Happy Thanksgiving! Or, if you don’t live in America, happy winter! Or, if you live in the Southern hemisphere, happy summer!
The weather here in Phnom Penh is moving along predictably as usual. The Water Festival, Pchum Ben, marked the end of the rainy season. Unbelievably perfect timing, it rained every day up until Water Festival, and once the festival arrived, the daily rains stopped and it hasn’t rained since. Now we enter the cool season, where the temperature drops just enough to justify a long-sleeved shirt or a pair of pants. The Cambodians, on the other hand, get out their winter jackets and hats and gloves. None of it makes any sense, though, when you look at the monthly averages and see that July is normally 90 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas December drops just one degree to 89. It’s pool and smoothie time all year long!
That is, however, unless you go to Mondulkiri.
Located in the Northeastern corner of Cambodia, Mondulkiri is the most sparsely populated region of the country. It is also the highest, with elevations ranging from 600-3,000 feet! That makes for a beautiful, Swiss-like land with rolling hills, pine trees, and chilly temperatures!
We had a five-day weekend holiday for Water Festival, and we had friends visiting from out of town. Together we drove the 240 miles from Phnom Penh into the hill country.
Our first stop was Sen Monorom waterfall. A small falls, but with a crazy swimming pool at the bottom. There was just enough current to force you to kick your feet to stay in one place, but not enough to pull you down stream. Sean wanted to jump so badly, but all the logs in the water made it pretty obvious that he shouldn’t.
We had heard the sunsets were beautiful in Mondulkiri, so our first night we went sunset hunting.
Look how empty the background is! There is nothing but rolling hills and beautiful nature.
Our car was loving the smooth, red dirt roads. And we loved our car.
Not only did we find the sunset, but we found the most beautiful hill to set up a small camp for the night.
We didn’t sleep there, but built a small fire and watched the moon rise.There was no one around for miles! It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.
But the main reason everyone heads to Mondulkiri, is the elephants. Native to the area, there are still wild elephants roaming the forest. However, due to reasons such as logging, poaching, and even tribal traditions, there are less than 50 wild elephants left.
Now you can visit Mondulkiri’s elephants through a bunch of tour companies. I booked with Mondulkiri Project, which provides a sanctuary for overworked elephants. Instead of riding them, we trekked with the elephants through the forest, fed them bananas, and hugged them every chance we got.
I really loved this style of elephant interaction as opposed to riding them. When you ride elephants, you are on a different visual plane; you don’t get up close and personal with them. When you can interact with them at eye level, you really get a feel for their individual personality. They were the world’s happiest elephants!
This is Sophie, and she was my favorite. Sophie was 33 years old—mind you that they can live to 100.
The goal of Mondulkiri Project is to help these elephants live a peaceful, healthy life. They are not overworked like some of the tourist camps you see. You could tell by their demeanor that they were happier than most elephants you see with a chain around their legs and a basket on their back. These elephants could walk wherever they wanted, and we just followed them!
We had so much fun feeding them bananas and getting up close and personal!
Like I said it was trekking, so we then left the elephants in the forest and hiked to a swimming hole. The bridge we had to cross was pretty precarious…
When we got to the swimming hole after lunch, we found the mahout and the male elephant waiting. That mahout was born in a local village, and his father was also a mahout. He has spent his entire life around elephants.
And then we swam. Swimming with an elephant is the most indescribable feeling… you are in water that is waaaaay over your head, with a beast that could easily crush you. What do you do? You tread water and hang on to his scruffy hide, giving him a back rub.
After our swim, we had another couple hours to hang out one-on-one with the ellies in their natural habitat.
It was amazing, the sun slowly setting, and us all alone walking slowly behind Sophie as she searched for snacks.
When it was time to leave, they loaded us into the back of their trusty Toyota HiLux and carted us out of the jungle.
The elephants are rivaled by the spectacular scenery in which they live.
On our next day, we headed to Bou Sra Falls. It is the tallest waterfall in Cambodia, and to our frustration, also the busiest.
So what did we do? Search for our own, secret waterfall.
Here we are, preparing to cross the top of the waterfall, then hike down the other side to the second tier of the falls, which is rumored to be even more beautiful than the popular tier. We just had to figure out how to cross the river. Notice how close some of those people are to the edge of the falls…
And our waterfall hunt was a success. When we got to the lower tier of the falls, we were the only people there.
It was absolutely stunning. The waterfall was absolutely giant, and we had it all to ourselves.
The day we had to leave, we packed up our car and headed down out of the hills back into the flood plains of the Mekong.
Until… we had car troubles.
As Sean was driving, the engine just stopped being responsive. Our car slowly and silently decelerated, and we drifted over to the side of the road.
Turns out, our timing belt broke.
200 miles outside of Phnom Penh. In the middle of nowhere.
So, we did what any sensible Cambodian would do.
Found a branch, flagged down a bus, and towed our 1999 CRV back to Phnom Penh.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. By the time we got back to the city, eight hours had passed, we were now being pulled by a Toyota Camry, the Camry had overheated five times, the stick broke twice, we replaced the stick once, and we celebrated our return with pizza and a hot shower.
But in terms of an experience, the weekend was unbeatable.