Sunday, January 27, 2008

Northeastern Cambodia

The day before leaving on our trip to Southeast Asia, I was asked what place I was looking forward to the most. My answer was the Ratanakiri province of northeastern Cambodia. The province is home to numerous natural beauties including the relatively unexplored Virachey National Park. Treks into the park are on the order of 5 to 6 days costing more than $300 per person, enough to keep us away. We decided to base ourselves in the dusty provincial capital of Ban Lung. The 100+ kilometer ride from Stung Treng to Ban Lung was almost entirely over loose, red dirt. Every plant, tree, and home along the roadway was dusted red. We arrived in Ban Lung expecting a reprieve from the red cloud only to find that the main thoroughfare through town was covered in red dust.


We checked into our guesthouse with a fake tan and soon realized that the room's red-tinted tile floor had seen others similar to us.

Just five kilometers from the city center is Boeng Yeak Laom, a crater lake.


Lonely Planet says the lake resides in the caldera of a volcano while some locals believe a meteor caused the hole. Regardless, the lake is deep and the dropoff from the edge is immediate; it is definitely a deep crater. We enjoyed an entire day at the lake, rubbing red dust off our bodies, watching families picnic, and diving off the lakeside decks with farang and locals. In one area of the lake, a tree had settled its fall such that the main trunk ran along the suface of the water. It made for an excellent diving board!


The lake water was amazingly transparent with visibility around five meters, so it was easy to chase the minnows around. Still didn't catch any of the slippery buggers though.

The following day, we visited two waterfalls, Chaa Ong and Ka Tieng. Chaa Ong has a dirt ledge where one can walk behind the falling water.


I also ventured into the falls for a power shower that removed all the red dust.


Unfortunately, it all re-collected on my body along the moto ride to Ka Tieng.


Ka Tieng was the most fun. The frigid pool was refreshing in the blistering heat and across the pool, vines dangled down from above. It was perfect for some tarzan action, sound effects included.


A return to Ban Lung meant Laura wanted to visit one of the many gem stone vendors around town. We finally found one who spoke decent english to describe the stones to us. The province is known for gem mining, specifically amethyst, zircon, and onyx. At the shop, a man was cutting and polishing one stone in the background as we admired the stones of the region. Needing no inspirational words from me, Laura brokered herself a deal for a Ratanakiri amethyst. The excuse for expenditure was "a birthday gift". I knew there was something funny about that gem stone vendor request while I was playing Tarzan. Now, I just hope it's an amethyst!

After our adventures around Ban Lung, we hopped onto a passenger bus to Kratie, Cambodia. Kratie is close to another deep water swimming hole where the Irrawaddy dolphins hang out during dry season. Rumors were that dolphin sightings were much closer than the 4,000 islands experience, so we decided to give it another try. Upon arrival to Kratie, we were ecstatic to see paved roads once again. Our elation was dulled when our packs were pulled from the bus's cargo caked in Ratanakiri province soil. Looks like we will be traveling with Ratanakiri souvenirs throughout Cambodia.

Kratie had a beautiful Mekong riverfront. The town center held the local market where fruits, vegetables, meats, and clothing were sold.


I rode a bike up to Kampi, where the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project takes tourists to the dolphin pool. The rumors held true, and we got some great up-close views of the endangered species. The views were few and fleeting, so we gave up on the camera shots and enjoyed the experience.

From Kratie, we moved on to Kompong Cham. The city has another wonderful Mekong riverfront with a huge bridge crossing the river.


We were visiting the city for two reasons, a bamboo bridge and spiders. The bamboo bridge links the city with the rural island Koh Paen.


The bridge is flooded by the Mekong during the rainy season so the toothpicks are replaced each year by locals. The roughly half kilometer bridge was easily handling pedestrians, bicycles, and motos, displaying the amazing versatility of bamboo. We rented a moto to get to Skuon, home of the deep-fried spider. Noone is quite sure how the tradition began, but Skuon locals hunt large, poisonous spiders in the forest. They remove the venomous teeth and then send them to the fryer. I plopped down 1,000 riel (25 cents) for the local delicacy and dug in!




It was hard to get down and tasted mostly like the oils it had been fried in.

Our return from spiderville brought us to the temples of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei.


Here, I got to enjoy a Coca-cola with one of the many temple residents.


We travel to Siem Reap next, the gateway to the Angkor temples.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss my special evening in Kompong Cham. After spiderville, Laura was wrestling with a dose of diarhea (maybe she should have eaten a spider also). She returned to the guesthouse while I ventured off to a rebuilt French tower to photograph the bridge at sunset. At the top of the tower, I encountered a young Khmer couple and greeted them with "Sua s'dei" (hello). I received a silent response and began to think I was interrupting an intimate moment. I photographed the sunset for a few minutes and prevented any French kissing that may have been planned. The couple continued to glance at me as they spoke Khmer to each other. I thought to myself I should leave them to enjoy the sunset together but just then, the young lady approached me, and in impeccable English, she asked my name. Surprised, I replied and reciprocated the question. I enjoyed the sunset with Dani and her schoolmate as we discussed Cambodian tourist sites, the U.S., and school. Dani was in her last year of high school and her father wanted to send her to a U.S. university. She was excited about the prospect of visiting foreign soil and testing her intelligence at a U.S. university. We parted ways after crossing the bridge to Kompong Cham together and I couldn't have been more excited that they had approached me to practice English and discuss their home and mine.

Luckily, my fun didn't end there. As I was returning to the hotel along the riverfront, Khmers were strolling away the rest of their day. One young man made eye contact with me as he was munching away on something in a banana leaf. He jumped to attention, grabbed another completely packaged wrap, and waved me over exuberantly. What did he want me to buy, I thought. He asked me to eat his sticky rice with banana wrap and join him for a riverfront conversation. Having been unable to identify the Khmer sticky rice with banana wrap, I couldn't pass up the opportunity for the delicacy and Khmer company. He was a 21 year old sophomore studying agricultural economics at a Kompong Cham university. He originally was from a small village but had moved to the city to get educated and make a better life. We discussed his studies and the governmental corruption issues that plague Cambodia. He had an intense hatred for the corruption; hopefully, that feeling spreads to more Cambodian youths so non-violent change with be on the horizon.

I thanked the college student for his hospitality and attempted once again to check on Laura at the hotel. This time, a plump man waved me over as he munched on a strange nut. Being unable to resist invitation, I joined him for a nut snack. He wanted to know the English name for the nuts he was eating which I, unfortunately, could not tell him. We munched on the nuts, unable to communicate except for hand motions and smiles, while fishermen returned home on the river.

It is experiences like these that make traveling so enjoyable. The random invitations and hospitality of people around the world is amazing. Laura and I have recognized that traveling alone produces more of these encounters. A person is more approachable and less intimidating than a couple. People feel they aren't interrupting anything. I had many of these encounters during my solo jogs in Tengeru, Tanzania; everyone wanted to greet the mzungu runner. Food is also a major link between people. Regardless of race, religion, or language, people can come together to feast and enjoy the tastes of a foreign land. Think of how much enjoyment a Vermonter gets when they first introduce somebody to real maple syrup; this is probably how the sticky rice and banana experience was to the college student. In Skuon, as I ate the spider, a crown of locals gathered around me to watch my reactions. They've probably seen it a hundred times but they still enjoy it as much as the first time. I hope to encounter more Khmer curiousity as our travels continue, and I'll continue to approach them in hopes of having more Kompong Cham evenings.

7 comments:

David said...

Jer,

I had no idea you were in Asia. How awesome, hope all is well. You can check out our blog when you have some time.

David

http://team-coleman.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

sounds like you really experienced a lot of different aspects of Cambodian life in this part of your travels. the rides from place to place don't seem as dangerous as the ones in previous blog stories. Your Mom will probably stop reading the blog after last couple of entries with your eating pics in them!!!swimming pics and waterfall pics were great. when do you take time to read about the areas to travel to next; or is it Laura that reads up on the area while you are visiting and EATING with the locals????

Greg said...

"It is experiences like these..." meeting and communicating with locals "... that make traveling so enjoyable".

So True !

Enough said.
Greg

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