Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, November 04, 2005

Part 4 (The Horror)

I awake to find myself in a little wooden hut in Ban Lung, the provincial capital of Ratanikiri. We are staying at a lovely guesthouse located on a hillside in a lushly forested area. I savour the feeling of slowly getting out of bed and not having to rush off onto any form of transport. After a leisurely breakfast we hire push-bikes and tackle the muddy, boggy road into town.

The centre of town features an independence monument which appears to be the favourite hangout for the towns goats. There are very few sealed roads and the phrase “dust bowl” comes to mind. We visit the local market which has a commanding presence in the centre of town. It is a huge cement building with modern architectural lines; older than its years, the dust and heat hastening its senescence.

After the market we visit the Virachay National Park Head Office to arrange a visit to the park. We had talked with the rangers at the office in Vern Sai but due to logistical problems had decided not to enter the park at that point (see The Horror Part 2). The National Park Officer who we spoke to in Ban Lung was helpful and informative. We left the office with plans in place, and a collection of hired hiking gear for our trip. On our way back to our guesthouse we drop into Yak Lom Lake. The lake was formed by a volcanic eruption almost 4,000 years ago and is now a popular spot for picnics and walks. I don my pants and singlet top over my bikini and dive into the cool, fresh water. After a short time, the sun begins to set in the sky. Despite the fact that we hadn’t battled with any public transport operator it has been a long day. We wearily work our way up hill on our bikes and back to our little huts.

Ban Lung to Vern Sai
Journey: 1.5 hours by moto
Road condition: extremely muddy

It was before 7am that we experience our first misadventure for the day. We had arranged for the Yak Lom Lodge landcruiser to drive us into town so to catch a lorry to Voen Sai. In a typical display of Khmer “can do” attitude the driver of the landcruiser did not wait and give way to a large truck stopped in a particularly muddy quagmire of the road and instead persisted forwards. Thirty seconds later the back left-hand-side windshield explodes inwards and the landcruiser is pinioned helplessly between the truck and the thick forest lining the road.

After some maneuvering we manage to free both ourselves and the car and make it into town. We arrive at the taxi/truck stand to discover that the 7.30am truck from Voen Sai simply has not arrived this morning. Our options are to wait for the afternoon truck or pay $30 usd for a taxi. As we are digesting this piece of news our taxi driver from our Stung Treng stint materialises and kindly offers to take us for the nominated fee. We stand around and make statements like “oooh, tly peck” (too expensive). The Vern Sai taxi dudes show some initial interest but then pay us little heed once it becomes obvious we aren’t going to pay $30 USD to travel 38km.

After an ice coffee and 20 minutes of indecision we make arrangements to take motos to Voen Sai. In true style, the inner workings of the moto-mob mean that the moto drivers that we negotiated our fare with are not the moto-dudes we travel with. At this point I am past caring. We clamber onto our allotted motos and speed off. It is a beautiful and scenic drive, and perhaps better appreciated when on the back of a moto anyway!

We spend a nice afternoon in Voen Sai. We set up camp at the Virachay National Park Headquarters and then set off to explore the local area. We hire a noisy fast boat and speed along the Tonle Se San river to visit a Tumpuan village and cemetery. The Tumpuans are a semi-nomadic, animist minority group that live in north-eastern Cambodia.

We clamber out of our boat and are escorted through the village to their cemetery. I feel a little uncomfortable about fronting up like this and our two self-appointed guides do little to assuage this as they silently and sternly lead us into thick forest dotted with wooden carved figures and small, colourful shelters.

After time passes, we chat in Khmer a little about the cemetery and the village, slowly our escort becomes more friendly. The graves are comprised of a small wooden shelter with food, incense and gifts inside. In front of this is generally a carved wooden representation of the deceased, brightly painted.

At one of the graves we come across a wooden man with metal sun glasses and a wooden walkie talkie. We find this amusing until our guide informs me that this is the grave of the village chief and that he was a highly respected man.

Andrew paving his way to animist hell...

Our next stop is two Laotian and Chinese villages further upstream. We wander about aimlessly and then head back to Voen Sai. We are going to spend the night in our hammocks strung up underneath the National Park Head Office. The aim is to get up bright and early the next morning and start our trek to the National Park with our guide. The park headquarters are quite cosy. The building is a large, breezy wooden Khmer style house with a large dirt space underneath. Krishni and I pull on our sarongs and head down to the river for our evening bath. We sit on an overturned boat in the water soaping ourselves, washing our clothes and chatting. I am feeling cool, clean and relaxed.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Part 3 (The Horror)

Siem Pang to Stung Treng
journey: 5.5 hours by boat (downstream)

We get up early and jump on the earliest boat out of town. We are not entirely convinced that the first boat to leave Siem Pang will be the first boat to arrive in Stung Treng but decide to try our luck anyway. As I scramble down the bank with my pack the boat looks rather full. As is often the case with Khmer public transport, space is found for us newcomers, somehow. We nestle in the under-cover section and I try not to think about how long this is going to take!

The spare space that had been located on our arrival is slowly reclaimed as the boat picks up more passengers. After an hour I find myself compelled as the odd-one-out-barang to move onto the hot roof of the boat. From my vantage point I notice a bucket filled with scaly, writhing creatures. I go take a closer look. The bucket appears to be filled with lizards. I ask the man standing nearby what the name for this animal is in Khmer and he looks back at me sharply. Very quickly the bucket is covered up and I am back in my space on the top of the roof. I note to myself that it is best not to ask vocabulary questions regarding potentially illegal cargo and activities.

We arrive in Stung Treng and put all our energies into leaving. This unfortunately is not an easy task. We are hit by the full force of the Stung Treng taxi cartel who in a beautiful act of intimidation and cooperation refuse to take us even a kilometer out of the town unless we pay them a very sizeable sum of US dollars. Tempers are fraying and ‘We gotta get out of this place' by The Animals is on high rotation in my head. We try negotiations with a range of players in several different locations but it is to no avail. In an attempt to step around the taxi-ring we even go back to Mr James Bond (despite the fact that we had not forgiven him for ripping us off and giving us wrong advice). He was helpless (or unwilling) to go up against the taxi-junto and completely distracted by some newly arrived backpackers from Laos who he was very successfully selling over priced bus tickets to. After an hour or two of two-ing and fro-ing Andrew and I went into bat for the final time and negotiated a fare that we were vaguely comfortable with.

oh so happy to be leaving Stung Treng

This is me proudly displaying the $1USD we managed to save after our lengthy confrontation with the Stung Treng taxi-mob

Stung Treng to Ban Lung
journey: 5.5 hours by car
road condition: very bad

We set off, incredibly happy to be leaving. The car lurches and bounces along the bumpy, sticky road. I stare out the window at the lush forrest, ripe for illegal logging. We arrive in Ban Lung Ratanakiri around 9pm. It has taken us 2 and a half days to get to this point!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Part 2 (The Horror)

Kratie to Stung Treng
journey: 5 hours by taxi
road condition: bad

We had heard that the road from Kratie to Stung Treng was awful. Our transport options out of Kratie were motobike, bus or taxi. Despite unpromising negotiations we decided to take the comfortable option and hire a taxi for the trip. Our driver was pot bellied, cantankerous and insistent that he would only consent to have us in his (particularly shabby) vehicle if his "wife" could come along. We agreed. In the end it was a good decision; the drive was dusty, the road was predictably difficult to navigate but the trip passed along fairly uneventfully. We arrived in Stunge Treng in time for a wander around town and a byo drink by the Sekong for sunset.

Stung Treng to Siem Pang
journey: 10 hours by boat (upstream)

Following the advice of 'James Bond', our helpful guesthouse travel guide, we decided to take a boat to Siem Pang and from there catch a moto to Vern Sai (in Ratanikiri). We had been gagging for a good boat trip and so at 6.30am on Monday morning we boarded a medium sized wooden boat and set sail along the Sen River. It was only us, the driver and one other passenger. The driver sat up back and there was a shaded narrow space along the length of the boat which you could sit under or on top of. We putted along as the sun rose in the sky and the thickly treed banks streamed past. I marveled at the bamboo trees; thick trunks of bamboo loping out over the bank and into the water. The branches were heavy with dense, dark green leaves dripping off olive green stems with the young bamboo stems sticking out threateningly, all bright orange rims and yellow spiky tops. I sit on the top of the boat and survey the passing scene. Occasionally we pass another boat going downstream. Every minute is drawing me closer to Kurtz territory.

Progress is slow and we travel in a loose convoy. We acquire some passengers from another boat and a case of beer (quite possibly the spoils of our inflated barang ticket prices). The sun beats down and the brown river quickly flows along. We stop to take on board an esky full of fish (presumably an income supplementing activity of the other passenger, who is a policeman in Siem Pang).

We arrive in Vern Sai, a small rural centre, in the north of Stung Treng. We book into the hotel (a house) and I wonder about which family member is being kicked out of their room for my 6000Riel ($1.50usd). We go for a walk around the dusty track that is the town’s main street. We locate the only restaurant and agree to wait 20 minutes for our meal (so they can go scrounge together some vegetables). I sit in the restaurant on a blue plastic chair, the bottle of “red water” on the table and lean drowsily against the wooden plank wall. It is at this point that we meet Theany, a local woman who is starting up a tour company.

Slowly, and confusingly, our situation unfolds. There are no motos available to get to Vern Sai as the road is completely impassable. We are tired and try to clarify. Theany persists in her impeccable and polite English. The only way out of Siem Pang at the moment is the way we came, by boat to Stung Treng.
"So how are we to get to Vern Sai???" we ask.
The answer is by going back to Stung Treng then to Ban Lung (Provincial capital of Ratanakiri). The three of us sit somewhat shell shocked at this thwarting of our plans. But there is nothing to do. We decide to catch the first possible boat back in the morning.

The evenings events have left me feeling tired and cranky. Determined to make something of our time in Siem Pang, Krishni and I head to the towns pagoda for a big Pchum Benh party. Much of the town is gathered in front of the Wat. A huge collection of immensely sized speakers sit on the dirt ground, pumping out a mixture of traditional Khmer music and more recent Thai influenced dance music. I sit down and refuse to dance (despite a lovely offer from the Siem Pang policeman) and instead content myself to watch. In a gender role reversal to Australia, it is the men who are rushing onto the dance floor dragging the unwilling and blushing women. Everyone seems to be having a great time. I sit smiling, watching the couples move in large circles, slowly progressing forwards, their hands twisting and twirling in deliberated, elegant movements.