Trundling Through the Hills of Mondolkiri

MONDOLKIRI PROVINCE – If you venture out this way, be prepared to come away with a few scrapes and bruises; signs of a Mondolkiri vacation done right.

Emily and Amanda, close friends of mine from Seattle that traveled here for a visit, joined me for the excursion. 

Although there are a variety of outdoors activities to choose from, including jungle treks, motorbike trips, coffee plantation tours, elephant trekking and the waterfalls—we stuck to the latter two.

Bou Sra waterfall is about an hour ride away from Sen Monorom City by motorcycle. Dramatic and beautiful, the thunderous falls plunge into the middle of the jungle. It’s also a popular picnic spot with local families and young couples. Everyone was whipping out their camera-phones and iPads and posing in front of the gushing water cascading down rocks and into shallow pools. Locals waded out into the pools as they were too shallow for swimming and enjoyed the coolness of the waterfall’s spray.

But the real highlight was the daylong elephant trek, organized through Nature Lodge, one of the few guesthouses in the provincial town Sen Monorom.

The trek was led by mahouts from the ethnic Bunong community, an indigenous hill tribe, and an English-speaking guide provided by the lodge. The Bunong people have traditionally used elephants for transporting items. But with the rapid development that Mondolkiri is undergoing, they now rely on the elephants to attract tourists.

Sheery Dancona, one of the owners of Nature Lodge, said that the mahouts came from one of three Bunong villages that shared the responsibility of taking care of a total of 15 elephants, and rotated the tours among themselves so that everyone has a chance to earn income from the treks.

We met Tee, our young, energetic and talkative guide on Saturday morning and set off for the Bunong village, Putang, to meet our elephants and their mahouts.

Putang was like most other small Cambodian villages, however there were a couple of traditional Bunong thatched-roof huts, which Tee explained had become less popular with residents, save for a few ethnic minority members who still prefer to live a more traditional lifestyle in more solitary locations in the forest.

It seemed that the traditional Bunong huts in Putang were mostly maintained just for tourists like us.

The elephants, however, were very real.

Krapong first emerged slowly from behind one of the houses. Her slow, steady gait made her appear all the more majestic as well as more intimidating. The youngest of the herd at 24 years old, Krapong was the more energetic of the two elephants. The second pachyderm, Poun, who arrived shortly after, was less so, being a septuagenarian. He towered over Krapong.

After climbing a rudimentary platform to mount Krapong and Poun, Amanda and I wedged ourselves into what were essentially woven baskets strapped to our rides’ backs. We had to tuck our knees under our chins.

Riding an elephant in a basket is by far one of the most uncomfortable ways to travel. I kept rearranging my legs in various awkward positions but never really found one that was more comfortable than the other.

Krapong and Poun lumbered out of the village and over green pastures, passing cattle grazing, lone houses on stilts and red dirt paths that weaved along the crests of the hills.

Eventually, we began to make a descent and pushed deep into the jungle, where everything was more lush: flowers burst with color, dangling mangoes glistened, and large emerald leaves and bamboo brushed against us.

Every now and then, Poun and Krapong would stop to graze on a patch of bamboo.

Tee pointed out that although Poun is a male, he doesn’t have tusks. “So we call him a ladyboy,” Tee said with a laugh.

It turns out that only some male Asian elephants have tusks, whereas all African elephants have them.

Our mahout, Leam, who rode bareback on Krapong’s neck, guided her away from the bamboo with his feet. He kicked the back of her ears in repeated, jerking motions, almost like he was trying to kick-start a motorcycle. Occasionally, Leam thwacked Krapong’s head with a bamboo stick, which was a bit disconcerting. We were, however, relieved to find out that he and his fellow mahouts never use anything sharpened or with a point.

After about two hours, we reached a clearing next to a river where we were to set up camp for lunch. It was a relief to dismount—at this point our joints were extremely sore.

After the much-needed break came the supposed highlight of our trek: washing the elephants. Krapong and Poun emerged from a thicket where they had been foraging and, in a surprisingly graceful way, lowered themselves into the river.

We cautiously waded into the river, inching our way toward Krapong and Poun who were being rubbed down by the mahouts.

Attempting to bathe such an enormous creature was less exciting than I’d imagined. I’d like to think that we had a bonding moment, Krapong and I, but in reality all I did was splash some water on her and felt like I was more of a nuisance than actually helping. Krapong seemed to enjoy the water nonetheless; playfully blowing bubbles under the surface with her trunk and rolling onto her side.

Then it was time to remount. Tee, who was nearby for assistance, instructed me to crawl forward until I was sitting directly on top of Poun’s neck, like a mahout.

Poun lurched forward, and I felt myself surging upwards, with nothing to grab onto. It was exhilarating, and surprisingly easy, to ride bareback on such an immense yet gentle creature.

Our time pretending to be mahouts was over all too soon. Soaking wet, covered in dirt and pumped up on adrenaline, Emily, Amanda and I were ready for the journey back to Putang.

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