As the holidays were approaching my wife and I were gifted with a surprise: a week of time off between Christmas and New Year’s. Having already made plans in country for the New Year’s Eve weekend, we decided that instead of venturing to the beach or a nearby capital city, we would take a much talked about road trip up through Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, looping back down through Kratie on the way home. We were pleasantly pleased with the driving conditions, the sights, and the trip as a whole.
We planned to spend two nights in Sen Monorom, two nights in Ban Lung, and two nights in Kratie. I don’t drive around Phnom Penh normally, and this was my first full road trip in country behind the wheel. We decided to leave the city mid morning, in no rush, and make the drive as leisurely or quickly as we felt comfortable with.
Heading north on National Highway 2 north towards Siem Reap, and not far outside of Phnom Penh we turned east onto Highway 8. For most of the start of the drive traffic wasn’t too bad – not empty by any means but certainly not completely packed. We cruised through, and before we knew it we were straddling the Vietnamese border heading north. By the time we passed through the town of Snuol, we noticed a large difference in the agriculture of the area. We had left the rice fields that line many of the roads in the rest of the country behind, and as small hills began to form so too did a plethora of pepper farms, and hectares upon hectares of skinny trees planted in straight lines – rubber plantations. The pepper farms varied in size. Some were small scale on an individual’s land, while others were massive productions. It was evident that Kampot and Kep may be the Napa County of pepper, but Eastern Cambodia is the Central Valley of pepper.
For much of the beginning of the drive we passed through small towns that looked the same as if we were driving to Sihanoukville or Siem Reap, and I spotted coconuts for sale throughout. When I finally stopped to refill gas, halfway between Snuol and Sen Monorom, I craved one of the coconuts, but realized that we had already started going up in elevation, and they were no longer for sale. I felt a light crisp in the breeze, and chatted with the gas attendant in Khmer, who found it amusing I spoke the language. He guessed I was Spanish, which I found random for him to pick that of all European countries, butI went with it. I put about 45 liters of gas in, and then he told me how much I owed him… in riel. This was an initial shock for me, because I knew the bill would be around $40, so I was not expecting riel. In the coming week this trend continued, and I used more riel in one week than in the previous year.
It took us exactly 5 and 1/2 hours to reach the Sen Monorom town center, and I drove straight to our lodging, the Indigenous People’s Lodge. I had booked a ‘family bungalow’ for the two of us as it was the same price of $15 a night as the double, but offered two more beds, and most importantly the space that came with it to lay out our bags on. It’s a nice little place just out of town, simple rooms, but with a private bath. It was still only late afternoon, so we had time to grab a local coffee, buy two beers, and drive up to the lookout at Dohkrormom Mountain for a beautiful sunset view to enjoy the beers with.
We then descended back into town and met with Torn from the Bunong Elephant Project. There are a few different “projects” to choose from for trekking and hanging out with the elephants, but we chose the Bunong Project based on recommendations and the impressive things they are doing for the local Bunong community. They offer many different packages, including jungle treks (one or two day, staying in a local village or staying in the jungle overnight), elephant tours, and sightseeing tours. Torn was willing to custom design a tour for us for the next day, and we settled on a morning of trekking through the jungle, seeing a few waterfalls, and then joining up with the elephant tour in the afternoon to bathe with the elephants in the river.
After the day of travel we were ready for some more drinks, and settled in at the Chill on the Rocks Bar. It’s a small space, with only two bench tables inside and a few on the patio. Owned and run by a friendly Swedish couple, it is pleasant stop for a cocktail or beer, reasonably priced, and some good snacks such as a tapas plate or a delicious plate of chips. We then went a few doors down to the Hangout for dinner, which has a more open space and several more tables. By this point the wind had picked up, and even in sweaters we were cold. We had a quick dinner, ordering a few basic Khmer dishes such as a curry and noodles, and then rushed out of there to get warmed up in our bungalow.
Torn picked us about a little after 8:00 AM at our lodge, and packed us into his SUV with several other tourists and we drove about fifteen minutes out of town. Everyone else that day was on the elephant tour, so we had our tour guide for the jungle trek to ourselves. Heading into the hills he explained that he was the local Bunong ethnicity, which is the largest in the region, and that Khmer was his second language. Our Khmer and his English were about equal, so we used it as a good chance to practice our Khmer all day, while telling him the names of a few things in English as well.
The hike started on a baron hill, before we walked through a local farm, and then into bamboo jungle. The vegetation varied throughout the day, and we hiked up through the jungle or past various farms at different times, and we spotted several signs of wildlife, including elephant dung on the trail, and bear claw marks on a tree. We asked how often he saw snakes and he shrugged and stated that sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. That wasn’t very reassuring.
We stopped at one large waterfall, and I went for a swim, but it was more just for the photo op as the water was extremely cold. He had packed a basic lunch for us, which we ate at a much smaller waterfall, but a more pleasant place to swim. By two o’clock we met up with the other group, who were sitting around discussing how the local people use elephants, while two elephants were down in a river splashing around. A few of us volunteered to get in the water with them and give them a good scrub, which is a great way to experience how truly massive, yet gentle, they are. Afterwards we fed them the rest of the bananas and sugarcane that Torn had, watched them dry off, and then were on our way out.
The following day we knew we were heading to Ban Lung, Ratanakiri, but we were in no rush to get there. The night before we had dinner and drinks with a young Swedish couple we met on the elephant tour, and we had offered them to join us to check out Bousra Waterfall, the largest in the area. It’s just over 30km from downtown, and a very easy drive out on a paved road, which took about 30 minutes to reach.
The waterfall itself is roaring, with a small walk down a paved road to reach it. There is not a large pool under the waterfall to swim in, but you can walk up to it, carefully. Approaching it I had to put my face down or turn away to breath, and I only ventured up to one side of it. Standing under one small section the water pounded off my shoulders, which some may say feels akin to a massage, but I failed to see the overall pleasure in it other than for the experience and photo-op. There is also a zip-line across the ravine, but we did not see anyone take part in that while we were there.
On the drive back we stopped by the coffee plantation, 3 km before town. Ideally we would have stopped on our way to Busra, and then gone straight to Ban Lung without as much backtracking, but we had the Swedish friends to return. The plantation is very beautifully done, with several other fruit trees among and next to the coffee, most notably passionfruit. The one downside was that although we could walk around and explore, there was no sort of guided tour or information available at all. There is a restaurant at the base, and we had a very typical Khmer meal there, rounding it out with a coffee, of course, and a passionfruit soda to go. We bought a 1/2 kilo of Arabica beans, which were slightly expensive, at $20 a kilo.
The drive from Sen Monorom to Ban Lung can only be described as perfect. It was absolutely enjoyable to be driving, and if I were a motorcycle enthusiast or owned a nice German sports car I would make pilgrimages up there just for that stretch of road. Google street view still shows it as a red dirt road, but it is a perfectly paved, wide road with extremely little traffic on it. I drove faster than I should admit, with the unabated freedom you can’t get in the West that I wouldn’t get pulled over. The road rolls through the hills, with exquisite views, before eventually coming down out of the high hills and flattening out. By the time we reached Ban Lung, in a very short two hours, I had to consciously slow down for the little traffic that there was, reminding myself not to be an asshole Phnom Penh driver. There was a long stretch through the hills, maybe 40 to 50 km, without any gas stations, so it would be wise to fuel up before leaving Sen Monorom, just in case.
In Ban Lung we checked into the not so originally named Ratanakiri Boutique Hotel. This was an upgrade from our accommodations in Sen Monorom, but still very reasonably priced at $58 for two nights in a double room with lake view. For some reason they did not have our booking, which was made through Agoda, and they were out of that style room. However, they upgraded us to a nicer room, keeping the price the same, which must have been due to good karma for helping the Swedish travelers out earlier. It was very large, had a view of the small lake, and a nice bathroom; although the hot water never lasted for more than a minute or two.
That first night we headed straight to the Green Carrot for their two-for-one happy hour. Not only were we pleased that the cocktails were very good, but we were happy to see that it was a Cambodian owned and run business. We noticed some food come out for a table nearby us (who looked like missionaries, based on the lack of alcohol and prayer before the meal), and a dish that did not look on the menu. The waiter told us it was a “fajita”, and they didn’t have it on the menu anymore. We asked for one anyway, and they were happy to oblige. It was not a “fajita” by any stretch of the imagination; it was a large pita filled with fresh vegetables and, most importantly, avocado, and cheese (we asked for a veggie instead of a chicken). After that we stopped by Cafe Alee for a few more beers and small bites, including their spicy olives which are an absolute must order, and fresh pumpkin soup. We ran into someone we know from Phnom Penh who had just come up that day on the bus, and the entire group looked exhausted from what they described as a very bumpy ride. Thinking back to our wonderful drive, we pitied them.
The following day we devoted to chasing waterfalls. We had three on the list: Katieng, Kachanh, and Cha Ong. I had read not to attempt driving to these on a motorbike in the rainy season, but as the rainy season was past and we were in a car, I figured how hard could it be? I was wrong. We followed Google’s directions to Katieng waterfall, and Google let us down. There appears to be two ways to go, and Google did in fact take us on the path keeping us on the main road for the longest, but the side road turned more into a path at points. After leaving the last small village, creeping over rocks, making sure not to bottom out, and through farms, I was about to turn around and give it all up; but there was no possible way to do that, so I carried on slowly. It took about 45 stressful minutes to go around four kilometers, including having to plow through a very large section of water. However, we finally made it, and I was shocked to see another car there.
The waterfall has a large overhang, which you can walk behind the falling water. It also has a large pond to swim in, with the water much more comfortable than up in Mondulkiri. On the way out, I asked the driver of the other car how he drove in, and it was the other route, which looks longer on the map, and although still a bit treacherous if you aren’t used to roads like that, way more manageable. Plus, it brought us close to our second waterfall, Kachanh. Kachanh Waterfall has a large and wide area of water above the waterfall, which you can (carefully) climb around in and get some great photos. A little downstream from the waterfall there is a hanging bridge to walk across, again offering several good pictures.
For lunch we headed back into town. Unfortunately Sal’s restaurant was closed for lunch, which is run in the back of a local’s house, but we settled for Bamboo Restaurant Vegetarian Food. All of the dishes are vegetarian, and the two that we got did not lack flavor. The two meals, with two drinks, came to $7 – for some reason, which I still don’t know why (perhaps it was speaking Khmer to them?), they gave us a discount down to $6.
We had a busy afternoon planned as we headed off to Cha Ong waterfall. The road was once again slow going, creeping over ditches, but not too bad in comparison to our first leg. This waterfall was perhaps the tallest, at around 20 meters, but also the narrowest water. It is amazing how large a waterfall the little amount of stream water created though. Here, we also climbed down and behind the water, but it was less impressive than the more forceful Katieng. After this, and all waterfall-ed out, we drove over to Boeng Yeak Loem, which is the lake that was most likely created by a meteor. It appears to be a very popular picnicking spot for locals, and for swimming, but as you make your way around things quieten down. It was a pleasant nature walk, and took about 30 minutes to make the loop. I couldn’t resist the rope swing off the main dock, and the locals seemed to love seeing someone use it.
After a shower and change we rushed over to catch the sunset from the 9th story Sky Bar above the Yeaklaom Hotel. It has an excellent view, and a trendy vibe that seems out of place in Ban Lung. But they did have buy 2 get one free happy hour, and we shared some delicious local cashew nuts, which reminded us that we may want to stop by the market for cashew nuts and avocados; unfortunately were told that it was past avocado season, and that there was no sense to buy cashews in the market as they wouldn’t be cooked.
Ending our road trip to Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri we felt that we had just scratched the surface. We stayed in the two large towns, and did a little wilderness exploring, but are keen to return. They were surprisingly accessible, and it was even enjoyable getting there. On the way out, we left for Kratie. This was a more direct road, and busier than the one we came in on, but one that I could comfortably maintain a similarly high speed. We reached Kratie in three hours, where we met up with friends from Phnom Penh, and spent the weekend on Koh Trong at the beautiful Rajobori Villas Resort. This was an idyllic getaway spot from Phnom Penh, with a gorgeous pool, and quiet island to explore. However, the service at the resort can only be described as bizarre, and not in a good way. From the moment we arrived until we left, they couldn’t get anything right. It really could be a case study on how bad things can get when the management is in Phnom Penh and not around. Despite the beauty of the area, we will not be returning there unless there is a change in management.
The trip ended with a late afternoon drive back from Kratie, after a pleasant lunch at Tokae restaurant in town. It took us four and a half hours to return into Phnom Penh, but it took our friends’ van six hours. The road was a mixture of good very poor sections, but construction was taking place in many of the poor sections. I then had the dubious honor of driving in the dark for a few hours, and with all of those associated challenges, the pleasantness of the drive to Ban Lung seemed weeks away.
I will happily drive back to Mondulkire and Ratanakri, and look forward to further exploring an overlooked part of Cambodia. It was also satisfying to be able to use my Khmer more, which often gets neglected in Phnom Penh, and to interact more with people that don’t see many foreigners. I will plan to bring clothing donations to give to Torn at Bunong Elephant Project, as he does a lot of charitable work in the Bunong Community. Although it’s always tempting to head to the beach, or Kampot, or a neighboring country, I hope to be able to do more road trips like this in Cambodia, which are only becoming easier. Lastly, as a side note, throughout the almost 1000km road trip I passed several police checkpoints, normally entering or exiting a town – too many to count, in fact. However, I was never ask pulled over. I’m not sure why or what that means, but it was nice to not worry about dealing with that hassle.