Last Update: January 2023
Mondulkiri is a province in the East of Cambodia and one of the last bulwarks of pristine nature. The province is characterized by rolling hills clad with dense forests that harbor a rich and diverse wildlife. Wild rivers that meander through picture perfect valleys lead to impressive waterfalls. Meanwhile, the friendly indigenous Bunong people (or Phnong) carry on with their traditional lifestyle as they have been doing for centuries.
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My heart bleeds
12 years ago I visited Mondulkiri for the first time and I was in awe over the beauty. Lush green forest, stretching out for as far as my eyes could see. Cheerful bird sounds everywhere next to the plaintive calls of the gibbons in the morning.
Fast forward 12 years later I see rubber, coffee and cashew plantations everywhere. They go on for miles and have replaced large parts of the forest and unique wildlife habitat.
I am neither a righteous environmentalist, nor do I pretend to have a perfect carbon footprint myself. Also, I don’t want to deny Mondulkiri its share of modern day progress. But this is so terribly wrong.
If only the local population would benefit then at least there would be some sense of justification. Alas, the only ones benefiting are corrupt, land grabbing government officials in Phnom Penh and greedy (inter)national conglomerates that never seem to have enough.
Ok, rant over.
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, for now 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. Therefore, they are developing a sustainable and non intrusive Eco tourism product. This 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 among the locals. It is, after their livelihood. The government practice of land grabbing will hopefully meet with growing resistance when Mondulkiri’s residents stand up for their rights.
Best time to visit Mondulkiri
There is a reason for the forests in Mondulkiri to be so lush and green. The same reason for the waterfalls to be so powerful and wild…..Rain! Yes, Mondulkiri is extremely wet and sees a lot of rain. The monsoon starts in May and runs through October with considerable amounts of precipitation. Although the rain often comes in (heavy) showers, treks will be difficult because of the muddy terrain.
Shoulder months April and November also see some rain, but the weather is a lot more friendly. April can be hot and humid with highs up to 35C. Weather wise, that leaves December, January, February and March as the best months to visit Mondulkiri.
Things to see/do in Mondulkiri
Mondulkiri is all about nature. So, if you suffer from temple fatigue on your Cambodia trip, then whoohoo you’re in luck. Welcome to Mondulkiri, no interesting temples to visit here.
Whole day to multiple day activity
Trekking is a must do activity when in Mondulkiri. Particularly the Keo Seima protected area is interesting with lot’s of wildlife. Any of the local tour agencies in the center of Sen Monorom can set you up for a trek. Don’t underestimate the high temperatures and humidity as they will deplete your energy fast. Make sure to let your guide know exactly what you want with regards to up- and downhill trekking. Multiple day treks are possible with overnight homestays in one of the Bunong villages. These make for a unique experience with usually a lot of home brewed rice wine.
Sea Forest PhnomBaiChow
This is actually a viewpoint, overlooking the forested valley that resembles a green rolling sea. While the view is magnificent, it’s kind of a tourist trap. The large parking ensures tour buses bringing in large crowds that want their share of the view. Quaint signs and props are placed to feed the urge of taking instagram selfies. And of course, there’s the unavoidable restaurant where tour groups are herded in like cattle.
Half to whole day activity
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 maybe hire a tuk-tuk for the day (half day). Your guesthouse can arrange this for you. Admission to the waterfall is $2.5.
In the near vicinity is also Bou Sra village. Far from spectacular, but interesting enough for a short stroll to see how the indigenous Bunong live in their stilted houses.
This is a difficult topic. Mondulkiri has always been elephant country, but only a few are left in the wild. Now, most elephants here live in sanctuaries and tourists pay to see/feed/bathe them. How can we be sure of the sanctuaries’ good intentions and that elephants are not mistreated? I guess we could avoid visiting them altogether. However, that would cut all the funding necessary to maintain the sanctuaries. Will the elephants then be forced to hard labor again to make some kind of money for their owners?
I don’t have the answers to above questions. All I can say is, please do your research before you decide to visit one of Mondulkiri’s elephant sanctuaries.
Elephant Valley Project (EVP)
Half to multiple day activity
Maybe look into the EVP in Sen Monorom. This NGO claims to provide genuine sanctuary for currently 11 former work elephants. With over 1,500 hectares the elephants have more space 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.
Visits to the sanctuary are possible, but the program is focused on observing and providing information. No riding, feeding or bathing the elephants is allowed. In fact, visitors are kept at a considerable distance from the elephants at all times. So again, do your research and decide for yourself.
If you like to indulge in adventurous activities, then always make sure to travel with the right insurance. Don’t assume that your regular insurance covers your medical care abroad including evacuation and repatriation.
Remember that you’re in the middle of nowhere. Any serious injuries or ailments almost certainly require expensive medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.
Read more about travel insurance, or at least get a non-committal instant quote within 30 seconds!
Where to stay in Mondulkiri
It makes sense to stay in the town of Sen Monorom. As said it’s an excellent base for exploring Mondulkiri. It’s a relatively quiet and small town with less than 10,000 residents of which 80% are tribal minorities. Also, the town is very compact and therefore everything you need is within walking distance.
If you like to stay in a nature environment then of course the other option is to stay a bit further out of town. There are several accommodations surrounding Sen Monorom, but certainly not all of them are up to par. Some are outdated and worn down, others are new, but seriously lack atmosphere and service. So, make sure to ready any reviews carefully. For a stay outside of town it’s more convenient to have your own transport available or else rely on the resort’s tuk-tuk service.
We had difficulties finding a decent accommodation in Sen Monorom at first. Standards are quite low with basic wooden or thatched bungalows leaving ample opportunities for outside creatures to come in. Most notably however, because of the humidity, particularly in rainy season. Bungalows made of natural materials are pretty, but the inside atmosphere stays damp all the time. As a result your towels never dry, the sheets on the bed stay 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, some traveler, right? Anyway, we had to change our accommodation a few times. On the upside, it gave opportunity to compare what Sen Monorom’s hospitality industry has to offer.
Route 76 Guesthouse
Dirt Cheap = up to $10
What a place! We came as guests and we left as friends. Stayed here for 4 days and enjoyed tremendously. The guesthouse has spacious and clean rooms. Check-in and check-out went smooth with the staff and owner always helpful with a smile.
Budget = from $10 to $30
Atmospheric resort surrounded by nature. The distance to town is walk-able (2.5km), but it might be better to have your own transport. Of course you can also rent a motorbike or make use of a tuk-tuk. Breakfast is optional and a bit pricey. The bungalows are nice and comfortable though, as are the surroundings.
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. $8 for a fan room to $20 for an air-con room. Good place with friendly staff and Madame Deu as the lovely eccentric owner. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, National Route 76, Sen Monorom, Phone: 012 932 192.
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? 12 years ago I struggled to find a restaurant at all, but things have changed. Many restaurants opened up since then. Most of them serve the usual Khmer food and there are even a few decent Western options, especially pizza places. Still, the Mondulkiri and Sen Monorom restaurant scene is a bit underwhelming to say the least.
Fortunately there are always exceptions. The few restaurants that stand out are mainly found in Sen Monorom, the provincial capital of Mondulkiri. If you’re staying outside of Sen Monorom you probably have to depend on your accommodation for food. That, or be willing to drive your own transport in the dark.
Bamboo Cafe Cozy restaurant with a good atmosphere close to the main street. They serve Western and simple Khmer food with the usual suspect dishes such as amok, curry, fried noodles, etc. It’s delicious though and very reasonably priced. The family owners are friendly, helpful and at least one of them speaks excellent English.
The Hangout What’s in a name? Cool place to hang out. Make new friends among like-minded travelers that seem to find this place in large numbers. The Pool and Foosball table will surely help to make friends. And the food? It’s pretty good actually, not bad at all. Hamburgers, pizza, Khmer dishes and a few vegan options too. Friendly prices and staff.
Route 76 Sen Monorom has quite a few decent pizza places. Undoubtedly the best option is Route 76. Very good pizza indeed, but they go way beyond. Fantastic pastas, home made focaccia bread, tiramisu and hamburgers with a secret special ingredient. They always have a good assortment of imported Italian delicatessen. Cheeses, sausages, smoked hams, olive oil and wines.
Owner Andrea is proud of his enterprise and it shows. He’s very personable, committed and all guests are pampered like royalty. Don’t get me wrong, I love Khmer food, but wild horses couldn’t keep me from visiting this restaurant when in Sen Monorom.
How to get to Mondulkiri
To get to Mondulkiri you will have to get to Sen Monorom first. The provincial capital is an excellent base for exploring the province and most travelers opt to stay in or around the town. Multiple buses and minivans leave from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom every day. The buses from Virak Buntham are the most comfortable and safe for the 7h trip.
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). 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.
Getting around in Mondulkiri
In Sen Monorom, everything is pretty much within walking distance, it’s just a small town. For ventures out of town, you will either need your own transport or make use of the Cambodian tuk-tuks. The same goes for when you accommodation is out of town.
It’s easy to rent a motorbike, many guesthouses provide rental motorbikes. The going rate is $7 per day. Tuk-tuk’s are not as ubiquitous as in other parts of Cambodia. Best to arrange through your guesthouse or hotel.
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