According to the Ministry of Tourism, tourist arrivals to Mondulkiri province are shooting through the roof, the direct result of a new highway to Sen Monorom, the capital of the province. The influx has sparked a flurry of trade and construction, and the town is working overtime to capitalize on the skyrocketing number of travellers.
The central market in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province, is a vision of the past-a
not-so-distant era when locals lived almost entirely off the land.
Even in bright mid-morning, it's dark in the slender passageways that weave through
the dusty cluster of wooden shacks and rusty corrugated iron. The sun shafts through
in unexpected places, illuminating a stack of mangoes, a severed cow's hoof, a fighting
cock under a cane basket. Babies and grandparents swing in hammocks, puppies play
in a rubbish heap, and fish swim lazily in buckets of water before being swiftly
decapitated and hawked, blood oozing, to passers-by.
But step outside, onto Sen Monorom's newly paved main street, and the tiny provincial
capital is bounding into modernity. The past year has brought the Internet, the first
western bar, and increasing numbers of tourists. Sen Monorom is changing so fast
the guidebooks can't keep up.
"Three years ago, it was common to see local Phnong people bringing an elephant
to town from the hill villages to load up with supplies," says Mariam Smith,
a Swedish NGO worker who has lived in Sen Monorom since 2003. "That hardly ever
What was once a mostly Phnong area is becoming increasingly diverse, as immigrants
from other provinces seek their fortune in the east. Swathes of the grasslands have
become pine plantations, tarmac and mobile phones have arrived, and new buildings
are springing up on every corner.
But the most significant change in the past five years has been the numbers of tourists
to the province, a range of local residents said.
According to Ministry of Tourism figures, in 2000 Sen Monorom received 298 visitors,
most of whom were intrepid foreigners eager to experience a piece of Cambodia's "wild
east." Last year, more than 10,000 people made the trip-9,000 of them Khmer.
This vast increase can be attributed to one thing-the new road from Phnom Penh.
In 2004, work finished on the once-infamous stretch of road between Memot and Snuol,
cutting the trip from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom-in the dry season-from 3 days to
around 7 hours. In the mid-1990s, the road was in such disrepair that the quickest
route to the capital from Sen Monorom was a five-day odyssey via Vietnam. The new
road made it feasible for urban Cambodians to take a weekend jaunt to the cooler
climes of Mondulkiri, and numbers increased ten-fold within the space of a year -
from 919 Khmer tourists in 2003, to 8,295 in 2004. Air-conditioned buses leave the
city every day for Sen Monorom, as do half a dozen fully loaded pickup trucks.
As a result, Sen Monorom is in the grip of a building boom, as residents gamble on
the allure of tourist dollars. In 2001, there were five guesthouses; now there are
16, plus two hotels and a spa/meditation retreat. The road into town is lined with
newly opened guesthouses, with least two more under construction. Existing businesses
are feverishly extending their premises in time for Khmer New Year, when locals expect
an influx of more than 1,000 guests.
Land prices are exploding, residents told the Post. Seven years ago, when Sum Dy
bought the land his self-named guesthouse is now built on, it cost him $1,500. Now,
he claims it's worth $80,000. Many people around town have similar stories. Land
that once sold for $20 per meter five years ago, now sells for $1,000, as locals
and immigrants buy up large sections and subdivide.
Guesthouse owners are banking on the construction of a sealed road all the way to
Sen Monorom, rumored to start in 2007, which will make it even easier for Phnom Penhois
to come up for a weekend retreat. There is also talk of opening the border with Vietnam
at nearby Dac Dam, which will bring in foreign tourists travelling overland from
Dalat into Cambodia.
Even without these developments, the pattern of the last few years suggests this
speculation may not be unfounded.
Mondulkiri, with its rolling hills, forests, elephant trekking, and local hill-tribe
minorities such as the Phnong, is a world away from the bustle of Phnom Penh-and
it has the added bonus of much colder temperatures-"free air conditioning"
as one Western resident put it.
For Khmer visitors, the main draw is Bou Sra waterfall, immortalized by early 70s
pop star Sin Sisamuth in the famous song "Teuk Chrous Bou Sra." The karaoke
video, featuring the falls and local Phnong dancers, inspired many Khmer to visit
their country's largest waterfall. The road from town to the falls was also improved
in 2004, so what once took two and a half hours by motorcycle-and is described in
the latest Lonely Planet as "one of the worst roads in the country"-now
sports four bridges and, in the dry season, only takes an hour. All this means that
for a few weekends a year, at major holidays like Khmer New Year, every room in town
"Last year, many people came to ask for rooms, but everywhere was full. They
had to drive back to Kratie or Kampong Cham," says Sum Dy, who hopes to add
12 new rooms to his existing five by April.
Mondulkiri is also being groomed as an eco-tourism destination by the government
and a range of environmental groups.
Hundreds of thousands of hectares of dry forest carpet the hills and valleys of Mondulkiri,
one of the last refuges in Southeast Asia for large mammals such as tigers, leopards,
elephants, gibbons, and Cambodia's national animal, the possibly extinct Kouprey.
Around three quarters of the province is now under some form of protection, much
of it run by the WWF in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry
According to Keo Sopheak, Senior Project Official for the Sre Pok Wilderness Area
Project, part of the 430,000-hectare Mondulkiri Protected Area, eco-tourism will
have an essential role in ensuring these reserves are economically sustainable.
"Tourism will provide work for the communities, make money to maintain the protected
area and build schools and health centres for the Phnong communities," he said.
By 2009, the project hopes to run tours direct from Siem Reap's temple complex to
high-end, eco-friendly safari lodges deep in the core zone of the reserve.
Although "eco-tourism" is something of a mantra here-reverentially invoked
by everyone from moto drivers, to forest rangers, to tourism officials-there's still
a long way to go before the concept is fully understood in Mondulkiri. Many locals
use "eco-tourism" to mean looking at waterfalls and riding elephants.
So far, the Sre Pok project is the only major scheme of its kind in the area, and
the visitors it will bring, though wealthy, will be a tiny proportion of total tourist
numbers. Illegal logging and hunting are widespread, and already, polystyrene boxes
and plastic bags litter the rocks at Bou Sra. On the path leading to the falls, stall-holders
sell wild animal parts, believed by many Khmer to have health benefits.
Kong Bunly is a "Worldwide Wildlife Warrior," a ranger in Mondulkiri's
forests, and part of his job is to make sure people know that such activity is illegal.
"Some tourists come to Cambodia to see animals, not just waterfalls and temples.
So we have to protect these wild animals, because they are important for eco-tourism.
If tourists see dead ones for sale, it looks bad," he said.
Unsurprisingly, on his inspection he saw no sign of the loris skeletons, elephant
teeth, and antelope horns proudly displayed to visitors just 30 minutes earlier.
Yet despite the inevitable pollution an influx of visitors will bring to the region,
the promise of eco-tourist dollars is a serious economic incentive for impoverished
people to help conserve their unique wilderness. The industry is already employing
people who would otherwise resort to logging or poaching to survive. "All our
staff in Sre Pok are Phnong," said Sopheak. "Before they were hunters-now
they work for us to stop hunting."
Tourism will no doubt bring further changes to Mondulkiri. It remains to be seen
whether it can live up to the expectations of locals, NGOs and the government officials
alike, and be the magic formula that will bring in the dollars, and safeguard the
environment at the same time.