It is pitch black when Lek knocks on the door of my room at the guest house.
“Ok, we go,” she says softly through the wood. “The elephants are ready.”
Today — this morning — we are on a mission: to rescue two female elephants from their lives of work and deliver them to freedom at Save Elephant Foundation’s newest project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.
I’ve only slept for a couple of hours, and the travel to get here has been exhausting. But, I don’t care. The tired vanishes from my body as I pull on my clothes and head downstairs.
At 4:30 a.m., our group loads into the van and begins our journey.
“They loaded the first elephants at 3:30,” Lek reports. “She was a bit difficult, but the other girl went on the truck easily.”
The “other girl” is Kham Lin, the younger of the two elephants. Her previous life was in a small village which used to have 100 elephants. She is the last one. Because of inadequate (read: non-existent) veterinary care, each elephant has been chained up when they have gotten sick and left to die. Her time in the village, thanks to Lek, is now finished.
The day earlier, we watched as she took her last steps as a captive elephant, flanked by children from the village. Without hesitation, she walked onto the truck. Immediately, my heart fluttered and tears filled my eyes.
This life of work is done for you, Kham Lin.
As we head out of town with the sun just beginning to crack the horizon, I feel that warm feeling move through my body again. I know I am a part of something incredibly special … at least to the two elephants who are being rescued.
Our first glimpse of the trucks with the elephants being rescued
We pull over on the side of the road a little outside of town and wait for the two elephant trucks to drive by. As they move down the hill, I see our team on the trucks, balanced on wooden boards affixed to the top, covered in blankets to fight the nippy Cambodian morning. They wave to us on the road below.
We drive a little longer and Lek asks me if I want to ride on top of one of the trucks.
My parents would definitely not approve of this.
I agree in an instant, even though I’ve inspected the trucks. The one I want to ride one, the one with Kham Lin, is especially scary for me. The ladder to the top doesn’t even start until above the massive front wheel, and then there is a gap where you have to hoist yourself onto the roof of the cab, and then a step onto the top of the back of the truck.
Lauren, a volunteer with us, climbs up first.
“Come on, D, you can do it,” she says, looking down at me from the bench she is sitting on.
I can’t not get on the truck, I can’t not ride with the elephant because I am scared of falling down a ladder.
I muster my little courage and climb up, with the help of two people — one on the ground and one pulling my onto the top of the cab.
Heart racing, I finally make it to the bench and look behind me.
Kham Lin stands in the truck calmly.
I wish she could understand how much her life is about to change.
Then, we begin our journey to the Mekong.
It’s chilly. Bugs slap my face. Dust settles on every inch of my body. And, I don’t care. Being on top of the truck, seeing Cambodia pass me by like this … there is no place I would rather be.
We drive for two hours down a two-lane, paved road. Around us is eerily quiet at this hour, as the sun begins to cast its golden light onto the (depleted) countryside.
It’s magical and sad at the same time, driving through tiny villages of homes on wooden stilts and tiny shacks which sell goods to the people on the road.
We arrive to the Mekong mid-morning. There is no bridge to take us across the river, only a barge. The three trucks load onto the barge and we begin the 30-minute ride across the river.
When we are delivered to the opposite side, the world is entirely different. Instead of pavement, it is dirt. Instead of buildings, there are wooden huts. And, the military which greet us and stop us, inspecting our documents and looking through a book Lek has brought which shows photos from Elephant Nature Park and the happy lives of the elephants there. That is her dream for the sanctuary in Cambodia: to give the elephants happy lives.
The military thumb through the book, pointing and smiling at the photos, and then wave us on our way.
That’s when the journey gets more difficult.
The road isn’t good. In fact, the bumps and dips make for a difficult time a top the truck. I haven’t gotten comfortable yet, so my feet attempt to brace my body against the back of the cab, and I have a death grip on the wooden bench I’m sitting on. As we drive across Cambodia, my heart begins to quietly break.
All around me is extreme poverty. Animals living under homes that will be meals. Children running with tattered clothing and smeared in dirt. Yet, each little village we drive through, we are greeted with excitement.
An elephant! In a truck!
For most, it is the first time they have seen an elephants — because today, there are so few left in the wild in Cambodia.
The children run up to the side of the road and wave up to us on top of the truck. They point and smile at the elephants as we zoom by their world.
I wish we could bring these people with us, too.
The interior of Cambodia is desolate. Graveyards of forests surround the dirt road. It reminds me a lot of the Las Vegas desert, only there is little life here, thanks to the burning of the jungle.
There are places where the stench of burn sits thick in the air.
And then there are places where the fires are so strong, I can feel the heat from them as we drive by. I can hear the crackling of the fires around us.
Sadly, there is little jungle left.
We drive for 16 hours, racing through dangerous areas as we get closer to Siem Reap and closer to the sanctuary. At one point, we get pulled over by police. But, since we’re doing everything above board, the only thing they ask is for $2 from us. I shake my head at this. Two. Dollars. That is nothing, but to them …
Finally, as the sky turns pink, I decide to get back into the truck. I can’t take anymore of the smoke, which has grown even worse.
The last two hours, we trail the elephants in the van and I stare intently on them. Filled with happy that they are going to their new home.
It is well into the night when we get to the sanctuary and there is one last part of the rescue which needs to be executed: the elephants getting off of the truck and taking their first steps into their new home.
The first girl, the one who had trouble getting onto the truck, turns to us and gently kneels down and steps off of the truck.
A small cheer and claps break out from the people who have stopped to watch this scene unfold on the side of the road. Immediately, I feel myself glow, I feel the tears begin to sting my eyes.
We did it.
Then, Kham Lin steps off the truck.
Our team leads them into the park as we trail behind, watching them as they take their first steps to the rest of their lives.
“This is just amazing,” I say to Lauren.
“Yeah … I mean … well … you get it … you’re here,” she says.
I know exactly what she means.
We’ve been a part of something so magical. So special. A month earlier, I visited Cambodia with Lek to see these elephants and to learn about them before they were rescued. To know I was a tiny part of something that gave these two gorgeous creatures a better life fills me with such warmth and takes me away from my selfish human needs and allows me to look at the bigger picture.
It’s actions like this that can change the world and change the thinking of people. And, I am so glad to be a part of this momentous occasion. To witness these elephants be brought to a new life. To be at the start of something new with the sanctuary.
In this moment, I could not be happier.
Want more on the elephant rescue? Check out The Diary of an Elephant Rescue.