Last Update: December 2019
My heart bleeds for Mondulkiri. From my first visit I remember this province as one of the last bulwarks of pristine nature in Cambodia. Dense forests and jungle clad hills that harbor a rich and varied wildlife. Small rivers meandering through picturesque valleys that lead to impressive waterfalls. The wonderful and friendly indigenous Bunong (or Pnong) carrying on their lifestyle as they have done for centuries.
Such a shame
Fast forward 10 years later I see rubber, coffee and cashew plantations everywhere. They go on for miles and have replaced what once used to be luscious forest and a unique wildlife habitat.
I am neither a righteous environmentalist nor do I want to pretend that my own carbon footprint is even close to perfect. I also certainly don’t want to deny Mondulkiri its share of modern day progress. But this is all so terribly wrong and if only the local population would benefit then at least there would be some sense of justification. Alas, as always the only ones benefitting from this blatant destruction are the corrupt and land grabbing government officials in Phnom Penh and greedy (inter)national conglomerates that never seem to have enough.
You should still come
You should still come to Mondulkiri and here is why. First of all, Mondulkiri is the largest province in Cambodia. While the destruction of nature is devastating there is still a lot of nature left. Come to see it now or regret it forever. Secondly, local tourism entrepreneurs fully understand the unique selling points of Mondulkiri and are therefore developing a sustainable and non intrusive eco tourism product that will attract more, but responsible visitors to the area. Subsequently it will benefit the local community with minimal negative effects to the delicate remaining eco system.
The eco tourism industry is also trying to raise awareness on nature preservation amongst the locals, because of their economical dependency. Furthermore, the government practice of land grabbing and meddling will meet with growing resistance since they will be directly threatening the very livelihood of Mondulkiri’s residents.
How to get to Mondulkiri
You’ll want to go to Sen Monorom, the provincial capital of Mondulkiri. This town is less than interesting in itself, but it is an excellent base for exploring Mondulkiri. Multiple busses to Sen Monorom leave from Phnom Penh every day. The journey is advertised to take 5h30m hours, but from experience I can tell you that 7h is more likely, even with the new road.
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Cambodia I always use the transport planning tool below from BookmeBus.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
If temple fatigue has struck you, then whoohoo you’re in luck. Welcome to Mondulkiri, no interesting temples to visit here. It’s all about nature!
Elephant Valley Project (EVP)
I’m not a fan of ‘voluntourism’, but I make an exception for the Elephant Valley Project in Sen Monorom. For over 12 years this NGO provides a real sanctuary for currently 10 former work elephants. With over 1,500 hectares the elephants have more space amongst them than any other sanctuary in Cambodia. Moreover, they have programs in place for the local workers and their families (2,400 people) to receive full health care coverage. They provide education for +300 school children and make sure that local impoverished families receive food subsistence. If the wellbeing of animals and your fellow man means anything to you then this is a must do activity.
Note! In Mondulkiri there are more elephant sanctuaries or so they call themselves. I don’t know each and every one that’s active in Mondulkiri. All I know is that some of these self proclaimed NGO’s, registered or not, are using the sanctuary as a front for commercial purposes. I am not saying that all sanctuaries except for EVP are up to no good. I’m just saying, please do your research before you decide where to support.
Trekking is another activity not to be missed when in Mondulkiri. Any of the local tour agencies in the center of Sen Monorom can set you up for a trek. Make sure to let them know exactly what you want with regards to up- and downhill trekking (although these give the best views). The high temperatures and humidity will deplete your energy fast. Multiple day treks are possible with overnight homestay in one of the Bunong villages, which makes for a unique experience with usually a lot of home brewed rice wine.
Waterfalls are a main attraction of the province. There are many and it will be impossible for you to see them all. The Bou Sra waterfall is the one that cannot be missed. This magnificent waterfall has three levels with the middle one suitable for a refreshing swim. There are plenty of food vendors around so you won’t go hungry. Go there by yourself on a rental motorbike. It’s a scenic 35 km (50 min) ride outside of Sen Monorom. Or join a tour on the back of a motorbike or by car. Admission to the waterfall is $2.5.
In the direct vicinity is also Bou Sra village. Not spectacular, but interesting enough for a short stroll to see how the indigenous Bunong live in their stilted houses.
If you like to indulge in adventurous activities, then always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. I use World Nomads, because they are the true specialist in travel insurance and their price for the service is unbeatable. They cover a range of adventure sports and activities like scuba diving and even your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of traveling.
Knowing they had my back has always given me great piece of mind. Fortunately I never had to claim anything, but fellow travelers I met on the road told me that the online claims process went very smooth.
Where to stay in Mondulkiri
As said the town of Sen Monorom is an excellent base for Mondulkiri explorations. It’s a small town with less than 10,000 residents of which 80% are tribal minorities. The town is very compact and therefore easy walkable. Some of the more luxurious accommodations are situated a bit further out of town.
At first we struggled with finding decent accommodation in Sen Monorom. Partly because standards are low with basic wooden or thatched bungalows leaving openings everywhere for outside creatures to come in. Most notably however, because of the humidity and particularly in rainy season. The bungalows made of natural materials are pretty, but it causes the inside atmosphere to stay damp all the time. As a result your towels never dry, the bedsheets are damp and there’s a constant moldy smell.
I am all for authentic experiences, but the dampness and mold caused serious problems with my breathing and therefore sleepless nights. Yeah, yeah, crybaby I know, laugh all you want. Anyway, we had to change our accommodation a few times, which on the upside, gave opportunity to compare what Sen Monorom’s hospitality industry has to offer.
Budget = from $10 to $30
Not special, but very adequate nonetheless. Close to the town center yet quiet with clean aircon rooms for a good price. Wifi is included and there’s an on-site restaurant, but dining options in the immediate area are plenty.
Pich Kiri Motel
Budget = from $10 to $30
The oldest guesthouse in Sen Monorom. In the middle of town with easy access to restaurants and coffee shops. Prices are $8 for a wooden room with fan, to $20 for an aircon room in the main building. Good place with a friendly staff and Madame Deu as the lovely eccentric owner. Contact: email@example.com, National Route 76, Sen Monorom, Phone: 012 932 192.
Greenhouse Retreat – Dorm bed $12, Bungalow $35 incl breakfast.
Our favorite place to stay in Sen Monorom. Beautiful, peaceful and well maintained. 2 kilometers from the town center, but we didn’t mind the walk. If you don’t like walking you can dine/drink at the excellent hotel bar/restaurant or they can arrange for tuk-tuk pickups ($2-one way). The resort is surrounded by nature and the rooms are clean and include wifi. You don’t need aircon, because of the hillside chills and winds.
To compare prices and read reviews check out Agoda.com. The best prices, regular discounts and off season deals.
Where to eat in Mondulkiri
Well, what can I say? 10 years ago I struggled to find a restaurant at all, but things have changed. Many restaurants have sprung up since then. Most of them serve the usual Khmer food and there are even a few decent Western options. Despite, the Mondulkiri and Sen Monorom restaurant scene is still a bit underwhelming to say the least.
Bunong Kitchen. Fortunately there are always exceptions. I finally found a restaurant advocating and serving authentic Bunong food. Ironically, the restaurant is owned by an American. Honestly, I am not an expert on Bunong food, so I can’t really judge whether the offered end-product is truly authentic. I do however applaude the initiative to serve local food with ingredients sourced from the jungle and neigboring farms. The prices are friendly and the food was really tasty so this restaurant has both my support and blessing.
Mondulk…Italy. Cambodia beware, there’s a new Italian restaurant and it’s in …..Sen Monorom, of all places. It’s nothing at all what you would expect in a small provincial town tucked away in the remote Eastern part of Cambodia. This restaurant conjures up some real Italian flavors with some of the best Italian ingredients. At the same time owner/chef Pier manages to keep his pricing reasonable. Seeing how popular his food is I suspect it won’t be long until prices will increase. It wouldn’t be unjust, because the taste and quality of the food both deserve it.