Most people come to Mondulkiri for two reasons: elephants and waterfalls. The hills don’t hurt, either. The landscape is a piece of Wales in the tropics, with small forested slopes as far as the eye can see. Rust-coloured dirt roads lend a new clarity to the phrase “the red earth”. Ethnic minority villages are the picture of rural idyll: green pastures dotted with hobbit-hole houses, where piglets, chickens, little children and water buffaloes mingle with the odd Asian elephant. Treks, on foot or elephant, are a six-hour or more trudge through the jungle – glorious, but muddy.
Few come to Mondulkiri with luxury in mind. This is a province that attracts more and more tourists each year but was, until recently, up to nine hours from Phnom Penh. Now it takes five. Most of the roads are still dirt. When it rains, the hillside paths become mudslides. Streetlights are few; oversized ants numerous. At night, the darkness is absolute.
Dining options are limited. The local Tela is out of Snickers bars by the end of the weekend. It’s near-impossible to find a private taxi. As Cambodian tourist haunts become more and more developed, facilities in Mondulkiri have remained basic.
That’s where Mayura Hill Hotel & Resort comes in. The hotel, which opened its doors in July, bills itself as Mondulkiri’s first five star. Set in a valley between two hills some three kilometres from Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, Mayura offers 10 stylish villas of three tiers: family, deluxe and superior. The decor is simple and stylish, with handcrafted wooden furniture, a four-poster bed and super-soft pillows. Some rooms have private jacuzzis, others their own plunge pools. There’s an onsite gym. It’s the first hotel in the province with a pool.
The winding approach from town takes in the grand scenery: hectares of untouched forest and red roads. Arrival is grandest at night: tall, orb-like lamps in the driveway are the only specks of light other than the stars, and the waterfall that runs at the base of the hill the loudest sound.
The hotel makes the most of its remote setting. The villas are spaced apart, each with its own wooden balcony. From the dining tables at the outdoor restaurant area you can watch a car motor out of the driveway, and climb slowly up the hill in the distance. There’s an old-school cinematic glamour about it. The romance is topped off by a handful of small picnic huts by the water’s edge. Designed in the local style, a shaggy straw roof swaddles each frame like a Beatles mop-top haircut.
Quirky touches lend the hotel a personal feel: flowerpots are filled with rainbow-coloured pebbles, a giant tree stands in the reception area, its trunk sailing through the wooden roof. One end of the pool has a sprinkler system, which would be refreshing during the hot season. The minute we stepped in, an enthusiastic staff member triggered it, sending a barrage of water over our heads. This would have been readily embraced had the mountain air been less fresh.
Breakfast, which is included in the cost of the stay, is a simple affair: a choice of Khmer or Western – noodles or bread and jam, as well as a cup of the province’s excellent coffee. (If you take a trip to Bou Sra falls, stop at the Coffee Plantation Resort for a cup or two. The three-hectare farm produces splendid beans. They also have an enormous water slide, which shoots straight into a man-made lake.)
When we visited, in September, Mayura’s menu was small, but the food tasty and fresh. Drinks were limited to beer and Johnny Walker whisky, although, rather bizarrely, the minibar was stocked with Guinness. Paul Chea, the hotel’s general manager, said it would be expanded in the coming months. There was no dessert (hence the Snickers complaint) and the kitchen closed by 8pm some nights as staff had gone home, though the receptionist did offer to call them back.
There were some other mishaps, some attributable to the remoteness. Our door didn’t lock. One night all the lights in the room failed. Both of the car’s door-handles fell off. The jacuzzi looked great, illuminated by Disney-esque lights, but only ran cold water. The giant tree that punctured the roof in the reception sat in a puddle of rainwater. When we accidentally dislodged one of the pegs that held up our four-poster-bed curtain, the whole thing was taken down next time the room was cleaned.
It’s a credit to the hotel that none of these complaints had much of an impact on our enjoyment. The staff members were wonderfully friendly, and more than happy to address problems. The $100 a night price-tag, however, felt a little like the tree trunk sailing through the roof: steep.