Another natural area is the more distant and remote Phnom Nam Lyr Wildlife Reserve which is adjacent to the Vietnamese border. This area is just 100km from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City! There is one good track into the area, from the old Dak Dam village (the new Dak Dam is to the north), but you will need a good vehicle and you will need to take all your supplies with you. There is a border crossing to Vietnam south of the old Dak Dam village.
There are known to be wild tigers and elephants in these forests, which are slightly wetter than the forests at Siema and Snuol. Phnom Nam Lyr is also not under so much pressure from migrants – yet. We didn’t hear of any tourists going down this way, but a rapid tour of the area (admittedly by helicopter) showed that it is largely untouched and with some good tracks in the area. It would seem possible to continue up to Busraa and complete a circuit of the whole of southern Mondolkiri.
If you see Korean people in this area, they are connected with the tapioca plantations in the Dak Dam area!
As well as the usual cautions about unexploded bombs and dangerous animals in this reserve, also note that you are very close to the Cambodian-Vietnamese border here and we understand that most of it is unmarked and possibly mined in places. Be extremely cautious and use a 1:50,000 map and a local guide to ensure you do not end up being arrested or shot. This border remains extremely sensitive. In the southern part of the reserve, the border lies in the middle of the big but shallow valley – clear enough from the air, but not so obvious when you are on the ground.
The Phnom Prech Wildlife Reserve is very difficult to access even though it is the nearest to Sen Monorem.
There are three wildlife areas accessible from Sen Monorem, two of which are on the route in to the area from Phnom Penh.
The first is the Snuol Wildlife Reserve and the almost adjacent Siema Biodiversity Conservation Area. Don’t be put off by the view of these areas from the road: the dust generated from the passing road traffic disappears after a few metres and you can get into very unspoilt forest within a few minutes. However, as with any deciduous or mixed forest, it may seem less exotic than you might imagine, and the vegetation can become repetitive unless you can tell the subtle differences between many species of tree and creeper. Note that these areas do have very real and very wild animals and they can be rather unpredictable, so taking a local guide is fairly essential. It is also very easy to get lost in these areas. The Snuol reserve is under heavy threat from forest burning by resettled Khmer immigrants from the lowlands, and watching several kilometres at a time being burnt back is a truly depressing sight. It is a reminder of the massive land pressures in Cambodia: for those doing the burning, it is a hard, miserable life – they are not doing this for fun. It is easy enough to get back to these reserves from Sen Monorem: it is about two hours to Kaaey Siema and the BCA starts just to the east of town.
Don’t expect too much here, although there are fabulous views from the summit of the hill to the NW town, especially at sunrise and sunset. As this area was heavily bombed in the 1970s, it is recommended to go up the main track only. There is a Bunong shrine at the top, but our Bunong interpreter was fairly condescending about it, suggesting that it was for tourists only. Indeed, several Bunong families were moved away from the hilltop in late 2006, getting themselves into the international news for a day or two when they protested their eviction.
Sen Monorem is really a collection of buildings around four earlier Bunong villages either side of a very long ridge occupied by a laterite runway. The south side of the ridge, with the road leading in from Snuol, is the main commercial part of town, with the main street running up from the hospital to the roundabout at the side of the runway. Many of the guest houses and the cafes are on this main street. Either side of this main street – and accessible from the junction by the bridge at the bottom – are the two original streets up the hill. Both are quiet and pretty lanes with older wooden homes and the walk up either is well worth it to meet local people away from the busy main street. A wide boulevard runs along the side of the runway for its entire length, with some guest houses and the town school alongside it. Sadly, the grass verge here has become the tipping point for the town’s garbage, despite the presence of a perfectly good landfill site on the southern edge of town.
The south side of the ridge and the hillside to the north is the main government area, with quiet lanes and bigger houses. The provincial governors office is the big white building on the far hillside alongside the police compound.
Other than on the main street, it doesn’t really feel much like a town, with the whole place full of trees and bushes and dusty little lanes, and it is a pleasant place to spend a few days.
The whole area is suitable for mountain-biking but care needs to be taken with the fierce winds in the dry season; we experienced high winds for five days in a row which kicked up a lot of dust and made even walking unpleasant. A further risk in the area is the presence of unexploded weapons from the Vietnam War era: although land mines are not believed to be a problem, the whole southern part of Mondolkiri was bombed from the air. It is worth asking locals about the conditions and about any known unsafe areas - particularly dangerous areas are around the northern end of the Sen Monorem runway and around Ou Reang.
It can be very diffcult to communicate with the local Bunong people unless you have a Bunong interpreter. Sadly, with very low literacy rates among these people and a very high school drop-out rate, there are currently very few Bunong who can speak English. Although possibly not particularly staisfying, it may be best to engage a Khmer-English interpreter and a Khmer-Bunong interpreter. The Bunong understand and generally can communicate in Khmer, but of course a lot will get lost in the translation. Depending on the current situation, Khmer interpreteres may well be viewed with suspicion by visitors unless you have a Bunong person along for the ride as well. It is highly unlikely that this situation will improve because any Bunong that completes a high school education will not be atying around to be a tour guide!