Elephant with trunk outstretched in the forest of an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia

Elephant Valley Project: Adventures at an Elephant Sanctuary in Cambodia

After Angkor Wat, seeing Asian Elephants is often the next thing people think of when visiting Cambodia. Cambodia has a long, beautiful, and complicated relationship with elephants. Visiting an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia is a great way to interact ethically with Asian Elephants.

Long a part of Cambodian culture, the government has taken strong steps towards protecting these animals. On a visit to Cambodia, you can help support these elephants, and the organizations working to protect them.

We visited the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, near the town of Sen Monorom, Cambodia. We went with our kids and spent two days and one night at this elephant sanctuary. In this post, we’ll explain what these sanctuaries do, what to expect, and why we recommend this experience, so you can decide what’s best for your next trip to Cambodia.

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Elephants in Cambodia

Elephants have been a part of Khmer culture for thousands of years. You’ll see images of elephants throughout Cambodia, including in the Temples of Angkor.

Archeologists believe that elephants were used to build the famous temple complex, perhaps as many as 6,000! Today there are only around 600 wild elephants in Cambodia and about 60 in captivity or domesticated.

As of 2019, it was made illegal to use elephants for tourism purposes, so you won’t see anyone offering elephant rides around Siem Reap or at the Angkor Temples. Elephants may not be taken from the wild.

Body and head of an elephant behind a tree, with the mouth open and the trunk extended to grab leaves to eat.

Since only male Asian Elephants have tusks, they have never been endangered due to the ivory trade. Some traditional cultures prize other parts of the body, and we saw several elephants who had their tail hair stolen. (People believe that the hair wards off evil spirits). However, the biggest threat to elephants is loss of habitat, and getting into trouble due to destroying property.

If you are interested in seeing Asian Elephants in the wild, we also highly recommend a safari in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka.

What is an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?

An elephant sanctuary is where “retired” domesticated elephants can come and live in peace and dignity, where they are cared for and looked after. It is a place of refuge to restore or maintain the health and well-being of individual captive elephants. It is not a camp for rides or performances, but a place where you can see elephants living in their natural habitat and learn more about these animals, their needs, and what is being done to care for them.

Tourists watching an elephants natural behaviors from a distance

The goal of these ethical elephant sanctuaries is to no longer be needed once the current elephants have passed away. They do not encourage breeding at the reserve, and since no additional elephants should be domesticated due to Cambodian law, only wild elephants, capable of taking care of themselves should remain.

What is the Elephant Valley Project?

The Elephant Valley Project was started in 2007 and was the first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Jack Highwood stated it and is an NGO that set out to create a home for overworked and injured elephants in and around their local area.

EVP works with the local Bunong People. The reserve is on local land, in return, the sanctuary employs local people and works with the community to provide services such as local taxis or ambulances when needed.

The sanctuary actually pays people to “house” their elephants on the reserve. They have a contract for each animal that can be renewed, incentivizing the local people to turn over care of the animals. Elephants have long been a part of local culture, and are often used for important ceremonies, such as blessings for marriages.

Why We Chose the Elephant Valley Project

After seeing elephants chained and ridden by tourists in Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, we wanted to show our children a more respectful and healthy way of protecting and supporting elephants, their habitats, and their surrounding communities.

von Berg Family next to a sign that says Welcome to the Elephant Valley Project on Day One of Elephant Sanctuary Visit
Clean and fresh our first morning at the Elephant Valley Project

EVP was founded in 2006 and was the first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Located on 1,500 hectares of land (about 3,700 acres), the elephants have a large space of natural habitat to roam, including forests, jungles, and bamboo groves. EVP is closed to visitors on Fridays and weekends, giving the elephants a break from the presence of tourists. Their slogan is “No Rides. No Tricks. Just Elephants”.

You will not bathe, feed, or ride the elephants at EVP, but you will see them up close in their natural habitats going about their daily lives. Come for a half day, a day, or two days with an overnight in the camp and help care for the elephants. You will not touch the elephants, but watch them from a few feet away, learn their stories, and see them interacting with their mahouts (elephant trainers).

We chose a two-day stay and enjoyed morning jungle treks each day to see the elephants, and in the afternoons we helped out at the sanctuary by transplanting bamboo to feed the elephants. Part of why we chose EVP is the ability to do some volunteering, and fun treks in a short time frame. Other sanctuaries offer purely touristy experiences unless you commit to a two-week or longer stay.

At the Elephant Volunteer Project, you can also get more involved with their volunteer programs which are at least two weeks long. We met several people there in the middle of longer volunteer programs, so we got an idea of the kind of experiences involved. One morning as we headed out on a hike, they were going to learn to do a health check on one of the older elephants. This is a wonderful opportunity for young people considering a career in conservation.

Visiting Elephant Valley Project: Review

Here’s what we experienced at the Elephant Valley Project when we visited with our two kids who were 6 and 8 years old during our stay. At the time, EVP had 12 elephants, including one male, and one baby.

Trekking and Volunteering Overnight Experience

We chose the 2 day/1 Night “Taste of the Jungle” experience. This was just the right amount of time for us. It meant two morning hikes to see the elephants and learn about them, and two afternoons of labor at the camp to help move their goals forward. We originally questioned if the volunteer portion would be appropriate for our aged kids. However the staff encouraged us to come and said they would find appropriate activities for the kids as needed. I’m so glad we did- the kids loved jumping in and helping during the volunteering portions and had no problem keeping up on the hikes.

Pick up and Transport

We met the EVP team at the Hangout, a bar and cafe that opens at 6:30 am. This was the perfect spot to grab breakfast before our 7:15 call time. After a brief introduction, we piled into pickup trucks and drove to the elephant sanctuary.

We rode in the back of a pickup truck- so of course no seat belts or child seats. I grew up riding this way, and as we travel around the world we often find ourselves embracing the local way of travel despite different safety concerns back home. We stopped to load up some fruit for the elephants on our way and then arrived at the camp.

Be sure to pack a day pack, as you’ll leave your overnight bag with the team, and immediately head out into the jungle.

We began the day with an introduction to the camp, what to expect, and a bit of the history of EVP, and how they work. Then we set off on our first elephant trek!

Elephant Trekking

The first morning we did a long jungle hike to see the elephants. It was a beautiful day but it had rained the night before and the trail was muddy and slippery. Our girls opted for walking sticks to help them on the slick sections. Some of the older guests struggled with the hills on the rough terrain, and one or two took a fall, but no one was hurt.

The treks can be strenuous, so we only recommend this experience for people who are fit and able to navigate muddy, rough, or difficult terrain.

Line of hikers on a red muddy trail through the jungle at an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia

We saw our first elephant very quickly- Sambo, who was 63, and had damaged feet that kept her from straying too far. She had a rough life, and her tail hair had been stolen. Sadly, she passed a few months after our visit. From there we headed into the jungle and up the mountain to find more remote elephants. We watched two other elephants that morning, as they ate in the forest, and had medicine applied to injuries.

The elephants move as they like, and you follow them through the jungle from a distance. The guide will ask you to move if you are in the elephant’s way, or blocking their path. They really try not to interfere with the elephant’s ability to move and feed as they wish.

We were back to camp just before noon, and everyone was tired from the difficult hike and ready for a rest.

Guide with walking stick and an elephant walking away in the forests of Cambodia

The second morning we had breakfast at 7 and then hiked to the top of the hill to meet a new group of visitors. We were then given a ride in a pickup truck to the start of our next jungle trek, as it was farther away. This trek was much flatter than the previous day and with more tall grasses than forest or jungle. This was a much easier hike than the previous day.

We met three older elephants and then spent some time watching Pearl, and her baby Diamond, who was then 15 months old. We followed them for a while, watching them rip food down, and watching Diamond nurse.

It is considered good luck when an elephant is born in the wild, but bad luck when one is born in captivity. The elephant sanctuaries are not breeding programs, and this baby was the result of a wild bull entering the area. The staff expressed sadness that when Diamond is older, she will be the only elephant left in the reserve.

Mom and baby elephant at elephant sanctuary in Cambodia

One of the best parts of the elephant trekking experience is being able to ask questions of your guide. They will happily explain any behavior you see, including which elephants are best friends with which others, their favorite foods, their histories, and more.

Be sure to bring clothes you don’t mind getting very dirty. The mud is a red clay, and we were quickly covered in it. It didn’t wash out of our socks very well. Bring flip-flops to wear around the camp, as you’ll take your shoes off before entering the lodge or lounge.

Volunteering with Elephant Valley Project

Volunteer activities start at 2 pm, giving you a bit of a rest after lunch. The first afternoon we hiked down to an area by a stream to harvest bamboo to be transplanted. We hiked out carrying buckets and heavy tools, dug up bamboo shoots, filled the buckets, and then carried them back to camp. It was hard work, but rewarding to see the buckets filled with bamboo.

Dad and daughter digging up bamboo roots while volunteering at elephant sanctuary, Cambodia
Working hard to harvest bamboo for replanting

The following afternoon, we carried the buckets to a field closer to camp and dug (many) holes to replant the bamboo. The idea was to create a bamboo field closer to the camp for the older elephants to eat from. Again, it was hard work, but I was impressed by how the kids threw themselves into the work and tried their best.

Volunteer activities will vary depending on what needs to be done, but they will generally not involve the elephants themselves.

Food and Housing at the Jungle Lodge

Meals at EVP are delicious. They are served buffet style, and there is usually rice, a meat dish, and a vegetarian dish, often with a fruit plate for dessert. The main lodge includes a kitchen with a room on each side. One side is the dining room, the other is a lounge with couches, books, and a few games. Set on a hill, the lower level is covered but open with benches, and a few hammocks to relax in.

Girl and cat stretched out on the floor of a lounge area with an open triangular space and mountains beyond

Our room was a quick walk from the main lodge and consisted of twin beds with mosquito nets, and a bathroom down the path. The whole complex has electricity only from 5-9 pm. There are no outlets in the rooms, so you’ll need to charge your devices in the lounge. The room was perfectly comfortable, and we were happy with our lodging.

Make sure to bring a small flashlight for getting to and from the bathrooms and getting your things sorted in the dark.

Getting to Sen Monorom, Cambodia

We arrived in Sen Monorom the afternoon before our elephant experience began. We had a few hours to explore the town and were ready for our meet-up early the next morning. Once you finish your elephant experience, you’ll be back in Sen Monorom around 5 pm. You’ll want to stay that night and catch a bus in the morning.

We took a shared van to Sen Monorom from Kratie, a town known for its population of wild river dolphins. Large vans or Minibuses run at least once a day, but you can’t prebook them online. Ask at any of the guest houses in Kratie, and they’ll get you tickets for the bus. The ride is around 4 hours.

If you are going to or from Siem Reap, you can book your bus in advance. There’s one bus a day going in each direction that leaves before 8 am. The bus ride is about 9 hours, but there is a stop for lunch and bathrooms at the midpoint.

When you stop, look for Kralan, a traditional snack of sticky rice, peas or beans, and coconut milk packed into a tube of bamboo and grilled. You peel back the bamboo like it’s a wrapper and eat the rice. You’ll often see them in bundles, but you can ask to buy just one. Cheap and delicious!

Bundles of Kralen rice snacks in bamboo at a rest stop in Cambodia

If you are going to or from Phnom Penh there are many bus options, including a night bus leaving Sen Monorom if you don’t want to stay the night after your tour. The ride is about 7 hours, though we recommend a stop in Kratie if you have the time.

If you’ll be spending time in Siem Reap, check out our favorite coffee spots in town, and consider taking a food tour to learn more about Khmer culture.

Where to Stay in Sen Monorom, Cambodia

We stayed at the Mondulkiri Pizza Bungalows and highly recommend it. The accommodations are individual wooden bungalows with a small porch, or they even have some tents in wooden alcoves. There is a small pool in the middle, a swing, and a deck built over a rushing river.

Pool and A-frame bungalows at Mondulkiri Pizza Bungalows Sen Monorom Cambodia

There is also a lovely restaurant in front that serves pizza, with indoor and outdoor seating on a lovely deck. The family who runs it is wonderful, and our kids had a great time playing with their kids!

The bungalows are on a quiet street, a quick walk from The Hangout, where you’ll meet your elephant guides, and we were able to have the minibus drop us off right out front of the pizza place. It’s an easy walk to the larger markets in town, as well as several places to eat.

Book Now: Mondulkiri Pizza Bungalows


Where to Eat in Sen Monorom, Cambodia

We spent the night before our elephant sanctuary experience in Sen Monorom, the night after, and one extra day to relax and recover. It’s a fairly small town, with one main busy street with the largest markets and shops on that. We had time to wander around and try all the best cafes and restaurants in town. Here’s where we recommend eating when in town.

The Hangout

Front of Hangout restaurant with sign and flag in Sen Monorom Cambodia

This is where you’ll meet up with the team from EVP. They are open early and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can have a beer and the whole family can play pool for a relaxing afternoon. Their breakfasts are inexpensive and include pancakes, yogurt, and fruit options. They also have some adorable cats strolling around.

Pizza Bungalows

This is the pizza restaurant where we stayed. We didn’t try the breakfast here, but the pizza makes for an easy, relaxed evening.

Phea’s Treats

Little girl staring at pancakes with bananas and nuts at Pheas Treats in Sen Monorom Cambodia

When we visited Phea’s had recently opened. They have French press coffee and great bagel sandwiches. They also make some delicious cakes and pies! Run by a friendly couple.

Cinnamon Cafe and Bakery

Try the crepes here, they are served with a homemade chocolate sauce that is excellent. They also make cardamom buns.

Coin Cafe

Interior of Coin Cafe with booths and blue lighting in Sen Monorom Cambodia

This is the place to grab an afternoon coffee if you are looking for wifi and air conditioning. The kids had a passionfruit soda here that they enjoyed.

How Much Does an Elephant Sanctuary Cost?

When you visit an elephant sanctuary or any other Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, you are not only paying for the cost of your stay, you are donating to the organization, to help them continue their work.

Prices for a two-day/one-night stay in a shared room with a shared bathroom are $150 USD per person. Email them for discounted rates for children. As a family of four, we had a “shared room” to ourselves with four single beds. All meals and transportation to and from Sen Monoram are included.

Why Are Elephant Sanctuaries Controversial?

Controversy remains over what makes an elephant sanctuary ethical. Some sanctuaries maintain that allowing tourists to bathe and feed elephants is ethical, though they no longer allow tourists to ride the elephants. Other sanctuaries maintain complete distance between tourists and the elephants to allow them as natural and wild an experience as possible.

At Elephant Valley Project, a mahout helps each elephant with any natural behaviors that they either cannot perform themselves or did not learn due to their interaction with humans. This can include feeding older elephants with missing teeth or bathing elephants who haven’t learned to bathe themselves. Mahouts also do health checks and apply medicine for horsefly bites and any other injuries.

Seated Mahout feeding an older elephant at elephant sanctuary in Cambodia
Mahout hand-feeding an elephant with bad teeth

A mahout is assigned to each elephant and stays with them throughout the day. Part of their job is to make sure the elephant stays within the confines of the reserve and doesn’t get into trouble in the nearby farms or villages.

FAQ: Elephant Sanctuary in Cambodia

Are there Elephants at Angkor Wat?

While elephants were used to build Angkor Wat and used to be commonly seen there giving rides to tourists, this has been outlawed as of 2020. You will not see elephants at Angkor Wat.

Where are there Wild Elephants in Cambodia?

Most of the wild elephants in Cambodia are in the Cardamom Mountains in the Southwest, and the Mondulkiri Province in the east of Cambodia. There are estimated to be between 400 and 600 wild elephants in Cambodia.

How Do I Know if an Elephant Sanctuary is Ethical?

Definitions of what is ethical vary, so there is no simple answer to this question. You want to choose an elephant sanctuary that puts the health and wellbeing of the elephants above tourism, and making money. This means prioritizing natural behaviors when possible. We chose a sanctuary that does not allow bathing, or even feeding of the elephants by tourists.

Are Elephants Protected in Cambodia?

Yes, elephants are protected in Cambodia. It is illegal to take an elephant from the wild. It is also illegal to use an elephant for tourism. However, you will still see elephants being put to work in temples and even in some family homes.

Are elephants sacred in Cambodia?

Elephants are powerful symbols in Cambodia. They stand for good luck and protection.

There You Have It: Visiting an Elephant Sanctuary in Cambodia

Spending time at an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia is a wonderful way to support the conservation of these gentle creatures and to learn more about them. This is a great family-friendly activity, and one of the best places in Southeast Asia to get up close with elephants.

We had a great time visiting EVP, it was one of the highlights of our time in Cambodia. We highly recommend spending some time with the team at Elephant Valley Project.

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