During my stay in Laos I heard a lot of good things about jungle trekking in the far east province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia. Since my last trek was rather mediocre, I wanted to give it another try and the plan was to cross the border, go to the Mekong town of Kratie and then continue into Mondulkiri. Besides an extended stay at the Lao – Cambodian border my plan worked out well and I arrived full of energy in the regional capital of Sen Monorom. The city is far from anything, very dusty and has a very special and rough charm to it. There is not so much to do besides the trekking so I started to ask around if there were groups going the next day. To my surprise there was no one going for a three day trek which I was looking for. Only one day tours and maybe a two day trek with another couple. It took me almost 2 days to come here and now this. What to do? I finally decided to get a guide for myself and head into the jungle right the next day.
Me, a guide and the jungle
Mr. Tree from Tree Lodge was a friendly guy who was recommended to me by German Chris whom I was travelling with in Laos. Tree organizes treks in the area and has very good connections to the Bunong people, a local minority group. I knew I wanted a guide from that group since they are native to the area and know the jungle inside out. Even nowadays they still live of the jungle for the most part. Everything was set and I was ready for some serious jungle survival adventure starting the next day.
I left early and an American guy and his guide joined us for the first half of the day. They were to continue on another route after midday. After a little bit of walking along dirt roads and small paths, we entered the jungle for the first time. It was sweltering hot and even underneath the canopy of green leaves we were still sweating a lot. To our relief, we reached a waterfall which looked just amazing. Broad, with lots water coming down and a huge tree log leading from the bottom to the top – perfect for jumping. We instantly gave it try and the jump off from the log, about 8 metres high, was a thrill. We jumped about 10 times before having a snack by the water.
Collecting plants, catching fish and frogs and spotting elephants
After this episode it was time to split and me and my personal guide named Phallet took off in order to reach our camp for the first night. We walked through dense jungle and had to cross two rivers. On the way we met two little kids who were collecting resin from the larger trees. They do this by carving a big whole in the trunk and then lighting fire in it. A dirty business and so did the kids look. The kids and their uncle had a little shelter in the jungle were they based themselves to collect resin, honey and also fish and hunt frogs. All of this they would later sell on the regional markets. Funnily Phallet was just heading for their shelter because that would be exactly where we would spend the night.
Phallets first action after having arrived at the shelter was to make fire and cook up some frogs the kids had collected earlier that day. It took a little getting used to it but a with a little bit of rice wine, Phallet brought a 1,5 litre bottle, it wasn’t too bad. After some more rice wine Phallet and I went out into the woods again to collect plants and vegetables for dinner. That was the first time I was really glad to be with a local guide from the Bunong. He knew literally every plant and told me what’s good to eat, what’s used as medicine and so on. Really interesting and very entertaining as well.
We arrived upstream the river we were staying by and there it was! I first only heard cracking and swishing on the other side. Then out of nowhere two big elephants appeared. They were feeding on grass and leaves and didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence. I learned that they were not wild ones but belonged to an elephant conservation camp nearby. However, they still roam the forest freely and it was awesome to see them in their natural habitat. Not 100% wild, but I guess this is as close as it will get for me. We crossed the river and I asked Phallet if we could get closer. He wasn’t so sure and a little hesitant but I just went for it and got some good shots. Elephants are really beautiful animals.
Back at the camp it was time to put out the fishing net. We placed two nets in the river and had high hopes to catch enough fish for a nice lunch the next day. We forgot the time over some more rice wine and without noticing it got dark. Apparently it now was time to go frog hunting. Equipped with headlights and after a quick introduction by Phallet we patrolled the river for our future snacks. I have to admit that I on the one hand I wasn’t good at spotting frogs and on the other too slow to catch them. I ended up with one frog in my hands whereas Phallet brought back about ten of these bad boys. Amusing for him and a little embarrassing for me, we went back for yet some more of that rice wine. We finished the whole bottle that night talking about our countries and history by the camp fire before I tiredly fell into hammock.
Ant soup on the menu
Thanks to the rice wine, my first night in the jungle was alright. The constant sound and noise of the jungle caused me to wake up a few times though – it can get pretty loud. Our first duty of the day was to get out the fishing nets. We were happy to discover that we got enough fish to make for a tasty lunch. After a quick and simple breakfast, we started our hike which would be a very long one. The scenery started to change quickly, coming from dense and lush jungle going across a huge, savanna like ridge. There were only a few trees and lots of grass and scrubs. If it wouldn’t have been so windy that day, the heat would have been unbearable. We still had to take a few rests because walking was still very strenuous. On one of these stops, Phallet spotted a red ants nest and instantly climbed the tree to get it down. It should be the last and missing ingredient for our lunch – fish and ant soup with jungle vegetables and rice. As nasty as it may sound, the soup was very tasty. After resting for a bit we continued across the ridge and by secluded huts of locals who were farming close by.
We finally got back into the jungle and the shade underneath the canopy of leaves was a great relief. We went past yet another waterfall, took a quick dip and finally made it to or overnight camp, which was close by. Phallet prepared some more jungle food, this time cooked in a big piece of bamboo over the fire. Again very tasty and we also again we finished the day over a few cups of rice wine which we had organized at one of the settlements we had passed earlier that day.
Spending time with the locals
The highlight of the third day was basically making it to Phallet’s village. Before arriving there, we went across what they call a farm which was owned by his friend. He had a little shelter and we joined him and his kids for a basic lunch. It was really interesting to see how people actually live and get by in this area. It is a simple life but people tend to be very content with it. After we said goodbye to Phallet’s friend and his kids, we made it to his village.
It wasn’t big, only a dozen huts or so, but different in style and design. Phallet and his family live in one of the simplest homes there, just a bamboo hut with nothing much in it. He said he doesn’t have the money to afford a bigger, more luxurious home and also can’ afford a motorbike or other amenities. He sometimes doesn’t even have the money to buy rice and then just goes int the jungle to get food. He then stated, that he doesn’t really care about all of this as long as he has good friends and family around him and all of them are in good health. That is what is most important to him and it sounded honest.
We walked around the village a little bit and after he introduced to some friends and family it was time to leave. Phallet had borrowed a motorbike and drove me back into town. Before we split, I invited him for some food and gave him a good tip.
It was a great experience. Live in the jungle isn’t easy but if you know what to eat and how to get it, you can easily live off the land. And that is exactly what Phallet and others are still doing nowadays. It was great to be with a local guide who knows all about plants, medicine and animals in the jungle.
Being alone with the guide was a great chance to learn more about the situation of the locals, their history and their way of life. It became clear how por some of these people still are and how basic their living conditions are. They still seem to be happy and content with it. Coming from Europe, with all of the conveniences we have and till complaining a lot, it was a real eye opener. At the same time, I think being in a small group cold have been nice as well. With Phallet’s rather basic English, conversations were simple and too much time in the jungle by yourself can definitely mess with your mind after a while.