One of the best ways to explore this countryside is on the back of a dirt bike. Mayura Hill, conveniently, has a number for rent, so I saddle up behind Thea on a 250cc Yamaha Tricker and hit the road.
We manage about 40 kmh along the bumpy road to Mondulkiri’s Bou Sra waterfall. On the way we stop by a village. While more and more Bunong communities are adopting Khmer-style stilt houses, we still see traditional dwellings with thatched roofs and mud-brick walls festooned with magic spirit poles. The Bunong are believed to have been in the region for more than 2,000 years and hold deeply animist beliefs. We peek inside several huts, full of big clay jars and urns and traditional music instruments such as gongs and the guitar-like kong rieng. “There is no great body of literature in the Bunong language … they have a written language now, but it’s quite recent,” Herod told me back in Sen Monorom. “But their oral traditions are quite rich with folktales and songs.”
Songs await us at the base of Bou Sra, where two Bunong musicians have struck up a beautiful, haunting ballad to the accompaniment of a kong rieng. “We play in ceremonies and here for tourists, but mainly it is for enjoyment and to keep our traditions alive,” one of them tells me during a break. Mondulkiri is dotted with dozens of waterfalls, but Bou Sra is the big one, a three-tiered cascade that predictably attracts a stream of sightseers. We spot picnickers snacking on fruit and dried fish on straw mats beside the waterfall’s shallow pools, and elderly Cambodian men with krama scarves tied around their waists cooling off in the water. Litter mars the scene, but the setting is undeniably photogenic.
The ride back to town takes us past the Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF), a 425,000-hectare chunk of wilderness. It is bordered by three other Cambodian wildlife sanctuaries as well as by Vietnam’s Yok Don National Park, collectively comprising one of the largest protected areas in Southeast Asia. It’s also part of what the WWF classifies as the Lower Mekong Dry Forests Ecoregion, a patchwork of tropical dry forests, semi-evergreen forests, and seasonally wet grasslands that harbor an abundance of wildlife: three species of wild cattle; critically endangered Eld’s deer and sun bears; tigers and clouded leopards; Siamese crocodiles and freshwater stingrays; and water birds including the sarus crane and giant ibis.
We stop at a lookout above the MPF in time to watch the sun set. Mondulkiri means “meeting of the hills” in Cambodian, and from this vantage point, gazing across undulating forest toward the mountains of Vietnam, it’s easy to see how the province came by its name. Serendipitously, we’re soon joined by the effervescent Robert Solar, WWF’s area manager. Every Friday he brings his staff to this lookout for sunset, “so that they know what they’re trying to protect,” he tells us.
Looking out across the darkening jungle, it’s hard to fathom that Cambodia has lost more than 20 percent of its forest cover since 1973, a figure calculated by WWF researches using satellite data. I ask Solar if there is much hope for the wildlife of Mondulkiri. “Oh yeah—so long as the landscape survives,” he says. “If there are no trees, there are no elephants. That’s the bottom line. But the forest is still there, and there’s a lot of it, so you just have to keep at it. If you disengage, you lose it.”
Brightening, he adds, “This is the best place in the country. It’s not polluted, it’s not congested, and the food is great. And the landscape—you can’t get this anywhere else in Cambodia. Sure, you can go west to the Cardamom Mountains, but it’s a ghost forest—there’s nothing in it, just trees. Here the wildlife is still rich and plentiful. I really feel like we can save it.”
Sen Monorom lies about 360 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh along a well-maintained highway, so bank on spending at least five hours on the road. Private cars and taxis are available for hire in the Cambodian capital; considerably cheaper is the reliable, twice-daily minivan service run by Chim Vuth Mondolkiri Express (855-16/963-243), which charges just US$10 per person.
Where to Stay
Mayura Hill Hotel & Resort (855-77/980-980; doubles from US$100) has stylish cottages perched on a hillcrest and surrounded by pretty greenery. It’s also one of the few hotels in Mondulkiri with a swimming pool.
Where to Eat
Excellent Khmer food can be had at the Chomnou Thmei restaurant near the top of the main road by the kouprey statue—try any dish that features avocado. Khmer Kitchen is the stop-off point for minivan trips but serves fine local dishes such as banh xeo (a rice pancake packed with bean sprouts, pork, and flavoursome herbs) and spice-rubbed roast chicken. To learn more about the ecotourism projects on offer in Mondulkiri, stop by the NGO-run Hefalump Café (855-99/696-041), which also happens to serve excellent coffee and pastries.
What to Do
Day visits to Jack Highwood’s Elephant Valley Project cost US$70 and include transportation and a hearty lunch. A two-day experience —half of it spent volunteering and the other half with the elephants—costs US$120 and includes a night in a private bungalow and all meals.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mondulkiri Magic”)