Little-visited Sen Monorom is the capital of Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s largest province — a vast expanse famed for thick forests, thunderous waterfalls, hills that wave up and down towards misty, faraway horizons and a real chance to immerse yourself in nature. For now. Things are changing here rapidly but, for the moment, you can still enjoy a relaxed, gentler pace of life than elsewhere, amid a genuinely friendly population.
The changes are manifold. Sen Monorom now has 24-hour electricity — they still talk about it in hushed tones — plus new roads between the capital and Ratanakiri to the north have made access much easier. But “progress” is a double-edged sword. 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. The roads have made it easier for Cambodia’s elite class to carry on with their systematic rape and pillage of the country at everyone else’s expense, the evidence of which can be found on the hills where trees and indigenous populations have been replaced with endless rubber and cashew plantations.
This huge province — 14,288 square kilometres — is also Cambodia’s most under-populated, though that too is changing as pressures on land in other parts of the country are seeing large-scale migrations taking place. Last year, we were told, more than 10,000 people made the move to Mondulkiri. Those dispossessed elsewhere come in and are in turn dispossessing the indigenous Bunong. When we asked if there had been any conflict, we were told no, “The Bunong are pretty relaxed people.” If migrations continue, we can only wonder how long that will last.
Despite being the provincial capital, Sen Monorom is a small city, easily accessible on foot. Most of the hotels, bars and restaurants can be found on that central strip or just off it. Visitors come for adventure activities outside of town 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 flat lowlands. From December to February, a warm jumper is essential here for the evenings.
A range of tour operators offer a chance to meet and observe elephants — but do not accept anyone who offers you elephant rides — hill trekking, waterfall trips, motorbike tours, and cultural experiences with the indigenous Bunong people. You could take two days here, or stretch it out to a week if you wanted to.
For elephant fans, the top choice must be The Elephant Valley Project, an NGO dedicated to rescuing and providing a sanctuary for elephants. They have a 16,000 hectare reserve where the elephants can roam and relearn how to be wild elephants again. You can come here for simple trekking and volunteering, and stay in the very comfortable accommodation.
A newer, similar but different, project is also getting a lot of positive attention. The Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary was set up by L.E.A.F. Cambodia, a community-based conservation NGO. They have rescued two elephants so far, whom they are working with to restore their natural behaviours after a lifetime of working in logging.
The only town of real interest to tourists in Mondulkiri, this small provincial capital about 370 kilometres 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 81,000 souls (and rising), many of them members of the Bunong indigenous group.
The town centre buildings are a mix of old wooden homes and more recent shophouse-style buildings, built around an interesting green valley right in the middle of the town that you wouldn’t even know was there. At night, everything goes very quiet — a refreshing change from the nonstop light and excitement of Cambodia’s larger cities. Amenities for tourists are improving and new businesses are springing up to meet the growing tourist market. It’s still a lot more “rustic” than elsewhere, and that too is part of the charm.
Accommodation prices are competitive and a healthy number of options are available, including a very beautiful resort just outside of town.
There is a Canadia Bank halfway up the high street — opposite the turn off for the market — and an Acleda about 150 metres down the turn off from that road onto National Route 76 — the road towards Phnom Penh. Both take international debit and credit cards.
Moto drivers can be found just on the turn off towards the market. They tend to be there until around dinner time, and can’t be guaranteed after then unless you make an arrangement with one to pick you up. Most guesthouses can rent you a motor scooter. There is relatively little traffic, which is not to say that you don’t still need to pay extreme attention when you’re driving. Learning how to ride here is a short cut to the hospital. That is especially so when the paved roads in the city stretch out and transform into bumping, winding stretches of sand, dirt and gravel. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.
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.
We personally experienced the services at the Clinic Mondulkiri just below the Kouprey Roundabout (T: (069) 203 922), and felt extremely well cared for. Unfortunately, they only speak Khmer and French, so you may need a translator, which your guesthouse may be able to help you with if you’re ill. They can also supply most pharmaceuticals. There is also a provincial hospital on the cross road to the south of the city centre. That said, for anything complicated, you still need to get to Phnom Penh or, for more serious matters, Bangkok.
Packaged snacks, drinks and basic supplies can be found at the Lion Mart or Sovannkiri Mart on Sen Monorom’s main drag. There is also a Total petrol station on the road towards the Bou Sra waterfalls, and a Sokimex about 300 metres down National Route 76 as you go towards Phnom Penh from the turn off from the central high street. There you’ll find basic toiletries, snacks and drinks. Other shopping opportunities are limited, to say the least. You can pick up local crafts and souvenirs from the Hefalump Cafe in the centre of town (and meeting point for the Elephant Valley Project).
By Nicky Sullivan. Last updated on 12th November, 2016.