By mid-day, we'd arrived in Stung Treng, a town without much to offer except transport connections to other points in the country. Ryan, Julia, and I hooked up with an Austrian couple also headed to Ban Lung and the five of us hired a "taxi"(actually a Toyota Camry) for the bumpy, dusty four hour ride east. We checked into the Tribal Guesthouse and, as usual, headed out to explore the town. The highlight of the evening was the discovery of the local Khmer dessert carts. In these carts you'll find ten or twelve silver bowls full of strange, unidentifiable, gooey-looking substances. You point to one, and depending on your choice, the woman then combines it with a few other ingredients to make a sweet, slimy treat. Potential ingredients include coconut milk, banana, squash, beans, sweetened condensed milk, little pieces of doughnut-like fried bread, and always that mysteriously gooey fluid. Delicious, and only about 12 cents!
Ban Lung isn't just about mouthwateringly scary desserts. It's also perhaps the best place in the country for exciting outdoor adventures. It's remoteness has kept much of the sourrounding forrest untouched and the nearby national park is rumored to contain tigers, elephants, and monkeys-galore. I say rumored because much of it is still basically unexplored. Unfortunately, this also means it's nearly impossibe to get into the park and explore without paying a ton of money for transport, guides, etc, so we didn't make it up there. We did, however take a bike trip to the nearby crater lake. Not sure if it was created by volcano or meteor, but my money's on the later. In either case, it's an incredibly beautiful place for a swim. Definitely the cleanest fresh water to be found in the region. Lots of kids from the local indigenous villages come to swim during the day, often making daredevil style dives from branches thinner than my wrist. On the way, we also happened upon a bit of local culture int he form of a cockfight. Middle of the day, in a hut way out beyond the edge of town, and a few hundred men a gathered to bet on which rooster will take down or kill the other. More than a little stomach-turning to watch and not an activity I care to support, but it certainly was a bit of authentic Cambodian culture. They've been doing this for hundreds of years.
Anyway, we had such a nice relaxing day at the lake that Ryan and I decided to make a similar trip the next day. Same as the day before, we grabbed some ingredients from the local market to make a picnic lunch (baguettes, cucumbers, tomoatoes, some chilli sauce, oranges, and apples). We then cycled to a nearby lodge which has created a network of hiking trails trough the hills. Hiked from the lodge to the lake and again enjoyed a few lazy hours there. On the way back, our attempts at finding the trail without walking down the main road lead us through local rice fields and orchards. We managed to stay on ground that had obviously been walked on since much of the country is still full of land mines. After an hour of rambling in generally the right direction, we found a trail that seemed likely to take us where we wanted to go. It ended up taking us on a much more round-about trip past local homes (no villages, just isolated huts surrounded by crops) for a few hours. It was a bit unnerving since the sun was setting and the trail showed little sign of reaching either the lodge or the main road, but we coulnd't have asked for a better hike. Eventually, we spied the main road in the distance from a clear hilltop and made our way back to our bikes, getting back just before dark. Before we left the lake that day, we stashed a few inner tubes in the woods, which we (along with an American couple we met there) went back to retrieve that night. We floated out on the lake in the dark and watched the stars until we got too chilly, and pedaled home by moonlight.
Feeling like we'd filled our adventure quota in Ban Lung, the next morning we moved south and west to Kratie.
Left Don Det on the morning of the 27th, headed for the recently opened border crossing into Cambodia a few km south. I'd heard many a story about the Lao and Cambodian border guards demanding bribes to get through, and the trip there did nothing to lessen my concern, as it was down a narrow dirt road through the forest. I actually saw two cars parked trunk-to-trunk in the woods with people moving packages from one to the other. The border crossing itself proved quite painless as I only had to pay a few dollars on each side, although I'm not sure if that money will ever reach the national governments. Not that they'd do anything worthwhile with it anyway. I met a Canadian couple (Ryan and Julia) on the ride who were headed to the same remote part of Cambodia as me. They'd actually stayed at my guesthouse in Don Det for two nights, but we hadn't really talked there.