Last week we gave you some tips and recommendations on how to get your kicks in Banlung, that is if you’re hardy enough to make the long, bumpy bus journey up there! However, like anywhere else in the world, Banlung has its darker side and we were naïve and ill-prepared enough that we went headlong into its shadows.
Nature is by far the most impressive aspect of travelling in our experience and so we like to do as many activities as we can involving the great outdoors and wildlife. So in Banlung we dived straight into an elephant trek without much prior reading around what the trek involved, how the animals were housed, fed and treated and what the aim of these elephant treks were. We had heard good stories about elephant treks from other parts of South East Asia and had also seen for ourselves elephants at Angkor Wat that seemed happy and well looked after. That the elephants on the 20 dollars an hour trek we booked in Banlung might be maltreated didn’t really enter our heads. Just to note, we are not naming and shaming the trek company that we used because, as far as we are aware, the vast majority of the trek companies in Banlung provide this same elephant trek.
The ill-fated excursion started well enough, the trek company people were friendly and waited on us while we grabbed some breakfast across the road as we had woken up late. The tuk tuk guy stopped to buy bananas for us to to feed to the elephants and off we sped to Katieng Waterfall where the trek began. So far, so good, and we were both really excited about the day ahead as we bumped along the red dust roads with views of the Cambodian countryside all around us.
The excitement began to turn to regret and uneasiness though when we got to the waterfall and saw that the elephants’ legs were ominously chained to trees. More alarm bells started to ring when we saw that one of the elephant handlers was holding a large thick stick and the other was brandishing a hatchet. Nerves, or stupid politeness, or just being chicken shits, we didn’t say something to clarify what those instruments of torture were for. Instead we conveniently said to each other that they must be used to clear away overhead branches as we trekked. I think we both knew deep down what they were really for.
The moment we climbed on to the elephants we definitely got the sense that the handlers had no love for or appreciation of those humbling creatures and that the elephants seemed somewhat psychologically disturbed as they were acting a bit erratic. The elephants resisted the handlers and tried to stop every few seconds to eat the grass, shrubbery, plants, crops and whatever else was near them. Save tourist bananas, we’d be surprised if the elephants get much nutrition in their diet, whatever that may consist of. So every time the elephants stopped for a bite to eat, the handlers would ferociously kick behind their ears. If the elephants still resisted, then whack! – down came the stick or the blunt end of the hatchet on the poor animals’ heads. Sometimes even this wouldn’t even be enough to tame the giants, especially the bigger of the two, who would snort heavily against the ground and start moving around nervously whenever the other was hit – two victims of abuse looking out for one another, it was heart breaking to see that and the guilt for having paid for all this to happen was almost unbearable. In a way we deserved the fear that we felt up there, as we were anxious any time the elephants got agitated, which was always, that they could stampede or try to throw us off their backs.
So after about 15 minutes of animal cruelty and us being frozen with horror and indecisiveness, Emily finally took the initiative and managed to communicate to her elephant handler to turn around and go back. So both the elephants were turned around and taken back. Despite us paying for three hours, the handlers turned around without question or any hint of curiosity – it must happen all the time. When we got back to the start, we told the tuk tuk guy to give the bananas to the elephants, as we were too ashamed to face them again. He was about to ask why but saw our shell-shocked faces and said nothing else. We didn’t take many photos that day, but here’s one we took to show the conditions the elephants were kept in…
We sulked around the waterfall for a while after, which would have been beautiful on any other day, and tried to process what we had just been part of. All that we can remember clearly from that time is an intense feeling of guilt that made everything else go in slow motion. If we had done our homework properly we would have seen reviews on tripadvisor showing the barbarity of the trek and we would not have paid for the animals to be hurt. We would urge you to do the same – know what you are getting into.
Unfortunately we cannot offer further advice on how to help the animals other than non-participation in their mistreatment. Rescue and rehousing of such animals is way beyond our expertise – but naturally if any of you have relevant experience we would love to hear from you. We are aware of the Elephant Valley Project in the Cambodian area of Mondulkiri which offers travellers a more responsible way to connect with and support vulnerable elephants. So if more people spend their money wisely visiting those type of projects it should dwindle the market for the type of low-rent and reprehensible trek we did – that may mean the end for those elephants but hopefully it would save future generations from such captivity.
If you have any views on this subject, please do get in touch.
The Two Gallivants