Walking from village to village to sell her produce to earn her livelihood, Kang Kachael, an indigenous woman from the Brao tribe, carries a “ka pha” (dilly bag) on her back with an assortment of seasonal vegetables.
Smiling while saying that it was a good day for her, Kachael and her three sisters had walked about 3km from Ka Ting village when Airavata Traditional Indigenous Village founder Chenda Clais saw them and promised to buy their all-natural products.
“I sell “antornh” [elephant trunk leaves] that I picked up along the creek with backyard vegetables such as ivy gourd, pumpkin, papaya, jack fruit, wax gourd, eggplant and water lily.
“One full load of “ka pha” can make me between 20,000 ($5.00) and 30,000 riel,” said Kachael, who normally walks around 10km per day to sell her produce.
Airavata Traditional Indigenous Village is a recreated indigenous village of the Brao people which opened two months ago. It was established to show the heritage of the minorities in the village.
Clais hails from Phnom Penh while her husband, Pierre-Yves is a former paratrooper who came to Cambodia during the UN’s mission in Cambodia to live his dreams of adventure. They got married in 1997.
Clais who is also The Cambodia Hotel Association president said that the recreated village encouraged people to plant more trees.
“We use round wood for columns and stairs. For the roof of houses, we use bamboo and leaves. There are 10 bride’s houses. And, in the middle, we built a huge communal house – the Brao minority house. The whole village is in the form of a round shape.
“All the houses are for tourists and culture purposes. We use them for various cultural events and weddings and pre-wedding ceremonies,” said Clais.
About 50m from the village, there are two groom houses – built high above the ground to symbolise strength and power.
“When young men reach adulthood and want to show their strength and attract ladies, they build houses that are very high above the ground. The higher, the better,” said Clais.
In the indigenous village, people can walk with the last four elephants left in Ratanakiri, ride on the pachyderms or walk into the community jungle and bathe them, or even sample the indigenous people’s food.
“We also have roast chicken and fish for Khmer guests. We have sticky rice that our minority people plant on the hill. Guests can taste the difference in this rice.
“Here, we have various foods that are different from other places,” said Clais who is also the founder of Terres Rouges Lodge in Ratanakiri province and Rajabori Villas Resort in Kratie province.
Among many activities in the village, the training session of becoming a mahout is more popular. People want physical contact with animals and visit the minority community forest.
Clais said: “The mahout learning programme is very popular. We introduce the background of elephants in Cambodia and our province. We allow them to listen to which language we use to communicate with the pachyderms.
“Most of the elephant mahouts speak the Laotian language to the elephants because in the old days people would use this language to train elephants.
“Here we use the same training method by adding ethnic minority’s spoken language. Therefore, visitors here might need to learn how to pronounce the word so that the elephants can follow their command.”
After visitors learnt how to give commands to elephants, they can take the animals to explore the community forest under the supervision of a professional mahout.
According to Clais, most of the visitors are very pleased that the elephants gently follow their command without even showing a little aggression. They feel they have gone through an educational experience at leisure and have had an amazing experience with the animals.
“Cambodians traditionally respect and love elephants. We even celebrate these animals. People drive a very long way just to have a memorable time with the elephants.
“They come with various fruits, sugarcane and bananas to feed and pat our elephants. They only sit on their back for a few minutes to capture the moment with their cameras,” says Clais.
By allowing people to create a memory with these last four elephants in Ratanakiri, Clais believes that it will help visitors to feel emotionally connected with the animals.
It will spark their interest in animal conservation and ecotourism, which gives hope for the next generation through sustainable development.
Clais says: “Our visitors can learn about the daily lives of the animals and the benefits of this community forest. We must also balance development and conservation.”
The four elephants need eight mahouts to look after them and each consumes around 300kg of food. Hence, Clais has to expand the services to generate more income to support the animals and stakeholders.
“We protect the elephants, but it doesn’t mean we only work on conservation. We must contribute to environmental protection and promote our culture and tradition. For this reason, Airavata Traditional Indigenous Village plays an important role in our culture.
“The village has people and we need to create a market for their harvest and restaurants as a source for their supplies.”
Tourists can meet the indigenous people and see their harvest. They can also plant a tree with their name on it. The planting activity is popular with among couples.
A wedding package at Airavata Khmer Elephant Foundation costs anything from $10,000. But visitors who wish to just relax with the elephants spend only 80,000 riel ($20) per hour.
Visitors need to pay 20,000 riel to take a picture atop an elephant. Standing beside the animal for a photo opportunity costs just 5,000 riel.
Clais says: “For a day of training to be a basic mahout, a visitor pays 400,000 riel which includes food, beverage and professional guide.”
Airavata Khmer Elephant Foundation and Traditional Indigenous Village are located in Ka Teang village, Banlung, Ratanakiri Province near O’Ka Teang Waterfall.
For more information, log on to www.airavata-cambodia.com or call 012 965 165.