Flowing south from Laos, the Mekong River forges its way down through the rugged provinces of northern Cambodia, skirting islands and forming foaming rapids as it cascades over boulders. Further south the scrubby, wooded banks become softer, lined with the tiny vegetable plots of small farms. To the east lie the remote and forested highlands of the sparsely populated Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces. Although the lower slopes of the highlands have been heavily logged, some jungle cover survives, providing a haven for wildlife. The highlands are also home to the country’s chunchiet population who until recently were able to eke out a subsistence living, cultivating crops and foraging in the jungle. This centuries-old way of life is now threatened by the encroachment of the modern world and the loss of the forest on which they depend.
The gateway to the highlands is Kompong Cham, a quiet provincial capital that retains an air of faded gentility, easily reached by road from Phnom Penh; the province itself is home to several of Cambodia’s Muslim Cham communities. To the north, the rubber plantations of Chup, originally planted in the 1920s, have recently been extended. The big draw at Kratie, another old colonial town on the Mekong, is the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the nearby rapids at Kampie. The most northerly town on Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong, Stung Treng, is a quiet backwater which gets hardly any visitors now that the road to the border bypasses the town. Though there’s nothing by way of sights, it’s close to other spots where you can see dolphins, and a good place to explore by bicycle. You might want to make a stopover on the way to or from the border crossing with Laos at Voen Kham.
For misty mountains, cool climate, a stunning volcanic lake and scattered chunchiet villages, travellers generally head to Rattanakiri province. Far fewer make it to Mondulkiri province. Until recently this province was isolated from the rest of the country and it still lacks much of the infrastructure; now that it’s easily reached by a new road from Snuol, it will no doubt soon become quite developed along the lines of Rattanakiri. That said, in both these provinces, you have no choice but to slow down to the pace of life of rural Cambodia. The lack of decent roads, transport, and any other creature comforts outside the provincial capitals means that most tourists restrict themselves to making day-trips from Banlung (for Rattanakiri) and Sen Monorom (for Mondulkiri). Rattanakiri is geared up to travellers now, with eco-lodges, a fledgling bar scene and busy trekking industry offering overnight treks into the Virachey National Park. From Sen Monorom you can make forays out to a number of spectacular waterfalls, go trekking or make an expedition by elephant into the jungle.