Wow. Trekking into Virachey was one of the most miserable, wonderful experiences I’ve had and is worthy of a lengthy joint post between Gabe and myself – I hope you have some time!
Gabe – The trip described below can only be organized through the Virachey National Park office of Eco-tourism in Ban Lung Cambodia. The trip is an 8 day “out and back” backpacking trip through rough jungle with the sole purpose of exploring the Phnom Veal Thom Grasslands in a very remote part of northeastern Cambodia. It takes 2 days just to reach the boundary of the national park and the area is home to many large rare endangered and even some endemic species. Examples such as elephants, bears, tigers, guars, hornbills, leopards, etc. are known to exist in the area. Tourism is relatively new to Virachey National Park (VNP) as of the past 2 years. Allison and I become only the 9th and 10th foreigners to visit the grasslands within the past year alone. The entire area is virtually unexplored which is mostly what fueled my enthusiasm to organize the trip. There will be no toilets, no trail markers, no bridges built. We are forewarned many times it is a tough trip. With that heard we suggested to the ranger doing the trip in 6 days rather than the 8 days. They reluctantly agreed. For those interested in doing the trip yourself, do NOT do a trek organized by hotels or guesthouses. They merely take you on a hike to see a much visited “minority”village and hike in a denuded forest they will often call Virachey.
Allison - To begin, I’ll introduce the characters in our adventure. First there is myself, a novice backpacker but confident endurance athlete, feeling a bit apprehensive about slippery rivers and jungle “toilets.” Next there is Gabe, an expert in both roughing it and in efficient packing, trying to relax and let the guide be “in charge”. There is our guide, Sokhoun, a 24 year old former park ranger/monk and a member of the Brau minority group, who earns just enough as a guide to pay his $25 rent and to buy rice for his parents when they run short of food. Finally, we have Dtung and Jon, two Brau villagers who are recruited to be our porters for the week. Jon is 23 years old and half my size, whereas Dtung is 19 with a wife and sick baby – he signed up for the money ($2.50/day) to buy medicine. Both speak only Brau and are completely illiterate, but Gabe and I were immediately awestruck by the sheer brilliance of thes two “jungle men.” Both embarked on our journey wearing rags of clothings, plastic flipflops and carrying torn plastic sacks full of all our food/pots on their back, using a knotted sarong as a makeshift backpack strap. Gabe offered to let them use his durable Chaco sandals – they just laughed and shook their heads, not knowing how to even put them on.
Gabe – It would be good to know that Saukhoun, who has only been a guide for 1 year, is the only ranger to bring foreigners to this minority village. It is because of his minority upbringing in a Brau village that he is able to communicate with the village chief in order to allow our visitation. Nearly all villagers are illiterate, much less able to speak Khmer (cambodian), Brau, and English. All these languages are necessary to pull off the logistics for a trip like this.
Onto the adventure…
Allison: We left the park headquarters around 9:30 with four people, three large backpacks, a 40 kilo (90 lbs) food sack, a bag of eggs, 12 liters of water and two motorbikes. My driver had the food sack between his legs, I sat behind him with the bag of eggs in my lap and my backpack on my back. It was a painful two-hour push through sloppy, rutted, hilly roads that involved weaving through herds of cattle and dodging wandering pigs. The discomfort was only redeemed through the gorgeous rural countryside.
Gabe – Once in Taveng, the other moto driver headed back to Ban Lung at this point. He gave Saukhoun his word that he would come back in 6 days for the transport back to Ban Lung. From Taveng there are no roads to the Phum Phayang minority village, which will serve as basecamp for our jungle trek. The Se San river is a “highway” for people living in this area. Saukhoun hires a local to take us about an hour downriver to the minority village. The village is set back from the river. At first glance, we see nothing more than steps carved into the muddy river bank.
Allison – Eventually the three of us and all of the aforementioned bags were squeezed into a narrow wooden boat, motoring down the river towards the Brau village. We arrived less than an hour later, hauling our stuff up a muddy trail and into a bamboo stilt “house” where we would spend the night. The village houses 37 families (along with innumerable pigs, chickens, water buffalo), most of whom were busy in the rice fields at the time. Little kids and their mothers walked by and peered in, giggling at us – I’d expected to be the gawker, not the other way around! We hung our hammocks (US Army issue with built-in mosquito netting), and Sokhoun cooked dinner while Gabe and I bathed at the well. I made sure to study the bathing procedure of a few of the women before I attempted this. The women would effortlessly change from their sarong into a second while standing at the well. They would then draw a bucket of water, using a bowl to scoop the water over themselves. They’d lather their arms, legs, sarong and hair with a bar of soap, then draw a second bucket for rinsing. They’d then slip back into the dry sarong without revealing as much as their knees and be on their way! I (not so effortlessly) changed into my sarong while a group of curious village boys sat 10 feet away and stared, then I followed protocol as well as I could (though I welcomed Gabe’s help when it came to rinsing!). The village has no electricity, no toilets, uses the well for all water needs (prior to our “shower”we watched a cow drink from the bucket, followed by Sokhoun rinsing our dinner vegetables in the same) and has very few literate members. The rice fields keep most everyone, including children, busy all day every day, and only a few of the boys are allowed to attend school for part of the year in order to learn Khmer. Dinner was far more elaborate than I’d expected – we had beef with veggies and plenty of rice, all cooked over a campfire – and a massive 5 p.m. thunderstorm meant that we were sound asleep by 7. Amazing what you’ll do with no light!
Gabe – In Southeast Asia, one of the “tourist”things to do is to visit a minority village. Thailand being the biggest draw shuffles tourists through like a petting zoo. There is much controversy whether the influences of western society is good for the villages. The villagers make all sorts of neat little souvenirs for the tourists to buy relying on these sales to improve their lifestyle. In contrast, many of their traditions are lost as they now earn enough money from the tourists that they can now afford to buy food/clothes/etc. from town neglecting centuries of skills and traditions of living off the land. With that said, the village we visited has only seen less than 10 foreigners. I stated earlier that Saukhoun is a rare find in that he speaks their language and able to communicate with us. He negotiates all deals with the village chief. There are no souvenirs to buy, no tribal dance shows…just the minorities going about their daily routine. If anything, we are the ones being stared at. This part of the trip was most rewarding as its a way to catch a genuine glimpse of what life is like for these minority villages without feeling like a visitor at the zoo. The VNP is aware that foreign influence can erode traditional village life and have established rules and guidelines that are strictly adheared to on both sides. We get many stares and some even peek inside our hut to get a look. It feels innappropriate for me to even bring out my camera. We merely soak in the surroundings and village life. Kids as young as 5 smoke tabacoo, women think nothing of baring their chest as they go about their chores. This will be a genuinely raw experience!
Allison: We were up before six with the rest of the village and got to packing while Sokhoun made noodles for breakfast. He’d recruited Dtung and Jon who packed up those ridiculous plastic sacks with our food – all I could think about was how glad I was that Sokhoun had ignored Gabe’s insistence that we didn’t need porters! By 8:00 we were off. The first stretch was the trail to the rice fields where we encountered plenty of villagers returning with hunting prizes (these guys use a handmade crossbow/arrows with poison made from tree barks – seriously) and plenty of mud. I gingerly tried to avoid deep puddles as wet running shoes would be uncomfortable – little did I know! Before too long we had to cross a river via a log. Incredibly, I made it without falling, but was getting less and less sure of things by the minute. By 11 we reached a “camp” where Dtung and Jon whipped up a delicious lunch in no time – just a small indication of the wonders to come from these two! After eating came the dreaded words: “Now we will walk in the river.” I had no choice but to follow, dragging waayyy behind in my attempt not to wipe out on the slippery rocks. Dtung patiently stayed behind me and it sounded like he was sharpening his machete as he walked. Sure enough, he silently handed me a perfectly cut bamboo hiking stick which made for much smoother walking. I was initially elated at finishing the river walk, but the feeling was soon destroyed by our entrance into the jungle. It sounds exotic and exciting, but let me tell you…the jungle is NOT a place for people! The next four hours were spent sweating, pushing through the thickest bamboo imaginable, climbing up steep, slippery slopes, swatting clouds of mosquitoes and tearing at leeches that seemed to multiply by the second. By the time that we reached camp (a sort-of clearing halfway up a mountain), I was bitten, bloody and not so sure about all of this. The porters worked their magic and with a few machete whacks, some branches and some vines were able to create structures for hanging five hammocks (they aren’t concerned with mosquito nets) with rain covers. They then started cooking while Gabe and I made a mad dash for the rocky creek where we splashed icy water on ourselves and got as “clean” as possible. I managed to slip and fall in my sarong on the way up, losing my socks, and the leeches continued to appear everywhere. Gabe and I huddled in his hammock and he admitted that even he hadn’t expected such a raw experience - the evening rains soon started and we went to sleep as soon as dinner was eaten.
Gabe – It was definitely a tough hike. I knew it would be but I guess I never realized how tough it would be. Everyone reading this must also realize that this trek into the jungle is Allison’s FIRST EVER backpacking trip. After the first day in the jungle I was certain she would hate me forever. Both of us were soaked with sweat, muddy, and dirty within 30 minutes of leaving the village. That is how our clothes will stay for the rest of the trip. Nothing drys in the jungle (unless you are a jungle man..more on that later). By the time we arrived at camp poor Allison had blood stains on her arm, stomach, upper leg, lower leg, etc from leeches that got through her running shoes, leech socks, pants, and shirt. Note the porters who wear only plastic flip flops and ragged pants the length of capris have not a drop of blood on them from leeches! All day, as we slid, fell, tripped, snagged by thorns and bamboo, the minorities walked almost effortlessly through this mess without uttering a single sound of complaint. They are also carrying about 40lbs each in a rice sack using a sarong to make backpack straps. Dont I feel a bit ridiculous wearing my backpack, running shoes, jungle hat, leech socks?
I do want to make sure everyone gets a good visual of Allison falling down in her sarong. Steep slippery creek…more like a water slide. Allison finally clean from all the bloody leeches, wearing nothing but her sarong wrapped around her like a towel, and carrying all her nasty wet bloody clothes back up to camp. I hear a thud and see Allison heading down the rock…. it was pretty funny once I realized she was ok (but i didnt laugh until we were done with the trip).
Allison: I awoke as soon as the sun was up, though I stayed hidden in my safe cocoon of a hammock for awhile, avoiding the inevitable. I finally emerged and things weren’t so bad; I was greeted by cool air, few(er) bugs and rice cooking over the fire. We ate (finished off the beef that we’d been carrying, raw, in a plastic bag for two days), packed and finally pulled on our still-wet clothing from the day before (Sokhoun’s shirt looked like it’d just been washed and pressed). From there, my optimism started to falter as I realized that today’s hike would begin by climbing up those slippery river rocks – I had a good knot on my hip from the night before and wasn’t too enthused! My companions were ready for my clumsiness and a joint effort was made to get me up in one piece. The rest of the day was more of the same…bamboo, mosquitoes, leeches, thorns and being tailed by a guy in 50 cent flipflops. We climbed the mountain til lunchtime (we boiled river water, our porters drank straight from the river…), then spent a couple of hours tearing our way through flatland bamboo forest. It was then time for the second mountain, though we were promised the reward of the grasslands (no leeches!) at the top. To my barang eyes, there was no trail, but these guys knew exactly where to go and plowed right through. Sometime around 3:00 I heard Sokhoun through the buzzing of the insects and the sweat in my ears: “The grassland!” And there it was! In one step the jungle transformed into rolling hills covered in soft grass and large stones. The bugs were gone, a breeze picked up and I finished the day’s trek in awe of the now postcard-worthy landscape. Dtung and Jon whipped up a camp just in time for the storm, then as soon as it passed they started making soup while Gabe and I enjoyed the stony, bug-free ground that would be our home for the next two nights. We all sat on a pile of rocks for dinner and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. We continued to sit there until the sky was filled with an infinite starscape and I started to think that it was all worth it…
Gabe - So last night during dinner I was kind enough to share my hammock with Allison while we ate escaping the leeches. She threw out a piece of fat from the meat, along with a couple egg shells under my hammock. I didnt realize this until I got up an hour later only to have my feet (wearing sandals) burn with pain as there were millions of ants fiercly attacking the leftover food scraps my sweet little Allison tossed under my hammock
I am amazed at Saukhouns sense of direction. We fought through the jungle for 2 solid days never seeing the sun and he led us directly to our destination. Us foreigners need maps, compass and we still get lost…. or at least I still get lost!
Amazed at still having a girlfriend by this point I tried to be very encouraging as we climbed up the slippery creek that she slid down the evening before. I never thought to prep her for the fact that there will be no toilet for 6 full days… She was a trooper! I don’t know of any girl that would put up with these conditions much less think its fun. Oh wait…she told me many many times it was not fun Its only fun after you are done with it! In fact I seem to remember MANY times as she gritted her teeth mumbling, “I F$%#ing hate this place!” She is really cute when she is grumpy!
Allison: This was a day for R&R. After a downright cold night in the hammock, the bright 6 a.m. sunshine was a welcome sight! It got warm immediately and we were finally able to dry out our disgusting clothes and wet shoes (meanwhile, the brilliant Jon simply hung his over the fire). Breakfast was prepared and eaten – Soukhoun told us how the porters were blown away by the eggs and meat, they typically have only rice to eat - then we went walking through the grasslands for a couple of hours. We saw a cave and climbed some rocks, but most of the time was spent sitting in the tall soft grass on the top of a large hill, marveling at the view – we were on a different planet from the day before! The rest of the was spent in true Cambodian style – lounging in our hammocks! There was another rock face that Sokhoun wanted to show us, but hinted to Gabe that it might be better if I stayed behind with Jon. It bugged me a bit (I don’t like being the weakest link!), but I figured he knew his stuff and I obligingly continued to lounge as Jon boiled more water, cut veggies, washed dishes and fixed his torn pants with a piece of vine (he probably built a house somewhere in there as well). Gabe and I hiked up to a nearby hill for the sunset – there was absolutely nothing as far as the eye could see and it was mindblowing to think that we were days away from the nearest settlement. At that moment I was 100% sure it had been worth the jungle, and realized that we are a few of the only people to have ever enjoyed a sunset over that particular landscape. Incredible. Perhaps the only thing more incredible was later that night, after dinner was eaten and the sky pitch black, that Dtung and Jon left to go fishing…with nothing but a knife.
GS – I am still floored by the amazing scenery! Standing up on top of a mountain, the waist high grass floats in the wind, and there is jungle covered mountains in all directions as far as the eye can see.
After lunch, Saukhoun and I hiked/climbed up a rock face to get a glimpse of the surroundings. I found a snake skin that Dtung confirmed was from a cobra. We found a huge beehive up on a tree limb. While sitting up on the peak, there was a brilliant rainbow that dissappeared into the jungle canopy. On the hike back, Saukhoun showed me a small cave and some bear fur. This is left over from 2005 when a minority hunter killed the bear living in the cave. Saukhoun was a park ranger at the time which is how he knew of the incident. The rangers try to create awareness that hunting endangered animals is illegal now. I guess from their perspective they dont know any better. Its been their way of life for centuries. Now that the area is established as a national park, hunting here is forebidden..a concept the minorities dont understand.
Once back in camp Allison and I hike up to a nearby peak for an amazing sunset. Dinner is served consisting of fresh veggetable soup w/ canned sardines served over rice. Saukhoun said that the porters love coming on these trips because they eat so well. Its rare they eat all these vegetables. He said they take only rice with them and eat the leaves/plants from the jungle. This conversation was taking place while, 5ft away, Dtung and Jon had spotted a small mouse. They got excited and picked up a rock, hitting it on the run with near perfect accuracy. They decided to go “catch” some fish for the mornings breakfast using only a knife. I was nearly asleep when they came back but they each carried a stick (the stringer) with about a dozen small fish. You could tell they were excited to show off their talents. I laughed as Dtung dried his wet pants in about 10 mins rotating them over the fire. Meanwhile my wet stinky clothes were hung up on a tree still drying from the day before.
Allison: Today was going to be tough – not only did we have to return to the jungle, the plan was to make camp all the way back where we’d eaten lunch on the second day, leaving us with a short 2-3 hour hike on our final day. We begrudgingly pulled our protective clothing and leech socks back on, doused ourselves with DEET and I clung to my bamboo stick…Dtung and Jon, still in their flipflops, looked amused. It ended up being much better than the initial hike. The trail was much more defined after all the machete work that they’d done on the way out, and we also had a good day of rest behind us. We moved fast from the get-go, and I felt a bit of guilty triumph when I saw each one of our guides slip at one point or another (let’s disregard the fact that they practically bounded up the mountain, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads at us all the way). I was in luck, and we bypassed that rocky river which I’d secretly been dreading since the moment I opened my eyes. At lunch Sokhoun told us that we were making very good time and should try to camp an hour further, where we ate lunch the first day. We agreed and continued to push on. We reached camp at around 3pm and figured that we might as well go another 1.5hrs to the rice fields where we will be almost out of the rough jungle. We finished the hike in 50mins and after a water break we trucked all the way back to the village we started hiking from in another hour. We staggered in at 5:00, sweaty and exhausted, we were the first non-villagers to have ever made the 35km, two mountain trip in a single day! Even Dtung and Jon were impressed, and apparently were spreading word around the village that the crazy barang held their own! We peeled off our horrendous clothing for the last time (Dtung was thrilled to take my sweaty, bloody shirt off of my hands to give to his wife) and finally were able to wash with soap in the well. We had a small dinner as village kids piled in for their evening lesson – they had the sole light in the village, a single bulb powered by a large battery, and a girl of about 17 drew things on a terrible excuse for a blackboard as they copied it into their books. Gabe bought a jar of rice wine for $2, expecting a small jar for maybe two people. Little did we know, rice wine is extremely potent, comes in a ceramic tank of a jug with a straw made out of a stick and is intended for 6+ people. The men of the village slowly but surely drifted in, accepting our offers to drink with us and before we knew it we were learning what is perhaps the most dangerous drinking game on earth – these wiry little men in their sarongs are professional rice wine drinkers, and the two of us were no match! The more we all drank (it is literally a bottomless jug), the better we could communicate, and everyone seemed to be having a ball. An incredible thunderstorm moved in, and between the blur of the wine, the illumination of the lightning and the pounding of the rain, I decided that this was one of the best trips I’d ever done!
Gabe – I still cant believe we covered 35km (20miles) in 1 day. The porters were visibly impressed! Back in the village, it was a relief to use soap and be clean once again. The jug of rice wine was brought in around the time dinner was served. Allison and I both beamed about how incredible the trip was especially now that it was over. The villagers rolled into our hut and eventually there was quite a gathering. Through our interpreter/guide, we were told the villagers all heard about the strong crazy barangs (white people) hiking back from the grasslands in 1 day. Everyone participated in the rice wine. The night was surreal as we sat there with people from a whole differnt world drinking wine and celebrating the day. People whose approach to life is so simple its difficult for us to comprehend and in a world where time has no weight. Language was no longer a barrier once we drank enough wine as emotions and gestures said everything. There we sat in a bamboo/grass hut drinking by candle light with thunder and lightning cracking in the distance. This has been a very special trip that will be remembered for a lifetime!
Allison: I rolled out of my hammock at dawn, still blurry-eyed from the rice wine but elated that we were in the village and not a 2 hour hike away. The day consisted of nothing more difficult than eating our rice, packing our bags and lounging in our hammocks until a boat came for us around 9. From there we traveled back to Taveng, sat in a small shop with the best cocacola that I’ve ever had, then piled back onto our motobikes (sans the 40 kilos of food!) for the dusty trip back to Ban Lung. There had been some road work done over the past few days (it also hadn’t rained), and the trip was infinitely smoother than it had been on the way out. By lunchtime we were able to take one of the best showers ever (hot water would have been the only improvement) and collapse onto the balcony couches for the remainder of the day.