The promise of cooler weather is enough to lure many visitors to Mondulkiri, a far-flung province in Cambodia’s north-eastern highlands. After the initial disappointment of Sen Monorom – the tiny provincial capital that boasts little more than a dusty highway, concrete shop houses and the main bus stop – Mondulkiri’s damp overgrowth and towering waterfalls are indeed a salve. Unpaved roads branch out in all directions from the centre of Sen Monorom, each leading to hidden accommodations tucked inside the forest.
When it opened in 2006, Nature Lodge Cambodia was the one of the country’s first ecotourism offerings. Ten years later, it’s something of a role model for other enterprises that have sprung up all over Cambodia. Wildlife conservation, forest preservation and heritage protection are among the lodge’s top priorities. As such, the lodge itself has been designed to fit as seamlessly as possible into Sen Monorom’s landscape. The restaurant/common area is located at the heart of the property and is built around the trunks of trees that long preceded the owners’ arrival. A vast deck made from salvaged timber that was logged locally (loggers are instructed to burn any wood that appears imperfect) fringes the restaurant, and a small organic garden that supplies the kitchen with veggies and herbs is visible below.
The rest of the seven-hectare property is dotted with bungalows of all shapes and sizes. Some resemble quaint English cottages, others are inspired by the bamboo-walled, grass-roofed shelters you can spot in the area.
Nature Lodge is the perfect base for outdoor activities in Sen Monorom. They even manage their own community conservation project called L.E.A.F. (Local Environmental Awareness Foundation), which offers guided treks through Nature Lodge’s vast wildlife corridor, 4×4 tours of Sen Monorom, and overnight stays at a jungle camp. L.E.A.F also has a relationship with two mahouts who walk their elephants into the wildlife corridor to interact with visitors through feeding and bathing. Apart from tourist activities, L.E.A.F. run education and awareness-raising programs for local youth, and encourage villagers to transition away from potentially harmful practices like elephant domestication, logging and cut-and-burn agriculture through alternative income initiatives.
Their approach, ‘conservation through spiritual belief’, springs from the traditions of the Bunong, an indigenous minority who make up the majority of Mondulkiri’s population. Before loggers started infringing on their land, they maintained harmony between people and ecology for generations by regulating the over-exploitation of the forest. The central concept of their conservationist beliefs is the Spirit Forest, a patch of primary forest up to several hectares in size that is marked out for preservation. Inside the invisible boundaries of the Spirit Forest, clearing land for agriculture, felling any tree for timber or hunting any animal is taboo, bringing death and destruction not only to the perpetrator, but to their whole village. Spirit Forests are reverent places and usually radiate around a waterfall, a small hill or a large tree – features which can all be found in abundance beyond the Nature Lodge.
Mondulkiri’s landscape varies wildly: Red dirt fields dotted with cassava root tepees; rubber trees standing in neat rows, each with half a coconut shell strapped to its mid-section to collect the drizzle of sap; hillsides, bald and smouldering in the midday heat, punctuated by the occasional billowing tower of smoke emitted from a fizzing log; long, barren stretches of land; groves of dead and dried bamboo, its giant stalks falling over each other to make cathedrals in the canopy; steep rocky cliffs leading down to crystal blue waterfalls; and every now and then, a pocket of cool, damp overgrowth as you enter into a Spirit Forest.