Mondulkiri Elephant Trekking – A Day at Elephant Valley Project 🐘

GeeNowl Elephant – Elephant Valley Project

During our latest trip to Cambodia, my girlfriend and I wanted to visit part of the country we’d not seen before; the eastern Mondulkiri province. It started while talking to other travellers over a drink in Phnom Penh. They told us about their Mondulkiri elephant trekking tour, enthusiastically describing it as one of their best experiences in Southeast Asia! 

There are a surprising number of sanctuaries and elephant trekking opportunities in Mondulkiri – more than we expected to find. However, throughout our research, we learnt that choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Sen Monorom isn’t as simple as you’d expect. 

So, if you’re feeling as stuck as we were, here is an overview of our elephant trekking experience with Elephant Valley Project, including why we chose them and what other sanctuaries and trekking opportunities are on offer in the region! 

Recommended: (opens in a new tab)

A Day With Elephants at Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri 🐘📷 

Book Now!
Elephant Valley Project
  • Walk through lush countryside to visit the elephants!
  • No feeding, bathing or touching the elephants!
  • Different elephants are visited each day to ensure they get plenty of time away from humans!

Why We Chose Elephant Valley Project 😇

We chose Elephant Valley Project (EVP) because their ethics aligned with our own. They’re a completely hands-off sanctuary, allowing you to see and get close to the elephants but never to ride, touch, feed or bathe them. The elephants are always free to walk away if they don’t want to be around people which gives them an autonomy they are rarely afforded in sanctuaries. 

Elephant Behind – Elephant Valley Project
EVP’s elephants are free to walk away whenever they please!

During our research, we learnt that EVP work very closely with the local Bunong community. The sanctuary is actually on 1,500 hectares of Bunong land! The Bunong people are indigenous to Eastern Cambodia and Western Vietnam but the majority live in Mondulkiri. They traditionally used elephants for logging, farming and transportation, so many Bunong villages have kept/do keep elephants. 

But elephants are expensive to keep and while in an ideal world, they’d all be wandering free, this isn’t a practical reality in today’s Cambodia. To lift elephants out of exploitative and harmful industries (not literally, elephants weigh a tonne!), EVP rents and buys them from the community. This provides a better quality of life for the elephants, a sort of ‘retirement’ where they can roam free within the sanctuary grounds, and offers employment to local Bunong mahouts. Each community that rents an elephant to EVP is given an allowance, so they don’t lose out financially for giving the elephant a better life

Not only this but a portion of the money you pay to EVP goes back into the Bunong community via various initiatives, including helping local people get to and pay for medical treatment when required. 

We spoke with and read reviews about other elephant sanctuaries and treks in Mondulkiri but none offered the same, hands-off experience we were looking for. This made it an easy choice for us – albeit a more expensive one. Unfortunately, EVP is more costly than many of the other sanctuaries in the region. But hey, elephants have big appetites and this was a price we were willing to pay for an ethical experience. 

“We desperately wanted to see elephants again, having done so on our very first visit to the region nearly a decade ago. As young, wide-eyed backpackers, we didn’t know what we were doing then. The sanctuary we visited in Thailand allowed us to bathe the elephants and feed them by hand. Since that trip, we’ve learnt a lot about the ethics of elephant sanctuaries and this time, wanted to do things a bit better.”

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

How to Get to Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri 🛻

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

Elephant Valley Project makes getting to the sanctuary easy. They offer pick-up from The Hangout in Sen Monorom at 07:15. If you arrive around 06:45, you have enough time for breakfast before you leave! 

You will be transported by 4×4 to the sanctuary. Although you’ll hit quite a few dirt tracks on your way to EVP, the main roads into Sen Monorom and around Mondulkiri have improved greatly in recent years. A significant portion of them are tarmac, including the entire route from Phnom Penh! 

If you’re not already in Sen Monorom, you need to make your way there. You can get a bus from Phnom Penh, which takes around six hours and costs approx. $17USD. From Kratié, you can get a minibus to Sen Monorom. It takes around three hours and costs approx. $10USD. Most of the time, tickets can be arranged at your accommodation or using

👉 Book Your Visit to Elephant Valley Project 🐘

Different Packages at Elephant Valley Project 🧑‍🌾 🐘🥾

Whether you’re looking to spend half a morning or multiple weeks with the elephants, there is a package at EVP for you!

  • Half-Day Trip – See the elephants in the morning and return to Sen Monorom in the afternoon. 
  • Full Day ‘Ele Lover’ Trip – Trek alongside elephants in the morning, have lunch, visit different elephants in the afternoon. 
  • Full Day ‘Do Gooder’ Trip – See the elephants in the morning, have lunch, do some volunteer work around the sanctuary (this is not with the elephants). The ‘Do Gooder’ day trip is a good way to save money as it’s significantly cheaper than the ‘Ele Lover’ trip. This is the best option if you’re on a budget. Although the half-day trip is even cheaper, once you factor in lunch, the time it takes to get to the sanctuary and your time spent with the knowledgeable staff at EVP, this offers the biggest bang for your buck! 
  • Full-Day ‘Explorer’ Trip – See the elephants in the morning, have lunch, go on a jungle trek in the afternoon. 
  • 2 Days/1 Night ‘Taste Of The Jungle’ – Two elephant sessions, a night in the jungle and some volunteering time (this is not with the elephants).
  • 3 Days/2 Nights ‘Elephant Immersion’ – Spend one whole day with the elephants, then have two days split between seeing elephants and volunteering (this is not with the elephants).
  • Volunteer Program – Spend two weeks or more helping out at EVP. Combine regular elephant treks with working behind the scenes on various projects. 
  • You can also add an overnight stay to most visits, allowing you to stay in the jungle!  
Group Trek – Elephant Valley Project
The morning’s trek starts busy until groups separate!

“I absolutely loved my visit to EVP. It felt so special to be able to get close to the elephants in their own environment. I liked that the group size was quite small and that the project has a strict hands-off policy which means the animals aren’t disturbed as visitors observe them going about their day. I did the one-day Explorer option but would have really enjoyed staying overnight in the camp and volunteering with the elephants if I had more time, and I’d definitely recommend this to others looking for a rewarding and ethical experience with elephants.” 

Lisa Barham, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker 

What a Day at Elephant Valley Project Looks Like – Our Experience 🌞

Excited to see elephants but bleary-eyed without my first coffee of the day, my girlfriend and I made our way up the road to The Hangout. We opted for the ‘Ele Lover’ day trip, allowing us to spend as much time watching the elephants as we could in a single day. 

Bang on time, staff from the project arrived at the restaurant and after the usual formalities, loaded us into the back of two pick-ups. One had a comfortable-looking bench seat, the other nothing but a flatbed – “that looks like the more adventurous choice,” I thought, “I’m gonna jump in that one.” So I did. To my detriment. 

The ride was pleasant as we drove along Sen Monorom’s nice tarmac roads and we got chatting with the only two other people to have opted for our pickup – an Aussie couple working in Cambodia. 

4x4 Ride To Elephant Valley Project
The ride was smooth enough at this point…

Then our idiocy became clear. We left the tarmac and the 4x4s came into their own – powering along the rough road, bouncing over rocks, testing the suspension to its max, kicking up big clouds of dust and throwing us around like we’d entered the world’s dustiest tumble dryer. The passengers in the back of the other pickup didn’t look particularly comfortable either, crammed in as they were, but as we bounced around on the flatbed, we would’ve swapped places in a heartbeat. At least I wasn’t worried about my lack of caffeine anymore – the adrenaline had seen to that! 

Thankfully, the ride wasn’t too long and within 25 minutes we pulled into the Elephant Valley Project and clambered, feeling a little worse for wear, off the pickup. 

Elephant Valley Project Front Gate
The main entrance for Elephant Valley Project!

We had a briefing at the main entrance, then a short drive to the trailhead. Due to wild elephants in the area, the sanctuary’s elephants were in another part of the valley, ensuring their safety. After seeing one of the rescued elephants in the afternoon, it was clear why they had to be kept as separate as possible. 

A couple of kilometres into our trek, we heard crashing in the trees.

“Was that an elephant?” Asked an American in the group. 

“Either that or a T-rex,” I replied. The joke didn’t land. He didn’t even smile.  

Our guide whistled through his fingers in that manner I’ve never been able to master – I just spat all over my laptop screen while trying… 

Another impressive whistle came as a reply from somewhere among the trees. Following the whistles and occasional sounds of destruction, we came across our first elephant for the day, Easy Rider. She was happily crashing through dense foliage, clearing a path for herself by sheer brute force. It was an astounding display of strength and she wasn’t even trying. Instead, Easy Rider was focused on eating – three tons of elephant is a lot of sustain! 

Elephant – EVP
Look into those beautiful eyes!

She wandered around, munching on anything and everything, allowing us to follow for much of the morning. Occasionally she doubled back and under the supervision of the guides and her mahout, we were expertly moved out of the way.

Mahouts 🤔

The elephants at EVP all have mahouts with them during the day. This is to ensure they stay within the confines of the sanctuary and don’t head into the nearby fruit plantations, where they can happily devour hundreds of dollars worth of crops before being turned around. The mahouts just follow the elephants, guiding them back into the park if they get too close to the boundaries.

Before the morning was over, we left Easy Rider and made our way to meet her buddy, GeeNowl. Being an older elephant in her sixties, GeeNowl was slower and tended to move around trees rather than through them. Much like Easy Rider, she was unbothered by our presence and carried on doing her thing, while we stood in awe of such a graceful old lady. 

And then hours had passed. No one was paying attention to the time, so it came as a shock when we were told we needed to head for lunch. We trekked back along the same route, reaching the vehicles within 45 minutes and drove to the sanctuary’s main entrance.

Lunch was a delicious buffet prepared by local chefs. The break gave us a chance to learn more about the project, the staff and of course, our fellow travellers. 

Then, it was time for the group to break up. Some people were trekking for the afternoon and others were volunteering around the project. Only a small handful of us were spending the afternoon seeing more elephants – and what an afternoon it was. 

Mondulkiri Elephant Trek Afternoon – Elephant Valley Project
There was only a few of us on the afternoon trek!

Our small band of ele lovers hopped back into the pickup and drove just a few minutes down the road. We disembarked, making our way along another well-used walking trail as our guide whistled into the trees. Finally, we heard a response and made our way down to the river where we were greeted with an incredible sight. A huge male elephant named Hen and two of his three mahouts. One astride his shoulders and the other washing the bottom of his feet. 

Hen’s Mahouts and Why He’s Ridden 🧐

Being a large male elephant, Hen can be very aggressive, especially when he thinks it’s time to mate. In order to keep the staff, volunteers and mahouts at EVP safe, not to mention the local community, Hen has three full-time mahouts, one of whom is always sitting on him. 

As Jack Highwood, founder of Elephant Valley Project said in an interview with South East Asia Backpacker:

“All our male elephants have two or three mahouts who are responsible for the elephants’ care around the clock and they are responsible for the elephant. In turn, I am responsible for their safety. We don’t hit him, beat him or control him with fear or pain, we can just talk to him and nudge him with our toes.”

While it was shocking to see someone riding Hen at first, especially after we’d specifically chosen EVP because they didn’t allow elephant riding, once the situation was explained to us by the guides, it made perfect sense. Having one well-trained and experienced mahout, whom the elephant knows and trusts sitting atop his shoulders is not detrimental to his health. Instead, it allows Hen to wander in his natural environment and be as free as possible. Without their mahouts, bull elephants like Hen are chained up or penned in 24 hours a day – there’s a reason you only ever see female elephants in the sanctuaries across Southeast Asia. If you ask me, that’s no life.

Having someone weighing 25 times less than Hen, sitting on his shoulders allowed him to live the most natural life possible. That’s the equivalent of a person carrying a cat in exchange for not being chained or locked up for 24 hours a day. 

The most striking thing about Hen was his size. He made the ladies we’d seen earlier in the day look veritably small. But what none of us initially noticed as he stood in the river was the lump near his right hip, nor the limp that became obvious as soon as he started walking. Hen had been attacked by a wild bull elephant a couple of years previously. In this encounter, his right femur was dislocated from his hip and it’s never been put back. The force required to put it back is the same as the force required to dislocate it – and good luck finding another four-ton bull elephant willing to help out. 

Hen Bull Elephant – Elephant Valley Project
Hen copes surprisingly well considering his dislocated hip!

Thankfully, with regular treatment, painkillers and daily massages from his mahouts, Hen can walk, albeit in a rather laboured manner. 

We spent the rest of the day, lounging in the shade, watching Hen go about his afternoon. It was a beautiful end to a magical day. 

Between trekking to find the elephants and walking alongside them, we covered close to 10km on foot while at EVP. Sometimes the terrain was easy going along relatively flat, well-groomed trails. But sometimes it was tougher. When we got close to the elephants we often had to battle with thick undergrowth, fallen trees and uneven ground. Thankfully, the higher altitude of Mondulkiri means temperatures are a little cooler than in other parts of Cambodia! 

Hen Bull Elephant 2 – Elephant Valley Project
Relaxing while watching Hen go about his afternoon!

EVP dropped us back off at The Hangout in Sen Monorom around 17:00 – and this time, I chose the comfier-looking pickup! 

Wild Elephants in Modulkiri 🐘🚜🪚

Due to legal and illegal deforestation of the Mondulkiri Protected Area – yes, it turns out if you grease the right palms you can do what you like in legally protected areas – wild elephants are moving east towards Sen Monorom and Elephant Valley Park. These wild elephants are much more aggressive than those in sanctuaries across the region, meaning they easily out-compete and injure the local rescued elephants – as they did with Hen.

This is becoming a big problem, not just for EVP but for all the sanctuaries in the area. But it’s not just a problem for the safety of the rescued elephants. These wild elephants are eating swathes of local crops, destroying villages and putting the lives of local people at risk.
There is very little that can be done to stop them except for properly protecting the protected area or culling the wild elephants. One option seems better than the other to me.  

👉 Book Your Visit to Elephant Valley Project 🐘

More About Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri 💁‍♂️

Some of Elephant Valley Project’s 1,500 hectares of land sits within the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, but most of it is outside. To use the land, EVP has formed strong bonds with local Bunong people and villages who own it. 

Within the 1,500 hectares, EVP look after 10 elephants (at the time of our visit). It used to be more but as most of their elephants are of retirement age, some have passed away since the project’s inception. There has also been one newcomer to EVP. In 2022 the sanctuary had a new arrival in the form of Diamond. Born thanks to an interaction between a wild bull elephant and Pearl, one of the sanctuary’s younger ladies. 

Some of the elephants at EVP are legally owned by the park. They were purchased from their previous owners for varying sums. Some are contracted to the park by their owners. This means the park pays a monthly fee which allows the elephants to live there. They’re essentially rented. This ensures the elephants have a safe and comfortable place to live and that the owners get a stable income. Without this, the owners would likely have their elephants chained up most days, working with illegal loggers or in the tourist trade, offering rides or doing tricks for tourists. 

Elephants at EVP
Rescued elephants have often had a hard life but retirement is treating them well!

When you visit EVP you’re unlikely to see the same elephants we did. There is a rotation system in place to ensure the elephants get plenty of time away from people. The sanctuary is also closed to tourists one day a week, allowing the elephants a chance to be themselves completely, away from visitor’s eyes. 

Other Elephant Sanctuaries in Mondulkiri 🐘

Although we chose to visit EVP for our Mondulkiri elephant trekking experience, there are other sanctuaries in the area. And, there is some weirdly fierce competition among some sanctuaries that leads you to question whether they really have the elephant’s best interests at heart. 

Despite what you may hear in and around Sen Monorom, no one is getting rich running an elephant sanctuary. None of the sanctuaries are actively abusing elephants or taking jobs away from local people. 

I’ve already laid out our reasons for choosing EVP but at the end of the day, the sanctuary you visit is your decision. Don’t let anyone make it for you. 

Other popular sanctuaries and elephant trekking opportunities in Mondulkiri include:

  • Mondulkiri Project
  • Elephant Community 

👉 Book Your Visit to Elephant Valley Project 🐘

A Round-Up of Elephant Trekking in Mondulkiri

Visiting an elephant sanctuary in Mondulkiri is one of the best ways to get close to these amazing animals. Mondulkiri offers excellent and, at least in theory, well-protected habitat for the elephants. Combine that with the generational knowledge of elephant husbandry of the Bunong people and it’s clear why Sen Monorom has become the hub of ethical elephant tourism in Cambodia. 

Most sanctuaries in the region offer guided treks to see the elephants they look after. We chose to visit Elephant Valley Project but do your own research into each sanctuary before making up your mind. 

Wherever you go, spending time with elephants is a magical experience that you’ll remember for many years to come – go and enjoy it!

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Basket
Scroll to Top