Cambodia’s largest and least populated Province
A world apart from lowland Cambodia, Mondulkiri Province is the original Wild East of the country. Climatically and culturally, it’s also another world, which comes as a relief after the heat of the plains. Home to the hardy Bunong (Phnong) people and their noble elephants, it is possible to visit traditional villages and to learn and study about elephants in their natural element at the Elephant Valley Project.
The landscape is a seductive mix of pine clumps, grassy hills and windswept valleys that fade beguilingly into forests of jade green and hidden 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.
Mondulkiri means ‘Meeting of the Hills’, an apt sobriquet for a land of rolling hills. In the dry season it is a little like Wales with sunshine; in the wet season, like Tasmania with more rain. At an average elevation of 800m, it can get quite chilly at night, so carry something warm. Mondulkiri is the most sparsely populated province in the country, with just four people per square kilometre. Almost half the inhabitants come from the Bunong minority group, with other minorities making up much of the rest of the population. Hunting remains the profession of choice for many minorities.
Conservationists have grand plans for the province, creating wildlife sanctuaries and initiating sustainable tourism activities, but are facing off against speculators and industrialists queuing up for natural resources.
Sen Monorom is the provincial capital and doesn’t show up as a typical Cambodian town, while it is the only town the province has to speak of. With approx. 7500 inhabitants, 20 guesthouses, 12 restaurants, 3 bars and no post office it is often compared to American Wild West frontier towns. Concerning the quietness and beauty of Sen Monorom people from other parts of the country move here and therefore the land price doubled from 2006 to 2007. The town of Sen Monorom is the best base camp for travellers who want to explore the surrounding areas. A quiet but beautiful town nestled into the hills; it has a lot of potential to develop into a centre for non-intrusive eco-tourism. At present, it’s very undeveloped, which gives you a feeling of going somewhere off the beaten tourist trail. Add to that the communities of hill tribe people, who are not affected by mass-tourism, as they are in neighbouring Thailand, and you have an area that is attractive to the adventure traveller.
A real Asian frontier town, Mondulkiri’s recent logging and plantation boom has even produced some modern improvements in the downtown area. A basic improvement was that the street lights came on for the first time in January 2012.
Wooden and relatively old shop houses are spread a civilised distance apart in the sleepy centre of town, and at night, everything goes very quiet and very dark -- a refreshing change from the nonstop light and excitement of Cambodia’s larger cities. Amenities for tourists have improved somewhat since the new road was finished a couple years ago, although there still isn’t much in the restaurant or shopping department.
Also interesting is the variety of languages being used: Khmer, hill tribe languages, Vietnamese and Lao. 80 percent of the population in Mondulkiri is made up of ten tribal minorities, with the majority of them being the Chunchiet from the tribe of the Phnong. The remaining 20 percent are Khmer, Chinese and Muslim Cham. Most of the population lives off the land, planting rice, fruit trees and a variety of vegetables. Other tribal minorities grow coffee, strawberries, rubber and cashew nuts.
More and more houses are built in the typical Khmer style. Visiting the hill tribes you still can find the traditional Phnong houses. In the houses you can find traditional gongs and big jars, whereby the last ones are said to be more than a thousand years old. There are various sorts of gongs used for different occasions. Jars and gongs are among the most valuable possessions in an indigenous community, whether in tradi-
tional, spiritual or material terms. During the Khmer Rouge Regime those objects were buried in hidden places in the jungle and in many cases they still wait in the ground. Landscapes more reminiscent of high-altitude America than lowland Cambodia define the Mondulkiri region, with flat grasslands and red earth giving way to steep hillsides, lovely waterfalls, and lush tropical jungle.
With a small population and an equally small provincial capital, tourism revolves around the outdoors with its stunning natural beauty and multiple waterfalls located not too far out of town. Most tourists come for adventure activities or to volunteer at one of the many NGOS operating here.of great appeal is the weather, which gets downright chilly at night in the colder months of the dry season, and offers a refreshing change from the heat and humidity of Cambodia’s lowlands. Because of this weather sweaters are essential here for the cool evenings.
Tourist agencies offer elephant riding (which is growing more controversial), nature treks, motorbike tours to remote waterfalls, and cultural experiences with the indigenous Bunong people, a tribe that has been pushed to the margins by the dominant Khmer. Visitors who do make it out here will be pleased to find a province populated by genuinely friendly people, with superb
high-altitude weather and a wild, if endangered, beauty.
Mondulkiri used to be extremely remote, a destination only favoured by adventure travellers and the uncommonly sturdy, but with the 2009 opening of a wellpaved new road from the capital city of Phnom Penh and an ever-increasing array of bus, minibus and taxi services into the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, getting here is easier than ever. Eleven mini-suites spread over 3 floors provide a connection with nature and a green retreat away from the hectic hustle of city life.
The Angkor Tropical Resort is a warm and pleasant home away from home. Each unit comes with a separate and equipped kitchen/dining room. Available for the day, week, or month. Conveniently located close to Phsa Leu, the large local market.
Bou Sra waterfall
Members of the Phnong Hill Tribe
Sen Monorom waterfall
Credit: Travelfish.org, Tourismcambodia.com
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