Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia.
Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia.
One of the great privileges of my life as a nomad has been the opportunity to spend time with wild animals. Bumping into a family of mischievous macaques on Gibraltar rock. Swimming with tropical fish off Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Coming face to face with the Siberian tigers of northeast China. They were all experiences I’ll never forget. However, for me nothing compares to the joyous feeling of hanging out with elephants.
Prior to my arrival in Cambodia at the beginning of 2020, I’d been fortunate enough to enjoy two memorable elephant experiences. Way back in April 2004, I got to bathe an elephant at Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary in India. Later, in June 2015, I set off on a jungle hike with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
When I heard about Kulen Elephant Forest in Siem Reap, I felt excited by the prospect of adding a third centre to my archives. Especially as this sanctuary houses 14 of Cambodia’s 75 captive elephants in a 1100 acre protected park. Sladja meanwhile had never seen an elephant in this kind of setting, hence it felt like a no-brainer to pay a visit to KEF.
Unfortunately, by the time we were looking to visit, Coronavirus had shut down Cambodia’s tourism industry. Thus the sanctuary had already closed its doors to general admission. Still keen to make something happen, I fired off a speculative query through their Facebook page. A few days later I was pleasantly surprised when the sanctuary’s co-founder, David-Jaya Piot, invited us for a behind-closed-doors look at the forest and its endangered residents.
Kulen Elephant Forest.
At first glance David seems an unlikely elephant park owner. Indeed his backstory is anything but typical. Half Cambodian, half French, he is just twenty four years old and grew up locally in a well-to-do family. Moreover, the elephants at KEF have belonged to his family for decades.
Back in the day, these elephants gave rides to tourists around The Angkor Temples. Take even a cursory glance at Cambodia online forums and it’s clear there are plenty of people who are not crazy about that.
Nonetheless, David is clearly a key figure in the new wave of Khmer entrepreneurs looking to reshape the country’s business culture. Opened in December 2019, he created the park to provide the elephants with a retirement home where they can roam free, eat natural foods and receive healthcare.
“I have a love for nature and adventure that is deeply rooted in memories of growing up in Cambodia”.
David also wanted to recreate the spirit of the Siem Reap he was raised in. A place, he says, that’s become all but a distant memory. He talks of growing up around elephants, of fireflies in his back garden and troublesome monkeys invading his home. He also references Tin Tin, Indiana Jones and a rolling cast of passionate, temple-dwelling expats who lived in the city prior to the internet boom.
It was David who personally drove us to the sanctuary, located an hour’s drive from the city at the foothills of Phnom Kulen National Park. At the edge of the forest, he pulled up on a bumpy country road and the three of us jumped out. From there we continued on foot, following a dusty trail through a number of parched fields.
Passing herds of cows and several Authorised Personnel Only signs, we eventually made our way down a magnificent wooden bridge. At the other end stood a giant thatched hut, the sanctuary’s meeting point for tours of the forest.
It was in the hut that we met Leanne Wallace, the sanctuary’s general manager. With a background in UK zoos, Lianne joined the team with experience as a keeper, trainer, mahout and all-round elephant educator.
Before heading out to meet the elephants for breakfast, she explained that our itinerary that day would be an informal, stripped-back version of what tourists here usually get. Basically, we’d be feeding them breakfast, setting off on a forest hike and then watching them cool off in the pond. Sounded pretty good to me.
Kulen Elephant Sanctuary.
It’s hard to describe what a thoroughly heartwarming experience it is to feed an elephant. That morning, at the breakfast station, we met five of the park’s hungry beasts.
According to Leanne, the wooden bar set before them provides a sense of security for both the elephants and us humans. Should any of the animals feel wary of all the attention, they can back away. Furthermore, if it all gets too much, there’s nothing to stop an elephant from walking off altogether.
The menu is a simple one, with bananas and sugarcane piled up in a number of wooden baskets. All you have to do is reach inside, move toward the elephant and hold your hand out. It’s amazing how gentle and considered they are when they take food from you. They don’t snatch and they show remarkable patience with people who hesitate in handing the food over.
While breakfast unfolded, both David and Leanne were on hand to advise us. Some elephants, for example, are happy to take the food with their trunks. Others prefer you to move your hand directly toward their mouths.
In any case the breakfast scenario helps visitors build a bond with the elephants. They need to feel comfortable with you and vice versa. After all, everyone is about to head off into the forest together for a hike, so it’s better to break the ice early on.
A Walk in the Forest.
With all the sugarcane and banana gobbled up, we wasted no time in heading out into the forest for a relaxing afternoon stroll. Well, as relaxing as it can get in thirty degree heat. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to observe the elephants and how they interact with their environment.
As we progressed, there was much to learn about the sanctuary’s beautiful residents. Take 47 year old Savath, for example, recognisable for a large tear in her left ear. She was bitten by a snake and had to have part of her ear removed in order to prevent the poison from spreading.
While her early years remain a mystery, we do know that she probably had a child, is best friends with another elephant, Chi Chorb, and generally doesn’t like to be touched. She’s also a bona fide movie star, having appeared in the acclaimed documentary Last of the Elephant Men.
The hike was also an opportunity to learn about the regular tours here, which allow visitors to engage in a number of unique activities. The Afternoon Session, for instance, includes a snack-making class. This involves creating tennis ball sized concoctions of sticky rice, salt, sunflower seeds and bananas.
Typically an elephant consumes 10% of its body weight a day in food. However, only 40% of this is actually absorbed, the rest comes out in poop. Hence the snack helps digestion and gives more nutrition. The sticky rice has loads of protein, salt is an essential mineral and sunflower seeds act as an added fat.
An Elephant Never Forgets.
Another activity sees tour members hiding fruit inside rubber tires, before tying a rope around the tire. The elephants are then encouraged to figure out how to get the fruit. Using their trunks and feet, they are able to solve the puzzle. This stimulates them mentally and educates visitors on how smart elephants are. Everyone’s a winner.
Fun and games aside, there are some serious questions Sladja and I felt we had to put to David. In these politically sensitive times, when animal welfare is never far from the news, the business of elephant keeping is one that elicits strong emotions.
Indeed there are plenty of people who object to the very idea of an elephant sanctuary. So what does he say to those who insist wild animals should be left free in the wild, independent of humans?
“Returning elephants to the wild is a very complicated process”.
David reckons these elephants are far better off in his care. Firstly, he says, they’ve been around humans for most of their lives and are simply not equipped to survive in the wild. There’s also a whole host of sub issues to consider, such as poaching and habitat destruction. Cambodia, for example, has one of the highest rates of logging in the world.
We had also read angry accusations of chained elephants at KEF. David admits that at night this is indeed the case, with the animals kept under a large tree on a five meter chain. They are supervised by a mahout, who feeds them and ensures they remain comfortable.
Somewhat wearily, David concedes that for the moment this is the most practical way to keep them safe. He understands the negative symbolism chains have, but says they remain very practical in elephant management.
He points out that chains don’t change shape or size in heat or with moisture. This is important because elephants urinate a lot and weather conditions can make the ground wet and muddy. Chains are also easy to clean and maintain, plus they allow vets to safely treat the animals.
David and his team have considered alternative solutions, such as an elephant-proof fence. But not all of his elephants get along and he fears that fighting could lead to disastrous consequences. Other ideas, such as electrical enclosures, are beyond his means in terms of funding.
Kulen Elephant Forest.
Eventually, we reach the sanctuary pond, where the elephants can cool off. It is here, to the sound of splashing water, spraying mud and magnificent trumpeting, that I find myself pondering the subject of elephant breeding. The biggest challenge David, Leanne and co face is that Cambodia has a small, ageing elephant population.
The ideal breeding age for a female elephant is mid-teens to mid twenties. Like humans, the older they get the more difficult it is to conceive. The forest’s youngest elephant is in her mid-thirties and has never bred, making the task more difficult. So far, not one of the females at KEF has allowed the males to mate with them. And with the males in question being very aggressive, the situation is unlikely to change.
Artificial insemination is something they are looking into. The first step would be to conduct hormone testing to see if their females are viable. Should there be signs of hope, they would need to monitor their ovulations, attempt insemination and get through the 18-22 month gestation period.
After that, they’d be looking at a calf weening process of at least two years. All of which, of course, is costly and time consuming, with plenty of luck needed along the way. In trials carried out in Thailand, one in fifty five attempts at artificial insemination proved successful.
Kulen Elephant Sanctuary.
If there’s one thing I can take away from my visit to Kulen Elephant Forest, it’s that the issues surrounding elephant keeping are not black and white. They are incredibly complex and require a genuine love for the animals, along with an analytical mind. Not to mention time, patience and lots of money.
Sladja and I felt privileged to have been invited to tour the place. To have met these gorgeous animals and to have learned more about the plight of the Asian elephant. As such, I can only thank David for his hospitality that day. He was under no obligation to extend such an invitation, let alone personally drive us to the forest. And he certainly didn’t have to treat us to lunch afterwards, sweeping aside our protestations.
Kulen Elephant Forest is open to visitors! For full details on how to visit, head for the official website. For an alternative review of the park, check out this piece by Time Travel Turtle.
Like this? Check out my guide on What to See and Do in Siem Reap.
You can also read my overview of Where to Eat and Drink Siem Reap.
Looking for a roof over your head? Check out my articles on Where to Stay in Siem Reap.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
Brilliant experience, we love animals and have travelled everywhere to see and interact with them. The whole world should be an animal sanctuary so maybe we could start shooting big cojones game hunters, would love to see them in my cross hairs.
Yes, some Hunger Games style setup where they are the prey. Thanks for checking out Kulen Elephant Forest, Gary.
Oooh those elephants are just too adorable 😍 I love animals and I love interacting with them, but only when they are kept in a similar style habitat to their own and not in a tiny cage or tank. This sanctuary is a breath of fresh air.
They are adorable, and with such personality. So gentle, vulnerable and introverted, which is probably why I relate ha ha. Those who complain about the less than ideal aspects of the sanctuary should remember that these animals have been rescued from work and have a huge natural area in which to roam. I’m sure they are always looking for ways to improve. Thanks for dropping by!
I totally agree. For these animals, the sanctuary is much closer to home than whatever “work” environment they had found themselves in. I’m so happy they found a peaceful place to just be 🥰🥰
This sanctuary definitely seems to have the elephant’s welfare as a priority and it must have been so interesting to feed them bananas and sugarcane. A splendid experience Leighton.
Thanks Marion, this was definitely an experience that’ll stay with us. They are just fabulous animals and looking after them is a tough business!
Fascinating post and a one of a kind experience, Leighton. How lucky you reached out to see what was possible for a visit. So many people see how animals are being kept and cared for with a preconceived notion of how they think things should be. If they took the time to visit and listen as you did, they might see things differently. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
You’re spot on Allan. I know that David and Lianne took a lot of abuse from expats in Siem Reap for the chains at night and other perceived failures of care. However, my impression was of a team of people doing their best to look after the herd with the resources they had. Thanks for reading!
Nothing like a good elephant story to start your Sunday morning. I am so envious. I’ve never had the chance to get close to an elephant. It’s amazing how each face and head is so distinctive with individual bumps and such piercing eyes. I had no idea that breeding elephants was so difficult but then it is a huge commitment on the part of the female. Thanks for the smiles.
Cheers Memo. You’re right about the eyes, so knowing and full of wisdom almost. The way they were taking about breeding, I think it would be nothing short of a miracle if they managed to oversee a birth.
‘A jungle hike with a herd of elephants’ … an experience that seems like such a fun thing to do! They look like a bunch of small children (not meaning they are actually ‘small’ of course), but enjoying the pond (and mud). What an absolute priviledge to have such a wonderful guided tour – one can see they are taken care of and in the end, that’s all that mattters, isn’t it? Well done to David, Leanne and their team … and thanks to you Leighton for telling the story.
Thanks Corna, I certainly wouldn’t turn down the chance of a 4th elephant sanctuary experience should that ever come my way. If that isn’t meant to be, hey, it was an absolute privilege as you say.
Your experience echoes pretty much what we found at the MandaLao elephant sanctuary near Luang Prabang. Except there they have apparently managed to drop the chains by building an appropriate enclosure: https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.nz/news/mandalaos-elephants
Well that’s fantastic, on the face of it there seems to be no major reason KEF couldn’t do this themselves. I got the sense that funding was very tight but still, this should be the aim. The sanctuary in Laos looks fantastic and will be very much on our list if and when we finally make it to Laos. Thanks for reading Sarah!
You would love MandaLao and also Luang Prabang, I know – hope you get there one day!
Oh, what fun! Your visit to Kulen Elephant Forest was fun for me (Kellye) with the amazing photos and videos. I hope KEF is financially stable enough to continue protecting the gentle giants. As an animal lover, I would be beside myself to get to visit this park in person. Thanks so much for sharing your visit!
Thanks Kellye, it was an incredible day, better than my experience in India and on a par with the elephant sanctuary I went to in Thailand. I also hope KEF can struggle through these tough times.
It seems to have been such a wonderful experience. And you’re very right to say that there is no black and white when it comes to elephant sanctuaries, or even any other wild animal reserve. Hopefully they are indeed safer here, than in the wild, left to the dangers of poaching.
Thanks for reading Nic. I hope so too, especially as their numbers are dwindling with the passing of each year.
Beautiful photos and elephants! They are so magnificent and brilliant creatures!
They really are, thanks for stopping by Allie!
I’ve heard of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and they are popular destinations for travelers to check out. I have reservations even about these sanctuaries, as I’ve heard a few aren’t actually that good for the elephants (e.g. overbathing them for tourist’s sake). But it appears you went to one that treated the animals well, and I can see that it was such a therapeutic experience for all!
Hey Rebecca, I don’t think the situation at Kulen Elephant Sanctuary was perfect but I think they have been given better lives. Ideally they will solve (or already have solved in the intervening years) the issue of nighttime care and chains. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, it’s a fascinating and complicated subject. Elephants are majestic creatures and their dwindling numbers is a global tragedy.
What a great experience Leighton! It’s a difficult situation as you say. These elephants may not survive on their own and being well taken care of at a sanctuary is probably their best option. We went to an elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka but weren’t able to interact with the elephants. It was mostly orphaned young. Their goal was to release them so wanted to keep human interaction to a minimum. That was so great that you got a private tour. Good to be persistent 😊 Maggie
Thanks for your thoughts Maggie. Sounds like they were really serious with their aims and goals in Sri Lanka. Hope your trip is off to a good start!
What an incredible thing to experience! I appreciate that you also took the time to explain the realities of managing the elephants in captivity.
Hey Diana, thanks for taking the time to read. It was an exceptional experience to be that close to the elephants. I remember when we were hiking through the forest and I had one of them hot on my heels, thumping the ground a few metres behind me. Just exhilarating.
What an incredible experience!!! The elephants do look pretty happy and majestic.
Thanks for checking out the elephants at Kulen Forest Lyssy!
Maybe I walked by them when I visited Angkor, maybe they remember me, as they never forget. Just as tourism money saved the temples and palaces of Angkor, we can hope that combining tourism with elephant preservation can be a solution. Nice experience and smart review of the sanctuary.
Thanks a lot. I was surprised by how under-the-radar the elephant park actually is in terms of exposure. We had been living in Siem Reap for a few months when we found out about the place and it was quite the surprise to us. Advertising wise, I’d have thought KEF would’ve been up front and centre along with the temples.
What an incredible experience! I absolutely love seeing animals in their natural habitats, and am quite envious of your experience. Thanks for asking the hard questions and sharing this.
Thanks a lot, I tried not to make this a fluff piece simply about cute elephants. Appreciate you reading and adding to the thread!
a fantastic article that encapsulates not only the magic of the creatures but also the complexity and controversy of elephant care. well done sir
Thanks Stan, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Hope you’re keeping well!
Oh wow, they are just incredible. Such a special experience, and I love that last photo 🙂 Also writing about elephant care is so interesting and important.
Thanks Hannah, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Elephants are my favourite creatures aside from cats. I think I would love to have a similar experience with giraffes one of these years. 🦒
What an amazing experience and how cool to visit even though the sanctuary was closed. It’s hard to believe just how young the owner is. Good for you for asking some of the hard questions.
He is really young and from a privileged background. A lot of people don’t like that, I noticed, scanning through some of the negative posts about KEF. But I felt he had the animals best interests at heart. He was also very kind to Sladja and I, offering us a free tour, taking us to the park and back and even buying us lunch afterwards! Thanks for reading and chipping in.
This kind of day is a wonderful experience, as long as you can find a sanctuary which has all the right principles and treats the elephants with proper love and care. And that’s not so easy, lots claim to be sound but on closer inspection all is not good. You really did find a good one here though, and your private visit was obviously one of those rare good things to come out of the pandemic. What a terrific day you had. (PS – I didn’t know you’d been to Tioman Island, we’ve been there too – paradise!)
Hey Phil, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this longer piece. I just love these animals and it was a privilege to get the invite. Tioman Island yes, I have great memories too. That piece will be due a republish one of these years.
Oh how wonderful to get to be so close to so many of these beautiful gentle giants. I really love that this sanctuary gives them not only the care they need but also the space they need. You can tell the people there really love what they do and want to share that love with others. Beautiful elephant pictures is definitely what this Monday morning needed. 🙂
I’m glad to have brought a bit of the Cambodian wild to your Monday, Meg. Hope you are all doing well and enjoying the summer.
[…] Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia. […]
This is wonderful and considerately written. Love your approach to such a phenomenal experience, and it would have been easy to have been “Ooo elephants” and left it at that but so glad to see such a respectful and understanding view on it. Absolute delight to read and I look forward to reading more of your posts!
Hey Holly, thank you so much for your kind words. In truth I had read quite a few comments online laying into David and his team, along with plenty of solid reviews. As such, I admit that I went that day with those so-called tough questions very much on my mind. Cheers for the like, comment and indeed follow. Much appreciated.
Wow! This looks like a wonderful experience! Beautiful pictures that really tell a great story! Thank you!
Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to leave a message in the thread.
What an amazing experience, such beautiful and majestic animals 🥰
Thanks for reading!
This sounds like the best home for elephants with land to graze and wander, second only to the wild and national parks. They are such intelligent and sensitive animals. What a wonderful experience for you both! I did ride an elephant and wash her in a river in Laos – it was a reserve that treated the elephants kindly and humanely, but this is no longer a thing to do, and I agree and respect that.
Yup I’m the same Ruth. Rode an elephant in India in my early 20s but wouldn’t dream of doing it again. Thanks for taking a look at Kulen Elephant Forest.
What an amazing experience, and a very sensitively written post. Very much enjoyed. And that last image is just beautiful!
Thank you so much Helen, I’m glad you found this article. Definitely one of those experiences that still makes me smile from head to toe.
Amazing animals, unforgettable experience. I liked how you asked some tough questions and approached the article from an analytical perspective.
Thanks so much Health Coach, appreciate you reading and taking the time to comment.
Such an interesting read! There was so much I didn’t know about Elephant sanctuaries! Thank you so much for sharing this heartwarming experience, and I really hope I’ll get to visit one of those places one day too!
Glad you enjoyed this piece Juliette. Elephants are such magical creatures, I’d like to think we could have at least one more sanctuary experience in another country one of these years.