Mondol Kiri Province, Cambodia
A world apart from lowland Cambodia, Mondulkiri is the original Wild East of the country. Climatically and culturally, it’s also another world, which comes as a relief after the heat of the plains. Home to the hardy Pnong people and their noble elephants, it is possible to visit traditional villages and learn how to be a mahout. The landscape is a seductive mix of pine clumps, grassy hills and windswept valleys that fade beguilingly into forests of jade green and hidden waterfalls. Wild animals, such as bears and tigers, are more numerous here than elsewhere, although chances of seeing them are about as good as winning the lottery.
Mondulkiri means ‘Meeting of the Hills’, an apt sobriquet for a land of rolling hills. In the dry season it is a little like Wales with sunshine; in the wet season, like Tasmania with more rain. At an average elevation of 800m, it can get quite chilly at night, so carry something warm.
Mondulkiri is the most sparsely populated province in the country, with just two people per sq km. Almost half the inhabitants come from the Pnong minority group, with other minorities making up much of the rest of the population. There has been an influx of migrants in recent years, drawn to the abundant land and benign climate. Fruit and vegetable plantations are popping up, but hunting remains the profession of choice for many minorities. Conservationists have grand plans for the province, creating wildlife sanctuaries and initiating sustainable tourism activities, but are facing off against speculators and industrialists queuing up for natural resources. BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest mining companies, is already digging around, literally.
Roads are pretty poor throughout the province, but the main highway to Phnom Penh is in pretty good shape most of the way, bringing journey times down to seven hours. The road to Koh Nhek is unrecognisable from the mess of bygone years. Improved access has fuelled an explosion of domestic tourists, so book ahead at weekends.