Cambodia’s Great Escapemajestic waterfalls, unique tribal people and a different vibe to the rest of Cambodia.
Mondulkiri, loosely translated as “Mountain of Mandala”, is a province in the country’s east. It borders the provinces of Kratié to the west, Stung Treng to the northwest, Ratanakiri to the north and Vietnam to the east and south, with easy access to all. It’s the largest and most sparsely populated province, despite being the biggest. Its capital is Sen Monorom.
The original wild east of Cambodia is a world apart from the lowlands with not a rice paddy or palm tree in sight, and the province abounds in natural beauty.
The People of Mondulkiri
Eighty percent of Mondulkiri’s population has ten tribal minorities, with the majority being the Chunchiet from the Bunong tribe. The remaining 20 percent or so being Khmer, Chinese and Cham. Most of the population lives off the land, planting rice, fruit trees and a variety of vegetables. Others grow coffee, strawberries, rubber and cashew nuts. Most of the indigenous peoples in Mondulkiri are subsistence farmers.
The Bunong have lived in the area for about 2000 years. Like other people in the country, they were displaced in the 1970s when the area fell under Khmer Rouge control. Much of the populace was forcibly removed to Koh Nhek district to provide labour. Schools, hospitals, even entire villages were destroyed, and as many as half of the people in the province died during the forced relocation.
And to throw a challenge into a challenging mix, there is an interesting blend of languages used in the area such as Khmer, hill tribe languages, Vietnamese and Lao. So, get your dictionary ready.
Sen Monorom: The Provincial Capital
Sen Monorom is the base camp for people who want to explore the area. A quiet but beautiful town nestled in the hills of Mondulkiri province. Currently, it’s undeveloped, which gives you a feeling of going somewhere isolated. At an average elevation of 800 metres, it can get down right chilly at night, so bring something warm.
However, one of the area’s main attractions is its cool climate, which offers a nice break from the heat and humidity of the Cambodian plain. Most nights are cool enough to sleep comfortably without air-conditioning or fans.
In this upland area, you’ll find deep primary jungle, with a huge variety of flora and fauna. This area still has one of the biggest woodlands of Cambodia. There is a seductive mix of grassy hills, pine groves and rainforests of jade green and waterfalls. Wild animals, such as bears, leopards and especially elephants, are more numerous here than elsewhere, although sightings are usually limited to birds, monkeys and the occasional wild pig.
Unfortunately, due to increased logging and the exploitation of the valuable minerals remaining in the deep red and fertile ground, Mondulkiri is being stripped-mined of its beauty.
The wet season is June to October and is very lush and green. If you’re trekking in the wet season, then it is the best time for viewing wildlife. July and early August can still have sunny days and dry mornings, while afternoons and evenings are usually rainy. In early March the weather gets warm, which brings on the first annual showers or “Mango rains”.
Besides some smaller rivers, which grow quite big during the rainy season, there are bigger rivers crossing the province such as the Srepok, Preaek Chhbaar, and Preaek Te.
Water and More Waterfalls
A big draw card to the area is the province’s waterfalls. Most people travelling to Mondulkiri province head to its most famous waterfalls Bou Sra, Kbal Preah, Romanear I and II and Monorom. But what most visitors generally don’t experience are the province’s shortest and highest waterfalls.
Leng Ong and Leng Khin waterfalls are officially the province’s shortest and tallest waterfalls respectively, and in an ironic twist of fate the two places are located less than 300m apart in O’Reang district’s Pou Yam village, 26 kilometres from Sen Monorom.
Both waterfalls are covered by dense trees in a cool and calm environment. At each waterfall’s base there is a big pool where people can swim.
Khmer Style Architecture
And the local Mondulkiri architecture: There’s a current trend to build in the Khmer style, but the traditional Bunong houses can still be found. These houses contain large jars, some of which it is claimed are more than a thousand years old, and there are also the traditional gongs. There are various gongs used at different occasions. Jars and gongs are among the most valued possessions in an indigenous community, whether in traditional, spiritual or material terms. During the time of Pol Pot those objects were buried in hidden places in the jungle and in many cases, they still wait in the ground.
When buying items in Sen Monorom, you’ll see lots of items from Vietnam. There is also the famous rice wine, which is one of the best in the country. Additionally, the locals sell handmade products such as bracelets, necklaces, scarfs and Kramas.
Keep in mind that when visiting Mondulkiri are plenty of places to stay. But during festivals and public holidays, of which there are many, accommodation in Sen Monorom is usually fully booked. At these times, expect higher accommodation and ticket prices, as well as closures or lack of some services.