This past weekend we took a road trip to Mondulkiri, a remote province in Northeastern Cambodia. The natural beauty of this rough terrain was like no other place I have seen in Cambodia. It was a rare opportunity to get out of the urban jungle to see the real jungle and enjoy the true splendor of nature.
We drove through four provinces (Kandal, Kampong Cham, Prey Veng, and Kratie) before we reached our final destination, Mondulkiri, which took us seven hours with an hour stop along the way. As with many roads outside of the city, our trip was bumpy as we drove on numerous dirt roads with oversized potholes.
Along the way, we saw the idyllic scenes of rural life; the traditional country houses on stilts, plains of lush green rice paddies turning into gold as the dry season approaches, a fisherman on his canoe stretching to grab his net, palm trees blowing in the wind, cows grazing and chickens crossing the road, students in their uniforms riding their bicycles to/from school, and the farmer taking his dozens of coconuts to the market.
As we got closer to Mondulkiri, flat plains started turning into hills and valleys, and the mountains started coming out of the shadows. It was here that I saw familiar scenes of the U.S. countryside; the gathering of pine trees up on the hills, the long strands of grass blowing in the wind, the mountains hugging the winding roads, and where the trees and horizon joined the endless sky.
We arrived as the sun was setting over the mountains. We went to sleep to the sound of singing geckos and the clearest night sky filled with the brightest stars I have ever seen. The next day we woke up to the loud gobbling of wild turkeys wandering around our doorstep.
We started our day on more dirt roads traveling to the beautiful Boursra waterfall. We walked towards the waterfall by way of wide steps, passing small markets selling local goods, and young children waiting for charitable donations from passersby. My expectation was that I would see a modest waterfall, similar to the one’s I’ve seen in Kbal Chhay near Sihanoukville or Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap.
When I arrived, I was in awe of the roaring thunder of the water cascading down the majestic falls. Families and friends were gathered around straw mats on the floor or little shaded wooden houses to eat, talk, and take in the beauty of Bousra as mists from the falls cooled them from the heat. Visitors were dressed up in the traditional clothes of the ethnic minorities posing by the water for souvenirs.
When it came time to finally eat, we ordered a delicious meal of rice with salt-crusted mudfish roasted on a skewer with sour mango and locally grown organic chicken. We took the food to eat at a nearby rubber plantation, since there were no open mats or wooden houses at the waterfall. At the plantation, my children ate and stared at the trees lined with wooden bowls filled of white sticky sap that looked like milk. They couldn’t understand how this white sap turned into the soles of their shoes or tires on a car.
With our stomachs full we ventured to our next stop, Monorom waterfall, where two large friendly elephants awaited their next ride. The elephants in Mondulkiri were much bigger than the ones I had seen in Siem Reap. The sheer size and height of them made me think twice about riding on them, but then I realized, when would we ever get the opportunity to ride an elephant in the jungle?
We climbed on our elephant Ethom and sat down in a small metal carriage. The only barrier keeping us from falling 15 feet off the ground were two bars, one to put our feet through, and other to hold on for dear life.
Ethom started to waddle towards the creek led by her master in an army jacket. It felt as if we were in the midst of an earthquake in the air, trying to maintain our balance as she swayed back and forth. She crossed the creek and ascended up a steep hill into the jungle where were bombarded by branches, twigs, and vines, constantly thrown in our faces. With each step, it felt as if we would fall backwards into the creek. Once in the jungle, I constantly looked out for snakes that might be wrapped around a vine, or a monkey jumping out in front of us. While I was nervous with every step she took, I was also in awe of the entire experience.
Ethom then trekked into a flat path and for a moment I enjoyed the ride until she started descending down the hill back into the creek. With every step down it felt as if she was going to lose her balance and we would crash down to the jungle floor. The boys were enjoying every minute of the ride, amazed by the fact that they were riding an ELEPHANT. After a short ride, we circled back to the loading zone and I breathed a sigh of relief. Next time we go on an elephant ride it will be on a flat surface, no hills, no creeks and no jungle. But what amazing experience we all shared together.
Our final destination was at the Sea Forests. I wasn’t sure why they called it this and thought maybe it was a typo that should have said “See Forests”. But as we slowly approached over the horizon, I saw a sky full of trees as far as the eye could see. The rustling of the leaves as the wind blew sounded like waves from the ocean. It was a perfect, calm end to our busy day and gave me a moment to reflect on what we had just experienced. With a deep breath I took a mental picture of this place.
Mondulkiri was one of the places my father always wanted to see, but never had a chance to. Now that I was here, particularly at the Sea Forest, a place where heaven and earth seemed to meet, I prayed that his spirit was with me to finally see the natural beauty of Mondulkiri.