The hills are alive: Mondulkiri

Mondulkiri's rolling green scenery marks it out as a special destination within Cambodia, but it is the province's indigenous people and their rich culture that make it quite unlike anywhere else on earth

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June 29, 2015

Mondulkiri’s rolling green scenery marks it out as a special destination within Cambodia, but it is the province’s indigenous people and their rich culture that make it quite unlike anywhere else on earth

Photography by Lucas Veuve

Wow, it looks like the English countryside,” I exclaim, though Wales may have been a more apt comparison. “It’s like being back in Switzerland,” says our Swiss photographer. “No, no, no. This is Cambodia!” says Samnang, our guide, chuckling at the two Westerners trying to lay claim to the essence of his homeland.

View from the top: Mondulkiri’s verdant hills. Photo: Lucas Veuve

Before us, green hills dotted with clumps of acacia trees roll off literally as far as the eye can see. To the right, vast swathes of pine trees congregate, their pointed crowns lending a jagged edge to the horizon. Pine trees? In Cambodia? It is an incredible sight, even for someone who has lived in the Kingdom for more than half a decade. But this is Mondulkiri, and here, everything, from the people to the climate to the landscape, is different.

bunong, mondulkiri
People of the land: Mondulkiri is largely inhabited by the indigenous Bunong minority, who make use of many of the area’s natural resources to support their traditional lifestyle. Photo: Lucas Veuve

The exceptional state of National Highway 76 means that this eastern province is now a five-hour taxi ride from Phnom Penh, making it a viable weekend break destination. And once the rather enjoyable journey is complete, there is little doubt about Mondulkiri’s crown tourism jewel either.

The 30km drive from Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, to Bou Sraa waterfall is a pick’n’mix of potholes, red dust and perfectly maintained tarmac. After parking under a dense forest canopy, the rush of the falls is apparent immediately. Vendors line the long, stepped path down to the water, selling standard tourist fare and more exotic treats, such as fresh honey in reused water bottles and small furry creatures splayed and spread-eagled on sticks. Sokram trees, native only to this part of the world and with leaves used to treat wounds in elephants, provide welcome shelter from the sun.

A clearing. Suddenly the hiss becomes a crash as a wall of white-brown water crashes down from above. Voices need to be raised to counteract the water’s frenetic fizz, and a light spray flutters across everyone and everything. The falls, which are the subject of numerous traditional songs pronouncing their splendour, are truly spectacular. With the four or five tourists present easily outnumbered by electric blue dragonflies, it is easy to while away a couple of hours with little else for company except Bou Sraa’s glorious rush. The falls’ second drop is accessible via a wooden bridge and another round of steps. At 25 metres, it is higher than the first drop and equally impressive. The route necessitates crossing the top of the falls, where hardy souls can wander right to the water’s edge and look down – a dizzying perspective to truly appreciate Bou Sraa’s natural power.

The right wehh – preserving the culture of the Bunong: Pronounced ‘way’, the Wehh Project was initiated by the NGO Nomad RSI. It is managed by the local community in Dak Dam, a small traditional Bunong village. The project aims to develop alternative sources of income for the villagers and keep alive their ancient traditions and way of life. For more information, email or visit the website at Photo: Lucas Veuve

On the way back, a coffee plantation makes for a pleasant stop. We wander among the trees, all of them chock full of virgin green coffee beans, before enjoying a freshly made brew of Mondulkiri Robusta for a dollar.

As the sun sets, we arrive at Phnom Doh Kromom, also known as the hilltop pagoda. A pleasant breeze accompanies the panoramic views of the hills below, specked with the red and blue roofs of distant family homes. Local couples sit on the sturdy viewing platform, which provides an ideal spot to enjoy a packed lunch. The young lovers whisper quietly, just as transfixed by the tableau as us.

It is a land largely inhabited by the Bunong minority, who make up about half of the province’s population. The Wehh Project, managed by the Bunong community themselves, provides visitors with the opportunity to immerse themselves in this fascinating indigenous culture.

Dak Dam village lies 25km outside Sen Monorom, and the drive, punctuated by cassava plantations, pot-bellied pigs rummaging roadside and the aforementioned pine trees, is simply one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced in Cambodia.

The house that the Bunong built: local men construct a shelter alongside the Bou Sraa waterfall. Photo: Lucas Veuve

Upon our arrival, a group of boys and girls pause their hopscotch-like game to stare and smile bashfully, before we are whisked away by Samnang for a tour of this small community.

Two men sit on the ground whittling lengths of bamboo and then shaving the ends into tassels that resemble curly locks of hair. These will be dipped in animal blood, Samnang explains, and then held aloft as both offering and thanks to the spirits at the forthcoming rice ceremonies that take place sporadically throughout August and September.

Teu Rakang, an elderly Bunong with wrinkled yet radiant skin, welcomes us into his traditional home. Puffing on a homemade cigarette, crafted by rolling locally grown tobacco inside a large leaf, he smiles as we look around the dark interior. There is no flooring, and the kitchen is a fire pit full of smouldering wood in the middle of the large single-room dwelling, making for a stifling, smoky atmosphere.

We stop in at a small wooden building, where seven smiling women chatter while they weave traditional Bunong scarves; we brush past avocado trees, mango trees, soursop trees, mango trees; and Samnang points out a silver-barked tree that must be planted by every newlywed couple – if there’s no tree, then the marriage is not deemed official. “It’s like a marriage certificate,” Samnang says with a laugh.

It is striking how the Bunong have adapted to their environment, making use of so many of the area’s abundant natural resources. As we wander, welcomed into the everyday lives of these hardy souls, our earlier exchange seems faintly ridiculous. This is not England. This is not Switzerland. This is Mondulkiri. And it is unlike any other place on Earth.

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