Situated just 40km from Siem Reap city, a newly established sanctuary allows visitors to hang out with elephants in their natural habitat.
Kulen Elephant Forest, located in Siem Reap’s Prasat Bakong district, is home to 14 elephants that previously gave rides to tourists inside the Angkor Archaeological Park.
It offers half-day and full-day tours to see elephants in their natural environment. The tours depart every day from Siem Reap city.
“Visitors travel about one hour from Siem Reap and walk another 15 minutes to a little hut where they can drink coffee and tea. They can walk to where the elephants are and feed them,” says David-Jaya Piot, the project’s co-founder.
On the way to the Kulen Elephant Forest, visitors will have a chance to take in the beautiful scenery dominated by the Kulen Mountains and lush forest.
Once they arrive, visitors can watch the elephants play and go about their usual business, or they can trek deeper into the jungle to see more of them.
“For the half-day tours during the morning, we play a game. We put fresh fruit inside a tyre and let the elephants try to eat it. Then we bring them to the pond to cool down. To finish, people have lunch inside a big hut,” Piot says.
The afternoon half-day tours are similar, with tourists first having lunch and then playing the game. Tourists also learn how to make snacks for the elephants by mixing sticky rice with sunflower seeds and rice bran.
“In the full-day tour, visitors do both things – play the fruit-in-the-tyre game and learn to make snacks for elephants. They also have lunch in the jungle,” says Piot, a French Cambodian who speaks fluent Khmer.
This is the Caterine’s second visit to the forest. Preferring only to be known by her first name, the US national is here today with four friends. Their favourite thing to do here, they say, is watching the elephants bathe and feed them fresh fruits.
Piot, 23, who studied economics and finance at university, started the Kulen Elephant Forest project in 2017.
After working for a bank in Jordan and then for his father’s hotel in Siem Reap, he decided he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life to make his children proud.
“I was looking for a good location, not so far from the city. I finally found this area, only one hour from Siem Reap and connected to the Bos Thom Community,” he says.
Piot’s father had already tried his hand at creating an elephant sanctuary near Kbal Spean, but the project failed because back then, in the early 2000s, eco-tourism was not popular in the Kingdom.
“When I came back to Siem Reap and started working with my parents, I realised that demand for eco-tourism options in the Kingdom was growing fast, so I decided to launch a similar project to what my father did in the past.
“In the beginning, I was not the biggest elephant fan. But, after three years of working with them, they began to grow on me.
“The 14 elephants we have here can roam around freely together with their keepers. We also have strong ties with the local communities, from whom we buy some of the food we use at the project,” he says.
Piot says thanks to his project, locals no longer need to emigrate to Thailand since they can stay where they are and grow the plants that elephants consume.
“We need about three tonnes per day in plants to feed our elephants. Each elephant eats between 200kg and 300kg per day.
“The villagers here no longer have to look for work in Thailand or Siem Reap town because there is plenty of work to do here to feed the elephants. We also pay villagers to protect the forest and conduct patrols,” he says.
The elephants, Piot says, lead a much happier and more relaxed life than when they were giving rides to tourists at the temple complex. “They are much happier, and so am I. They get to explore the jungle and get lots of exercise.
“When they were working at the temples, they walked too much and didn’t get enough food,” he says.
Theng Samban, the president of Marry Travel, is visiting the Kulen Elephant Forest with a team of tour agents. They are here to decide if they will incorporate these tours into their offerings.
“We spent about two hours visiting various places and doing a variety of activities. We fed the elephants, explored the jungle and watched the elephants in their natural environment,” says Samban, while having some refreshments at a restaurant.
“These tours may not be for everyone because there is some trekking involved,” he says.
Samban says the tours are a good way of giving his customers more options and extending their stay in Siem Reap.
“I think this eco-tourism option is great. We also sell tour packages to an elephant valley in Mondulkiri. But if customers only have four or five days in Siem Reap, this is a good option,” he says.
Half-day tours cost $80 per person, and a full day will set you back $95. They include meals and transportation from Siem Reap city.
Kulen Elephant Forest is located in Ballangk commune, Prasat Bakong district, Siem Reap province. For more information, visit their website www.kulenforst.asia or call 096 879 3378.