My trip through Cambodia concluded with four days in the least visit quarter of the country, the North-east. Thankfully, this area is absent of both fake hippies and party backpackers, who congregate only in famed destinations (because they’re fake). Nevertheless, I was surprised by the number of Westerners present, as Lonely Planet implies this is a relatively isolated pocket of Cambodia. Although hordes of travellers are yet to descend upon the North-east, there are still countless businesses in each town to service the tourism sector. I travelled to the Kratie on the Mekong River and spent three nights in the supposedly remote capital of Ratanakiri province, Ban Lung. Kratie is a typical Indochinese riverside town and the transit hub for the region. The vast province of Ratanakiri is renowned for its untamed wilderness and ethnic minority communities. Trekking is the principal touristic activity in the region. I eventually deemed the arduous journey to Ban Lung as a pointless and regrettable waste of time. I was yet to decide whether I wanted to partake in a multi-day trek; and this indecisiveness should have been reason enough to skip Ratanakiri province altogether and allocate more time to my next country, Laos. The prices quoted to me in Ban Lung ultimately quashed any temptations.
The defining characteristic of this component of the trip were the dreadful bus rides. To reach Kratie from Siem Reap, I needed to wake up before 6:00am and expect to arrive in the early afternoon. Consistent with public transport journeys in Cambodia though, the bus failed to leave the station until at least an hour after it was scheduled to. Fortunately, the bus was comfortable and it stopped at fruit stand in the morning where all the Westerner passengers loaded up on packets of dried bananas and freshly sliced mangoes. At midday, the passengers bound for Kratie and the Laotian border were forced to change into another vehicle. Sixteen people (mostly Westerners) and a baby squished into a van designed to accommodate eleven. Our maniacal driver (he had mad-eyes) literally sat on the lap of another person. His recklessly fast driving nearly had everyone killed as he clipped the side of a much larger truck (my heart nearly stopped before the incident because I could see our trajectory was in line with the vehicle), frightening us all. Our backpackers were either stored under the seats or precariously tied with a motorcycle to the back of the van. I was very relieved to arrive in Kratie alive and with my backpacks.
Kratie is located on the Mekong River, the longest in Southeast Asia. The Mekong begins in China, courses along the entire length of Laos, flows through Eastern Cambodia, disperses into the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam and ultimately dumps its water into the South China Sea. Several languid towns with French colonial heritage dot the banks of the river in Cambodia and Laos. Kratie is one such town, where faded European edifices are situated beside colourful Khmer Buddhist temples. Since I was traveling with two French girls who wanted to stay on the island immediately opposite Kratie, I stayed there instead of the town.
Koh Trong is a spear-shaped sandbar island in the middle of the incredibly broad Mekong River. Local residents have transformed the island into a haven of agriculture. Herds of cattle graze in thin paddocks and flocks of chicken wander around orchards of pomelos (giant grapefruits), which are presumably the island’s primary export. The “main road” of Koh Trong is essentially just a bicycle path that runs for several kilometres along the western side of the island. Banana trees and bamboo shade this artery that also serves as a communal area for children to play and adults to gather gossip and conduct business. Stilted wooden houses (the Mekong floods) set amidst emerald greenery line the main road. Koh Trong offers homestay experiences in a rural environment within close proximity of a major town. We stayed with an elderly couple that spoke no English and slept on futon mattress in their large one-room stilted house (this design is more reflective of tradition than economics). In the evening, a bizarre bird-like screech emanated from their balcony. They showed us the creature that made the sound was a large lizard. One of my French companions was travelling overland from the French Alps to Singapore, without any flights in between. The other girl was an experienced traveller and had previously walked for one year from Panama to Mexico, zigzagging between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.
The journey to Ban Lung was the next instalment of my horrendous bus experiences. The bus departed Kratie at 1:30pm and was scheduled to arrive five hours later. Already running late, something in the rickety vehicle broke (I think it was a flat tyre) in the late afternoon and we were forced to wait at a repair store in the middle of nowhere for more than an hour. The passengers all celebrated our eventual departure, but that proved to be premature. We rolled into a derelict town (none of the Westerners had any idea of the name) in the darkness of night and were told to await a replacement bus as the current one was no longer drivable. After twiddling our thumbs for a couple hours, the new bus eventually showed up and transported us successfully to Ban Lung. We arrived in the remote town at 11:00pm… approximately five hours late.
Strange and inconvenient are two adjectives which immediately come to mind when I think of Ban Lung. A paved highway ploughs through the town, but the marketplace and major businesses line another dustier track parallel to it. The quality of the main road is certainly suggestive that Ban Lung is an outpost provincial town, and yet all the amenities (such as reliable wifi and numerous restaurants with English or French language menus) are present. Most of the hotels are clustered around a beautifully green lake, but its located irritatingly three kilometres from the centre of town. Ban Lung is a funny place and difficult to assess, but it was pleasant enough to chill for a couple of days.
I hired a motorcycle taxi to visit three waterfalls and a crater lake located near Ban Lung. My driver for the day spoke excellent English and was also conversational in four other languages (we stuck to only one). He was recently discharged from hospital after recovering from malaria for two weeks. There is no financial assistance for medical purposes in Cambodia, so this would have been a particularly difficult time for the young father-of-two. En route to the waterfalls, we passed rubber plantations and several minority villages. The languages of these communities are completely different to Khmer. In one of the villages, betrothed couples live separately in specially built thatch stilt houses. Females reside in low and spacious one-room structures, while male abodes are small and high off the ground. After couples are married, they live with their paternal families (rotate between each) until they can afford to build their own dwellings. Each waterfall we visited was located in a jungle environment. The first waterfall was high and gushed into a creek. The second waterfall cascaded into circular pool, which I went swimming in. The last waterfall, the most voluminous, formed a river and was viewed from a flimsy wooden suspension bridge. The crater-lake we visited is called Boeng Yeak Larom and is sacred to the local minority groups. The aqua blue lake is incredibly serene and surrounded by thick jungle.
On Koh Trong, dinner was cooked for us and the guests of other homestays at a single centralised dwelling. We ate freshwater-fish soup, beef stir-fry and rice, which was an uninspiring but wholesome meal. After the bout of sickness in Siem Reap, I craved Western food gradually more and more. I eventually caved into temptation and ordered a hamburger with Australian cheddar cheese (amazing) in Ban Lung. Twice I dined at the restaurant attached to the hotel I stayed at in Ban Lung and was treated to scrumptious concoctions on both occasions. I ordered “fried hot with beef”, which was an absolutely sensational stir-fry with chilli, garlic and lemongrass, and fried fish with ginger. The fillet came with a thick mixture of fresh ginger, beansprouts, shallots and soy sauce. For my last meal in Cambodia, I ate a delicious serve of Chicken Amok, although it was really a coconut-based curry (best in Cambodia nevertheless).
My final road trip in Cambodia consisted of a two mini-van legs and was relatively seamless. Unfortunately though, the journey went amuck (hehehe) when me and the three Swiss I was with crossed the border into Laos. Another mini-van was supposed to be awaiting our arrival and drive us to the boat landing for Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands. However, no van, bus, taxi, tuk-tuk or any form of transport arrived on the desolate Laotian side for the next three hours. This was especially frustrating since we were only twenty kilometres from the boat landing. Finally, tbus crossed the Cambodia-Laos border and we demanded seats on it, just before sunset.
As previously mentioned, in retrospect I would skip Ratanakiri entirely and devote more time to Laos. The north of Laos boasts more interesting treks anyway. Staying on Koh Trong though was a pleasant experience and a worthy stopover between the major tourist destinations of Cambodia (either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh) and Laos.
That’s all for now,