If you’re traveling to Sen Monorom to spend the day with the four elephants of the Mondulkiri Project, then you have the option to add a second day to your trip. You’ll spend the night in mosquito netted hammock, eat bamboo soup cooked by your guide, a local of the Bunong Tribe and then head out the following day on a hike around the area. It’s billed as an 18 kilometer Jungle Trek for those of moderate fitness with several steep hill climbs. But what’s it really like? Here’s what to expect on the Mondulkri Project Jungle Trek.
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If you’re coming to Mondulkiri and considering the jungle trek, then you can read on for questions that we had before doing this trek, but first of all, here’s what it’s actually like. First of all, you won’t see elephants. And while you can do this trek on its own, without seeing the elephants that the project was set up to protect, you will NOT see elephants during the trek.
What to Expect on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek
This isn’t a step by breathless step account like I did of our trek to Everest Base Camp (read about that here, but more an idea of what to expect on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek. There are other companies, NGOs, and homestays you can do a similar trek with. They all follow a similar theme – the waterfalls, one of which is where you’ll have lunch and swim, and the others are viewing opportunities.
Is it a tough day? Yes. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Want to know more? Here’s the detail.
The seven folks who’d been with us for the day visiting with the four elephants of the Mondulkiri Project left us around 4:40 pm, all piled into the back of the pickup truck that had transported us to the project from the Tree Lodge in Sen Monorom. This isn’t a standard mode of transport in Cambodia, but you can read about what is in our Cambodian transport guide.
Our guide told us that dinner would be at 6:30 pm and that we can take a shower and then should hike up the hill for “about 15 minutes” to watch the sunset. It seemed more like an order than a suggestion, and so the four of us had a short shower.
And so duly refreshed and clean we bought our US$1 beer from the team here and duly hiked up the hill. It’s a good concrete road, steep but decent footing. So, not much of a test for what was to come the following day.
Sunset was disappointing. Disappearing into a bank of clouds in the distance, but there were, a few pretty clouds around. Even here, however, it’s possible to see how much of the forest around here has been cut down for farmland. In the Mondulkiri area in 2000, there was 80 % forest cover. In 2017 it was 30%. This is a problem that’s accelerating.
This area is populated by the Bunong People, so when your guide struggles with English – remember that it’s his third language, after his own, and Khmer and he’s likely not had any schooling. All the English language he’s learned has been on the job. Our guide is 36, with one daughter aged 11. He’s funny, quick to smile, and will, tomorrow, take it slowly with us. He’s keen on card games, and also likes rice wine as we find out this evening.
Before we hiked up the hill we each claimed our hammocks. There are two rows of them here, the basic ones where we all had a snooze after lunch earlier, and the ones with mosquito nets that we’ll sleep in tonight. On hammock selection, all I can offer is to check that the zip works, so that you don’t get any unwelcome guests in the night. My first choice didn’t.
But while talking of mosquitos and bugs. I changed after my shower into long trousers and a long-sleeved top, being the mosquito magnet that I am, and slept in my long top, but took my trousers off. Even while eating dinner and playing card games afterward I didn’t get bitten.
But, I digress.
As we headed up to watch the sunset, Luong prepared our dinner. Bamboo soup. Not, as I’d believed soup made of bamboo, but a vegetable and herb soup made IN bamboo. There’s chopped eggplant, coriander, garlic, some leaves that he collected from the riverbank earlier, and a little water in there. He places it on the fire and cooks it for about an hour, while he rests in the hammock where he’ll sleep tonight.
The soup is poured out ceremoniously and smells divine. It tastes even better. Even after cooking the aroma of coriander is strong. There’s cooked white rice and a cooked chicken and cauliflower dish to go with it and it’s all delicious.
The project provides “all the drinking water you’ll need” as part of your visit, and there’s a bit vat of it to top your bottle up when you’re low. It’s proper drinking water, so if you’re using a filter water bottle you don’t need the filter in.
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If you prefer to drink something different then Cambodia Beer, Coke, and 7UP are all for sale for US$1. Cash only, you can pay in US dollars or Riel. You’ll get change in Riel if you pay in dollars. The drinks are in cans and while not fridge cold, they’re cold enough to quench your thirst.
After dinner, Luong has warned us, there are card games, the rules of which are a little unclear, but we quickly figure it out when one of us loses. Before we begin there’s a toast, as he pours us each a shot of rice wine – the homemade type in a plastic bottle type and we all duly drink. It’s not bad. Certainly not as good as Sake, but a million times better than Rakia. Our drinks are poured into a homemade bamboo shot glass.
The first game “mushroom” is a game of balance and skill. The loser drinks a shot of rice wine. After several games of “mushroom”, we swap to a “spoons” game, it’s fast-paced and again the rules are unclear until one of us loses and drinks. Our final game isn’t quite as fast-paced as the “spoons” game, but we gamely play on for a few rounds.
There are lights here at the camp. In the eating area, in the toilets, and also in the hammock area, but you’ll need a head torch if you want to see more than just the main routes, like what’s in your bag and all that.
We’re all tucked up in our hammocks by 20:30. There are four of us visitors here. Luong is sleeping in the hammock by the fire, outside. There are another two members of staff sleeping in hammocks in the kitchen with the camp cat.
The plan for our jungle trek is to wake at 07:00, have breakfast at 07:30 and we need to be on the way by about 08:00 for our trek.
7 am comes relatively quickly, and breakfast is the promised pancakes, (two of them) and a sliced banana. There’s more of the “coffee” that we had yesterday afternoon, or tea if you want it. A tin of condensed milk is available in case the “coffee” isn’t sweet enough. Or, you can pour it on your banana and pancakes in a kind of Cambodian maple syrup sort of a substitute.
And then it’s time to pack our daypacks. We won’t be returning here, the jungle trek is a one-way trek. You can’t leave anything at the camp. And everything you bring with you has to be carried. By you. So think carefully about what you bring. There’s a mandatory 3 liters of water per person that Luong insists we take. We drank all of ours bar about 200 ml during the day.
Then it’s sun cream, and bug spray – I hike in long trousers with them tucked into my socks. Laura has hiking leggings on. Three of us wear hiking shoes and the fourth has sports sandals with closed toes. Our guide wears a pair of trainers and not flip-flops, and it’s this that makes me think the going might be harder than anticipated.
Finally, he fits out everyone with a bamboo walking pole – I’ve brought my hiking poles in anticipation that there will be downhills as well as up (they’re Black Diamond, carbon fiber, that fold into three and fit into my carry-on luggage easily – you can check them out here). – and we’re off.
Looking for hiking poles? My guide to the best budget trekking poles is here.
Our route takes us back down through the area where we met Sophie yesterday, across the “one person at a time” wooden bridge to where Nigel fell as Comvine decided she wanted his bananas more than he did, and then we start on the first climb of the day. It’s still relatively cool, and the climb isn’t too bad. As we reach the top and head down, it’s our first experience of the vines that trail across the route we’re taking. We’ll all catch our feet in them constantly throughout the day. I say all, of course, that doesn’t include our guide, who seems to have some innate ability to miss them completely.
He also has a bloody big machete with him as well. It’s used several times throughout the trek hacking bamboo that’s in our way, chopping into vine seeds, and cashew nuts, and creating the small shot glass that he gifts us to remind us of our visit.
You’ll notice that I haven’t used the words “path” or “trail” much yet. That’s primarily because we didn’t use a path or a trail much. There was a dirt road at the end for the last two hills – although I still can’t figure much of a difference between these last two, one was supposed to be small and one big, although they did seem to be much of a muchness.
This is a jungle trek, but you’ll also hike through burned forest, where the land is being cleared for farmland. The Bunong people are traditionally subsistence farmers. To make money they need to create something saleable from their land. Wood from cutting trees is a one-time income. And so they cut, burn the land, and then plant. There’s a variety of different options they have to plant. There are avocado tree fields we walk through. There’s manioc waiting to be planted (it’s like cassava, a root vegetable for human food). There are cashew trees. A few banana trees, but these are few and far between. We even spot a pineapple, but it’s small and there’s only the one that we see.
We also see “resin trees”. These seem to be older-growth trees, where the tree has been burned to collect the resin. We don’t see rubber trees that we’ve seen too many of in Southern Thailand, like on Koh Yao Noi. They’re also present here in Cambodia, we just haven’t seen any yet.
What’s difficult to witness is the clearing of the forest to make way for avocados cashews and manioc. But what’s a nation that primarily lives in poverty to do?
Our Mondulkiri Jungle Trek takes us through the forest and the jungle. This is the area that The Mondulkiri Project has rented for the next 30 years to protect the elephants that they’re rescuing although I get the sense that they’ll be protecting the forest as well as the elephants. We also go through the newer growth areas of farmland. And it’s moving to see so much of the land burned. And still burning. The fires here are new.
A lot of the hike is done in the cool of the forest with the canopy for shade, our guide warns us when we are to be walking in the sun. And there’s a lot of that as well. Both up and downhill.
It’s the trails in the forest that are hard work. There are low-level vines here, everywhere, at ankle trapping level. There are some trails, but if I were to drop you in this area and say “point out the trail” you’d be hard-pushed to figure out the route.
And much of the ground we cover is on this type of terrain.
Uphills are scrambles, where poles or bamboo are needed to haul yourself up. Or growing trees. Downhill slides become the norm. With them arrested by ankle-grabbing vines.
I joked with the group about how I’d write this. “Is it a hard trek? – 18 kilometers, in the full heat of the sun in a jungle where much of it is not on a discernible trail. Where you go up to come down again. And where the down is actually an ankle numbing sideways. Oh, I don’t know. What do you think?
Yeah. This is a tough trail. But your guide might take you a different route. Because the givens are that you will
- Start at the Mondulkiri Project
- Finish at the village – where the guides live (Putang)
- Visit three waterfalls – the big one, the swimming one, and the one you walk behind
- You have lunch at the swimming waterfall
- You’ll cross two rivers on bridges
Aside from that, the guides are free to take you to see what’s interesting. And that includes the cleared land, some amazing trees, and vines.
We tracked our distance and it worked out to be around 14- 15 kilometers, but likely more, as we forgot to turn the tracker back on at one point. Our tracker didn’t measure elevation gain and loss, but while I don’t believe it was significant in terms of meters, it was bloody hard work in terms of the terrain.
The Waterfalls of Mondulkiri
The givens that you’ll see are the three waterfalls of the area. The waterfalls are pretty and very different.
The Big Waterfall – Leng Ang Khin
The first is a big scramble down to the river, an ankle-snapping wander across wet, slippery rocks for a photo, and then back up again. It’s picturesque and further downriver there were some locals jumping in and swimming, but for us, we scrambled down, walked across the rocks at the base of the waterfall, and then scrambled back up a different route.
Then you’ll head to the swimming waterfall, which actually is quite a nice swim.
The Lunch Waterfall
There are picnic benches here (yay for not having to sit cross-legged on the floor!) and rather a nice pool to swim in. There’s nowhere specifically to change, so you’ll be either wearing your swimming gear or changing under the cover of your towel.
There are steps across the top of the waterfall and a tree that you can climb if you want to jump in too. We only saw locals jumping in, but the few tourists we saw here (another group of 4 and one of 2) only swam, no jumping. To get into the pool it’s a short walk across the shallow area of the river, which has sharp stones, if I went again I’d take my water shoes, it was hard work getting in and out of the pool.
The Bat Cave and Waterfall
This is a pretty waterfall that you’ll actually walk behind, which is kind of neat. The rocks weren’t as slippery as they looked getting here. And there’s the opportunity to rest in a cave, which we’re assumed that you can spend the night in. There’s a cave here with bats in. But if you do wander in please use a red light on a torch, the white light isn’t good for them.
Hiking, Conditions, and Weather
We hiked on a dry day. It was hot. It was sunny, there was very little cloud cover. There had been rain a few days before, but there was no evidence of water on the land. I would NOT do this trek in the rainy season. I can’t figure out how I would have got down some of those slopes if it had been wet. Apart from on my arse and slowly. Or quickly if the transition from feet to arse wasn’t voluntary.
What to Wear on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek
You’ll want to wear sweat-wicking clothes on this trek. It’s a long way and the terrain is tough. Short sleeves were ok, but I had a long-sleeved top just in case. (I only got one bite during the trek, on my arm, just below my sleeve bottom).
You can wear shorts, but I chose to wear long trousers, primarily to protect my legs from bites.
What to Bring on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek
The primary consideration when thinking about what to bring trekking in Mondulkiri is that you’ll be carrying all of it yourself. As well as 3 liters of water, which you can reduce if you bring a filter water bottle and use river water to top up your supplies.
Packing List for Mondulkiri Jungle Trek
- Mosquito spray
- Water shoes if you have trouble walking on small stones and want to swim
- Towel – our guide to travel towels is here
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking lower body wear (shorts/trousers/hiking leggings)
- Wicking T-shirt / Long sleeved option
- *raincoat – recommended by the project, but check the weather and the heat!
- Hiking Poles if you think you’ll need them, then you should take them
- Daypack to carry it all in
- Filter water bottle (although Mondulkiri will provide 3 liters of bottled water per person)
- Any snacks you want to bring (Mondulkiri provides breakfast and lunch)
Footwear for the Jungle Trek
I wouldn’t do this trek in anything other than good hiking shoes or boots. The terrain is rough, there are a lot of holes, spiky branches, and roots sticking out of the ground. You might get away with closed-toed sports sandals, but NOT open-toed sports sandals. For boots, our guide to the best men’s budget boots is here.
The terrain was dry when we hiked, and there were no problems with leeches at all. If you’re trekking when it’s wetter, then waterproof socks and long trousers would be a good idea. Nigel uses these waterproof socks and they’re fabulous.
Facilities on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek: Hammocks, Showers, Toilets
It’s kind of hard to know what to bring if you don’t know what’s provided, so here’s some more detail on what there is at the camp.
Sleeping in Hammocks at Mondulkiri
The hammocks at the Mondulkiri Project are comfortable. There’s a little padding and insulation under you, and the mosquito net zips down one site to cocoon you in. The hammocks are all in a line. Under a tin roof in the open area of the main camp building. The floor underneath the hammocks is wooden board with gaps, where, as the wind blows overnight, the draft whistles up.
The project provides blankets (and there are loads of them). And you’ll need them. Not, perhaps when you first go to bed, but certainly at around 04:00. My advice is to take your blanket in the hammock with you, unfold it so half of it is under you, as that’s where the draft comes from, then when you’re cold just pull the other half over the top of you.
Do you sleep well in a hammock? It depends, I guess. I did. Andrea didn’t. Nigel didn’t like the occasional swinging motion.
Showers at the Mondulkiri Project Camp
There are two showers here at the Mondulkiri Project. One is in a brick-built/ concrete building and the other is in a wooden building that’s where the eating area and the sleeping hammocks are. The showers are, of course, cold. You are, after all in the jungle. They’re not as cold as I remember the showers being at the Gibbon Project Treehouse in Laos, but they’re refreshing and I feel clean afterward. There’s no sink in the shower room at the main camp building, but there’s a sink outside the concrete shower building.
Toilets at the Mondulkiri Project Camp
There are two toilets here too. In the same room as the showers. They’re western-style toilets, no seats of course, and all the paper goes in a bin, not down the loo. Flushing is a manual operation, there’s a bucket and a ladle next to the toilets. Toilet paper is provided. And there’s lots of it.
Should you do the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek?
Well, that’s up to you. But here are a few questions to ask yourself and some points to ponder.
You’ll have to carry your gear yourself. Pack lightly. You’ll need to carry 3 liters of water with you to complete the trek, there’s no restocking en route – UNLESS you carry a filter water bottle and use the river water to restock your bottle.
Questions (and Answers) about Mondulkiri Jungle Trekking
These are the questions that we had about jungle hikes in Cambodia and specifically about the Mondulkiri jungle trek. I hope the answers are helpful. Let me know if you have other questions.
Are there toilets on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek?
There are two toilets at the main camp, where you’ll start your trek from. There are no toilets in the jungle or at the waterfall where the lunch stop is. If you “go” while you’re trekking remember to either bury your waste or take your paper out of the jungle with you.
Are there showers on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek?
Yes. There are two showers in the main camp at the Mondulkii Project
What food and drink is provided on the Mondulkiri Jungle Trek?
Dinner is provided on the evening before your trek, or if you’re seeing the elephants the next day you’ll get it the evening of your trek. You’ll get a main course of bamboo soup, chicken, and vegetables with white rice. Vegetarian and vegan options are available and the soup is fully vegan. There’s unlimited drinking water available (bring your own reusable bottle). A pancake breakfast is provided with coffee and tea. And fruit (bananas) are available too. Lunch during your trek is provided – it’s rice with vegetables and some cooked meat, carried separately from the rice. Again, bananas are available.
Final Words on Mondulkiri Jungle Trekking in Cambodia
This was a tough hike. And it wasn’t because we’d stayed up all night playing card games and drinking rice wine. Far from it. Our group was aged from 26 to 62. We’re all pretty fit and used to walking and hiking. But yeah, it was tough. I’m really glad we did the 2-day jungle trek with the Mondulkiri Project though. It was interesting to see the area around the sanctuary and stay overnight in the quiet of the jungle, but with a toilet close to hand was fabulously quiet and if we hadn’t had a near full moon, I’m sure we would have seen more stars too. Tough hike, a great experience and I hope this information helps you decide whether it’s for you or not. After Sen Monorom we took a full-day bus to Siem Reap (it’s long but comfortable, and our guide that route is here) and we’re now exploring the Angkor Archeological Park and Siem Reap.
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