Wonderfully wild

Scarcely travelled, the central highlands ­­is something of a hidden gem rich in culture, history and natural beauty.

By Hachi8 on March 31,2015 08:12 AM

Wonderfully  wild

Kon Klor Rong house

The central highlands welcomed us with its typically dry sunny weather and strong winds amid mountains of red earth. The legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, now the Ho Chi Minh Highway, runs along the Dak R Me River, which carries rich alluvial soil in its flow. Along the highway we met a group of children joyfully riding their bicycles. The sun and wind of the highlands are already etched on their dark faces, but their childish innocence made me feel like I am back in my own childhood for just a moment.

At the Plei Can junction we turned right on to the most beautiful road in the central highlands, built recently for access to the Bo Y Economic Zone on the border. When we reached the border gate the procedures took no time at all and we received papers giving us permission to travel around the area. The way to the border marker where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos come together is along the mountainous border patrol road. The road is small, mostly paved, so is quite easy to drive along. Some parts, however, are inundated with red earthen mud, which makes driving very difficult on rainy days.

The border landmark delineating the three countries, on top of a mountain at 1,086 metres above sea level, is in a triangle shape made from granite, two metres high, with each side facing one of the countries and showing its name and coat of arms. After walking the 120 steps of the stone staircase we stopped at the top of the mountain and from there could see seemingly endless mountains, fields and green forests.

The afternoon sunshine was so fierce, and then the clouds moved suddenly in an alert that a thunderstorm was on its way. We hurried to take more photos, enjoying the landscape for a few more moments before returning to Kon Tum city. The road back was deserted, which made the thunderstorm, when it arrived, seem even more ferocious. We drove quickly but there was no chance of avoiding the rain, which lived up to the reputation of rainfall in the central highlands. It was formidable, with rain drops like ice lashing on our faces, hands and legs. The road was soon awash, making for an unpleasant 80-kilometre trip back to Kon Tum through deserted fields in the dim half-light.

Kon Tum

Kon Tum Musem
Kon Tum Musem

Kon Tum city, in the north of the central highlands, has many works that strongly reflect the local ‘Gong’ culture. After visiting Kon Tum Prison and Kon Tum Museum we reached the Kon Klor hanging bridge in Kon Klor village. Built from steel and iron and painted orange, it’s the most beautiful hanging bridge in the central highlands, connecting the banks of the Dak Bla River. The village itself is nestled among mountains, with green fields and banana gardens.

Not far from the bridge sits the Kon Klor communal house (called a Rong house in the local language); the biggest in Kon Tum. Rong houses, where people meet and arrange social and communal matters, have long been a symbol of ethnic minority groups in the central highlands. When I entered the house I was immediately impressed by its large roof of layers of leaves supported by complex wooden and bamboo frames. The Rong houses in this region are often built on a north-south aspect, so they benefit from prevailing breezes and avoid the afternoon sun. The tall roofs keep the inside airy and their shape reminded me of a large axe head carved into the blue sky.

Leaving the Kon Klor house and the bridge, we decided to follow the advice of a member of staff at the Kon Tum Museum and visited the Mang Den National Ecotourism Complex, described as the Dalat of the northern central highlands and located on National Highway 24.

Wonderfully  wild

After some 50 kilometres along a mountain pass we finally reached our destination. The eco complex has roads running through pine forests and lakes and hanging bridges above springs. Water flowing from waterfalls whitens the picturesque scene. The weather is much cooler here than in the city. The complex is still under construction when we were there so some of its areas remain unfinished. With free admission, we enjoyed Pa Sy Waterfall and the wooden statue garden, with statues skilfully carved in intriguing shapes.

Back in the city, we went to visit the Kon Tum Wooden Church, which harmoniously mixes Western and traditional local architecture. Completely built from ironwood and rosewood, its style is a combination of Roman and the shape of the Ba Na people’s stilt houses. The church includes a house to receive guests, a house for displaying local and religious items, and a Rong house. There is also an orphanage and a fine arts workshop of the local ethnic minority people. It’s hard to believe the church is a century old, as there are few signs of any disrepair.

Not far from the Wooden Church, the Bishop’s House of Kon Tum has similar architecture but in a larger scale. After entering the gate, on the way to the house, I felt so relaxed in the coolness under the shade of two old frangipani trees, with their light and elegant fragrance. The typical features of the house are again a mixture of the sophistication of Western architecture and the strength and simplicity of Ba Na architecture.

Leaving these houses of religion and driving across the Kon Klor hanging bridge, the Kon K’tu culture village, eight kilometres from Kon Tum, welcomed us with a special event. The villagers were gathering in their Rong house to receive gifts from a local enterprise. The sound of their laughter and the charming aroma of their can wine (wine drunk out of a jar through straws) filled the air.

Pleiku

Useful information

It’s worth renting a motorbike to discover the cities in the central highlands and their surroundings. More so than by car, by motorbike is a great way to experience the weather, the legendary roads, and the daily lives of the local people.

The central highlands has many sloping mountainous roads, so sturdy shoes are must for walking around.

When to visit

The central highlands has two distinct seasons: dry (December to April) and wet (May to November). In the wet season it can be difficult to drive on the roads, as many are unpaved. In the dry season the weather is cooler than down on the plains. December is the ideal time to visit, because a number of festivals are being held at this time. At the end of February the coffee flowers blossom, whitening the fields and the hills. March marks the holding of the famous Elephant Race in Don village.

As the sunset covered the dried grass hills and some birds stretched their wings under the pink clouds, we departed Kon Tum for Pleiku.

We set out to discover the town after sipping on some super strong coffee. On the advice of a local backpacker we visited Minh Thanh Pagoda. Initially I wondered ‘who would come to the central highlands and spend time at pagodas?’, given that the local pagodas cannot be compared with those in the north. It turned out I was absolutely wrong. Minh Thanh is truly unique, with beautiful gardens and towers on a gently sloping hill, two kilometres from the city.

The pagoda was built in 1964 and has gone through a few renovations. Instead of being colourful, like many other pagodas, it has a light and sophisticated colour tone. When we visited the highest levels of the Relic Tower (Bao thap Xa loi) had been recently repaired. The tower has nine storeys and stands impressively under the blue sky. In front of the pagoda’s yard a white marble Buddha statue sits in the middle of Lien Tri Lake amid blossoming white lotuses. It was a mid-week morning so was very quiet, bringing a sense of peace to visitors.

 

Minh Thanh pagoda
Minh Thanh pagoda

Six kilometres from the city centre, Bien Ho (also known as T’ Nung Lake, To Nung Lake, or Ea Nueng Lake) is always filled with water and is so green that many people think of it as the eyes of the central highlands. Though no so large, it still bears the name ‘Bien Ho’ (Sea Lake) as it sits at a height of a thousand metres above sea level on top, as we learned, of a huge volcano. The water level has remained virtually unchanged for years, even in the driest of dry seasons. As time has passed the mystery of the lake has increased, with many old stories being embellished and new stories appearing. We drove leisurely on the roads around the lake, which are bounded by pine trees, and across coffee fields.

Bien Ho
Bien Ho

In the middle of the day we reached a nine-level waterfall in Ia Sao commune. The waterfall is 20 kilometres from the centre of Pleiku in a deserted area and is yet to be exploited for tourism. There is no road; just small trails passing through abandoned fields and green coffee gardens. It took quite a long time to get there.

We left our motorbikes by the hillside and walked some distance to the foot of the waterfall, whose river started its journey high in the mountains. The sound of the water cascading down and crushing the stones was impressive. Along the waterfall the rough stone cliffs divided into nine different levels of varying heights. The local landscape looked rather desolate, as the forests had been chopped down. No one else was there, just us. To get a better view we climbed to the top of the waterfall by hanging from the cliffs and walking across the springs. We agreed that if this area was to receive proper investment it would become a very popular tourist destination.

As I write this story I can still remember the feeling of driving across the almost-deserted mountains and hills and conquering the slippery cliffs of the waterfall. Relaxing moments as we cooked instant noodles and drank coffee amid the wild splendour of the mountains will, I’m sure, stay with me forever.

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