Hanuman journeyed deep into the Cambodian jungles of the Mondulkiri Protected Forest to visit a new jungle camp at Mereuch on the banks of the Srepok River.
Luxury tented camp at Mereuch
The first thing to share is that it’s remote, very remote. Mondulkiri has a reputation of being a remote wild east province in the highlands of Cambodia. However, the new road connecting Sen Monorom with the town of Snuol means it takes less than six hours from Phnom Penh. Mereuch lies beyond, north on a dirt road to Koh Nhek and then several hours further on a winding jungle trail that crosses several rivers. Pack your Indiana Jones wardrobe, this is going to be an adventure.
The first part of the trip included a visit to the Dei Ey homestay, a small community project located midway between Sen Monorom and Koh Nhek. Our party stopped for lunch to visit the property which is already receiving a trickle of backpackers each week. A local lunch was prepared and we had time to walk through the nearby spirit forest and explore the local village. Lunch was a tasty Cambodian affair and set us up for the challenging jungle journey to Mereuch.
Our team was on motorbike, as the journey would continue north to Ratanakiri some days later. The track was tough, but reasonably clear, although it was easy to imagine it would be impassable with heavy rain. We got to test our theory the next day. One of the river crossings was already high and the drivers needed to plot their route by wading through the river first. The high-clearance dirt bikes bounced off hidden rocks, but we made it safely to the other side.
On to the camp, we discovered that some of the group had seen a herd of wild banteng on their bumpy journey through the jungle. A rare wild cow, this was headline news for a group of travel pioneers all too used to hearing pessimistic assessments about the state of Cambodian wildlife. Our accommodation was sadly not the new luxurious tented camps built on the banks of the Srepok River, but the nearby research station. It was a major downgrade from 4* to 0* but entirely understandable as the new furnishings were still under wraps.
Just as we were inspecting the tents, their designer furnishings and the jungle views, the skies opened. Lightning streaked down and thunder cracked ominously overhead. Several of the party jumped for cover as it moved overhead. It eventually moved on, but left us thinking about the road back to civilisation the next day.
The next morning we awoke early to track wildlife. The banteng sighting had everyone excited and we set off downriver in one of the ranger’s wooden boats. The river was very beautiful with lush jungle cloaking the banks and short stretches of navigable rapids. We eventually banked and began trekking through long grasses which had sprung up with the recent rain.
With our group were two trackers. One was a Frenchmen, Mr Green, who had run lodges in Cameroon and tracked big game in the jungles and scrublands of Africa. The other was the classic poacher turned gamekeeper, a former Cambodian hunter who had bagged tigers and gaur before being retrained by WWF. Both were following hoof prints and excrement of wild cow and estimating when they had passed.
After 30 minutes of trekking, we saw a herd of banteng no more than 150m away. It was a large family or group with about 10 adults and two or three young. They saw us and froze for long enough to fire off some photos. Then they galloped across the grasslands in front of our gaze, a beautiful natural sight more associated with game parks of Africa than the jungles of Southeast Asia. We eventually continued to a salt lick where animals gather by night, the wildlife equivalent of a local pub. Future plans include hides to view larger mammals congregating here at night.
We ventured back to camp and everyone was buzzing thanks to the banteng sighting. Other mammals spotted included wild macaques and a variety of birdlife, expertly pointed out by our colleagues from Sam Veasna Center, one of the good projects we support. It was time to continue north on the notorious Death Highway to Ratanakiri, so we hit the road once more, fearful of swollen rivers and slick mud. The journey wasn’t a complete disaster and the bike made it through unscathed. Thanks to moving ahead of the 4WD pick-ups, we managed to see a second herd of banteng about 30km from the morning sighting, so we are pleased to report a healthy population from our observations.