambodia descriptions are so colourful - like the menu item 'vegetarian breakfast (extra cost for sausages and hotdogs)'. It is a country of smiling friendly people who want to understand you and often don't but pretend they do then nothing happens when you think it will happen. Gotta love it!

We are beginning to visit the far reaches of Cambodia - less people, fewer tourists, less English spoken, rougher roads, reduced facilities.  For instance, there were only mototaxis (motor scooters) to get us from the Nature Lodge to the town where we were being picked up by the Elephant Valley Project (EVP).  So, my driver put my big backpack in front of him, I sat behind him - no helmet in sight - and off we went along the rough dirt road. I muckled onto him then realized later that I've never seen a passenger on a motoscooter here holding onto the driver.  I hope I didn't do anything culturally inappropriate.

The Elephant Valley Project (EVP)
The EVP is a fascinating project.  Jack Highfield, an eccentric, feisty, visionary man with a passion for elephants living the life an elephant was meant to live - roaming the forest with other elephants and foraging for their food.  This 6-year-old project rescues elephants from abuse and hard labour by buying or renting them from their owners, providing jobs for people of the local village and contributing in other ways to the local economy by renting forestland and bringing in tourists.  The jobs include cooks, cleaners, mahouts who stay with their elephant all day, guides, drivers, and others to support the project. Everyday a group of tourists arrive prepared to view elephants (no rides!) and/or volunteer to help out in the project.  Some stay the day; others for weeks.

We volunteered for 4 days.  We learned the impact, both physically and psychologically, that the working life of an elephant can have on these intelligent and gentle animals.  We got to know each of the 12 elephants here and their individual personalities.  Bob and Onion who are a 'couple' - of questionable reciprocity in the relationship; Milot who has some health issues; Doe and Darling who are BFFs, etc.

Each day included a half day of elephant viewing (in 'heaven'- the forest, by the river or up at the washing station and field) and a half day of volunteering. We lived in a community of volunteers - kind of like being at camp except we had our own bungalow to sleep in.  Meals were served communally, we hung out in the lounge together chatting, reading, playing card games or just watching the sun set over the forest often accompanied by a well-earned cold beer. Electricity was available from 6:00-9:00pm so we all gathered in the lounge to charge our cameras, computers and phones - how times have changed!

As we worked digging trenches to lay the electrical wire and water pipes underground for the project, I had many thoughts. First, I thought of all those poor people from the cities of Cambodia who, in 1975 were evacuated into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge to do hard labour (like digging trenches) for 16 hours/day and only 2 bowls of gruel.  I was dying after 5 minutes of this work in the heat!  Like many of them, I imagine, I was very surprised at how foreign it felt to me.

In reflection, I realize I do very little manual labour in my life other than a wee bit of shovelling snow.  Jim was like a work horse, sweating profusely and digging, digging, digging.  I think I need to take up gardening... We also lugged wood/bricks/banana trees, cleared brush in the forest with machetes, and cleaned up areas. It was a great experience; one I would recommend to anyone travelling in Cambodia.

Every new year for the past 30 years I have picked a theme for the year that guides my action.  It is something that stays with me during the year and at no time do I succeed or fail.  It just is for a year then I form a new one.  Sometimes it shapes and impacts my year significantly.  Well, 2013's was inspired by the elephants!  My theme is:
Elephant: Strength, motivation, compassion

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Cousin Larry on

Thought this joke would be appropriate to the latest excellent pictures. I also think that "Uncle Bill" would approve.

What did the elephant say to the naked man? It's cute but can it pick up peanuts?

Margy on

Best yet. You two have done a wonderful job of embracing the world. We are learning from you.

Sue Walker on

What an incredible experience,you must feel honoured to enjoy these awesome creatures. I wish I was there too. Love Sue xo

Leigh Miller on

What an experience! As I looked at the pictures I kept thinking of my Dad who loved elephants and picturing Cal digging trenches alongside Jim - can you see it?!

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