Explore The central highlands
Vietnam’s largest wildlife preserve, Yok Don National Park, stretches 115,000 hectares between the hinge of the Cambodian border and the Serepok River. If you start off early in the morning you might see E De and other minority peoples leaving their split-bamboo thatch houses for work in the fields, carrying their tools in raffia backpacks. In addition, over sixty species of animals, including tigers, leopards and bears, and more than 450 types of birds, populate the park; most, however, reside deep in the interior. Of all its exotic animals, elephants are what Yok Don is best known for; the tomb of the greatest elephant hunter of them all – Y Thu Knu (1850–1924), who had a lifetime tally of 244 – is located beyond the final hamlet from the park entrance.
The three sub-hamlets that comprise the village of BAN DON lie a few kilometres beyond Yok Don’s park HQ, on the bank of the crocodile-infested Serepok River. Khmer, Thai, Lao, Jarai and Mnong live in the vicinity, though it’s the E De that make up the majority. They adhere to a matriarchal social system, whereby a groom takes his bride’s name, lives with her family and, should his wife die subsequently, marries one of her sisters so that her family retains a male workforce. Houses around the village, a few of which are longhouses, are built on stilts, and some are decorated with ornate woodwork.
However, village life in Ban Don has become overwhelmingly commercial as the Ban Don Tourist Centre has organized its residents into a tourist-welcoming taskforce. It’s possible to spend the night here, though you’ll only truly appreciate Yok Don by heading further into the park; one exception is during March, when the annual elephant festival is held.
There are a number of activities on offer in Ban Don, an increasingly switched-on national park. Basic hiking is the most popular, though you’ll need a guide ($40 full-day; $20 half-day). One interesting variation is a night hike ($10; seven-person minimum); at certain times of year, shine a torch into the darkness and you’ll see the eyes of thousands and thousands of frogs staring back at you. During daylight hours, it’s also possible to take a short boat-ride along the Serepok ($20 per boat), or have an elephant trekking tour; the latter cannot be recommended due to the unfriendly metal cages plonked atop the beasts.