Anth in Phnom Penh

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.


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