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From the Ground-Meet Cambodia’s lifesaving-Hero Rats

It’s not every day that you get to meet a real live hero. Now at the Apopo Visitor Center in Siem Reap, Cambodia, you will have an opportunity to learn about and meet the countries infamous Hero Rats. These cute little rodents have been working hard at detecting live war mines and saving countless lives throughout Southeast Asia since 2010.

In October of 1995, Bart Weetjens, a Belgian native and pet rat owner, came across a published article, where gerbils were being used as scent detectors for scientific research. Knowing that rats are intelligent, cheap and widespread over the world, an idea emerged. Could these bright animals be used to detect landmines that long ago were buried and forgotten? By 1998, with support from the Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation, the initial financial support was developed and the non-profit, Apopo Foundation was born.

By 2000, Apope developed training methods for the rats and the team began ground workd in Morogoro, Tanzania.  Here, they proved invaluable at cost-effectively detecting mines and addressing some of the country’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

Ten years later, the Apopo Foundation began work in the mine suspected areas, in the provinces of Trat and Chantaburi, along the Thai-Cambodian border. The Cambodian chapter of Apopo works in conjunction with the Cambodian Mine Action Center and the German Federal Foreign Office.

According to Apopo, at least 26 million explosive sub-munitions were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War, mostly in eastern and north-eastern areas bordering the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam. The bombing is estimated to have left between 1.9 million and 5.8 million cluster munitions remnants. To date over 64,000 landmines and other explosive remnants of war have been recorded in Cambodia, since 1979.

With over 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. A great hero was in need! It takes just one Hero Rat to search up to 200 square meters in 20 minutes; this would take a mine technician with a metal detector 1-4 days to cover the same ground.

The Apopo Foundation and these little rodents are dedicated to saving thousands of lives throughout Southeast Asia and the World. Now at the Apopo center in Siem Reap, you can join an hour long presentation and learn more about these little champions and the non-profits quest in making the World a safer place. Give us a call to book a tour or visit www.apopo.org for more information.

From the Ground: Makara celebrates 2 years on the Local JWOC Advisory Board

By Jay Austin

Last month, JWOC Scholarship graduate and Journeys Within Cambodia Country Director, Makara Put, completed two years as member and Chair of JWOC’s Local Advisory Board (LAB). Using his in-depth understanding of the local travel industry, knowledge of local opportunities and understanding of JWOC’s values and mission to promote equal access to quality education, he was able to be part of a team that helped JWOC’s ground team to pursue opportunities and avenues that would not have otherwise access to.

When speaking of his achievement, he said, “For me, it is really important to be in the LAB, because you will be able to learn from other members and from JWOC staff. Moreover you can speak your thoughts and turn your ideas into practice, sharing information that helps to develop JWOC as well. We never know if our ideas work or not if we don’t put them into action!”

Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center

The elephants enjoying their evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By: Courtney Ridgel

Day 1: The Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center, located in rural Sayaboury, Laos, was hands-down one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.  My journey there began when I piled in the Center’s van at the Post Office in Luang Prabang, and met the other travelers who would also be visiting.  Coffee and croissant in hand (which are phenomenal in Laos), I sat comfortably and watched for 2-3 hours as the stunning countryside rolled past – steep verdant hillsides with wild jungle interspersed with teak and rubber tree plantations, rugged cliffs, rice terraces snaking up riverbeds, small wooden villages and large brown rivers.  When we arrived in Sayaboury, we were greeted by several local villagers who helped us with our bags onto a small ferry, which carried across Nam Tien Lake.

A small local village floating on the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Nam Tien Lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

When we arrived, we were met by Lar, our guide for the duration of our stay, and he took us to check into our traditional Laotian stilted bungalows, before we all sat down together for a traditional Laotian lunch.  The Center is really a small village – the mahouts, guides, gardeners, farmers, cooks, veterinarians, biologists, cleaning staff and boat drivers all have the option of staying in their own small bungalows at the center, or of living in the town of Sayaboury and commuting by motorbike.

Looking up at the bungalows from the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
One of the traditional bungalows overlooking the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Traditional Laotian dishes – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

After lunch, Lar led my fellow travelers and I to see Annabelle, the resident biologist at the Elephant Hospital where she explained about caring for elephants, elephant health, and the plight of the Asian Elephant in great detail.  There are currently around 400 wild elephants in Laos and around 450 domesticated elephants.  However, logging with elephants was recently banned by the Laotian government.  While this move was made to protect elephants from the hard labor and potential abuse, many of the mahouts who own the elephants now find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to keep caring for them properly.  The elephant hospital at the center is open to any mahout to bring in their elephants, and the center actively works to promote elephant breeding in an effort to protect the aging and dwindling population.  We also had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Museum to learn about the history of elephants in Laos, and their symbolic and economic significance.

Annabelle, explaining elephant healthcare – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers heading to the Elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Inside the elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In the late afternoon, the resident mahouts and elephants came down to the edge of the lake for their evening bath and we were able to simply be present in the moment and soak in the beauty of it all.  I was amazed that there were no boundaries or fences – between myself and these very large and beautiful creatures, and was quite surprised when one of them came directly out of the water and walked up to greet me.

Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

After their bath, we were introduced to each of the elephants and their mahouts, and listened to their life stories – all of the adult elephants had worked hard in careers like logging before arriving at the center.  We learned that elephants are traditionally paired with a single mahout for life, and as such, would almost be considered a member of the family.  Being a traditional mahout is a dying profession and their skills and wisdom are traditionally passed down orally father to son, with years of training.  Mahout children are traditionally raised among elephants.  As Laos modernizes and there are fewer and fewer men (never women) choosing to pursue this path in life, many domestic elephants are not being as well-treated.

Lar introduced us to each of the elephants and their mahouts – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Clambering up a tall feeding platform, we had the opportunity to feed the elephants sugar cane as a treat.  As evening advanced, the mahouts led the elephants back into the jungle for the night, and we settled down for another home-cooked Laotian meal and chatted amongst ourselves.  Jozef, the Center’s Sales & Marketing Manager, ate with us and answered our many questions.

One of my fellow travelers feeding the elephants sugarcane. Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Feeding the elephants sugarcane – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

There are kayaks available for guests who would like to paddle out on the lake, but I enjoyed meandering about the center and taking in the stunning views, before settling into my hammock with a book on the porch of my bungalow.

Nam Tien Lake is very peaceful, especially in the evenings – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Relaxing at my bungalow -Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Day 2: After breakfast the next morning, we headed into the jungle, hiking up and down the steep and muddy trail to reach a different area of the lake where the elephants bathe in the morning.  They splashed themselves with the water, so that it would seep into the creases in their skin and keep them cool through the hottest part of the day as they forage in the jungle.  After the elephants felt satisfied, they meandered out of the water to interact with us.  (I kept forgetting to duck out of the way of the flapping ears!)

A young elephant and his mahout making their way to the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers and I headed for the lake to see the morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants enjoying their morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
We had the opportunity to simply spend time with the elephants in the calm of the morning after their bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Some of the elephants head to ‘Enrichment’ where they solve puzzles and are rewarded with treats to keep their minds sharp and inquisitive, as elephants can grow unhappy and depressed when bored.  The rest were led to ‘Socialization’ – a large paddock of natural jungle where the elephants are allowed to roam freely and forage as a herd.  We hiked up the hill to watch from above from a series of observation platforms, and Annabelle joined us to explain the various elephant behaviors we observed.  She also explained the importance of elephants to the Laotian ecosystem – elephants are naturally quite destructive, clearing paths through the forest which allows for new growth, and they have inefficient digestive systems, so as they forage and travel, their feces replants the seeds of many native plants.

My fellow travelers observing the elephants in the valley below from one of the viewing platforms – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants foraging naturally in the jungle as a herd – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
A mother elephant teaching her juvenile calf about foraging in the jungle – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

With reluctance that we eventually headed back to the water’s edge, but were rewarded when we had the chance to watch the mothers with young babies come for a bath.  The little ones splashed and played in the mud before their mothers and their mahouts led them back into the forest. We settled down for a delicious Laotian picnic lunch, before the ferry carried us back around the peninsula to the Center where we checked out of our bungalows (some travelers stay longer…), bid Lar farewell, and rode the ferry back to the road for the scenic drive back to Luang Prabang.

A mother elephant and her baby – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Baby elephants must practice and learn to use their trunks to drink – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spending time with elephants in their natural habitat, watching them interact and nurture their babies is an incredible experience all by itself, but learning about their importance in the local ecosystem, and their tenuous hold on long-term survival as a species, was eye-opening.  Equally meaningful to me, was getting to learn about the vast knowledge the mahouts have and to witness their unique bond with these beautiful beasts.  Elephants are sacred creatures in Laos and I can certainly see why.  Visiting the Elephant Conservation Center felt like getting to star in my own Discovery Channel adventure, and my time in Sayaboury will always hold a special place in my heart.

A mahout quietly observing the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

 You too can visit the elephants in their natural jungle home!  Click this link to see the two day Elephant Conservation Center Discovery Tour, which can be combined with any larger itinerary.


Diving with Purpose – Koh Rong Sanloem

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

By Jay Austin

Koh Rong is one of the more popular Cambodian islands off the coast of Sihanoukville, but as with most popular island locations in Southeast Asia, they can be easily overrun by tourists for simply this reason. Koh Rong Sanloem, on the other hand, is only in the early stages of tourism and offers a quieter, more relaxed version of the traditional beach holiday. The island is dotted with resorts which you can only move between by boat as there are no proper roads on the island. The sand is white, the waters are clear and here you have the opportunity to join in the early stages of actually growing a coral reef!

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

The most populated village on Koh Rong Sanloem is M’Pai Bei Village and although the accommodations on offer are still quite basic, there is a decent array of Western and Cambodian restaurants, all within easy walking distance of one another. A visit to M’Pai Bei is not complete without spending some time with the team at Save Cambodian Marine Life, a not-for-profit organization which is dedicated to cleaning and maintaining the waters of M’Pai Bei Bay.

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

The scuba diving in M’Pai Bei is not world class by any means, but a visit to this area of the world allows you to dive for a wonderful purpose, assisting Australian couple Chris & Dianne Martyn in maintaining and growing their coral nursery. This kind of delicate work calls for more accomplished divers (PADI advanced level or higher) who have solid buoyancy control so as not to damage anything in the nursery, but if you are already an Open Water certified diver you can participate in an Advanced Open Water Course through this organization.

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

If you are not a certified scuba diver, never fear, you can still assist in the great work these people do. A number of snorkel reef cleans and beach cleans are scheduled every week as part of the PADI Dive Against Debris program, calling for volunteers to assist the team in keeping the waters around the village clean and free from harmful debris such as fishing nets and plastic.

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

If you are looking to spend some time on the beach in Cambodia, this is a wonderful way to support a community based project whilst enjoying the tropical waters!

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

For those who are seeking more established, resort style accommodations, Saracen Bay located 20 minutes away by boat offers beachfront villas on a 4km stretch of sensational white sand that can be experienced for less than half the cost of other beach resorts in Southeast Asia. Koh Rong Sanloem is one of those places you need to see before the rest of the world discovers it!  (Ask National Geographic who just featured our hotel partner Lazy Beach and Koh Rong Samloem Island among the 21 Best Beaches in the World!)

Photo Credit: Jay Austin
Photo Credit: Jay Austin

Dana’s Mondulkiri Adventure

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

By Dana Di Labio

Pchum Ben falls in September each year, and most Khmer people spend the holiday visiting the temples (wats or pagodas) to honor their ancestors, make offerings, and receive blessings from the monks. We took the opportunity to head to Mondulkiri, a province in North Eastern Cambodia that was a full 10 hour bus ride from our home in Siem Reap. So kindles, ipods and books at the ready, we set off in our 11-seater minibus, ready to face our holiday. Aside from one of us forgetting her shoes (a serious problem when embarking on embarking on a jungle trek!), the journey north to the small town of Sen Monorom was largely uneventful. Although it was dark and quiet, it felt safe and we could see the edges of mountains, jungles and forests.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

A staff member from Tree Lodge met us and drove us to the hotel in the back of a pick-up truck to the wooden lodge. We were introduced to the couple who run the lodge – Mr. Tree and his wife, who spoke English well, but allowed us to practice our questionable Khmer. After stuffing ourselves with some fried rice and noodles, Mr. Tree led us to our small wooden bungalow – a ‘family room’, which had 3 double beds squashed in together. It felt rustic and cozy; we each had our own mosquito net and a shared hot shower – all for only $15 for the night! (The Lodge also had a supply of leftover shoes we could borrow, which luckily meant no jungle trekking in Birkenstocks!)

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

The next morning, bright and early, we headed off with Mr. Tree, and a group of around 20 others. We got into the truck again and drove around 30 minutes to just outside the jungle, where Mr Tree dropped us all off and instructed us to follow the path until we reach the ‘Jungle Lodge’. He drove the car down the hill and into the jungle. A walk of 20 minutes or so brought us up and down a few muddy hills (it was the rainy season after all), to a small wooden hut with canvas sides overlooking the forests and misty rivers. Mr. Tree met us at the hut and introduced The Mondulkiri Project:

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

In October 2013 the Mondulkiri Project signed an agreement with Bunong indigenous elders from the Putang Village and the Orang Village. They agreed to end logging in a large area of the beautiful Mondulkiri forest near Sen Monorom, in order protect this beautiful forest and the plentiful wildlife here. As the population of Cambodia grows, the demand for rice also grows, so more and more of the forest is being destroyed to make room for small rice farms. The Elephant Sanctuary experiences and jungle trekking is designed to help to bring income to the Bunang indigenous people while protecting the native habitat of Asian elephants and other endangered species. As part of this agreement, The Mondulkiri Project started an elephant sanctuary with 7 retired elephants who are free to wander through the forest. All of these elephants have been rescued from other provinces, where they were treated unfairly. In the future, Mr. Tree explains, he hopes to start a natural breeding program to help with the long term survival of elephants in Cambodia. Currently the elephants are all female, so the project is trying to raise money to buy a male in order to breed.

After the briefing, we started off into the jungle to meet the elephants. We fed them bananas and learned that there is a trick to doing so – you should hold out 1 banana towards the end of their trunk, while hiding the others behind your back – otherwise the elephants steal the whole bunch! The elephants seemed very at ease around us, and Mr. Tree emphasized that we should let the elephants lead the interaction. After our banana supply had been depleted, we walked back through the rain in our nifty multi colored rain ponchos, across a rickety old bridge. Just as we were crossing, one of the elephants named Princess came bounding through the river and decided to give herself a mud shower. She led the way for us and we followed her into a clearing, where we were joined by several other elephants. We played with them, fed them some more, and marveled at how peaceful they seemed. We headed back to the hut, clad with mud and rain, and sat down for a delicious lunch of rice, vegetables and fish soup. A celebratory beer or two was also a necessity! After a little relaxing, we headed back off into the jungle and down to a river, where we were told we would be able to bathe the elephants. Some of us scrubbed the elephants with long brushes, whilst the others fed them bananas.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When we returned to the hut for the evening, and were introduced to our guide for the next day – Leung. He and several local Khmer women cooked up a delicious feast for our dinner. We ate on the wooden floor, by candlelight, and spent the evening chatting with Leung. He is from one of the tribal villages, on the other side of the jungle, and he leads the guided treks for the Mondulkiri Project. He told us that we would finish our trek in his village and he explained about his religion – a form of Buddhism that entails ritual animal sacrifice. We played cards, drank bamboo rice wine, and retreated to our hammocks for the night.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

After breakfast the next morning, we headed off on our 18 kilometer trek. Luckily, the weather managed to stay dry for the whole day, as we hiked over tough terrain, steep hills and had some very slippy moments. Eventually we decided to just succumb to the mud and stop trying to stay clean and dry! We stopped at 3 waterfalls along the way, and at the first we jumped off the top of the waterfall into the cold water and hung from the tree branches. The second waterfall was enormous and soaked us in spray, and at the third waterfall, we trekked behind it into a cave where we sat to eat our lunch of rice and vegetables.  As we continued on, Leung pointed out different kinds of plants, flowers, frogs, insects, and various mushroom breeds.

Finally, around 8 hours after we took off, we arrived in Leung’s village, exhausted and muddy, but beaming with pride. (Leung told us he does this trek 4 times per week!) He introduced us to his family (he has 8 brothers and sisters, which is quite common among the 43 families who live in this village), and his family have several pigs and lots of piglets, chickens, cows and buffalo. There were some young children playing football just down the path, everybody stopped to say hello to us and offered us rice wine. Leung told us that they all rear animals and share the meat among the families. He said that whilst he has his immediate family (who all live in a small wooden house, with an old retro caravan attached!), he feels as though the whole village is his family, as they have all grown up together.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When it came time to say goodbye to Leung and the village, it seemed strange after such a meaningful and intense 24 hours getting to know him. While we all trickled back to our office jobs and city life, Leung would stay on the edge of the jungle in his hill tribe village, perfectly content to guide more jungle trekkers. Although we loved the elephants, and the trekking and the camping experience was so much fun, I would recommend this trip simply for the experience of meeting Leung, an uncomplicated 21 year old guy, with so much love for the jungle and keen to share his devotion to his beautiful home and people.