Backpacking from Phnom Penh to Mondulkiri on a Budget

If you are a backpacker passing through Cambodia and seeking a bit of adventure, don’t settle for Phnom Penh…get off the beaten path and visit the remote province of MondulKiri! This Province of Cambodia is in the extreme east, bordering Vietnam. Even though this is the largest province in Cambodia, it is the most sparsely populated. It is growing in popularity with Eco-Tourists because of its lush forests and beautiful waterfalls.

Most of Mondulkiri’s population is made up of Hill Tribes and minority groups, who live off the land. It is much higher in elevation, so it is a wonderful escape from the heat even in the middle of the hottest season. The lush, rolling hills dotted with pine trees and covered in a hazy mist in the evening make for some breathtaking scenery. Mondulkiri remains one of the untouched places in Cambodia, and has only a small handful of tourists each year. This is the place to go if you want to see some of the “real” Cambodia.

Some activities in Mondulkiri that should not be missed include:

A trek on the back of an elephant to one of the local waterfalls. This can be booked at any of the local guesthouses.

A day trip to visit the local plantations, such as coffee, pepper, and rubber trees and also to visit some of the hill tribes and see some trees that are hundreds of years old.

Either hike or take a bus tour to the local waterfalls, including Bou Sra, the largest of them all.

Getting to Sen Monorom (capital of Mondulkiri) from Phnom Penh can be a daunting task, and is not for the faint of heart. There aren’t any busses that make the journey due to the terrible road conditions. Instead, you must book a bus to the town of Snoul, and then transfer to a taxi who will take you to Sen Monorom. One of the cheapest places to book your bus tickets from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom is Hour Lian and is one of the most frequently used by backpackers. You can find the ticket counter on the right side of Monireth, a ways down from the Olympic Stadium if you are coming from Sihanouk Blvd. It is a tiny little run down building with a spray painted sign, and is easy to miss if you’re not watching carefully. You should be able to book the tickets to Snoul for around $6 a person, unless it’s during Khmer New Year (mid-April) in which case they will be around $15.

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Once the bus drops you off in Snoul, you need to get to the place where the taxis are. Be sure to get there by around 1 or 2, at which time they stop coming for taxi pickup. Take a motodope to the pick up point. Just say “Knyome Chawng Mee-un Taxi Toe MondulKiri” (I want a taxi to Mondulkiri). They should have you there within a few minutes. You will see a bunch of fruit stands on one side, and a huge green sign that says “Mondulkiri” across the street. Just wait around by the fruit stands and a taxi will come eventually. Beware: this place is a hotspot for scammers and thieves. A popular trick they use on every foreigner is for the fruit lady to call up her husband/brother/uncle as soon as a foreigner arrives. He rushes to the place with his vehicle, possibly a truck piled high with cargo. He and his buddies will tell you that this is the very last taxi of the day going to Mondulkiri, and you are very lucky to get a place with him. The fruit lady will adamantly verify this. He will then offer you the discount fare of $50 or more per person. Of course you will decline this offer or try to bargain, but by this time other fruit ladies have called their own contacts and more start to show up. They will all stick to the $50 and up price, and be very pushy. At this point, it is in your best interest to just walk away. The best place to go is just across the street and stand under the big green Mondulkiri sign with your luggage. As soon as a legit taxi arrives, you will know it because he stands apart from the “vultures” and when you ask the price, it should only be $6-$8 per person if the taxi is full. Usually it is an old Toyota Camry. If it’s not full, you will have to pay for the whole taxi, about $40 one way.

Be prepared for the wildest ride of your life once you are on the road…the way to Mondulkiri is one of the worst roads in Cambodia, although vast road work is being done and hopefully will make travel easier before too long. You will travel through lush jungle, so keep your camera ready in case you see any wildlife along the way.

Once arriving in Sen Monorom, you have a few choices as far as guesthouses go (some of which can be booked beforehand online). Some of the best ones are Arun Reas II, Nature Lodge, Long Vibol, and Mahogany Guest House.
Arun Reas II is on the right hand side soon after you enter Sen Monorom. Each room is a separate “cabin” and this place has a great restaurant. It is located on very beautiful grounds with a great view, and is only $20 a night for a large room with two double beds. Nature Lodge is a few Kilometers out of town, tucked away in some of the best scenery you can ask for. This is one of the quirkiest places and a great choice for “Eco Tourists.” It also has the best western style food in town. Long Vibol has been a long time favorite with backpackers visiting the area, and Mahogany is said to have some of the best food. All of their prices are extremely reasonable.

As for dining, you can either eat at the guesthouse or go down to the “strip” (which isn’t very long) for a small selection of restaurants, some of which are very good. This area is located at the huge lion statue downtown. You can ask your guesthouse to arrange a motodope for you, if you aren’t in walking distance. Prices are a little bit higher than in Phnom Penh. For lunch, you can also go down to the local market place and eat where the locals do. You can find fried noodles and rice here, as well as boiled fertilized duck eggs, platters of fried insects, and many other local foods. Some of the specialties of Mondulkiri are avocado, honey, cashews, coffee, and rice wine.

Mondulkiri is truly one of the most beautiful places in Cambodia, and worth the difficult trip to get there. This is a place where you can have a true taste of adventure and see some of the “unspoiled” side of Cambodia that is as of yet uncorrupted by too much tourism and development. Choose Mondulkiri for your next backpacking adventure for the experience of a lifetime.

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