OK, I'll fess up before we even get started - travelling companion Andrew and myself coughed up the cash and hired a 4WD for the eight hour trip up to Sen Monorom. None of this sitting in the back of a pick-up with the dust, the heat, the people, the chickens, the spare tires and the endless variety of boxes, bags and plastic bags stuffed full of, well, stuff. We've been there, done that and own the whole collection of T-shirts for uncomfortable trips on bleak roads to bleak towns. This time we're taking the luxurious route and hiring a whole 4WD -- oh the decadence.
I feel better now.
The road from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom is surprisingly good -- it is sealed all the way to Kompong Cham and beyond, with only the last stretch, from Snoul to Sen Monorom being dirt. Try for a stop at Memot to visit the small museum that is there -- very easy to find. Once dirt is does deteriorate pretty darn quickly but overall the trip was a lot easier then we expected. We had a few problems along the way, including knocking over a motorcyclist who tried to overtake us at the most inappropriate of moments and later had the opportunity to see the driver and entourage fix a snapped suspension thing (I'm not mechanically inclined) with a block of wood and a stretch of string -- no NRMA is Mondulkiri it seems.
We'd been advised by a friend in Phnom Penh that the road to Sen Monorom was one of the most beautiful roads in the country, but after five hours of undulating but generally ordinary scenery we were starting to wonder what he'd been smoking. Then all of a sudden the scenery improved considerably, with lush forest and the occasional stretch of dense forest running off into the distance. While it wasn't exactly unexplored jungle we'd hoped for, it could have been a lot worse.
Out timing was perfect -- right at the end of wet season so the road wasn't too bad but not too far into dry season when the entire area transforms into a large living dust bowl. Nevertheless we saw the Phnom Penh - Sen Monorom bus disgorging its passengers at one stage while it tried to get up a hill once again (further tearing up the road in the process) and later talked to a passenger in another pick-up who'd had to wince their car up a hill -- If you go for a pick-up try to get a sturdy 4WD one.
As we approached Sen Monorom, the landscape changed and reminded me especially of the Hunter Valley in NSW, Australia -- undulating Mr Men style hills -- totally devoid of trees except for soft riverine valleys where the trees had been allowed to remain. Across all these hills a grid pattern has been mowed, giving the area a rather unwholesome patchwork quilt-like appearance. This grid is in preparation for a Chinese-funded pine plantation that is going in. A very controversial project -- it has been associated with land-grabs, desecration of cemeteries and other generally untoward behaviour. With its seven-year lead time many consider the pine trees nothing but a cover for getting access to what lies beneath the trees. Of course no land deal would be complete in Cambodia without a decent dose of intrigue and the pine plantation is no exception.
Sen monorom is small -- and by that I mean small. Just about the biggest thing here is the airstrip -- an airstrip that counts as its biggest aircraft paper kites flown by children every morning. The airstrip stopped operating some time ago -- perhaps, according to some, so that air passengers would not be able to see the extent of the rapacious logging that was taking place in the province... more on that later.
We checked into Long Vibol's
-- run by a same-named gentleman who, while seemingly pretty knowledgeable about the area, gave us the impression he'd much rather be doing something else rather than advising backpackers on what to do. The next day we moved to Pech Kiri Guesthouse
- a far finer choice. The cooking at Vibol's proceeds at what is best described as a glacial pace. An hour for a fried rice, when you're the only people eating really is a bit beyond the pale, but I'll not moan -- just suggest you eat elsewhere.
After dinner took a stroll through town -- lots of stars -- lots and lots, but aside from the aptly named Corner Restaurant, nothing at all to do. Back to our room for some bad TV and rest. More to come.