BootsnAll Travel Network

Cambodia – Last Days

Due to an afternoon bus departure, I had a morning to kill in Kratie. To that end I went back to the bookshop where I had eaten previously as the breakfast menu looked good. Upon my entrance, I found that the American owner had indeed been busy over night. Sitting on the bar were two brand spanking new cardboard bosoms. They were modest in size, but very 1980’s Madonnaesque (a.k.a. pointy). Having completed his necessary cardboard body alterations, he was working on a cardboard skirt when I entered. I learned on further questioning that he was to be Anchora the beer princess. Anchor is a beer brand in Cambodia. Anchora supposedly has made appearances before in Cambodia on different occasions and is quite the hit in this small river town.

After eating, I went to the bus station to wait for my bus. I had a long wait. Due to bus troubles, my 12:45 departure didn’t occur until 3:45. I got on the bus with a group of foreigners with whom I am still constantly running into here in Laos. The bus took about five hours to get to Ban Lung going down a very dusty and sometimes bumpy dirt road. Since I was in the back I had lots of opportunities to get air time as the bus flew over the bumps. Upon arrival, I retrieved my bags which were covered in red dirt. This red dust which is everywhere in Ban Lung was to be a pain in the neck my entire time there. After getting my bags and getting off as much dust as a I could, I found a hotel not far from the bus drop off point for $5 a night. After checking in I went to eat and see the town with a Dutch couple who had sat next to me on the bus.

Ban Lung is a sleepy, dusty town. It is the provincial capital of Ratnakiri province which is a sleepy dusty province. It is inhabited by many local tribes which live in segregated villages. The town itself has a central market and is crisscrossed with dusty red dirt lanes. (Get my emphasis on the word DUST in this post). As far as I could tell there were two karaoke bars in town with one of them serving as a part time brothel (hourly rates available). This was made evident by the fact that all the local girls outside were wearing short shorts which is a big no no here.

I spent my first full day in Ban Lung at a volcanic lake near town. I rented a bicycle for the 6 km trip to town, but really shouldn’t have bothered. I ended up having to push the bike most of the time anyway as it was so bad. I knew I should have spent the extra dollar for the good bike. At the lake, I saw that platforms had been set up from which people could swim. There was a walking trail around the lake and a visitor center. The lake itself is almost a perfect circle, and I believe is the crater of a hopefully extinct volcano. The water in the lake is remarkably free of sediment and has amazing clarity. This gives the lake a nice green color. I decided to walk around the lake before going in to swim. On the way I stopped at the visitor center which showcases instruments and pots of the Tompoun people. I met a music instructor while there who invited me to return later to watch a group of musicians and dancers practice for an upcoming show. I completed my walk around the lake and spent the afternoon swimming and visiting with both locals and foreigners using the lake. I returned to the visitor center to watch the dancers and musicians. They performed two songs on instruments made from gourds. One instrument in particular was quite complicated with four different sets of strings spaced in groups around a cylinder. Before I left the lake, I made plans with an American man (Brad) and two British girls (Leanna and Claire) to rent motorcyles and go visit some outlying villages that contained some unique cemeteries the next day.

I woke up early and met everyone at a nearby hotel for breakfast. We then paired up on the motorbikes for the 35 km (one way) trip. I was with Leanna. Even though she had owned a motorcycle before, she was still game to let me drive. I felt it only fair to warn her that I could count on one hand how many times I have driven a two wheel motorized vehicle. I also had never driven one with someone on the back. Off we went down the dirt road to Voen Sai. The road was pretty bad in some places with huge potholes. At times they were impossible to see due to the lighting, and we couldn’t avoid bouncing across them. The road was very dusty, and we had to breathe through various items to keep the dust out. I used a dust mask that I had bought at the market. It was also hard for me due to the lack of sunglasses. (Pair number seven I think lasted all of three days before being forgotten somewhere). Once in Voen Sai, we found a boatman to take the four of us an hour downriver to a Tompoun Village. The village was full of thatch houses on stilts set out along a dirt path. There he acted as our guide and took us through the cemetery. The cemetery is unique in that the deceased are represented by effigies by their graves. A soldier for example had a concrete statue complete with a toy gun and a long knife across its back. The graves were spaced out through the jungle. After leaving the cemetery, we were invited into one of the houses. There we met up with a large family. They were drinking some sort of rice wine out of a large vase through bamboo straws. We were invited to do the same. It tasted like a sweet saki. We then went with the boatman back to the boat. Apparently, nearly every tree along the path was edible and he kept giving us leaves to eat with him. They all tasted like grass to me, so I promptly spit them out whenever he wasn’t looking. There was one fruit that tasted like figs and was quite good. Back in Voen Sai, we gave him a generous tip for taking us around as we didn’t expect this. In response to this, he bought us all sugar cane juices and more of these fig like fruits as well as other food, and insisted we eat with him. Saying goodbye, we hopped back on the motorcycles and drove back into town. I took a long shower to remove all the red dust from myself. My clothes are still stained by it despite large amounts of scrubbing.

My last day in Ban Lung was spent viewing different waterfalls in the area. They were pretty, but were a little low in water as it is getting late in the dry season now. I rented another motorbike to do this. I went all day, the previous day, with no mishaps. Despite being alone on the motorbike, I managed to fall off this time due to a very sandy patch of trail. The motorbike fell on my leg removing a few layers of skin in the process. In the evening, I booked a minivan to Stung Treng for the next day. After speaking with a German man, we found that we had similar plans for Southern Laos and decided to try to travel together for a while. His name is Andreas, 42 years old, and an on and off again chef. He had been to Laos six years previously.

The next morning it appeared that we might not be able to travel together at all. We were put on different minivans going to Stung Treng and after that I lost track of him. In Stung Treng, I checked into a hotel near the waterfront. While I was doing this, I saw Andreas walk by the front of the hotel. After checking in we looked around the town. Andreas and I split up as he wanted to go eat. I went to look at a nearby wat. While wandering around, a monk about my age invited me to speak with him. We talked for a while about my trip and life in the monastery. He then invited me to come with him to a funeral at which he was to say prayers later that day. I declined saying that I would not be comfortable without the family’s permission first. He then asked me to come back around 6:00 am and join him for tea as he can only eat between 5:00 am and 12:00 pm.

Leaving the monastery, I found Andreas again. We walked about 4 km out of town to a women’s development center. Here women work weaving silk items on wooden looms. There is a school onsite for their children. The place is funded by sales and donations. The American Ambassador to Cambodia had been there the previous day touring the site. The prices of the items were higher here, but I bought a scarf anyway ($23) . At least I knew it was for a good cause and that the scarfs were genuinely handmade. Andreas and I also checked out the possibility of taking a boat to the the Laos border, but like everywhere else this service is only done by charter now and is very expensive. With improved roads, the boats can’t compete with the buses. We decided to go by bus. The hotel where I was staying was selling a through ticket to Don Det in Laos. That evening Andreas and I went back to visit Psi (the monk). He took us to a room and had us sit on a mat on the floor. He then set a gaggle of novices and pre-novices flying about to make tea and coffee. We drank with him and visited for about an hour.

The next morning we were loaded into a minivan for the trip to the Cambodian border post of Dom Kralor. The border post sits in the middle of nowhere and consists of a wooden hut. This border post has a reputation for asking for bribes to get your stamps on both the Lao and Cambodian side (usually $1). Surprisingly, we made it through without having to give the money. We were then put into a different minivan on the Laos side. Our driver failed to stop at the Laos immigration office, and we were turned back at customs as we had no stamps. Our driver had to take us back to the border. There we all piled out to go to the Lao office. Here we were told to pay $1 or no stamp. Then we were driven to a village (Ben Nakasang) on the river to catch a boat to Don Det.

Don Det is part of Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). These islands exist in a particularly wide spot in the Mekong River. Many disappear during the wet season. Don Det is one of a few permanently inhabitated islands. Fisherman here have learned that foreigners would also like to permanently inhabit the island and have built many bungalows along the river bank in which people can stay. The northern part of Don Det has gotten particularly built up and is becoming a small town. To this end Andreas and I decided to walk to the southern side of the island for a place to stay. We found a place called Mr Vong’s near the vehicle bridge (old French railway bridge) which connects Don Det to Don Khon. He had bungalows with their own bathrooms for 20,000 kip (9200 kip = $US 1). The bungalows were thatch and had a front porch overlooking the river with hammocks. He ran it with his wife and their plethora of children, chickens, and dogs. The only activity for the rest of the day besides hammock laying was a walk back to the north side of the island to exchange some money. We had electricity from a generator from about 6:30 to whenever the family stopped watching televison. Laos is the first place that I actually have to use money changers as ATM’s aren’t wide spread.

The second day on the island, we rented bicycles and rode the loop around the edge of Don Det. The island seemed to be a breeding factory. Puppies chewed on mother dogs. Water buffalo calves were everywhere trotting behind there mothers. Every hen was surrounded by hoardes of peeping chicks. The island is divided into the sunset and sunrise side. On the sunset side of the island (I was staying on sunrise), it was less populated. (I should point out that the island is not exactly bursting despite the evident baby boom.). Once back in the main town area, Andreas and I split up as I went to have a $3 massage. After the massage, I rode my bike to Don Khon to see an impressive series of rapids and waterfalls on the river. I then rode down the periphery of the island until I came to a bridge that was made from old rail road track and was quite rusted and steep. I didn’t feel like trying to carry my bike across it. That night we went to eat at an Indian restaurant with some other people that we had been seeing since Cambodia. The food was okay and the portions small. The main excitement occured when someone was bitten by a snake at the table near us. Apparently a snake had crawled up in the chair and bit the guy on the rear and his finger. No one seemed to know if it was poisonous or not and the last I saw the guy had carried the snake (dead now) out to see if anyone could identify it. I was much more careful of where I sat after this.

My final full day in the islands was spent hiking along an old rail bed on Don Khon. During the French period, a small gauge railroad had been built for bringing in supplies. The track is all gone now. Some is being used to make bridges like I described earlier, on other parts of the island. There were old rusting locomotives at both trail ends. The trail went through the center of the island and ended at a village where we ate noodle soup for lunch. We then hiked along the edge of the island finally ending up where I had turned my bike around the previous day. We met three small boys who had killed a snake to eat and were taking it home. This occured in the same spot where I had seen another man with a snake the day before.

In the morning, we got into a small wooden boat with a 60 something year old Dutch couple that was staying in the bungalow next to mine. We were driven back to Ben Nakasong and put on a bus to Pakse. We had to ride on the roof as the bus was full. The four of us were actually going to Champasak, so we got off the bus early. We had to take a tuk tuk down to the river front to catch a ferry. We found a man to take us and got on a small raft made by placing boards across two canoes with a motor. In the village we ended up at another Mr. Vong’s (popular name here I guess). He had a hotel with 30,000 kip rooms. Champasak is small town laid out along a single main road and one dirt one. It was once a royal capital. The main attraction here now is Wat Phu. This is an old temple built during the 11th century up on a hill side. It is similar in style to the Angkor temples, but smaller.

The four of us decided to hire a tuk tuk to take us to the temple. The temple is built on several layers. As with many old temples of the area, it was orginally Hindu before being taken over by Buddhism. It sits below a mountain which is said to look like a Shiva Linga. From this mountain flows a spring which is considered holy. The spring was once channeled over a stone lingham set in the highest point in the temple. Today the temple is in ruins, but is being worked on by an Italian/Lao joint venture. The temple is accessed via a long stone pathway placed between two artificial waterpools. One then walks between two stone buildings each consisting of a wide courtyard inside a carved stone enclosure. Past this one climbs up many steps up the hill to the top of the temple. The steps are lined with ancient plumeria trees (national tree of Lao). They have gnarled trunks supported equally by gnarled branches full of white flowers. It was fitting that these trees presided over the ancient staircase. At the top, there is a partially standing structure which now contains a badly carved Buddha. There are old carvings lying about on stones. The area was shaded and had good views over the countryside. Before leaving the temple grounds, we first visited a museum which contained sculptures from the temple.

Today we took a bus to Pakse where I am now. We had to once again cross a ferry, this time on a bus. The ferry was a mega supersized version of the ferry we had taken two days before. It consisted of wooden planks nailed across gargantuan canoes with a motor. In Pakse, I plan to get a hair cut, find more books, and plan out more of my trip. I am desperate for something to read as I ran out in Don Det and haven’t seen a bookstore yet.

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