. Arriving in Ban Long, the power was out (typical apparently) and the city was dark as night as we arrived after sunset. Plus, it had been raining but by the grace of God it had largely stopped when we got in. A strange city, no lights, and then as soon as we got off (the only 2 whities on the bus) we were truly mobbed by people trying to get us to come to their guesthouse. Now... our lonely planet guide for cambodia is a few years old and we have had better luck just figuring things out once we get to a destination. We had no idea where to go and no way to see where we were going. Crazy. I knew there was a lake on the N side of town and I thought that might be a nice place to stay. One guy with good english said something about lakeside guesthouse and $3 per night and I decided to try it. Ting and his family decided to go there as well so at least we had strength in numbers. We each had to hop on the back of a motorbike and drove through the dark streets and muddy roads for 5 minutes to get there. Again, the house was dark and we had a few candles to light the way. It started raining again and the rooms were shit, but we really didn't want to deal with it. Our room had shitty (i.e. not effective) screens on the windows, a very musty smell, not real clean floors, a kinda nasty bathroom with no hot water and NO FREAKIN TOILET SEAT, and a loud but semi-effective fan. I just wanted a beer or three...
We ate at the gueshouse (no other places around out by the lake apparently) with Ting and his family
. They ordered two dishes and we ordered one and we had some nice conversations about his past, his new life in Australia, his family, etc. He is a grape pruning supervisor on a farm down there and sends $ back to his family in Cambodia - they really rely on him and I sensed that it was kinda taxing, but expected in the culture. He found out that his recently bought video camera was stolen on the bus ride somehow and was pretty distraught. He left the next morning and we thought about doing the same thing as the next day was really rotten for us.
We walked around to look at other places cause I sometimes get icked out by places like that - I can tolerate filth to a certain level, but this place was pushing it. Only one other place out by the lake and it was $12 so we decided to stick it out for another night for $3 and save our money for trekking. We arranged our tour with a guy from the gueshouse who was a young man who was an english teacher and then started this jungle tour business. Nice guy and we had heard other travellers say their trek was great and that is kinda why we just stayed at the guesthouse too. We scheduled a 3 day, 2 night "extreme" jungle trek. We then realized that we were in the middle of a very small town and were planning to go through some other very small towns in southern Laos and didn't really have much "cushion" in cash. We had been spoiled all throughout Vietnam and where we stayed in Cambodia (larger towns) so far with abundant ATMs and had become reliant on them and complacent in our financial planning
. There was one ATM in town, but it only took VISA and our cash cards (2 of them) were both mastercard. I guess I didn't realize there was such a difference... We did have a VISA card, but it was only a credit card and we knew capital one would "capitalize" on us having to get a cash advance. Crapola. We tried the mastercards a few times anyway and had no luck. We talked to a guy at the bank and he said "mastercard no work here" so we thought about trying to do a wire transfer from our bank OR use western union. Western union was way expensive so that was out. We drove around on our rented bicycles and found 2 wifi places. At the first one, the connection was so slow it wouldn't load anything. The second one was sort-of faster but very intermittent. We tried to skype again and again and again with capital one and USAA. We would just get past the 15 prompts to put in our account number, password, last 4 of our social, name of favorite pet, circumference of a circle with radius = 2, etc. and then speak to a representative and they would say "sorry sir, we cannot hear you, please call back." That happened at least 12 times and we were so pissed off and frustrated. We spent 5 hours figuring out this crap and finally found that we could take a cash advance, get charged a small fee, but pay off the accuing interest charge the next day to avoid other interest charges. So we did it, finally.
We had wanted to ride bikes to this great volcanic lake that was 7 K outside of town and we started down the road when huge thunderclouds whipped up and we had to turn back. We made shelter just as the fierce downpours hit. We felt pissed off, defeated, and then we got to look forward to another night in the roach motel - great... Before we left for the day, we told the family running the guesthouse we wanted to move rooms to one that actually had a toilet seat and we were told we would be moved to the "nicest" room
. So when we arrived at the guesthouse, we were shown to the new room, but when the girl opened the door, she saw that it had been "occupied" by someone recently - messed up sheets, etc. We waited while she moved the persons belongings to another room, changed the sheets, gave the bathroom a quick douse, sprayed some imitation lysol, etc. We think that the room had temporarily been used by a "professional" earlier as a used condom in the trash pointed to that. Great. The bathroom was actually nice and big and as we were taking a shower, we heard a loud popping noise that was kinda strange. Jenn peaked out in the room and saw fire and smoke coming from a wall-mounted fan. I had previously tried to turn on the fan, but like many things there, it didnt' work. I guess I had left it on. I quickly turned it off and it stopped and the rest of the night we just prayed that we didn't catch on fire (obviously there aren't any smoke alarms over here) and had a concrete plan of escape if need be. A long day and we finally went to sleep only to be awoken just after midnight as the "professional" came home and tried to get back in the room she used earlier. She tried a key and pounded on the door and we awoke with a start. After I yelled and she realized someone was in here, she went away. This was one of the worst days on our trip so far - it ain't all roses but its all part of the journey I guess!
The next AM we had breakfast at our guesthouse and met our guide, Wutha. He spoke good english and was really positive and excited about our trip. We needed some positive influence... We packed up our small backpack and hopped in a pickup truck for the 45 minute drive down muddy, rutted out roads to a small village. There, we went to a house where a local villager makes rice wine. We saw the process, tasted a bit, and bought a 1/2 L for the trek
. We also met up with our local forest guide. He was small, wiry, and had cool curly hair. No english here, as he spoke a local dialect, but could speak enough official Khmer to talk with Wutha. Our trek was going through a community-owned and managed forest and part of our tour price included $ that went to the local village in the form of entry fees and payment to the local guide. The tour operator did seem to make a significant effort to be eco-friendly, locally-based, and sustainable and we liked that. We loaded up our pack and had to carry only our clothes, toiletries, 3L of water, and 2 big US Air Force hammocks (with mosquito netting on top) with us. They got the rest of it despite our offers to help. We walked down a big hill passing hillside rice fields on either side, through cashew tree plantations, through small forested plots, and more small rice farms. We stopped at a few huts along the way where people from the village stay to guard their rice crops from wild pigs and other animals. At night, they use an ingenious noise-making system to keep animals away. They have a bamboo drum at vaious points around the farm edge and the drumstick tied to a very long rope made from vines that is suspended on bamboo tri-pods. The rope goes all the way back to the hut so one can pull the ropes at night and make noise. We stopped at the local guide's farm a few KM from town and met his family. They showed us how they make traditional food from young bamboo, placed inside a larger old bamboo, and then fermented in the sun. It tasted like kimchi sort of? In the forest near his farm, we saw a very smartly build trap line. It was a low woven bamboo fence running for 100m or so with log-fall traps along the way. Animals run along the fence and find the first opening, trip a hair-trigger, and a good size log crushes them. All made from wood. Our guide found a lined ground squirrel and a robin-like bird in the trap and was happy. when we stopped for lunch (picnics brought from town in styrofoam), he prepared the meats - plucking, gutting, roasting to get the fur/feathers off
The rest of the day, we finished with hillside rice farms and moved into mature secondary forests. Lots of signs of illegal logging and we met two of them using a huge chainsaw to fell trees and then saw boards right on site. There were many teak tree (very rare, expensive) stumps and remnants from logging. Some is legitimate, sanctioned by the village for village use and income, but lots of logging is not approved. But policing the forest is damn near impossible and local people I think are powerless to stop it. We walked through more forest - some looked very old but I'm not sure if it was primary, but didn't see wildlife at all except for hearing a few birds. We crossed a few streams and went up and down hills and were close to our site when the sky opened up. Heavy rain and we tried to use the ponchos, but they didn't really work. Arriving at our site, the good shelter was already occuped by an earlier group so we were forced to cross the trechearous river and pick one of the two shitty ones on the otehr side. One was so rotten that it would have taken a lot to repair it. The other was usable, but very close to the river bank and had rocks underneath. We struggled to put the excuse for a tarp over the shelter and then tied our hammocks underneath. The tarp leaked bad - it was old and the laminated layers were separating. Plus, in 20 minutes, the river had risen about 6" and it was only about 20" to the bottom of our hammocks
. What could we do? We layed in our hammocks and got dripped on and thought - damn, this really is an extreme adventure jungle tour! The guides found an uneven rocky area and used it to start cooking rice on an old butane stove they brought. Jenn and I layed in the hammocks and watched the water rise another 2". The rain finally stopped but the creek kept rising until we couldn't step down without being ankle deep. The cooking area was barely above water and then it finally started receding. Thank goodness. We ate stir fry beef, lemon grass, spices, greens, and rice - it was damn good. The guides ate the squirrell and bird, but didn't offer us any because it was a little "off" smelling - no problem. Drank a few shots of rice wine with the guides, but we were all tired. We slept ok in our damp hammocks and the white noise from the loud stream and really loud cicadas was nice.
Took a crap in the woods in the AM and made some poo soup like you are supposed to (I remember my "leave no trace" training). It felt nice and I reflected on how it had been too long since I copped a squat in nature. We then swam and bathed in the rain-swolled and kinda muddy river. Witha made us coffee in small bamboo cups for breakfast and then we had noodle soup with beef - that got us going. More secondary forest, nice sites, the local guide would stop every now and then to show us medicinal plants and what they were used for. We drank from a water vine and looked at various tree species. Still no wildlife, but no people either. No rain that day, but it was still muddy and poor Jenn slipped in a huge mud pile crossing a small stream and got mud all down the side of her leg, thigh, hip, and butt. It WAS slippery in many places. Ate lunch (cooked rice and veggies) by a stream and our camera accidently slipped out of Jenns pocket and into the drink
. She picked it up quick as lightning and we took out the battery and SD card and tried to flick as much water off as we could. Air dry and then wrap in something pseudo dry to wick out moisture. It seemed to recover quite well thank goodness! Our next camp was on top of a high hill with a stream about 100m below it. The stream ran to a ledge and then fell straight down for another 100m with a few shelves along the way. Jenn and I climbed our way to one ledge and spent some time taking a "power shower" under the fall and relaxing. We had a campfire that night and Jenn and I sang some country songs together. Finished the rice wine and wished we had bought a whole liter. Ants were bad under the hammocks. Jenn had already been bitten while walking that day and Wutha got bitten bad getting into his hammock. I knew they were gonna be a problem so I tried to launch myself and avoid the ant area. I flipped all the way over on my hammock and landed on my back on the ground. They got me. Somehow in the chaos I got back on the hammock and Wutha helped me brush them all off me. For the first 30 minutes in the hammock I was afraid a few of them were in there with me and were gonna bite the crap out of me but they were gone. That night, Wutha and I had some great conversations about our past and future and about life in general. He is a very intelligent, driven guy who works hard for his family and comes from very humble beginnings. As with most Cambodians, they all have stories about how their lives were changed by Khmer Rouge regimes, how the Vietnamese pushed them out and then occupied, etc.
Day 3 and we were ready to be done. But the walk was long and our guide got lost once and we doubled back again. We went through thick as hell bruch and the guide used his machete to cut a little back, but we still got scraped by thorns, our feet got cut by vines, etc
. We had a few good trails, but many paths that our guide just made. One of them lead us right next to a hornets nest that the guide must have hit with his machete. He and Wutha made it through, but as I was walking I immediately felt pain in the face, neck, back, hand, etc. What the hell? Ants? No... BEES I yelled! ARGH! I tried to run forward through the thick brush and told Jenn to go the hell back. They didn't chase me thank god, but I could feel my eye, cheek, and hand swelling. Maybe 8-10 stings and they hurt like the dickens - eyes watering and nose snotting. The guide went back another way and got Jenn. After awhile I was OK though. We were going along OK and then the guide said we had to turn around because the area up ahead had wild pig traps that consisted of a crossbow set up with a thin wire trigger on the ground. I guess some carving on the tree told him that but I sure as hell didn't want to get an arrow through the calf to add to the day's fun.
We walked and walked and got back into small jungle huts and rice farms. One family was preparing a feast to celebrate the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the rice harvest. Lots of people and lots of food being prepared (veggies mainly like eggplant, greens, cucumber) for the feast. I supposed the chickens running around might be included too? Finally about 2 we emerged at the top of a huge hill back at the original village. Cooked lunch and said goodbye to our guide. He was really a soft, nice, smily, strong guy. The truck met us and drove us to the volcano lake that we missed the other day. They left us there and Wutha came back later to pick us up on his motorbike around 5. The lake was busy - lots of locals there swimming and playing on the 4 docks. The lake was all natural - no development and seems to be run pretty well. All the locals were asked to use free life jackets as most don't know how to swim
. Its a modest country and most girls didnt' swim but if they did, it was in jeans or pants and shirts. Jenn didn't want to be offensive and decided not to, but I did. For a deep lake (40m at the center?) it was surprisingly warm and very clear. Perfectly circular with nice trees and hills around it. A nice end to an adventurous trip. I realized my keen sandals had given me two pretty nice blisters and limped back to the entrance. On the way, we saw Wutha and he had met some of his friends sitting by the lake, drinking a new rice wine concoction. They asked us to join them. They were drinking from a large clay vase that held fermented unhusked rice. You pour fresh water in the top and it filters through, and you drink from a straw placed in the bottom. Tasted like fermented rice I guess. They had been drinking for awhile, so most of the alcohol was gone I think. We also had some of their deer jerky that was great.
We had a farewell beer with Wutha and went to bed in yet another semi-crappy room in the guesthouse - at least it was only $3. I had a low grade fever and we were both totally gassed.
From Siam Reap, we had to go all the way back to Phnom Penh to get our Lao Visas, which our guesthouse was arranging for us while we were gone. The bus took all day and we just passed out back at the OK Guesthouse. The next day was another long (10 hr) bus ride from the capitol to our out-of-the-way destination - Ban Long, in Ratanakiri Province. It was a big regular bus and the road was OK (paved, but narrow) for half the journey and then it went to shit. Mud, dirt, huge ruts that I really didn't think a bus should be going on. We went slow and for hours didn't really see many villages or even single homes for that matter. Scrub lands, some rice paddies. We passed exactly 100 small houses built on one side of the road that were apparently built by the government either to help out poor people or to give them a home after they evicted a village from their land for something. We met a really nice guy, Ting, on the bus who is from Cambodia but has been living in Adelade, Australia for the past 30 years. We stopped to eat and to pee every now and then