Into the wilds of Ratanakiri Province, NE Cambodia

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Apr 12, 2005

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Friday, July 23, 2004

So after the border shenanigans we finally got to Stung Tren, the gateway to the rest of Cambodia, and our little band parted ways, as I was headed east to Ban Lung and the rest were going south to Kratie and then Phnom Penh. I hung out in ST for a few hours, including an enlightening trip thru the market. Asian markets are all starting to look pretty much the same to me now, but they're still fascinating places. And smelly. And I keep managing to end up in the meat section, not a good thing first thing in the morning... A lady tried to sell me a live monitor lizard in a see-through mesh bag. I declined and turned around just in time to see another woman WHACK! chopping the toes off a less fortunate lizard's already chopped-off legs...

A few hours later I was back at the jetty to hook up with a share taxi. All the drivers wait for the speedboat coming upriver from Kratie and then get loads of fares when 100+ people pour off the boat at about 15:30. Six and a half of us (there was a kid!) squashed into the Toyota Camry and we were off.

After the nearly 4-hour trip on a beautiful red dirt road full of potholes, villagers and various livestock, I think I have a much better idea of what it's like to participate in the Paris-Dakar rally. The driver was completely mad, going just on the verge of too fast but keeping it brilliantly under control. I think we actually skimmed over (as opposed to into) a lot of the potholes due to the speed, a bit like flying and a technique I used to use myself with my trusty Golf in Bulgaria... :)

As it was raining off and on the next morning, I went for a walk around Ban Lung--one of the muddier places I've been to--starting with the obligatory trip to...the market! There are delicious little waffles for sale with coconut pieces in the batter--yum!

Les Franšais
When it started to clear up in the early afternoon, I headed back to the GH and by chance hooked up with a really nice group of French people who were riding motos out to the nearby Yeak Laom crater lake that all the books said was one of the most beautiful areas in the country. So off we went, me and the family of 4 and a guy called Stephane. They'd met the night before when they'd shared the ordeal of an 18-hour trip to Ban Lung from Kratie in the back of a pick-up truck. In the rain. In the dark. With at least 2 flat tires. Hmmm, and I was thinking of doing this trip in reverse in a couple of days. Oh dear...

It was only my second time on the back of a motorbike, so I was still a bit wobbly, and it was Stephane's second time driving--well, his first time with a passenger. Interesting combination on the very muddy and pot-holed, hilly roads. But it was exhilirating, skidding and slipping around and getting completely covered in red mud from the knees down, and my stomach was tired from all the laughing by the time we got to the lake.

It's indeed very beautiful, though I'm not sure I'd use all the superlatives they wrote in the books. We walked the 2.5km path around the lake thru a fairly dense forest, visited a midly interesting and fairly dusty 'culture center', and then stopped at a dock area for a dip. In my rush to get ready to join the group at the GH I'd forgotten to bring my suit, but it was nice to just sit and enjoy the senery as the others had a swim. The lake is about 800m across and almost 50m deep--wonder what swimmiy things are living down there.....

The ride back was just as exhilirating and fun, and we had a nice dinner back at the GH, including a funky 'grill your own' entree of 'special mountain beef'. This turned out to be the waitress plopping down on the table a slightly domed gas hotplate, a huge plate of cut veggies, and a smaller plate of raw minced beef and raw egg. Lots of blank looks went around before the waiter finally came around to show how it's done, but it was tasty enough once it was cooked.

The next day we all piled into the back of a pick-up and drove north. With Roland's (the French father) negotiating skills, we'd hired the truck for $24, a much nicer price than the $8 each we were offered by the bit-too-sleazy GH owner to go in his own car. The goal was to see some local hilltribe animistic cemetery totems, then take a boat down a river to see a village called Voeng Seng that's made up of Vietnamese, Chinese and Lao communities.

The countryside is gorgeous and reminded me a lot of the red earth/brilliant green vegetation in parts of Lao. We were dropped off by the truck in the village near the cemetery, which was pretty interesting--what we could see of it from the road, anyway. There are signs asking for respect by not going off the road, being quiet, and not taking photos. Well, we were successfully respectful for the first two...

We kept walking, thinking we'd find a boat jetty to take us down the river to the tri-cultural village. But there was just the road thru a really nice forest. We were all talking and walking, walking and talking, and eventually we found some people and they pointed us off on a side path towards the river. More talking and walking and walking and talking, and we wound our way through a couple of villages, past lots of paddies, through lots of paddies, and onto smaller and smaller paths into the forest. Hhhmmm...the river HAS to be here somewhere...and on we trudged. My brain was starting to think about all the warning about not going off into forested areas without a guide due to landmine risks, but for the most part it was easy to follow already-worn paths and of course, nothing happened, so happy ending! :)

We popped out of the forest onto another road and ended up walking something like 5 more km to get to the area we'd originally planned to take the boat to. A nice, long walk! We lunched at some little stalls offering BBQ corn, sweet BBQ'd coconut rice wrapped up in banana leaves, and the ever-trusty Vache Qui Rit (that wonderfully gooey, white, processed triangular French laughing cow cheese that can sit unrefrigerated on a shelf for 100's of years without going bad). It was really cool to see the family in action. The two kids were in their mid-teens (but both were taller than me!) and completely, totally comfortable in whatever they were doing in the middle of Cambodia. They'd all travelled before in places like Indonesia and parts of Africa, so it was nothing to them to trudge off into a jungle, eat spiders at a roadside stand, spend the night in a bumpy, muddy pick-up truck. If I ever have kids I'd love to have the guts to travel to off-the-beaten-track places with them like that.

A quick little ferry ride across the river brought us to the area that was supposed to be the village with 3 different cultures all living together. But we walked and walked and only saw a few houses and stores with Chinese writing on the windows. After a couple more km's we decided we'd had enough walking for the day and headed back to the ferry and to the truck with was waiting on the other side to take us back to Ban Lung and another nice dinner.

Next adventure: another wild share taxi ride, this time south to Kratie on the Mekong...
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