“Come to Mondulkiri and you’ll find the Dalat of old,” says Do Tuan Anh, director of the VietMark travel agency.
The Cambodian province is often compared to Da Lat, a popular highland retreat in central Vietnam, 300km from Ho Chi Minh City.
Located 800m above sea level in northeastern Cambodia, Mondulkiri boasts a much cooler atmosphere than capital city PhnomPenh.
It also borders three provinces of Vietnam, namely Binh Phuoc, Dak Lak and Dak Nong.
In the local language, Mondulkiri means in the middle of the highlands, and its major city – Sen Monorom – translates to the place of cool air and great fun.
Established by French colonialists, Mondulkiri and Da Lat share similarities in history, landscape and climate, however, the former remains undeveloped and therefore attractive to travelers looking to experience a more primitive destination.
|Vast fields of reed flowers in Mondulkiri. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
About 400km away from Phnom Penh, Mondulkiri mesmerizes travelers.
The first notable feature is its forest.
Visitors can now take a new 250km route from Ho Chi Minh City via the Lapakhe border gate in Binh Phuoc Province, instead of the old, much longer route past the Hoa Lu border gate, also in Binh Phuoc.
During the four-hour journey, swathes of seemingly endless forest catch the eye as tourists near their destination.
The forest emerges immediately after passing through immigration and customs into Cambodia.
|The PhNong ethnic group make up 80 percent of Monkuldiri’s population. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
It covers a massive area, with rows of Crepe Myrtle trees rising dozens of meters high, boasting striking barks and blooms.
As tourists stand on the hilltops of the Sea Forest, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos all come into view.
Mos Rithy, a Cambodian national, challenged his companions on a recent trip, "How can you tell which is Laos and which is Vietnam?"
Making a witty comparison, he said, "Where there's no forest left, that's Vietnam!"
The second outstanding feature of the province is the vast fields of yellow and green reed flowers.
Also scattered across the fields are tiny bungalows, which add to the rural allure.
Photographers and selfie lovers here can 'fire at will,’ without having to seek out a nice shot.
|Tourists take a photo with PhNong children. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
By comparison, in the fields on the outskirts of Da Lat, people are forced to vie for a good position to capture the few remaining reeds.
Nguyen Dong Hoa – vice director of Saigontourist, a well-known travel agency in Vietnam – commented on the location, "What could be better for backpackers than to pitch a tent here and stay overnight?"
The third attraction of Mondulkiri is the villages of the PhNong ethnic group.
Accounting for 80 percent of Mondulkiri's population, the PhNong maintain their culture in low-ceiling straw cottages and live unspoiled, simple lives.
Children here greet travelers with shiny, dark, open eyes. Despite the presence of interpreters, they remain too timid to talk.
By contrast, in Sa Pa, another famous resort town in northern Vietnam, children push and pull, trapping tourists into a "pay first if you want to take a picture" scenario.
|Timid and adorable PhNong children. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
Elephant trekking tours
A Google search of 'Mondulkiri' turns out nearly 700,000 results, most of which are tourism companies catering for Western tourists, who love the primitive nature of the place.
Besides the villages of the PhNong, there are other places of interest like the Sea Forest, Bou Sra Waterfall, Sen Monorum and Chray Thom.
Most exciting of all though must be the Elephant Adventures and Jungle Trekking tours of the Mondulkiri Project.
The project itself is an effort to apologize to elephants. Its aim is to save them from doing heavy labor like logging, or serving the tourist industry.
Those rescued will be freed and can spend their lives strolling around and bathing in tourists' care.
|Bou Sra Waterfalls. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
Six elephants have made it so far, each of clear origin.
Lucky, for example, is a 50-year-old female weighing 3.5 tons. In the past, she was made to carry visitors around Angkor Wat.
Doing similar work, Comvine, a 30-year-old female from Siem Riep, has 'turned over a new leaf' after her transfer to Mondulkiri.
The Mondulkiri Project is not only 'elephantarian,’ but also humanitarian, in the sense that it empowers locals.
Villagers of Putang and Oriang Bunong can earn money by guiding tours and tending to tourists' accommodation and meals.
A 2-day-1-night elephant trekking tour costs US$100 for a solo passenger, and $65 per person for groups of two or more.
|Striking afternoon sunlight amid clouds in Mondulkiri. Photo: Thao Nguyen|
What to buy?
Rice is the most purchased product at less than $1 per kg. Vietnamese men tend to believe this is like carrying ice to Eskimos, but the women think otherwise.
Rice in Mondulkiri, as well as in most of Cambodia, is special because of its 6-month crop cycle. According to many Vietnamese women, it tastes better than the regular short-term crops in Vietnam.
Beef jerky and fresh beef are also traveler favorites. Why? They are tasty and cheap at around $8.80 per kg.
New tour to launch
Three travel agents, Vietmark, DamsanAngkor and Viettourist, have recently researched the area, and are hoping to launch new tours that cater for nature lovers.
Le Hoang Co – director of DamsanAngkokr – expects the cost of a 3 night/2 day stay at the sight to be around $66 per person.