Cambodia's largest and most low-population province, once heavily-forested Mondulkiri provides a refreshing change in pace from the bustle and suffocating heat of Cambodia's lowlands. This historically quiet and largely indigenous region suffered greatly under the Khmer Rouge, although its remote location made it more difficult to control for the ostensibly Communist forces.
In the modern era, quiet Mondulkiri has become something of a cash cow for the Cambodian government and outside companies, who are profiting mightily off its jungles and relatively fertile soil. Unfortunately, almost none of these profits are finding their way back into the community here, which remains desperately poor.
All this development means things are changing fast in Mondulkiri -- and not for the better, judging by the denuded hills around Sen Monorom and the massive rubber plantations that are encroaching upon the ancestral foraging and burial grounds of the Bunong. Come sooner, rather than later.
Landscapes more reminiscent of high-altitude America than lowland Cambodia define the Mondulkiri region, with flat grasslands and red earth giving way to steep hillsides, lovely waterfalls, and lush tropical jungle. With a small population and an equally small provincial capital, tourism revolves around the outdoors with its stunning natural beauty and multiple waterfalls located not too far out of town. Most tourists come for adventure activities or to volunteer at one of the many NGOs operating here.Of great appeal is the weather, which gets downright chilly at night in the colder months of the dry season, and offers a refreshing change from the heat and humidity of Cambodia's lowlands. A sweater is essential here for the evenings.
Tourist agencies offer elephant riding (which is growing more controversial), nature treks, motorbike tours to remote waterfalls, and cultural experiences with the indigenous Bunong people, a tribe that has been pushed to the margins by the dominant Khmer. Visitors who do make it out here will be pleased to find a province populated by genuinely friendly people, with superb high-altitude weather and a wild, if endangered, beauty.
Mondulkiri used to be extremely remote, a destination only favoured by adventure travellers and the uncommonly sturdy, but with the 2009 opening of a well-paved new road from the capital city of Phnom Penh and an ever-increasing array of bus, minibus and taxi services into the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, getting here is easier than ever.
The only town of real interest to tourists in Mondulkiri, this small provincial capital about 370 km from Phnom Penh has a certain rustic charm, with a restaurant-and-shop lined main street and a couple of remarkably pretty lakes. Sen Monorom also boasts an authentically friendly population of a mere 7,000 souls, many of them members of the Bunong indigenous group. A real Asian frontier town, Mondulkiri's recent logging and plantation boom has jacked up land prices and even produced some modern improvements in the downtown area -- the street lights came on for the first time during our visit in January 2012.
Wooden and relatively old shop houses are spread a civilised distance apart in the sleepy centre of town, and at night, everything goes very quiet and very dark -- a refreshing change from the nonstop light and excitement of Cambodia's larger cities. Amenities for tourists have improved somewhat since the new road was finished a couple years ago, although there still isn't much in the restaurant or shopping department.
A number of new guesthouses have opened their doors in recent years, however, meaning prices are competitive and a healthy number of options are available -- but don't come expecting 5-star-luxury, because there isn't any. Most importantly: there are now two functioning ATMs in Sen Monorom, but be sure to bring along a Visa debit card as neither of them accept Mastercard. A Canadia bank is currently under construction on the main strip due to open by the end of 2014, which will solve that problem.
Mondulkiri province is a huge place, and little in the way of public transportation or even regular bus service exists outside of the capital, Sen Monorom. Moto drivers are not widely available and must be arranged in advance, except for on Sen Monorom's main road. Only the brave should attempt renting their own motorcycle in Mondulkiri's outback areas, due to poorly maintained roads.
Extremely spread out, Sen Monorom is not exactly walkable. It's best to hire a motorbike for getting around town. If you can't drive yourself, all lodgings in the region can arrange a moto with driver. Make sure to arrange transport ahead in the evening, as moto drivers don't troll the streets looking for custom here, like they do in Cambodia's larger towns.
If you aren’t renting your own motorbike, it's wise to pick a hotel close to Sen Monorom's main strip, lest you find yourself stranded somewhere without transport at night. There are no tuk tuks in Mondulkiri -- don't expect one to magically appear here just when you need one, like they do elsewhere in Cambodia.
Packaged snacks, drinks, and basic supplies can be found at the Lion Mart or Sovannkiri Mart on Sen Monorom's main drag.
If you are staying in the downtown area, the Acleada Bank ATM is within an easy walking distance, but if you are heading over there after 19:00 or staying in one of the guesthouses further out of town, it’s best reached via motorbike.