“This isle is where Y Thu Knul, the Elephant King, founded a village long ago to live with the indigenous people along the Serepok River,” explained Uncle A Ma Vong, as he handed me a hoe. I was busy unfolding my tent to prepare for a night of camping. I stopped what I was doing for a moment to listen to his stories about the peaceful land of Buon Don beside the legendary Serepok River.
Listening to Uncle A Ma Vong it was clear that he was totally absorbed in his stories. “Once upon a time, the Elephant King Y Thu Knul wandered from the Serepok River to the Yok Don Mountains to look for a new land for his villagers. He came across some tall, hand-shaped mounds, close to where rapids split the river into seven branches. As the land was surrounded by old sycamores, he believed it was a good place to farm, hunt, and gather. He brought the indigenous people here to live.”
Thanks to its favorable location on the Serepok River, this area soon became a popular trading point for the three countries in Indochina – Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. During their upstream voyages, the Lao people also fell in love with these charming highlands, with many deciding to settle with the native M’Nong and Ede to build villages along the riverbanks. The Lao called this place “Bang Don” (meaning “isle village”), the Ede “Keng Apa”, the M’Nong “Bun Rkau”, and the Kinh “Buon Don” (or “Ban Don”).
The isle where I was with Uncle A Ma Vong is also known as “Elephant King Island”. Located in a tributary of the Seven Branch Waterfall, this area is surprisingly quiet. The river’s surface was still and serene, reflecting the dawn light through the primeval forest’s canopy. The morning mist on the water lent the spot a magical air. As I was moving slowly on a stand-up paddle-board, I saw an elephant crossing a brook from the jungle to return to the village. After long-time efforts to raise awareness about wildlife protection, elephants are no longer used by the natives for transportation. Instead, they are taught to communicate better with tourists.
Uncle A Ma Vong continued his stories: “This Serepok River is special; it not only flows upstream but also splits into two streams, one muddy and the other clear…”. While I had heard about this many times, I hadn’t had the chance to witness this phenomenon in person. Unlike most rivers, which flow toward the sea, the Serepok River flows upstream toward Cambodia before merging with the Mekong River, then flows down into the Southwest region of Vietnam, and finally joins the great sea.
The Serepok River is comprised of two rivers – the Krong No and Krong Ana. One is usually muddy, and the other crystal clear. These two streams meet at the confluence to form the mighty Serepok River. Locals call the Krong No the “Husband River” (or Male River), and the Krong Ana the “Wife River” (or Female River) and consider them symbols of everlasting matrimony.
Another ancient local myth claims that the Serepok River was once a single stream. A boy from Kuop Village had feelings for a girl from across the river, and the pair eventually fell deeply in love. However, the two families were in a longstanding feud and prevented the couple from meeting. On a cool moonlit night, the boy and girl decided to jump off a cliff into the river. As they died, dark clouds suddenly appeared and the river roared and split into the two streams of today.
I was still enjoying old tales about the Serepok River when I was brought to see another surprise – the first waterfall on this river. When Emperor Bao Dai visited this waterfall, known as the Dray Sap Thuong Waterfall, he christened it “Gia Long Waterfall”. I felt like I had entered another world as the primeval forest featured every shade of green, backed by rushing water that fell from a height of about 30 meters. I gingerly crossed a small suspension bridge leading to a jade-green lake right below Gia Long Waterfall. Here an Ede villager was waiting on an inflatable dinghy to take me further on my journey of discovery along the Serepok River.
As our boat moved slowly ahead, I was entranced by the amazing scenery. The verdant forests on both sides of the river, the azure Central Highlands skies, the white clouds drifting overhead… all of this natural beauty was reflected on the blue water. Navigating small rapids brought moments of excitement, but most of the journey was very peaceful, as I saw villagers fishing nearby and local women leisurely doing laundry along the riverbanks.
I could already hear the reverberating roar from afar well before the dinghy neared Dray Nur Waterfall. Now on foot, I quickened my pace as I could not wait to admire what is considered the most majestic waterfall in the Central Highlands. A huge wall of water gradually appeared, with fantastical wisps of mist floating in mid-air.
I was truly absorbed in the magnificent scenery until the call of the boatman pulled me back to reality. Only then did I realize that it was almost twilight. I silently bid farewell to Dray Nur Waterfall and continued on my journey, just as the Serepok River flows endlessly upstream.