Cambodia

Camping in Cambodia: A Trip to Kirirom

In America, June signals the start of camping season. People get out their coolers, tank tops, and bug spray. Living in Cambodia, it’s camping season all year round. The weather remains at a balmy ninety degrees, there are always mosquitos, and there’s always use for a cooler. So, back in March, we loaded up our cars and took to the hills for a weekend of camping in Cambodia. (Note: Many photos are compliments of the lovely Anna Sudra.)

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I know, it’s the last place you expected to see pine trees, right? Normally Southeast Asia brings to mind palm trees and white sand beaches.

Not in Kirirom. Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.33.51 PM

Kirirom National Park is about two hours outside of the city along highway 4 and has an elevation of about 2,200 feet. Compared to the rest of the country which lies barely above sea level, Kirirom is home to a vast pine forest and cool evening temperatures. The perfect camping spot.

To get there, however—like the rest of the country—is quite a journey.

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Once we turned off highway 4, the road turned to dirt and potholes. Not to mention bridges on the brink of collapse. Cambodia is definitely more set up for motorcycles than cars.

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Climbing higher into the forest, families in wooden shacks selling porcupine needles, pinecones, and firewood dotted the roadway.

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Kirirom National Park is not exactly the stereotypical “National Park” that exists in many countries. In Cambodia, national parks are sometimes quite developed on the inside. This one has a hotel in the center, an active pagoda, and a few families selling things throughout. You can’t buy property in the park. Anyone who lives there I assume has been grandfathered in. However, even the national parks of Cambodia are for sale to the highest bidder, which is why there is a hotel now in the center of Kirirom. (Similar to the giant casino that rests atop Bokor Mountain National Park…)

Before the Khmer rouge, there were a few hotels and cottage-style homes on the mountain. There’s currently a small tea plantation and visitor center. It makes a great stopping point if you’re traveling to Sihanoukville.

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This plant naturally grows on trees all over the forests of Cambodia. (I’ve seen it before in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and now Kirirom.) When I was hiking in Mondulkiri, the guide said it is good luck to see one of these plants for your wedding, but it is illegal to harvest and sell them. However, I saw them for sale all over Kirirom. I tried a number of Google searches and haven’t found an explanation. If you know about this cultural phenomenon, post in the comments below!

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The view from the lookout near the highest point in Kirirom.

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Once we got to our campsite we had lunch and set up the tents. Our campsite was not part of a regulated campground, but rather a clearing at the end of a deserted road. Because that’s how you make your own fun in Cambodia!

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As the sunk sank into the clouds and our campfire started up, we had our own little paradise.

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You couldn’t hear anything but bird calls and the wind.

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In the morning we drove to the visitor center.  Again I saw more local forested products for sale, which I recall reading were illegal. Looking back, I can’t find the articles that give me more information. I think the brown things are dried mushrooms, and the wood on the right is scented local wood. (It smelled delicious.) Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these things were sustainably harvested, but I hope I’m wrong…

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Having fun at the visitor center.

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Our last stop of the day was at a tiny waterfall off the main road.   10653673_10152670349147102_9136605122980195175_n

It felt great to rinse off the campfire smoke.

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Relaxing by the waterfall before heading back into the noisy city.

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Did I mention that it was my birthday? Chino and I are born a week apart, so we celebrated our birthday with a weekend filled of fun in the forest. Anna was sweet (as always) and baked us a cake. Nothing goes better with a waterfall swim than a chocolate brownie!

Add Kirirom to your agenda the next time you visit Cambodia! Just don’t forget to bring a flashlight.

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Koh Rong, Cambodia’s Survivor Island

Cambodia’s islands are a place of mystery. In comparison to the Thai islands, they’re pretty much distant specks on the map. As I’ve said before, Cambodia is most famous for Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. But once you’ve visited the Cambodian islands, it’s tough to stay away.

The most popular port for getting to most of the islands is the city of Sihanoukville, or “Kampong Som” in Khmer. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that Cambodia has two tiny peninsulas that jut out along the coast.  The left peninsula consists of Koh Kong and Botum Sakor National Park. The right peninsula has Sihanoukville and Ream National Park. This past January, we took a long weekend and headed down to the coast for a dip in the Gulf of Thailand.

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The town of Sihanoukville isn’t much in itself; the layout is rather disjointed and scattered across a series of hills. The beauty of the area reveals itself when you step onto the sprawling white sand beaches.

We arrived at the port in the morning, and were planning on catching a boat out to Koh Rong at around noon.

In the meantime, I snapped a photo of the ephemeral graffiti scene that seems to be making its way across Cambodia…

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Our destination was the island of Koh Rong. Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.44.28 PM

The journey to Koh Rong used to take a minimum of two hours. As you’d imagine, this greatly dissuaded us from visiting; there’s nothing worse than spending two hours leap-frogging over waves with an outboard motor under the penetrating sunshine.

Luckily, Koh Rong has a speedboat business now that cuts the trip down to forty-five minutes.

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Packed full of Khmer and foreigners alike, we held onto our lifejackets and started our journey.

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Now, a bit about the title of this post. To those who read local news, I like to think that Koh Rong is known as “Cambodia’s Survivor Island”. In 2013, the French version of Survivor, titled “Koh Lanta”, was filmed on Koh Rong. (Koh Lanta is actually an island in Thailand, but it wasn’t filmed there. Perhaps the producers thought that Koh Lanta sounded more romantic than Koh Rong?)

Here’s where it gets eerie. First, one of the contestants died from a heart attack during the filming of the show. Then, the television show’s resident doctor was found dead ten days later, having committed suicide in his bungalow. He left a note expressing his guilt over the heart attack of the contestant days prior. (To read more, click here.)

As if that’s not enough, the American television show Survivor is currently being filmed on the island as we speak. No joke. As stated in The Cambodia Daily, filming began this spring and is expected to conclude in July.

But to be clear, Koh Rong is not as remote as primetime television may lead you to believe.

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It is one of the more touristy islands of Cambodia. From the snorkeling and dive companies to new restaurants that pop up daily with fried rice and banana pancakes, some say that Koh Rong is a backpacker’s paradise.

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We did expect it to be full of tourists, but I didn’t quite anticipate how crowded the little stretch of beach would be. Since there’s no roads on Koh Rong, all the shops and bungalows open right onto the beach. This leads for a continual stream of bikini-clad tourists and pounding bass long into the night.

They’ve even got a pharmacy for tourists right at the pier once you get off the boat. Need some stitches? They’ve got you covered. What about typhoid? Ear cleaning? Or how about just some basic “cleaning stuff”? And while you’re at it, why not a blood test?

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We didn’t want to stay on this part of the island. Luckily, we didn’t have to.

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I booked our time at Pura Vita resort, a tiny series of bungalows on a secluded stretch of the island. Pura Vita means “pure life” in Italian, and is well-reviewed for being a clean and comfortable place far away from the hustle and decadence of the main part of the island. We were picked up by our hotel and jetted off across the bay and around the corner, to a truly quiet stretch of the island.

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And it was perfect.

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There was no one here except for some morning joggers, the other guests at our hotel, and our lovely host, Vanny. In her mid fifties, Vanny is a Cambodian woman who fled the country during the Khmer Rouge and grew up in Canada with her family. She ran a restaurant for most of her life, but had a dream to return to where she was born. So, with her kids enrolled in college, she bought a patch of land on the island, and started pursuing her dream. If you ever visit Koh Rong, definitely stay at Pura Vita and have a cup of coffee with Vanny. She’s great.

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We spent our days watching the waves, swimming, and walking along the gorgeous 7 kilometer long beach.

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And, sometimes, I did feel like we were on the set of Survivor. 13

As idyllic as it was, we were curious about that rag-tag stretch of restaurants by the pier. So, we spent one afternoon walking from our stretch of beach across the island over to the main area.

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Even though it got a bit more touristy, it was still equally as beautiful.

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As we settled into lunch, we ordered our meals and some smoothies to quench our thirst. Little did we know that you got “One free beer with every meal.” (You can actually see the chalkboard advertisement behind my sister in the above photo.) It was definitely one of those “Only in Southeast Asia…” moments.

And of course, a trip to an island isn’t complete without some swimming.

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The water was perfect. The sand was soft. The sun was warm. The air was clean. The palms were swaying. And we were in love.

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Will I go back to Koh Rong? Absolutely. But not to stay at the main port, nor as a contestant on a reality television show. I think I like the “pura vita” just fine. 

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You Know You’re In Southeast Asia When…

There are quite a few things that smack you in the face when you’re visiting Southeast Asia. Things that make you think, “Whoa. I’m really here.” Things you’ve never seen anywhere else. Today’s blog post is devoted to a few of those things.

Number One: Monks. Everywhere. 
This was shot outside my apartment on a Saturday morning a few months back. Monks walk down our street to receive their daily alms. (Check out this great article published 16 years ago titled “Wats going wrong: monks in Phnom Penh”)
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Number Two: Hilarious misspellings.

Fried crap stick, anyone?

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Number Three: Weddings that take up half the street. 

Cambodians love parties, and there’s nothing better than a Cambodian wedding. The most common kind in the city are giant white tents pitched in the middle of the street and all traffic is diverted for at least three days. Here’s the kicker: all of the flowers you see in the photo below are real. Let that soak in for a second. The trends are changing here in Cambodia, and people are paying up to $10,000 for floral arrangements for their wedding. Not to mention the cost of the security guards to make sure a Range Rover doesn’t ram through the side of your tent on your special day. Check out this article published by AsiaLife which explains the skyrocketing cost of weddings in Cambodia that can easily run families a half a million dollars. IMG_5055

Number Four: Cambodian BBQ.
This is a true phenomenon of Southeast Asia. You grill a variety of meats over a live fire on your table top, and all the juices flow into a moat where you slowly construct the world’s most delicious soup. IMG_2790
Add a large group of friends and a few hours of conversation, and you’ve got the perfect evening.

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Number Five:
 The Mekong river.  IMG_5282

Starting in China and ending in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, it is the twelfth longest river in the world.

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From houses to house boats to floating bed and breakfasts, the Mekong is the roaring neighbor in the backyard of Phnom Penh.IMG_5323IMG_2859

For $15 an hour, you can hire out a private boat and cruise the Mekong for sunset.

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Number Six: The night markets.      IMG_5156

Psar Reatrey, which means “night market” in Khmer, is mainly aimed at tourists, but who can stay away from the glowing lights and low-priced butt pads? (No, seriously. Look at the left-hand side of the photo below.)IMG_5157

Number Seven: Street food.
It’s hard to walk the streets of Phnom Penh and not be tempted by some strange culinary delight you’ve never experienced before. I thought I’d seen it all, then I found ice cream in deep-fried alphabet letters. IMG_5158

Number Eight: The bugs.IMG_5167

Deep fried bugs are a delicacy in Cambodia. Just bring along a friend who tries them a split second before you do. IMG_5168

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Cyclo Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a city seriously misunderstood.

When visiting Southeast Asia, tourists expect two things from Cambodia: The ruins of Angkor Wat, and the Killing Fields. After booking their flight to Siem Reap and their bus to the beach, they plan to pop into the dusty and chaotic city of Phnom Penh for a few nights—no more—to tour the Killing Fields and have a beer overlooking the Mekong River.

I have news. Phnom Penh is so much more than the Killing Fields. It is a city in renaissance. A city overflowing with a culture unlike any other in the world.

Sure, the roads are a bit busy and the air a bit humid. Phnom Penh is a city of 2 million people.

When you visit Phnom Penh, you walk the pebbled streets of smiling women scrubbing pots and brushing the hair of baby girls.

You wave at the moto drivers playing chess on the street corner and they wave back. When you visit Phnom Penh, you giggle with the girls in the market as you try on clothes that obviously don’t fit.You are invited to play games in the street. You taste countless different types of sour soups and steaming curries. You never knew a noodle could be cooked so many ways. You never thought flowers could smell so sweet or fruit could be so fresh. You take a selfie with your lover in the moonlight, and look behind your shoulder to see a young Cambodian couple doing the exact same thing. You hear men singing as they pedal their bicycles past you as you walk home from the market. Teenagers sip bubble tea as they get a manicure for a weekend wedding. You try to photograph the architecture of the wooden Cambodian houses peeking out alongside the French colonial facades, but you realize that your camera can never capture the creeping vines, the butterflies, the shadows, the tiles, the apsara dancers carved in wood, the smell of the incense. And when you fall asleep, you dream of the people who were so patient with you in a place where you are so clearly a foreigner.

Phnom Penh is not a place to be “done”. It is not a place to ask, “Is it worth it?” When you go to Phnom Penh, you need to slow down, take a deep breath, and look around you. I have lived here for two years and I am surprised every day.

When my family came to visit, I wanted to show them a part of the city neither of us had experienced before. I had seen the cyclos looping around Wat Phnom on Saturday afternoons, and knew there was a pretty popular cyclo tour. After a quick visit to the Khmer Architecture Tours website, I knew it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.

IMG_5185(All pictures are courtesy of master photographers; my Aunt Pat and my sister.)

There were seven of us: Sean and I, my dad and sister, my aunt and her two friends. We arrived at eight in the morning to a group of men in lime green t-shirts and white hats. They didn’t speak English, and my Khmer small-talk is brutal. We had a tour guide who was a recent graduate of Phnom Penh University with a major in architecture. IMG_5187Our sunscreen on, and our introductions complete, we set off to learn more about the architecture of Phnom Penh.

IMG_5202Our first stop was at a Chinese temple, one of the few in the city.

IMG_2816The temple had a few people praying or making offerings. There is a large Chinese-Cambodian presence, and many Cambodians identify as both Chinese and Cambodian to a certain extent.
IMG_2819The streets weren’t crowded as we cruised along, seven cyclos in a row. I can’t imagine what someone sitting in a barbershop must have thought when they saw us filter past!

IMG_5221We stopped at an old Jesuit church that has now been converted into housing. Before this tour, I had no idea how complicated housing is here in Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge, people were marched out of the city and the houses became abandoned. After the Khmer Rouge, people returned to an empty city to try and rebuild their lives. The government passed a new law which said that if you inhabited a place for one year, then it legally became your property, and you were the rightful owner to sell it as you pleased. This presented a real problem. Imagine that you were forced to leave your home during the Khmer Rouge, crossed the border into Thailand, and were finally able to return three years later. You are dropped off on your street. Not only does everything look different, but you walk up to your door, and a stranger opens the door. Your house does not belong to you. However, the new owner is “so kindly willing” to sell your house back to you, if you can agree on a price.

The whole system is terribly flawed, and shattered the lives of thousands. They not only lost their loved ones, but their houses were now “owned” by strangers.IMG_5224This church had room after room that had been cobbled together and built on top of each other. The church can’t be taken over by one dominant person as each room is independently owned by the people who resettled there after the Khmer Rouge.

IMG_5266The tour was fantastic not only because of the history and the architecture, but I had never seen Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of sitting inside a cyclo.

IMG_2817Each bike was a testament to the life of the man who drove it. You could tell they were meticulously crafted and continued to be cared for. These cyclos are the cadillacs of the city, man. Not to mention one of the drivers who really enjoyed saying, “Ooh la la” to make us laugh. IMG_5226At the end of the day, we said goodbye to our guide and our drivers, our minds full of awe at this city and it’s hidden alleys, temples, and histories that we never knew existed.

If you have the chance, come to Phnom Penh. And stay a while. I’ll take you to my favorite neighborhood. You’ll meet some really great people. It’s a hard place not to love.

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Kep & Kampot Off The Beaten Path (AKA, What else you can do besides eating crab.)

When most people visit Kep and Kampot, they beeline it to the coast and spend the afternoon sinking their teeth into succulent seafood and reading poolside. As the sun sinks into the horizon, they kick back with a cocktail and plan their next destination of either Sihanoukville, Vietnam, or Phnom Penh. I am the first person to admit that many of my weekends in Kep look like this, but it must be said that there is SO much more.

You could easily kill a week in Kep and Kampot and never do the same thing twice. (Although you might want to.) Back in October, Sean and I spent all of the Pchum Ben holiday along the coast. While we have our local favorite activities, we knew there were a few hidden gems that we had to visit. With a tank full of gas and a map in our hands, we set out to look for all that Kep and Kampot have to offer.

Some of our favorites? The caves. We had no idea there were caves in Cambodia! Not to mention, Phnom Chhnork cave has a 7th century temple inside of it. Another favorite was bicycling along the pepper plantations, home to the famous Kampot pepper. Rabbit island was also a pleasant surprise; a tropical getaway just off the coast of Kep.

I drew up a map to give you a feeling of the area. The red line is the route we drove on our trip last October. I recommend driving this way as it makes a nice loop for the drive to/from Phnom Penh. The limestone hills on both routes are stunning, and you can see them from two different perspectives.

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Also, you’ve got to check out the video Sean made as a mash-up of our trip. Hopefully it will convince you to spend more than a weekend in Kep!

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Visiting Cambodia, Part One (Kep & Kampot)

Have you ever done something so many times that it becomes second nature? You don’t even think twice about doing it? Take, for example, the way you brew your coffee in the morning. Or your drive to work. These things seem obviously simple to you. Until someone else enters your life, and views these things from a lens that completely blows your mind.

Going home to Wisconsin for Christmas, getting lunch at the local cafe is so routine for my father, they start making his salad before he walks in the door. For me, it was a flurry for colors, smells, and tastes I never experience the other 364 days of the year. Not to mention the excessive amount of cheese that is present on every Wisconsin plate.

So it is with Cambodia. When my friends and family come visit, they are amazed by things that I view as my day-to-day life. Take, for example, dodging motos when crossing the street. Or ordering lemon when you want lime. (Don’t ask.)

My aunt and her friends visited this past month, and it was a total blast. We had so much fun exploring Cambodia, and I love any excuse to play tourist. My aunt is one of the best photographers I know, so I asked to steal some of her photos for my blog. (Seriously, she gets one of her photos in her annual work calendar every year!)

So, here you go. Cambodia from another pair of eyes.

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The view from my rooftop in the Russian Market neighborhood. If you’ve ever been here, you can see White Linen Boutique Guesthouse in the bottom center. (The lavender colored building.)

 

 

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Walking through the Russian Market.

 

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The meat venders of the Russian Market.

 

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Fruit outside the Russian Market. (As if you needed any more evidence that the Russian Market is one of the best in Phnom Penh!)

 

IMG_4718Sunset over the Kampot river, a two hour drive from my school. It makes for the perfect weekend getaway.

IMG_4741The famous Saraman curry at Rikitikitavi in Kampot. Saraman curry is a special Cambodian curry that is not easy to come by. It is very, very rich and very flavorful. The primary ingredients are dry roasted coconut, shallots, garlic, cinnamon, and a lot of yum.

 

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My friend Anna snuck down to Kampot with us for a weekend. We woke up nice and early to get a yoga session in with the sunrise. Little did I know, my aunt snapped a great photo!

 

IMG_4791Eating breakfast off the balcony at Greenhouse in Kampot.

 

IMG_4801Downtown Kampot.

 

IMG_4813Downtown Kampot.

 

IMG_4818The famous Durian statue in downtown Kampot.

 

IMG_4838Walking along the Kep coastline. What a contrast.

 

IMG_4847Monkeys along the Kep coastline.

 

IMG_4851Monkeys along the Kep coast.

IMG_4860More monkeys.

IMG_4888Buying snacks in Kep.

 

IMG_4902My favorite hotel in Kep, the Kep Lodge.

 

IMG_4954Ordering squid in Kep.

 

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Browsing the crab market.

 

IMG_4982On the drive home from Kep, we passed at least thirty busses carrying young women. Sadly, we deduced they were being taken home from their factory shifts. Check the label of your shirt right now. Does it say, “Made in Cambodia”?

 

IMG_5023Passing a family of five on a moto.

 

IMG_5024Beautiful smiles.

 

I love all these pictures for so many reasons. My aunt takes a fantastic photograph, and it is a reminder of how beautiful this country is that I have come to call home.

Check back soon for the next blog, in which I give you yet another tour of Phnom Penh!

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Walking with Elephants

Happy February! Please forgive me for not posting in the past month. We’ve been absolutely crazy busy with visitors and traveling. My aunt and her friends flew over from Wisconsin for two weeks, and my dad and sister are here with us now. I love having guests visit—when else do I get an excuse to show off one of my favorite countries, visit my favorite restaurants, and play tourist on a school night?

In terms of the blog, the Go Pro is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that we take a lot less photos now, so have less to work with when writing a blog. On the other hand, it’s a total blessing when you have so many hours of absolutely perfect film footage that you don’t even know where to start.

That’s a bit how our photos of Mondulkiri were. Sean took great photos, but even more video. This weekend he took the best of the best and made a stellar film about our trip. I hope you enjoy. I fell in love with the elephants all over again, and groaned at the sight of our poor car being towed by a tree limb behind a van. (Our timing belt broke, and how else do you tow a car 200 miles in Cambodia? Hail a passing van, find a stick and some rope, and cross your fingers.) Take a look, and if you can, watch it in HD.

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Phnom Penh Evening Walking Tour

Happy new year! I hope you are having a good start to 2015. Here in Phnom Penh, things couldn’t be better. With the weather hovering around 75 degrees and a drop in humidity, it is absolutely idyllic outside. There’s a slight breeze at all times, the sky is clear, and the streets are begging to be walked.

So, Sean and I decided to spend our Friday night making a small walking tour of Phnom Penh.

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We parked our car at Independence Monument at the bottom of the map. Normally, Sean doesn’t enjoy walking in Phnom Penh because there’s a serious lack of sidewalks, which amounts to having to dodge motos, bicycles, dogs, and potholes constantly. However, our friend lives downtown and says she loves to walk her dog around the parks in the center of the city. Sean and I decided to see how far we could get, of course with dinner and a few card games mixed in.

The map above is the route we ended up taking, which, for scale purposes, came out to be a 2.5 mile loop. I would absolutely recommend you print out a copy of this map the next time you’re thinking of going on an evening walk in Phnom Penh. It was fantastic!

Here are some photos from our stroll, presented in the order that we came across them in our loop.

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After parking our car, we found a great silhouette of Independence Monument and the King Sihanouk memorial.

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The park was bursting with people exercising! Apparently 5pm on a Friday evening is not only the time to work out, but also the time to find out how much you can indulge over the weekend. We saw at least three people sitting with a scale, ready to weigh you for a small fee. How could I resist? Turns out, it was the best ten cents I spent all day! (Unless she rigged the scale to always give its patrons good news…)

IMG_2380If there’s one thing to be said about Cambodians, it’s that they love games. From cards to soccer to badminton, they love hanging out and playing games with each other. There’s even a game that involves throwing your sandals back and forth down the street, which I still haven’t quite figured out yet. These guys in the photo above are playing a game that involves using your feet to loft a heavy-duty shuttlecock back and forth between each other.

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And of course, perhaps other than games, Cambodians love sitting outside with each other and snacking. Food is at the heart of their culture, which makes Cambodia’s culture dear to my heart.

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Another exercising phenomenon is that of the group cardio dance classes. All you have to do is show up at dawn or dusk to an open area in the city, and you’ll find a stereo, a dance instructor, and a bunch of men and women ready to get their groove on.

What follows next is a series of photos around the north end of Wat Bottom park and the Royal Palace. There’s no other way to caption each of these photos except to say that they’re stunning, so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

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As sun began to set, Sean and I looked for a place to take a break and play cards. The riverside is famous with tourists for its string of endless restaurants, massage parlors, and promenade free from traffic for walking and socializing. While we never actually eat dinner on the riverside, we love to have a drink and watch the sunset from one of the many rooftop bars.

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This place was a great pick, as it was five stories high—three stories beyond the height of the popular FCC—and completely deserted. The name? Starry Place. It’s located across from the FCC and above Touk. We had fantastic views across the Tonle Sap, and found out that the Sokha hotel is actually now complete! (The giant, brightly lit building.) I hope to go over there some time this month and check out the views from their roof.

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This place, Starry Night, was pretty eclectic in terms of decoration. It is certainly not a polished, highly trafficked tourist hot spot. Which, obviously, is why we loved it. (And the hundreds of plants with Christmas lights!)

After the riverside, we walked back towards street 178 for dinner at Tamarind. They also have a lovely rooftop terrace, which, in 70 degree weather, I wished I had a sweater!

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Sean had his usual three-cheese pasta, and I had a greek salad. (Which turned out to be the absolute best greek salad I’ve had in the city!)

I hope you take the time to get out and enjoy this lovely weather. If you’re reading this in a colder climate, crank up the heat, make yourself a pineapple smoothie, and ask your loved one to give you a foot massage. Your imagination can do the rest!

Stay tuned for a blog about the new Sokha hotel!

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Mondulkiri Part Two

Back so soon, huh?

Yes, it’s only been a week, but I have some absolutely stunning photographs to share with you.

After my first post on Mondulkiri, my friend Shap wrote me and said, “Hey, you should have told me about the blog, I would have sent you these photos earlier!” I told him not to worry, and that I would make another post highlighting his work.

And, honestly, he takes great photographs.

Shap and Kari live on Maui. Kari works for the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kihei, and Shap works for Maui Kayaks.

After spending a week with him, I have to tell you: If you’re going to Maui, book with Maui Kayaks. John would make the absolute best guide, like, ever. Really. Check out his Tripadvisor reviews here.

So, he shared these photos with me, which totally blew my mind. Not only were they great pictures, but I love looking at an event through someone else’s eyes. He took photos from an angle I never saw in person, and now my memory of Mondulkiri is multi-dimensional.

Check out his photos. In the words of Kari and Shap, mahalo!
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Mondulkiri

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.

mondulkiri-mapLocated 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.

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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.
DCIM102GOPROLook how empty the background is! There is nothing but rolling hills and beautiful nature.
DCIM102GOPROOur car was loving the smooth, red dirt roads. And we loved our car.
4Not only did we find the sunset, but we found the most beautiful hill to set up a small camp for the night.

DCIM102GOPROWe 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. DCIM102GOPRONative 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.

 

DCIM102GOPRONow 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.

DCIM102GOPROI 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!

DCIM102GOPROThis is Sophie, and she was my favorite. Sophie was 33 years old—mind you that they can live to 100.
10The 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!

DCIM102GOPROWe had so much fun feeding them bananas and getting up close and personal!

12Like 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…

13When 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.

DCIM102GOPROAnd 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.

14 After our swim, we had another couple hours to hang out one-on-one with the ellies in their natural habitat.

15It was amazing, the sun slowly setting, and us all alone walking slowly behind Sophie as she searched for snacks.

16When it was time to leave, they loaded us into the back of their trusty Toyota HiLux and carted us out of the jungle.

17The elephants are rivaled by the spectacular scenery in which they live.
DCIM102GOPROOn 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.

19Here 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…

DCIM102GOPROAnd our waterfall hunt was a success. When we got to the lower tier of the falls, we were the only people there.

21It 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.

22It 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.

23But in terms of an experience, the weekend was unbeatable.

 

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