Farther on, the more compact Ruby, another veteran of the logging trade, was busy scratching her heavy legs against a log. Later we watched her edge into a shallow stream and entwine her trunk around Buffy, the valley’s oldest resident, who arrived in 2007. “There is no animal on earth that is so similar to us and at the same time so fascinatingly different,” Highwood intoned. It was a joy to watch them.
We stopped for a long lunch at the EVP “basecamp,” a medley of vegetable patches, stone walkways, and thatched-roof bungalows where guests looking for a more immersive experience can stay overnight. Lunch was an array of piquant Khmer curries and mounds of sweet mango prepared by a pair of Bunong cooks. As we ate, Highwood’s Great Dane, Zerax, bounded about and licked our feet.
“These elephants are threatened with extinction and yet people are still using them to log or to carry tourists. It’s just not good enough,” Highwood said before we got up to leave. “Creating this sanctuary has given elephants a future that is not work and abuse. I think our model is really the only long-term solution for their survival.”
Four months later, I’ve returned to Mondulkiri with my partner Thea to explore some of the province’s other attractions. Cambodia is in the throes of its steamy hot season, but here in the so-called “Switzerland of Cambodia,” where the average elevation is 800 meters above sea level, all is cool and breezy.
Waking up at the Mayura Hill Hotel & Resort, on the northern outskirts of Sen Monorom, is a treat. The property rightly bills itself as Mondulkiri’s first luxury hotel and has 10 widely spaced, sleek timber villas decked out in muted tones and stylish fittings, with canopy beds swathed in fabric. Some come with Jacuzzis. Ours is surrounded by paved paths and thick foliage and has a balcony overlooking the swimming pool and greenery below. We enjoy a simple breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries accompanied by some excellent local coffee. Mondulkiri is renowned for its high-quality beans, and coffee plantations stretch out over the hills.
Three kilometers from the hotel, Sen Monorom consists of a dusty main street dominated by rickety wooden Khmer houses, nondescript storefronts, mud-splattered pickup trucks, and a life-size statue of two koupreys, a rare forest-dwelling buffalo (and Cambodia’s national animal) that is native to Mondulkiri. The town is also filled with fruit and vegetable vendors, tables piled high with strawberries, bananas, mangoes, and some of the fattest, ripest avocados I’ve ever seen. The choicest of these make their way into the kitchen at Chhumnor Thmei (“New Wind”) restaurant, whose guacamole has earned lavish praise. It doesn’t disappoint—bright green, creamy, and rich with finely diced tomatoes, onion, garlic, a splash of lime and plenty of coarsely chopped coriander. Just as good is an aromatic dish of plump cubes of chicken tossed with fried lemongrass, garlic, and shallots.
Back on Sen Monorom’s main drag we stop by the Honey Shop, part of an initiative set up with the support of the World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs in 2007. As its name suggests, it sells jars of the thick, amber wild honey collected by Bunong families from the forests around Krang Thes and Pou Chrey. The shop promotes sustainable harvesting and trains villagers in proper honeycomb collecting; it also stocks lovely beeswax candles.
Later I meet up with Bill Herod, a calm and articulate American development worker who has lived in Mondulkiri since 2007. Herod runs the Bunong Community Centre, an organization that funds and provides board for more than 100 hill-tribe teenagers to attend high school in Sen Monorom. He’s also in charge of Bunong Place, a social enterprise selling traditional handicrafts and textiles, including beautiful, intricate woven scarves and shoulder bags in a rainbow of colors. The outlet provides both an income to village women and an incentive to keep artisanal crafts alive.
Herod tells me he’s seen vast changes sweep over the town and that rapid modernization and development have been bittersweet for the Bunong. Transport and roads have improved, and Sen Monorom now has its own bank. But progress has also brought with it a stream of rich Cambodians, many here to snap up land and establish cassava and rubber plantations. Traditionally a nomadic people who practiced rotational agriculture and foraging, the Bunong have been obliged to settle and adapt to a cash-based economy. “They’re a marginalized, vulnerable people, losing their land, their traditions, even their language,” Herod says. “The government policy seems to be one of Khmericizing them, and it’s working.”
Helping to ease that transition and lay the groundwork for sustainable community development is a number of local and international NGOs. The WWF, for instance, has just helped the provincial govern-ment map out a four-year tourism plan that aims to increase annual visitor numbers to 300,000. WWF’s latest joint venture is the Hefa-lump Café, co-founded with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Nomad RSI, and Highwood’s ELIE. Housed in a traditional Khmer house and serving up fair-trade teas, delicious cakes, and sandwiches, the venue also serves as “responsible tourism hub”—a sort of one-stop shop for arranging ecotours.
A number of excellent excursions are offered highlighting the richness and diversity of Mondulkiri’s wildlife. There’s monkey viewing organized through the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Bunong-guided hikes into the lush Seima Protection Forest, home to more than half of Cambodia’s wild elephants as well as to endangered primates such as the black-shanked douc and the yellow-cheeked gibbon. For the more adventurous, WWF has set up two-day mountain-biking trips through the heart of the Srae Y area, with proceeds going to forest patrolling and management initiatives. Then there’s trekking and honey harvesting in the Dei Ey and Khaerm-Pu Chrey community forests, staying overnight in a Bunong lodge, or camping next to the O’Ch’bar River. Birdlife is particularly spectacular in this part of the country, situated as it is on an important migration route, and local conservation group the Sam Veasna Center organizes trips to various birding spots in the area.