The Bunong people live in mountain settlements around Sen Monorom. They are one of a few ethnic minorities that make up the majority of Mondulkiri, and they live a lonely lifestyle from huts deep in the jungle, collecting cashews and fruits, selectively cutting wood, and carrying in baskets on their backs their subsistence from one settlement to another along steep mountain footpaths. For years elephants have been at the center of their community and economy, although more recently many are finding cattle and pigs to be a more lucrative and less onerous investment. The folks at Nature Lodge have set up a profitable business with the Bunong, referring trekkers to the community for hikes and elephant rides that make better money, I’m told, than smallholder farming, and provide the elephants with less demanding labor than their alternative uses in other communities—mainly hauling lumber. Since elephants command about $20,000 on the market, according to our guide, matching them with profitable business is essential to keeping them. And the longer the Bunong can hold on to the trekking business, the longer they can forestall further clearing and burning in the jungles around their communities—so the reasoning goes.
We are going to do what?! Ernest’s face lit up when I explained the day’s plan over breakfast. A pick-up truck was waiting along the dirt road to take us over to the next village. We stepped out to the curious eyes of so many children coming down from one-room houses on ladders, and stooping to come out of low circular yurt-like huts. A mother pig basked in the sun surrounded by her piglets. Puck swatted flies and waited to see what will happen next. Our guide explained that the mahout was bringing the elephants out of the forest. Since elephants consume on average 300 kg of vegetation per day, they are not actually kept in the settlement, but roam foraging through the surrounding jungle nearby. Apparently they recognize and follow the mahout, and somehow each household knows its own elephant. It’s an interesting long-distance marriage.
When it seemed like we had been stared at and kicking dirt for a good long while, suddenly two enormous forms emerged gracefully from the bushes. Yoshi cheered. Tika hid behind me. The elephants have arrived! We were guided to a scaffolding and ladder behind the houses, where, climbing one by one up the ladder, holding the mahout’s hand, we stepped (as softly as we could) across the elephant’s forehead, over his neck, and into a bamboo basket with a small wooden seat on his back. He stood patiently next to the scaffolding, arcing up his trunk over and around to get a sense about us. Ernest and Yoshi happily in position on the first elephant, I passed Puck and then Tika up the ladder and into place on the second, then myself climbed up and in between them in the basket.
Then began the slow, back-breaking ride into the forest. Down, down the path we would descend to a waterfall far below. Our elephants would measure each step, position each great footfall in ditches and over rocks and logs, and we would rock and tilt and thud-thud along until my rear end was all a bruise. But they are steady, attentive workers. Each elephant carried his mahout on the back of his neck, who, arching his bare toes behind the great animal’s ears, guided his way along the twisting turning paths. Many times the elephants tuned out the mahouts, and took detours into the woods poking their trunks between trees to seek out a cluster of bamboo or tasty vines. They curled their trunks far up into the trees and yanked down leaves and vines, sometimes returning to the path dragging branches behind. At one point, our two elephants seemed to have cornered themselves head-to-tail in a thick of trees. The kids and I watched in amazement as the boys’ elephant pushed a front leg into the trunk of a 6-inch-diameter tree, and pushed it to the ground, trundling right over it. So the ride continued, deeper into the forest, passing small garden clearings here and there, listening to bird-calls and Puck’s sing-song chatter as we bumped along.
Getting down to ground again when we finally reached the river was a major relief. I could stretch my legs and start to feel my butt again. The elephants were freed of the bamboo baskets and set off into the woods for more grazing. We were set free to chuck rocks in the stream, take a dip, and eat lunch. Cooling off, the boys sun-drying in their underwear, we sat on a rock by the river and I read a few scenes from King Lear. Yoshi peed off the edge of a small waterfall. Why are Goneril and Regan so mean? Ernest thought the Earl of Kent would make a good, loyal friend.
Before heading back up the mountain, the mahouts told us, it was time to wash the elephants in the river. We cleared our clothes and shoes from the rocks to make way for their entry into the water, and then the mahouts, sitting on the elephants’ necks, directed each one to lay down in the water. For the first time, we were face to face with our big friends, watching them enjoy a vigorous scrubbing. Ernest and Yoshi were quick to volunteer to help, and I sat with the little ones on the shore and the boys climbed up on one elephant’s back, splashed water all over his head and sides, and took a good squirting from his trunk. He seemed to enjoy getting his head washed, and the big lobes of his forehead with their wrinkled skin and wiry hairs had the endearing look of a granddaddy. The mahouts let Ernest and Yoshi ride out of the river bareback on the elephant back to the tree-stand on shore, where they climbed down a ladder. It was my first chance to pat him on his trunk and look into his big thoughtful eyes to say thank-you for letting us play with him today. I began to think, maybe the Bunong aren’t such lonely people after all. He turned up his trunk to give me a sniff and then exhaled a moist spray on my shirt.