Ep. 9 – Volunteering in Cambodia


Here is our little video from our week as volunteers at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. We hope you enjoy seeing all of the animals as much as we did! Don’t forget to watch in 1080p and see our accompanying blog post for photographs and more info.

Sophie & Dave

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary


If you’ve read our Chiang Mai blog or seen our Thailand Video, you’ll know we spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). We decided that we would spend a week volunteering at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) which is the sister project of ENP. After our time visiting the temples of Siem Reap we were picked up and driven 2 hours north to the wildlife sanctuary in the Anlong Veng district. We were a small group with only three other volunteers for the week; Hilary, a hilarious American with the most contagious laugh you’ve ever heard, Courtney, a lovely, bubbly Canadian with the least grace (in the best possible way – like every time a fly came near her she’d go for a full on slap in the face) and Kim, an Australian with a heart of gold. We honestly lucked out so much with these three as they made our time so much better. We also had a volunteer co-ordinator, Chan, who we spent most of our time with. She was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met with so much enthusiasm and kindness to share. Though her story is personal and not for me to share, take my word for it that despite her hardships, she turned in to the kindest, most hard-working woman on the planet. She’s also the only person at the sanctuary who speaks fluent Khmer and English so we relied a lot on her for translations, as did everyone! She did a language class with us one evening which I loved! There were also a few members of staff that we got on well with. Especially Holly, she is a long-term volunteer, medic, micro-farmer and backpacker extraordinaire. She was captivating and told stories where you often found yourself scooping your jaw off the floor, (Eg the time she accidentally got married to a man in a tribe in Papua New Guinea, the same trip that she got blood poisoning and malaria but wasn’t able to go to a hospital?!).

The Cambodian wildlife sanctuary is home to 4 beautiful elephants who were all rescued from the logging trade. Each elephant had been abused as a baby and subjected to a tortuous process called the Phajaan, or “the crush” in order to be tamed. During this process, elephants are repeatedly beaten while all four legs are chained so they are unable to move. Sleep deprivation, starvation and thirst are also used to break the elephants’ spirit and make them more responsive to their mahouts commands. Throughout the process, a mahout will stay with with the elephant to ensure that they do not commit suicide by standing on their own trunks. What is equally disturbing is that often, once the young elephant has been poached, the remaining herd will be slaughtered. The same thing happens to elephants used for tourist rides, shows, elephant paintings and more, so don’t be part of the abuse!

Our favourite elephant was Kham-lin who is completely blind (likely by her Mahout so that she was totally reliant on him during her logging life), but she is such a gentle giant. The sanctuary also has monkeys often rescued from road-side stalls. They had one new recent addition when we arrived, a baby Macaque monkey only a month or two old. Some of my favourite animal photos I’ve ever taken are of this little one (see below)! It is also home to rescued bats, birds and rabbits. There is also a pack of 7 dogs, all of whom we loved. Everyone’s favourite was a dorky Alsatian mix called Alfie who was just the sweetest dog ever. We also liked Mark, (best dog name ever?) who had a sticky out snaggle tooth and there was also a three-legged dog called Muay who’d had his leg caught in a poacher’s trap last year. We’d never seen an actual functioning pack so it was really interesting to watch their behaviour and see who the leader was etc. There were also a myriad of other jungle friends we came to meet, mostly when we weren’t expecting it in the toilets or showers, like frogs, geckos and lizards. Fortunately I’m obsessed with reptiles and often took my camera on expeditions to the bathrooms during the week. I even saw a massive Tokay gecko, with vibrant blue and orange colourings. Even he was a bit too disconcerting for me to shower with, so I opted for the next cubicle. We were pleasantly surprised to find we had our own hut when we arrived, well just us 2 humans and lots of other animals. We found the biggest furry spider we’d ever seen. Everyone else was accustomed to seeing spiders like this but Dave and I from our little British bubble were mind-blown. Dave also had a gecko poo on his back as he was shirtless which amused me greatly, until I went to pick up my camera and realised the gecko had also shat on that. One evening, I went to bed early whilst Dave stayed in the communal bit. As I was trying to sleep, I could hear almost like footsteps on the beams and actual crunching sounds. Usually we ignored all the jungle sounds but this time I fumbled around to put my glasses on just in time to see 2 huge Torcay geckos fighting over a massive insect. As I went to get my camera, one crawled out of the hut but I still got a grainy flash photo of one gecko with the beetle in his mouth half chewed!

As with any organisation, non-profit or not, there will always be people/aspects of a project that you don’t agree with, but first let me say, overall it is a fantastic place that betters the quality of life for many animals. The main problem we had was a lack of communication from the person who should have been informing us. As much as we were there to see these incredible animals, we also came to learn about them. We did learn things throughout the week, but in drips and drabs through other passionate staff who we were just lucky to have had the chance to interact with. For example, by fluke, on the first day we were there, we met Ryan who is laying the ground work for a new sanctuary in Myanmar. He was fascinating and took the time to explain why a couple of the elephants still had ropes tied around their legs – they are still adjusting to their new life and though the rope isn’t actually tied to anything, it enables the mahouts to restrain them in a rare case of an emergency until they are accustomed to their new home. It is important that the elephants only roam within the sanctuary, as they are still at risk from poachers if they venture further afield. In a casual conversation with Holly on our penultimate day at the sanctuary, we found out that the long term objective of the sanctuary is to pioneer the first place in the world where rescued elephants are left to roam in a designated area without mahouts and with just optional feeding stations. This is the sort of key information we thought we should have been told at the start. We’d have liked a bit more clarity about both the short and long term objectives of the sanctuary but clearly, even if they didn’t tell us, they are doing great things!

The first day we were there was actually a momentous occasion for the sanctuary, they had just completed the new nighttime enclosure for the elephants. After blessing us as the new volunteers, we followed the local Buddhist village elder round the enclosure as he blessed that too. All this talk of ropes and enclosures might be making you raise your eyebrows but the main thing to remember is where these animals have come from. I feel like I had quite a strong preconception about what the word “sanctuary” meant. Perhaps I was just really naive and didn’t full understand the complexity of the situation. In the end, I liked to think of it as a hospice for the elephants. Most of the elephants are old and deserve a loving, free as possible, last bit of their lives.

In the evenings we sometimes watched documentaries made about the sanctuary. It was interesting to hear more about the rate of deforestation in Cambodia, one of the highest in the world. Apparently, between 1990 and 2005, Cambodia lost 19.3% of it’s forests. Of course we hear about the horrors of deforestation and the importance of conservation in the UK, but it often can feel like a foreign concept. When we were at the sanctuary, in a jungle, I think it became more real. Seeing so many animals use these trees as their home and a source of food made it so troubling to think of their loss of habitat. Especially outside the boundary of the 25,000 acre sanctuary, tree stumps just littered the landscape.

We had quite a few different volunteer tasks throughout the week, I’ll start with the only bad part to get that out of the way. The worst part was when we went to visit the local school. The problem was with the inefficiency of communication from the Sanctuary staff. My biggest fear of signing up to ‘be a volunteer’ was that I would be a hindrance rather than help. I remember vividly my friend from school who went to “help build” a school in India with zero construction knowledge and he said the locals had to re-do the work they had done during the day at night. Anyway, with the week’s tasks so far, it was all fine, scooping elephant poo does not require a specialist set of skills so I was happy to get stuck in to that. All was fine, up until the school. The first alarm bells were when we went to the school and there were no kids because it was a public holiday. We were instantly skeptical, how close could they actually be to the local community if they didn’t know this? We came back the next day, the school was a shack with 2 rooms crammed full of children. The school has no toilets which is very concerning. We hope that this will be a priority area for the sanctuary to help with. Especially as the girls are getting older, some are already 14, so what are they expected to do at school if they get their periods?! There were 2 classes, the youngsters who Kim, Courtney and Hilary went with and the older class of 10-14 year olds that Dave and I went to. Our task was to teach the kids English for an hour. I am no teacher nor parent, my experience with kids only consists of babysitting, tutoring kids in French and playing with my cousins. The only teaching material we were given was a few very basic clothing, animal and numbers flash cards. Going in, we had no idea of their ability level.  We actually didn’t even know their ages when we went in, we deduced this by getting them to come and write their ages on the blackboard in English. We started with the alphabet which we soon discovered they knew back to front. We went through the flashcards and the kids knew them off by heart before we’d barely lifted the card up. Of course I appreciate repetition is key, but this was a joke. I dreaded to think how many times these kids had to do this over and over to appease these ignorant Westerners. We changed tac and tried to do maths instead. Again, we had no idea with their level, so we started with basic 2+3. Every sum we started to make harder, and by the end, we realised they could do 24×3+7-13 at the same speed as Dave (a bloody chartered accountant) and produce the number in English. As we left the classroom, I was already so upset thinking about how much I had wasted these intelligent kids’ time that I didn’t want to be in any of the photographs or take any. When we got back to the sanctuary, I was already crying in frustration. With the help of Dave, I vented to the main staff member, probably slightly incoherently. Turns out the main objective is to teach the children about conservation and deforestation. Erm, definitely hadn’t been told that! I was mostly livid because we hadn’t been briefed at all on the children’s ability and I felt that I had taken away from their precious time for education. The silver lining of it all is Holly, who I mentioned before. She made us feel like what we were saying was not falling on deaf ears and promised to help change it. Even when we left the sanctuary, she went to Siem Reap too and bought new, more advanced teaching material. We went for dinner with the other volunteers and Holly when we were back in Siem Reap and she was telling us about all the stuff she’d bought. It was interesting to hear that even the children’s books had images of monkeys in chains or humans inflicting harm on tigers. What a battle they are up against to change the mindset of a population where animal abuse is normalised in children’s books! I have since seen on Facebook that Holly has done paintings of elephants with the kids and they even got to come and visit the sanctuary which hadn’t happened before! I’m so pleased that positive change came of it.

Now on to other volunteer tasks. Every morning after breakfast, we’d march out, armed with pitch forks, rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows, ready to scoop a LOT of elephant poo. It’s actually not as bad as you’d think and the stench varied day to day. Another more pleasant daily chore was food prep for the elephants. The elephants basically ate all day anyway, picking from their surroundings, but they also got bonus feeding times. Kham-Lin the blind elephant only has 2 teeth so she got her own special rice ball mixture. We’d chop palm sugar, tamarind and cucumbers, peel hundreds of bananas and then mush them together with rice and pellets. She would then be hand-fed compact balls. She was very fussy and if the banana ratio wasn’t high enough, she wasn’t interested in eating it. The other three elephants ate sugar cane and occasionally bananas. It’s absolute madness watching an elephant chomp straight through sugar cane with ease when us mere humans wrestle with machetes to chop it up! We also tried sugar cane for the first time and its delicious, albeit hard to eat. On a couple of occasions, we went out on the back of a tractor to collect sugar cane. Now when I say tractor, it is not a convenstional tractor, but the crazy Asian tractors. Sort of like a lawn mower on sticks with a trailer attached to the back? You’ll see it in our video, it’s hard to describe. Anyway, we all thought it was great fun bouncing around in the back. Cutting down sugar cane with a machete is surprisingly do-able. The problem was that there were so many red ants that were furiously biting whatever flesh we had exposed. At home with Dave, I’m usually not trusted to even cut carrots in the kitchen, and I suddenly realised that I was frantically jumping around, smacking various limbs whilst simultaneously wielding a machete – I decided I should just sit it out for a bit haha. A few other tasks we did in the week were seed planting, cleaning 3 geese/duck/bird ponds and cleaning up the sanctuary of left over building materials.

Though it wasn’t really a task, the highlight of everyones time were the jungle walks with the elephants (and most of the dogs joined too). There is something so awe-inspiring to watch these massive creatures amble through the jungle with ease. We got to observe them in a bit more of their natural habitat. There was a dam that they wallowed in and one even went completely under water and then sprung out, still eating sugar cane. It was also so interesting walking with Chan as she told us all the little fruits and leaves we could pick and eat. There was a second walk at the end of the week, unfortunately for me, I didn’t go on that one because the elephant food cart had ran over and crushed my little toe the day before and I couldn’t get my trainers on. I still had a lovely time because I got to sit with Holly and the baby Macaque monkey and then jumped in the pick up truck with the workers to meet everyone for lunch in the jungle. Dave said his favourite part of the walk was when they all had to crouch and crawl though a little clearing and the elephant came behind and casually lifted up a log with its trunk and threw it behind her in time for the next elephant to catch it and do the same! He said the sheer power of the trunk was just mesmerising to watch.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our time at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. I would definitely recommend volunteering for the week if you get the chance! It’s $400 per person, but that includes your accommodation, three buffet meals, transport to and from the sanctuary and any profit goes towards the sanctuary. Definitely a worthy cause!

Here are some handy links if you’d like more info:

Sophie & Dave

Don’t forget to watch our volunteering video as well!

Chiang Mai – Thailand

We were excited to arrive in Chiang Mai where we’d be spending a full five nights in one place, the longest stay we’ve had in the last 2 months! We stayed in a guesthouse just on the outside of Chiang Mai’s centre (a big square) near Chiang Mai Gate. There was an adorable little dog called Chanom (milk tea in Thai apparently). We were glad to be on the road just south of the main square as it was much quieter and more peaceful but within close walking distance to all the restaurants/night market etc. Unfortunately, when we left Myanmar, we said we hoped to be fighting fit. This certainly wasn’t the case. Dave had such bad food poisoning that he most definitely should have seen a doctor (but he is stubborn so obviously didn’t), I’m pretty sure he had salmonella. So for our first couple of days in Chiang Mai, Dave mostly just ran a high fever and slept (amongst other more unpleasant things). I only ventured out on my own for food rather than touristy things.

After a few days when Dave started to feel a bit better, we spent an afternoon at Chiang Mai’s Art in Paradise 3D exhibition. I have tried to drag Dave to numerous art galleries in London in vain but this one, he loved more than me. It was interactive where everything was a huge, 3D, realism painting where you became part of the art. Surprisingly we only saw about 2 kids in the whole place, it was mostly adults running around like toddlers (us included). Our favourite painting was a crocodile coming out the water and where you could lie on the ground and cling on to a branch, then rotate the photo sideways. Genius! (See below).

The next day, we woke up early and full of excitement for our day at the Elephant Nature Park. Though neither of us were 100%, we were determined not to miss this day. We were picked up from our home stay in a minivan with the other 8 people on our tour for the day. We were shown an absolutely harrowing video about the torture these rescued elephants had endured. Naturally, I spent most of the film trying to hold back tears (failing miserably and silently sobbing). Though this film was so hard to watch, it was undoubtedly partly what made the Elephant nature park so great; they really valued educating people. The film showed what they call ‘breaking the elephant’s spirit’ in order to tame them. A baby elephant is separated from their mother at about one year old and taken deep in to the jungle, away from tourists. They are chained, starved, beaten and tortured for a week and forced to obey the command of the Mahout. The Mahout must stay with the elephant 24/7 to stop the elephant trying to commit suicide by standing on its’ own trunk. This horrific process is also to make the baby forget it’s mother. Of course the torture does not end here, for the rest of their domesticated lives, they must always obey their Mahout and will be reprimanded if they don’t. So whether you ever consider going to a circus, an elephant show, or an elephant ride; consider what that elephant went through to turn it from a wild animal to a domesticated one. We will happily tell you we spent 12,000 Baht or £280  combined for this day; a hefty price tag that was worth every penny.

The Elephant Nature park is home to around 70 elephants who have been rescued from the logging trade, circuses, street begging and tourist riding, some elephants are blind and disabled. All of these elephants have been bought; each costs between 1.5 and 2 million Baht (depending on their age) which equates to around £35-50k. We chose to do the day called “Sunshine for Elephants” which entailed spending most of the day with a neighbouring park’s elephants. Lek (the founder) had educated the family who owned these elephants about how to treat them properly and convinced them to follow the lead of the Elephant nature park where there is no riding, no hooks, no chains and freedom. So these elephants are a sort of sub-family to Elephant nature park. Once we’d arrived, we washed our hands thoroughly (suncream/bug spray can contaminate their food) and waited for the elephants to arrive for feeding time. Then four huge, incredible, beautiful elephants slowly trundled over to us. I literally had my jaw to the floor and was in absolute awe. I’d never seen an elephant that close and was completely gob smacked. I’ve only just taken the photos off the memory card and as I was looking through them, I realised how embarrassing the majority of me are; I look like such a dweeb just grinning and staring at the elephants. It was amazing to be in such a small group and spend such intimate time with the elephants. We fed them watermelon and sugar cane; it was mesmerising to watch them curl their trunks gently around the food we handed them and then not so gracefully stuff it into their mouths and chomp it. Some of the elephants didn’t have teeth either – did you know elephants, unlike humans, lose and get new teeth 6 times in their lives – who knew?!

After their breakfast, it was time for a hike/walk through the jungle towards where we would stop for lunch. Now, if there’s ever motivation to keep up with a group, its definitely a 1 tonne elephant on your heels. Maybe we should adopt an elephant and I’d be better at hiking… Dave and I were at the back of the group, funnily enough everyone seemed to be pushing ahead to walk with our guide. We were given a bag of bananas each to walk with and to feed them again during the break. Two of the elephants blocked Dave’s path and wouldn’t let him walk on. The Mahout’s couldn’t really speak English so they didn’t reply to Dave when he asked what he should do (I just filmed him and laughed from a distance). Dave gave most of his bananas to the two and managed to squeeze out between them.

Their second feeding time was even better because we saw their personalities and how fussy they were. They’d only eat the sugar cane once they were sure there were no bananas left in our bags. A couple of the elephants also wandered off at this point to do their own thing; either throw dirt on their backs or rub their arses against trees, all very fascinating to watch. We walked on with the elephants to our lunch spot; where we had a lovely veggie buffet. After lunch, our guide said he had a surprise for us. 2 adults and a baby elephant joined us! We got to feed them more bananas and watch them interact and play with the water from the hand tap. We headed the way we came and then went in to the river to bathe the elephants. We were an even smaller group at this point because half our group didn’t want to get wet?! Basically it was just us and another couple and the elephants’ Mahouts bathing about five of them! I was tragically poor with my water bucket aim but the Mahouts were insanely good at it. It just turned in to a massive water fight where everyone was going for human and elephant alike. After a quick change, we then ended our day at the main Elephant Nature Park, meeting many more of the 70 elephants, watching them play in the mud, or eating (again) and hearing all their different heart breaking stories. Overall, it was an incredible day and we are so glad we chose to go to this genuine sanctuary and meet these fantastic creatures.

On our last full day in Chiang Mai we got a Songthaews (red pickup truck) up the mountain to visit the temple Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We technically got 2 different Songthaews as we decided to stop off and do a little hike to the Huay Keaw waterfall. We didn’t have high hopes because we’re in the peak of dry season (but we both secretly were hoping there was a decent trickle for us to swim). Definitely not. After a steep climb, there were just lots of rocks… We came back to the main road and drove up to the top. The road had so many hairpin bends whilst we went at full speed in an open back pickup truck that I very nearly vommitted on the poor boy sat next to me, fortunately I held it in. Wat Doi Suthep had two beautiful snake designs guarding each side of the steps leading up to the temple. We enjoyed looking round the temple and its surrounding area where you could look down over Chiang Mai from the mountain top. We headed back to our homestay but got dropped off at the nearby Saturday Night Market because the road was closed. It was the biggest market I’ve ever been to. It was a tourist’s paradise and even I (who has done SO well at not buying things) succumbed to a little bag I liked.

It’s soon Songkran in Thailand, the annual water festival celebrating the start of the new year. Unfortunately due to timings, we couldn’t stay for it. Chiang Mai is meant to be one of the biggest places to celebrate in all of South East Asia. Perhaps a blessing in disguise with all of our electronics, apparently everywhere you go, you’ll get water thrown on you by unsuspecting passers by. But they still celebrate it in Laos (called Pii Mai), our next stop. So we’ll let you know how that goes!

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave