The wide-open spaces of Cambodia’s remote and sparsely populated east are a world away from the rest of the country, offering a quintessential slice of rural Khmer life largely unaffected by the modern world. Bounding the western side of the region, the mighty Mekong River forges its way south from Laos, dotted with river islands, dramatic stretches of flooded forest and the occasional floating village. Outside the main towns, much of the river remains largely off the tourist radar, although if you’ve got the time and energy there are myriad opportunities to explore the river and its rural hinterlands using a mix of boating, kayaking, cycling and walking.
East of the Mekong lie the distant highlands of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces. Rampant logging has taken a serious toll on these formerly pristine landscapes, although some jungle cover survives, providing a haven for wildlife – for the time being, at least. The highlands are also home to Cambodia’s chunchiet population who have traditionally eked 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 forest on which they depend.
Gateway to the region is the laidback Mekong-side town of Kompong Cham, a quiet provincial capital that retains an air of faded colonial gentility. Further north along the Mekong, Kratie is another old French-era settlement, best known for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the nearby rapids at Kampie. There are more dolphins to be seen at Stung Treng, the most northerly town on Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong; this is also the starting point for rewarding tours of the beautiful surrounding countryside and for crossings into Laos. East of Stung Treng, Banlung, the capital of Rattanakiri province, is developing into a major centre for treks into the nearby highland jungles of the Virachey National Park and surrounding countryside. In the southeast of the region, tranquil Sen Monorom, the main town of Mondulkiri province, sees fewer visitors but offers further trekking and wildlife-spotting opportunities, as well as visits to some of the spectacular waterfalls that dot the area.