It’s a bright sunny morning as we head out of the chaos of the big City, Phnom Penh, and head to the northeast corner of the country, near the Vietnamese border, to Mondulkiri Province and the Elephant Sanctuary.

We are excited to be visiting and spending the day in the company of the Phnong hill tribe. As we arrive in the Pu Tang village we are met by a few of the elders of the village who will be our guides and hosts for lunch in the forest. On our brief visit to one of the traditional houses, of which there are very few still in use, we get a glimpse into the vanishing lifestyle of this ancient tribe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words I’ll try to include a few to help paint the picture of this fascinating day.

Inside the kitchen at the Hill Tribe village

Traditional house of the Phnang Hill Tribe

We set off on foot from the hillside village, down the rich, red, dirt trail into the deep ravine and heavily forested valley dotted with small patches of farmed bananas, on our way to meet the elephants of the Mondulkiri Sanctuary. One of our guides leads the way down the ever increasingly steep path and stops, thankfully, to machete down a few bamboo walking sticks to aid our travel through the dense forest. The forest is very quiet and just an occasional bird can be heard above the roar of the river below where we’ll be spending the afternoon.

Sweet Shal, our host in the forest.

About 2 km along the path we come upon an elephant and her mahout waiting for us along the trail. She is magnificent! Shal is her name we find out and she’s happy to see us a we are bearing a gift of bananas.

This is my first experience having the extreme pleasure of meeting and connecting with an elephant in her own natural environment and it is deeply moving. A bit hesitant at first, she happily accepts the bananas and warms to our presence quickly. We all continue through the forest for another kilometer when Shal & her mahout break off down another trial for a bit of grazing and we continue down to the river’s edge where we’ll meet up again later.

As we come upon the rushing waters of the river at the bottom of the valley we are delighted to meet a few more members of the tribe who have begun preparations for our noon meal together.

Shal is looking for another banana

A few scattered raised platforms with thatched roofs dot the clearing and the camp cook fire has already begun to crackle. A lovely woman and her young child are sitting on one of the platforms cutting up vegetables. She smiles warmly and we chat in sign language as she deftly puts her knife to work on mushrooms, garlic, a type of squash that cooks up much like a tomatillo along with green onion and the local chili peppers. The really cool thing here is that all of our lunch ingredients come from the forest, as this is their traditional way of life.

Our cook, also one of our guides down the ravine trail, sets to work chopping down a bamboo shaft about 2″ in diameter and 2 1/2 feet long with a bevel at one end. Yes, this will be the cooking pot for one of our dishes. He offers me a sniff of the bamboo’s center, it has a lovely fresh, sweet smell which we will find out lends a delightful flavor to our meal. The chopped veggies are layered into the bamboo shafts and then they are placed on the coals of the campfire. Next the beef ( the one thing we brought along not from the forest) is sliced and placed between a split bamboo pole like a skewer and tied with a vine. Onto the coals that goes as well. Soon the mixture in the bamboo is simmering and smelling fantastic! Lunch is served with rice, of course, and all are happily enjoying the meal together.

Our finished lunch, all ingredients from the forest in the traditional hill tribe way of life.

As we rest after lunch in the shade on our raised bamboo platform overlooking the rushing river, out of the forest pops sweet Shal once again. It appears its time for her daily dip in the river and a good scrub. To our delight we are invited to swim with her. Very carefully she lowers herself down through the tangled roots that line the river’s edge, across the rocks in the shallows and into a cool green pool in the center of the river where she joyfully dips her huge bulk under the water and appears weightless.

Blowing bubbles from her trunk and rolling on her side she awaits a good rub down of her skin and almost seems to smile. Soft, deeply wrinkled skin, sparsely covered with inch long, coarse black hair, we can’t resist rubbing her all over as she seems to welcome our attentions. We all play in the water for quite some time until she decides it time to get out. Up the bank she clamors and we continue our afternoon with her as one of our group, using sign language the the language of touch and smell to get to know each other and become friends. What an experience this has been!

Swimming with Sweet Shal


January 11, 2017



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