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A Welcome Retreat: Mondulkiri

By: Mango Cambodia Posted: December-12-2011 in
Getting to know the elephants
Mango Cambodia

After living in South East Asia for the past five years, the idea of visiting somewhere cool or even chilly at night had become something of an obsession. Mondulkiri would have done the trick, if only it had been more accessible. Although it’s always felt very remote, this is an area that has fascinated me since my first day in Cambodia and I have wanted to visit ever since.

Just thinking about Mondulkiri, the mind instantly fills with images of pine forests, jungles, stunning waterfalls, ethnic tribes and gentile giants. But so far away – and how to get there?

At one stage there were rumours of a bus service to the area, but nobody seemed to know much about it. Then, just as suddenly as the rumours had appeared, counter-intelligence revealed that the elusive buses had stopped running. At which point, unless one could afford a private car and driver, the only way of getting to Mondulkiri was by shared taxi. I’ll be honest, the thought of a 12 hour journey in the back of a pickup truck, with the sun beating down on my back and the suffocating dust, has always been enough to deter me from attempting this journey on my precious days off. That is, until now….

A lot has happened in 5 years. Out of nowhere, a new road has materialized. It’s one of the best roads in the country, cutting the journey time from Phnom Penh in half, to a mere 6 hours! So finally, last week, I set off on my first, long-awaited journey to “the wild east of Cambodia” in Mondulkiri.

I decided to try and manage my expectations. A journey to Ratanakiri earlier this year had proved to be such a disappointing experience, one which had left me feeling utterly depressed at the site of all the rubber tree plantations standing where majestic forests had once stood. With the new road to Mondulkiri, suddenly everyone seems to be journeying in that direction. With the rate of mining and logging taking place in the region, I feared it might have gone the same way. I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

I needn’t have worried. Mondulkiri is fairly unspoiled – and it really is a whole other world up there, with pine forests, grassy meadows, forest, waterfalls and a refreshing, cool climate offering a welcome respite from the heat of the lowlands. For those of us who have been in Cambodia a while, the region stirs up memories of our own homelands, in cooler climes, although actually I would say that the area most closely resembles parts of Central America that I have been to. Lazing in a grassy meadow was a dreamlike experience - I can’t remember the last time I was able to just lie in the grass and close my eyes. I had no idea I even missed such things! I also hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to get out of the suffocating city to recharge my batteries, or how much I had missed the inhalation of fresh mountain air. I had a wonderful few days of rest and recuperation.

But it wasn’t all lying around in grassy meadows. Mondulkiri is home to the resilient Bunong people, and this trip offered a perfect opportunity to meet some of the locals and discover how ethnic minorities live in Cambodia today. Our local guide came from one of the Bunong villagers and gladly escorted our party around his home village, introducing us to the farmers who have called this land home for centuries. Very few westerners ever venture out here and the villagers are friendly, hospitable - and more than a little curious as to why outsiders are interested in them! Having looked around the farm and been introduced to all members of the family, we then sat down to sugar cane and hot tea inside a traditional house. The hospitality was so good and the houses quite unique - completely different from anything else I have seen in Cambodia.

The tour continued by taking in the more frequented tourist spots of Bousra waterfall and the coffee plantation. But even these sites were quiet and we mostly had them all to ourselves, proving how untouched Mondulkiri still is.

The second day was equally memorable, as we paid a visit to the Elephant sanctuary. Surrounded by forest and grassland, this location is ideal for the rehabilitation of elephants and is one of only a handful of elephant sanctuaries in the world. Having never been keen on the idea of elephant rides (they always seemed cruel to me - and apparently are!) I was unsure about spending time up close to these gentle giants. But my fear and uneasiness soon disappeared. Left to their natural environment and behaviours, these animals are friendly, curious and docile. We spent the day learning about what is being done to protect these magnificent creatures and then the day ended with a real highlight - washing, scrubbing and supplying drinking water to the elephants. I have never in my life been so close to an elephant and the experience was simply magical, providing an incredible memory I will treasure forever.

Leaving Mondulkiri, I felt I had discovered something unique in Cambodia: an area of stunning natural beauty, friendly people and memorable experiences. I will definitely return soon.

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Danielle Stewardson is the General Manager of Mango Cambodia Tours www.mangocambodia.com
Mango Cambodia - Burst out of the Expat Bubble - and see it for yourself, join one of our group tours to Mondulkiri

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This article was published in Issue #3 of The Advisor
3000 copies printed weekly and distributed in hard copy around town to local venues and also available here for downloads in the archives.
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