Anth in Phnom Penh

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Adventures in another Kiri (Pchum Ben 2006 part one)

In a brave move, we decided to spend our Pchum Ben in a ‘Kiri. Our previous Pchum Ben in Ratanakiri had been somewhat of a challenging adventure (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and yes the number of parts are positively related to the amount of difficulties encountered). This Pchum Ben though, things were going to be different. Firstly, our traveling companion in the other Kiri was safe and sound back in Sydney and most importantly, this time we had a car.

We set off the Friday afternoon before the Pchum Ben week of holiday. I had just had my final day at AQIP. Our trip was beginning and our time left in Cambodia quickly diminishing. Without much hassle we made it to Kompong Cham by evening so that we could start the real drive the next morning.

Already things were proving to be easier. There was no need for tense negotiations with transport junta leaders and my gleaming white pick-up was fresh from a service. We passed through some dusty, western-esque towns with saloon style two-story wooden buildings and a coating of red-brown dirt on anything stationary. We stopped in Memot for lunch and had quite possibly the best Cha Bonlai (stir fry vegetables, my provincial staple) I have ever had. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but for those keen to try it was the only one that cooked your food up fresh and it had a rabbit on the sign. As we traveled further towards Sen Monorom the dirt became redder and the forest denser and more lush.

The road was not great, but quite manageable as it had not rained for three days and had time to dry out. We arrived at the outskirts of Sen Monorom around 3pm. We couldn’t believe our luck. It was stunning, an extremely picturesque collection of rolling green hills, red dirt and jungle forested valleys. The scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen in Cambodia, and very reminiscent of Australia.

We cruised into town and found ourselves a guesthouse. We found the design of many of the guesthouses somewhat strange. As a general rule, cabins tended to be placed facing inwards with windows and balcony’s overlooking the other cabins. Behind the cabins lay a stunning and peaceful view. I couldn’t work out whether guesthouses had been constructed for a Khmer market with different holiday preferences to barangs, or just with little forethought?

After an incredibly oily dinner of fried potato chips and inferior cha bonlai we organized an overnight trek into the jungle. We were a little hesitant, given unsuccessful trekking attempts in the other Kiri, but decided to risk history repeating itself. The next morning we set out from Sen Monorom on an elephant, with two Pnong guides (the elephant’s minders) and a Khmer guide (presumably our minder). Not one of them spoke a word of English. This was entirely my fault. We had been negotiating in Khmer with a fast talking, James Bond from Stung Treng-like, young man and when informing us why the trip was so expensive: for example with English speaking guide I had jokingly said “Oh we don’t need any of those things”. Of course I didn’t actually clarify with him later on, that actually, we really did. But of course, like many of his kind, he disappeared as soon as the cash was handed over.

Nevertheless, we sallied forth, Mr B and myself on top of the elephant in a small bamboo basket. The basket was extremely cramped, we had to either sit on top of or nurse our bags, in addition to our guide’s bags. Mr B had to hang his legs over the edge of the basket and even then took up over a half of the basket and made it very clear that he was not comfortable.

Mr B less than impressed to be on the elephant

This state of affairs lasted around 15 minutes before the two of us insisted that they stop the elephant and let us down. Our guides were somewhat taken aback, but given a general reluctance to talk to us much, little was said. The next couple of hours were very pleasant, we walked beside the elephant and pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle. Whilst the beginning of our walk provided sweeping views of valleys and hills, after awhile we started to get into real jungle.

After a few hours it started to rain. The usual walking route had proved to be too narrow or difficult and so the elephant and rider had gone down a different route. As the rain started to splash down in warm, heavy drops we decided that we needed to find the elephant and make sure that all our things were covered. I dashed off with one of the guides back to the spot where we had last seen the elephant. We couldn’t see her, and so the guide delved down the thickly treed path which she had taken. Quickly, I realized that I had no idea where Mr B and the other guide were, or for that matter where I really was. My guide continued at break neck pace along the track following the deep prints of the elephant in the mud. I stood, already completely saturated, deliberating. The guide who I had been following did not stop and soon he was entirely gone from my site. In a snap decision I chose to follow him. After a few minutes I still couldn’t see the guide or the elephant, but the deep imprints in the sodden earth were enough for me to know that I was at least on the right track. As the rain continued to fall the track got more and more difficult. My feet, legs and arms were covered in scratches from the undergrowth and I had to regularly stop due to a lost thong almost being swallowed up by the muddy path. I was feeling pretty miserable. The guide was occasionally in sight, and would stop and wait for me at particularly difficult crossings. He kept on asking me where the others were and I had to keep on saying “knom at dung” (I don’t know!). As I stumbled along I started to conjure up all sorts of images of losing Mr B in the jungle. Finally we arrived at the camp spot, the elephant was happily roaming free and his minder was taking a rest, but there was no sign of the others.

We turned around and plunged back into the jungle. Ten minutes later, after revisiting all the spots where I had previously fallen over, or lost my thong, I spotted the others. Mr B greeted me with a mixture of intense relief and anger. Apparently he had also entertained various visions; one of me catching up with the elephant and continuing on without him and others of awful elephant and non elephant related accidents. We made our way to the camp and took in our nights accommodation. It was a wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof. There was a dirt floor and then a raised wooden section and no sleeping materials to be seen. Rather than start to worry about this, we walked to the waterfall that was nearby and relaxed, comparing our various jungle wounds.

When we returned, the camp had been transformed. Mattresses with rugs and mosquito nets had been set up from some mysterious storage space, there were fires inside and out, and dinner preparations were well under way. Our guides went to bed some time before 8pm after drinking some ‘sra’ that had been brought ostensibly for us, but due to its close resemblance to methylated spirits we couldn’t stomache. We figured it was probably early to bed, early to rise and followed suit.

Our start in the morning was not quite as early as we had expected. Breakfast needed to be prepared and then straight afterwards what looked to be lunch was also cooked up. The chief elephant minder had a bandage on his forehead, which he told me was because he had a headache. I asked if this had anything to do with the ‘sra’ last night, but he didn’t respond. He and the other Pnong guide then led the elephant down to the river and gave her a bath.

Finally we were ready to set off. Mr B and I decided that given the debacle of the previous day we would ride on the elephant, at least for the beginning. We were also wary of the condition of the track given that it had rained for most of the night. This time, I found the elephant immeasurably more comfortable, Mr B was right next to me and the elephant confidently and slowing plowed through the deep mud and across swollen creeks. Our return was slowed by her voracious appetite and a particular penchant for fresh green bamboo, but I couldn’t possibly criticize her given her amazing ability to climb up steep, muddy hills with two barang and a heap of baggage on her back.

Coming out of the jungle to a Pnong village

We arrived back in Sen Monorom tired and somewhat relieved. We had been talking a lot about the rain and the condition of the road out of Mondolkiri. We decided that given that it had been raining for almost a day that it would be best to go back now, whilst the road was potentially still passable rather than get stuck here after a few more days of rain. That night, I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed straight after dinner. It was around 8pm.

We woke early; me because I was uncomfortable and Mr B because he was fretting about the road. For once we moved fairly quickly and after a fleeting stop at the interesting looking Sen Monorom market we were ready to go. The trip did not start well, driving from the market at 5km per hour, the road was like ice and my usually well grounded hilux was having trouble finding its feet. We traveled the 140 kilometres from Sen Monorom to Memot tensely and slowly. There were potholes and puddles that spread along great swathes of the road with more potholes lying in wait. Five and a half hours later, with great relief, we arrived at the Memot junction. I had learnt to drive a four wheel drive in incredibly challenging conditions and the sun was shining. We decided to push through to Kompong Thom for the night and begin part two of our Phum Ben holiday the following day.


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