Delightful Provincial Cambodia 6 – Into Mondulkiri
Wow, after coming to Cambodia for six years and after spending a total of many months there, I finally have my first chilly night in Sihanouk's rotting Kingdom – and that in late March, towards the peak of the hot season! Delightful cool air flows around me, a decidedly refreshing breeze comes down from the hill – not the fiery hot-wind-attacks you get elsewhere -, and after weeks and weeks in steamy places like Phnom Penh, Pursat or Sihanoukville, this is such a relief! Two degrees less, and I'd grab a jacket!
The very welcome chilly feeling is brought to us by Sen Monorom, capital village of Mondulkiri province, Cambodia's "wild east" along the Viet border. At around 800 meters high, the early afternoons are still too hot. But from 4 pm on, Sen Monorom enjoys a livable clime. And we've found a guesthouse with garden seating – where I spend many happy hours just soaking up fresh cool countryside wind that doesn't smack of Panasonic air-conditioning.
— THE ROAD TO MONDULKIRI —
If you look on the map, Sen Monorom isn't that far from Phnom Penh. But the main roads wind up and down, and you approach Mondulkiri's capital in several wide semi-circles, so you get a total of 350 road kilometers. Of which 130 kilometers are on dirt. So we decide to play it slowly and overnight in Kompong Cham (see previous submissions).
After Kompong Cham, we sail 130 kilometers eastward on perfect asphalt. Several rubber plantations line the road, but no significant township. Then, near Snuol, there is the turnoff for Mondulkiri, and we reach a good dirt road. 20 kilometers on we see a road barrier and an "IMMIGRATION" sign.
"Where you plan to go sir", asks me a very sceptical policeman in good English?
"You are wrong, sir. This road leads to Vietnam. It's not open for westerners. You have to go back."
Yes, we have to go back no less than 15 kilometers. There is a road junction with a sign in mostly Khmer-writing. As Norah had been sleeping, I hadn't asked for explanation but simply took the straight – wrong – path. Only now I realize this way is signposted in tiny roman letters as "VN", for Vietnam (previously I had believed this was Khmer style writing for UN, as the organisation is everywhere).
Finally on the right road to Mondulkiri, everyday Cambodia quickly fades out. No more rice fields with scattered sugar palms and water lily ponds. Here it's rolling hills and dense forests. Wild roosters in shiny wedding dress fly across the scene. There are occasional very poor settlements. Signs in Khmer admonish not to cut trees or kill animals. The dirt road remains mostly smooth, so we manage an average speed of 35 to 40 mph.
— INTO SEN MONOROM —
Our brave Isuzu jeep climbs up one more hill, then Sen Monorom village stretches across the next valley and hill. This spread-out village recently had a boom in tourism, and next to the usual guesthouses there are now two big, hotel-like structures. It even has asphalt roads now!
We drive slowly through the main roads to look for an appealing place to stay. Sen Monorom has a lake, and on the far shore of this lake Norah spots one single, very nice building. "This must be a guesthouse", she concludes. She asks a schoolboy if this is a guesthouse, and he says: "No, it's the private villa of Mondulkiri's governor."
We finally settle for Pech Kiri guesthouse, which may not be the most romantic lodging, but offers walking distance to market and restaurants plus lots of tourist information. The sink in the attached bathroom is of the kind where you water your toothbrush and the liquid runs straight through onto your toes. The wooden walls of our ten-dollar-room here are painted in yellow and pink. The manageress, highly energetic Madame Deu, is also painted-up in all kinds of unfitting colors from head to toe.
We have no plan to use the guesthouse restaurant. Instead, Norah walks over to ask Madame Deu for a knife and a plate to cut our imported sack of sour mangoes in the garden. – "Wasn't she angry that we don't eat her restaurant food", I ask Norah from my deck chair? – "No, she said we could ask for anything more we'd need."
After dark, we stroll around the market area. The leading food garage in these parts seems to be Chomnor Thmei, the "New Wind" restaurant. Guess what, helpings here come petite, but absolutely delicious. Norah is miffed that this remote provincial outpost delivers better food than her Khmer places in Phnom Penh. She examines the lengthy menu and declares she has no intention to try any other restaurant during our stay in the province. A rarity for a local style restaurant, Chomnor Thmei even dishes up freshly squeezed orange juice and "takalok" fruit smoothies – but the friendly owner has to ride his moto to the market for our request.
After dinner, we taste more of the fresh air on a walk through dark roads. A few preposterous dogs try their best to stop us. A few preposterous youths speed along on motos with aircraft engines. Mondulkiri nightlife.
— STAYING WITH MADAME DEU —
Finally we settle in the guesthouse garden's deck chair. Only to meet talkative Madame Deu, who has gathered some friends. We are invited to share sweet potatoes. Madame Deu boasts that she speaks five languages – Khmer, Viet, English, French and the local hilltribe lingo Phnong. She continues that she cannot read and write in any language, not even Khmer – except for the numbers. This is quite astonishing for a lady who is not only a successful guesthouse manager, but also something of a local real estate broker and farming entrepreneur.
We have seen Madame Deu's husband, a well-kempt well-dressed moustached higher government official. Or so we thought. "What is your husband's business", asks Norah politely? We hear that Madame Deu usually sends her beau of an husband to work on one of her farms. "On good roads he is my driver. On bad roads I drive the car myself."
An English tourist rushes by and asks "Whersse awspiddle, whersse awpiddle??"
Madama Deu looks irritated.
"Whersse awspiddle", demands the tourist, getting angry at her obtuseness – "whersse awspiddle!?"
Madame Deu still doesn't understand.
I step in: "W h e r e i s t h e h o s p i t a l ? "
"Oh", says Madame Deu to me, "just down the road and on the right-hand side."
"Oh", I say to the Englishman, "just down the road and on the right-hand side",.
Non-native English speakers often communicate easier with Asians than the native speakers.
Staying in Madame Deu's Pech Kiri guesthouse, you mostly sleep wall-to-wall with some of her male relatives. This happened to us in two different rooms. It does not only add football broadcasts and Khmer music into your lullaby cocktail. Deep in the night I hear a mighty snoring that is too voluminous to be of human origin. It keeps me musing until sunrise.
Another part in a very nice series. Once again, great pictures!