Muddied, burnt, and bruised, I returned yesterday, so completely content, from the jungle province of Mondulkiri. Today my Khmer friends were much amused by my rosy cheeks and numerous tan lines which, as Cambodians prefer lighter skin (supposedly signifying one’s ability to hold down a stable office job) reflects my diminishing beauty.
After 8 hours of winding road and a sounding thunder storm, we arrived in the small, central “city,” home to the Bunong people. As a mountain dweller, I am no stranger to bad weather and unfavorable road conditions. However, traveling in a large metal bus surrounded by only trees and potholes, I was a bit concerned by the lightening and downpour. On the way to our hotel, my moto driver gave up on the ride (just before a rickety bridge), leaving me to hop on the back of Chris’ bike which powered through the rest of the journey. Finally, we made it safe and sound to the Nature Lodge where we had reserved a little bungalow surrounded by the world’s happiest cows.
On the second day, Chris and I ventured on to complete the ultimate mission of our stay here in Cambodia: RIDE AN ELEPHANT. Our noblest of steeds, Bon, was perhaps the most spirited creature of the group. He loved to stop and eat every 5 minutes, which required a bit of offroading from our jungle path such that we dramatically lagged behind our 2 elephant peers. I did not mind (who doesn’t love to snack?), even as I sat precariously perched atop of Bon’s shoulder blades which continued to wage subtle war against my upper thighs. I did mind, however, when Bon unknowingly walked us into lower branches covered with ants, leaving me to battle the demon insects with my one free hand.
After an hour or so of jungle trekking, we arrived at the river and Bon and friends went immediately out to eat. Our guide then proceeded to jumping in the rapids, and as the five French girls who accompanied us contemplated the wisdom of such a decision, I gladly jumped right in behind him. The water felt amazing and I loved pushing against the rushing current. However, my courage was quickly obliterated by a (tremendous and terrifying) snake, the most loathsome creature known to man, which swam up to me as if asking to be petted. I saw the evil in its eyes and did not fight the small scream and embarrassing panic that filled my body. I panicked right on over to the other side of the river, holding on to branches and rocks, to find sanctuary on stones amongst the stronger rapids where our faithful guide laid tanning. My favorite part of the day came just a bit later when it was time to bathe the elephants. The playful creatures blew bubbles with their trunks as everyone splashed around smiling, stopping once to avoid elephant poop which quickly floated away.
The next day we called upon two moto-guides to drive us around the province, sightseeing and hiking. We first stopped at Bou Sra, Cambodia’s largest waterfall which feeds off the Mekong. There was a powerful beauty to the falls, and as water pounded against rock, midst drifted peacefully above the scene.
We then proceeded to a secret viewpoint alongside the river as our guide led us through the forest and stopped for lunch at a local coffee plantation. After watching Black Gold in class (a must see for all Starbucks-lovers), Chris and I were very curious about plantation’s operations. We were informed that the owners from Mondulkiri refused to sell the land, worth well over $1 million, and employed upwards of 10 farmers to harvest and brew the coffee using a hydropowered pump. From my limited perspective, everyone appeared quite happy, and the joe- divine.
Riding the moto through the countryside was perhaps one the coolest things I have ever done, an experience which has left me desperately desiring a motorcycle in the United States (sorry Padres…). Zipping through mountains and lush valleys, I was only a bit concerned by the fact that my driver kept checking the front tire. We completed our venture with another stop in the jungle- home to wild boars, monkeys, toucans, and towering ficas- and a view point overlooking the entire province. No doubt, this was definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Though I could not stand losing another game of pool to Chris in the hotel bar, I was definitely not ready to leave Mondulkiri when the time came.