Dak Dam is the "last village" heading south-east from Sen Monorem into the tip of Cambodia. The original village was at the Vietnamese border, but after the tragic Operation Menu bombings in 1970, the villagers moved to the present site further north-west. Only three houses remain at the original site, about an hour away by road.
The road between the two sites is in moderately good condition, and passes through distinctively different types of forest. Nearest to Dak Dam, the forests on the high ridge are what is now referred to as the Mondulkiri Dry Protected Forest. Further east, almost immediately after this long ridge, the road runs alongside a mixed decduous and evergreen monsoon forest: it is on the ridge and in the valley to the east of the road.
Beyond the original Dak Dam village, the road descends to the Phnom Nam Lyr Wildlife Sanctuary and its evergreen forest. This is very noticeably damper and the ground vegetation is considerably thicker. There is a small band of this forest on the approach to the old Dak Dam site, but there is more to be found on the road to the east.
This is getting into a very remote area with virtually no villages and it is strongly recommended that you are well equipped for the trip. Although the road is good, we saw only one other vehicle all day; it would be best to be in a group of at least three vehicles.
In a traditional Bunong house in Pu Ralech, is a handicraft centre funded by Refugees International. Here, women of the three villages weave traditional scarves, skirts and blankets. There are usually two to three women sitting in the house (which is unmarked) weaving using the back-strap method. The women are very friendly and will talk about life in the village and the weaving. However, it is essential to use a Bunong interpreter. There is at least one man in the village who speaks quite good English. Ask at the Election Commission Office or at the Commune Office (opposite the school), as he is a nephew (I think) of the Commune Chief. We had our own Bunong interpreters, one of whom is also from Dak Dam, and it makes a big difference to a visit to an indigenous village if you are with one of their trusted own sons!
To the east of the village, there is an attractive waterfall. I haven't been there, but the villagers were keen for us to go, saying that it was more beautiful than the better known Romonea falls closer to Sen Monorem.
The road to the falls is stated to be in a very poor condition, but it looks from the satellite images as if the road returns to the main Dak Dam ridge track that continues on to the Vietnamese border.
Note, on the ridge immediately after leaving the village, the Pu Ralech burial grounds on the next ridge to the north. The little houses built over the graves are clearly visible.
There are no restaurants at all in Dak Dam Commune. We didn't even see any stalls by the road in the village. You will need to bring food from Sen Monorem, although there is one very small shop by the crossroads in Pu Antreng.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE DANGER OF UNEXPLODED WEAPONS. THERE IS A VERY REAL RISK TO YOUR LIFE IN THIS AREA!!
This area is was subject to many air stikes by the US Air Force in the 1970s. More than 3,600 sorties were flown against this border region in what is known as Operation Menu. There are maps available showing **reported** air strikes, but Operation Menu was a secretive covert operation and the records are considered to be patchy. because of the very low population density in this area, there has been virtually no ground clearance of unexploded bombs.
If you are going into this area:
- go with a local guide and local interpreter
- use a map that shows the known air strikes, and know how to read the map
- always ask local people about areas or paths they themselves avoid
- stay absolutely on the path. Do not stray one centimetre from the track.
- do not go near, touch or even use flash photographs of any manmade object (wooden, plastic or metal) that you come across. The explosives in these weapons are incredibly unstable and unpredictable.
- some areas are particularly high risk, including the immediate vicinity of all bridges on the Snuol to Sen Monorem road, the area around Ou Reang and the escarpment that drops down to the river forming the border with Vietnam, the area around the old Dak Dam village and Camp Le Rolland (especially the old defensive trenches), the area to the north-west of the Sen Monorem runway, around Keo Siema old town (multiple B52 strikes), the whole of the Snuol and Memot areas as far as the Chupp plantations.
If you think that you are automatically safe in a well-trodden area, think again. A bomb exploded just yesterday inside the local government office compound in Snuol killing one person.
The Bunong ("From the Nong people") are friendly and trusting and will welcome you warmly. They are a beautiful and graceful people and do not need your (or anyone else's charity), only fairness, justice and their traditional resources. Breaking out of the cycle of illiteracy and poverty requires a jump start in terms of education and health, but also adequate representation. I am delighted that a very small group of very fortunate Bunong young adults form a kind of 'think tank' in Phnom Penh. Your starting point for getting to know the Bunong would be via Refugees International or the World Conservation Society, both of whom are actively helping and advising Bunong communities in Cambodia.
If you are travelling off the beaten track in Mondolkiri, do take guiding principles of eco-tourism and responsble tourism extremely seriously: just one group of uninformed, ignorant foreigners can cause upsets to their lifestyles and livelihoods.
The Bunong people are indigenous to Mondolkiri and Rattnakiri provinces, living rural lives in and especially at the edges of the unspoilt upland forests. Although forming the majority of the population in Mondolkiri, they remain marginalised and vulnerable, increasingly exploited by migrants pushing into the lower density upland areas from the overcrowded Cambodia lowlands. It's a tough situation as the incoming Khmers are also poor and often desperate, but have a better understanding of commerce and trade. The Bunong have been practicing a careful form of swidden agriculture for many centuries, burning chamkars - dry plantation fields - at the edge of the forests; the newcomers, however, need to burn down primary and secondary forest to create land for farming. The Khmers tend also to grow a much higher proportion of cash crops, requiring that much more land. The Bunong chamkars are left fallow after a few years and then reused in a decade or more, using the forests for hunting, resin tapping and for collecting wild vegetables.
Bunong society is complex and fascinating, but they remain hampered by a cycle of illiteracy: children are removed from school (if a school is available) at the age of ten to work in the fields and so never get ahead of the game. Their own children will be set in the same cycle. This is not an exercise in choice, but in survival: if Bunong people do not grow enough food, they will die.