As construction of a new highway cuts travel time from the capital, Mondulkiri emerges as a rugged yet relaxed alternative for visitors
Bou Sra falls in Mondulkiri.
BEYOND the well-worn beach-and-temple circuit, with its tour buses and happy hours, lies another Cambodia: a land of rolling hills, lush forests and tribal minorities, where elephants still outnumber sealed roads and fireflies flicker in the night sky.
Mondulkiri has long been the road less travelled for foreign tourists. But as the construction of a new highway cuts dry-season travel time from the capital to as little as six hours, it has emerged as a rugged yet relaxed alternative for expats and visitors.
The owner and manager of Green House bar and restaurant in Sen Monorom, Sor Samnang, said word-of-mouth has led to a steady increase in visitors since he opened his business in mid-2007.
"This province is starting to get very popular and people have started telling each other about it," he said. "In Mondulkiri, there is a lot of jungle trekking and elephants and people can visit minority villages."
Sen Monorom town offers visitors some pleasant diversions: In the local market, one can witness Phnong minority people hawking vegetables, carving up the local livestock and tipping back strong Vietnamese coffee at spit-and-sawdust cafes.
While commercial flights to the town have been discontinued, its old airstrip still dominates the centre of town and is now used by local youth as a motorbike drag-strip.
Sen Monorom is an ideal base for exploring the surrounding area, and most sights are accessible on day trips from the town - and the grassy hills, pine trees and green valleys around Sen Monorom are a nice change to the flatness of the Mekong Valley.
As an extra bonus, the weather is refreshingly cool compared with the sticky heat of Phnom Penh.
The region was heavily bombed by American B-52s during the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol's Republican regime in the early 1970s, and the hills surrounding the town are scarred with craters that are still visible under the mask of pastoral tranquility.
On one hill near the city, with commanding views of the surrounding area, lie the ruins of a villa built by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Only the foundations, smashed tiles and a section of an outer wall remain amid the foliage - another reminder of Mondulkiri's history as a communist stronghold.
Five kilometres from the airstrip - and easily accessible by foot - is Sen Monorom falls, one of many waterfalls in the area, which tumbles 5 metres into a pool that is perfect for a swim or nearby picnic. During our visit, local teenagers jumped from the top of the falls 5 metres into the pool below without injury, but be warned: The depth varies, so watch to see where the locals land.
With the exception of Sen Monorom falls, the rest of the area's waterfalls are beyond walking distance: The smaller Rum Near falls - about 10 kilometres along the highway towards Kampong Cham - make for a rewarding trip, but the picnic area surrounding the falls is regrettably choked with garbage.
Most impressive of all the falls is Bou Sra - the largest waterfall in Cambodia - which lies about 37 kilometres from Sen Monorom. Cascading from a height of about 10 metres, the falls lash down over a flat rocky platform.
Also worth a visit is Bou Sraa village, a Phnong community a few kilometres further on from the falls: This area is now a controversial hotspot for agribusiness, and two 10,000-hectare rubber plantations are planned for the surrounding hills. The influx of cash has changed life in the community, with many families abandoning the traditional Phnong thatch houses for the wooden Khmer equivalent.
In terms of accommodation, Sen Monorom runs the gamut from characterless concrete guest houses to a new crop of Western-run lodges.
Since it opened three-and-a-half years ago, the Nature Lodge has become a popular spot with expats and foreign visitors.
The guesthouse, which lies 2 kilometres from the centre of town, bills itself as being built "by travellers for travellers", and the eco-friendly setup is indeed unique. The entire lodge, which consists of gardens, detached bungalows and a central building, is run from a homemade hydropower system, and all its furniture is produced from recycled timber offcuts - in contrast to the hardwood furniture adorning most of the area's guest houses. Double bungalows with hot water are available for US$10 per night.
Sothan Sokha, who runs the Nature Lodge, said he looked everywhere for the opportunity to build an eco-lodge, but nothing compared with the natural scenery in Mondulkiri.
"You can feel it every morning when you wake up. You see the view - a nice view with open space - and you can feel it," he said. "After a few days in Phnom Penh, when I get back to [the Nature Lodge] I feel new again."