Letting us flow with Khmer New Year holidays, today we have lived a real touristic day in Mondulkiri. First, we were taken to a village called Putang where several families from the Bunong minority live; they are the same indigenes as the ones who own the houses under construction that we visited yesterday. Today we had the chance to visit the houses again, this time in a reality show version, with the family who is actually living in it, “come and see” mode on…We could see by ourselves that they are quite poor, the guide told us that they live mainly on rice and some vegetables. They have just begun to build wells, until now they drank water from the rivers, which for them, who are animists, are sacred. The pollution motivated by littering and detergents has started making them sick and they have had to turn into the well as a safer resource. Nowadays there aren’t any shops in the village yet.
Bunong people have been inhabiting this territory since more than two thousand years ago; we could say that they are part of the earth as much as she is part of them. Especially, they keep a close link with elephants, which they consider part of their community.
Since they settled in this place, Bunong get in the forest, they capture the elephants when they are little and they break in them, training them to help in their tasks. Several families coordinate to take care of one elephant which, when not requested by any, lives free in the forest (although they tie two of their legs up for them not to run far away); when someone needs it, he goes to forest to look for it and, when he finds it, he calls it and the elephant goes.
It is not about exploiting the elephant, but to take care of it among all, taking advantage of its strength to face the adversities which life in the forest implies; in fact, as a part of the community, elephants are respected and they try not to make them work more than three or four days a week in half day turns.
In the Khmer Rouge times some Bunong went to live to the forest, not only to survive (they could have been deported to Vietnam or sent somewhere else as it happened to most of the population in this area), but to be able to keep on looking after the elephants.
We have heard two theories about the relationship between the Bunong and the elephants reproduction. The first one says that, once integrated in the community, elephants can’t have babies because it will bring disgrace to the village. Following the second one, elephants can procreate, but only if a bridal ceremony is made before. In this, several sacrifices of other animals are made so there is a part of the spirits of all the animals of the forest when the new elephant is born and they all protect the community.
Being near this animal today has given us the chance to perceive its strength and its power in the wild forest, but we have also been able to feel its magic in many senses. It is so different to the other animals we use to interact with… It has the charm of wild animals and, despite being domesticated (or maybe because of the way Bunong people do it), you can appreciate its independence, its freedom, it is not a pet… it is like having the sensation that, somehow, it could decide by itself that it wants to go and, in fact, go. It looks like a prehistoric animal, or an alien, it is very different from any other. Its trunk seems to have an own life. It doesn’t look like being hairy but, when you touch it, you can feel all its hairs, really hard and many.
We jump in wooden basket on his back and we begin the trip. Going on an elephant is not very comfortable, although kings, rajahs and maharajahs have done it before. The height and the feeling of going on such a big animal are impressive.
The trip got to a waterfall and on the way we could check out that the Bunong understand really well with the elephants; they communicate through a series of grunts and a code with the legs and the feet to manage them. Once there, after splashing, swimming and having lunch, we swam with the elephants. It was awesome bathing them, getting in touch with them in a different environment, swimming around them, leaning on a rock to reach them better to throw water on top of them and realizing, after a soft movement, that you are on his leg, not on a rock. Being in the river allows you to be face to face with these giants, which are really immense, and feel that you are not aware of their dimensions at all… To see how they let you wash them, that they enjoy it and being able to give them back a bit the gift they have given us bringing us to the waterfall helping them to be a bit fresher has been a delicious experience.
Back to the Bunong village we have had the bug festival: they were vary and many, of all kinds and sizes, but, in amount and in skills for pushing our nerves to the limit, the winners were some kind of cheeky bees which even bit us over the clothes… no way of getting rid of them!
When we go back to the most generous hotel in the world, good news: some guests have gone and there is a bungalow available for us… sleeping in a bed, oh, cherry on top!