Published: July 13th 2008January 2nd 2008
The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Ratanakiri started out simply enough. It was a cool, almost chilly morning for the short motodop ride to the bus station near Olympic Stadium. At 6am, we were definitely short on sleep considering it was New Years Day and we spent the better part of the night before eating food, ice cream and watching fireworks until after midnight. Fortunately we were given the best seats on the small bus, and off we went. We crossed the Tonle San River, then the Mekong. We stopped at small villages for breakfast and hour by hour the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh became a distant memory to the slower pace of province life. After probably 5 hours, just when our patience was thin and our butts sore, we reached Snoul.
Besides having a memorable and strange name, Snoul was the closest I came to Vietnam which was just 10 km away. My first thoughts when driving through eastern Cambodia near the Vietnam border was about the Vietnam War. Where exactly did the USA bomb Cambodia in an attempt to interrupt supply lines? Turns out Operation Toàn Thắng
was fought in Snoul in 1971, even in
the marketplace. When we got out of the bus, effects of this history seemed to be my rational as to why the town felt so run down. The deeply rutted red dirt roads, the trash... My sister and I attempted to find a food stall, but apparently we looked in the wrong direction. After seeing some locals eating my sister asked in her best Khmer, which is pretty good, if we could have food for two. The woman stirring the full pots rudely said that there was no food. Granted I was dressed like a tourist, totally white and over 6 feet tall, but her tone implied some other deeply seated disdain. Perhaps she had family and friends killed 30 years ago during the war, to be perfectly honest I couldn't blame her for not wanting to serve us. In fact I cant blame anyone for not liking Americans after the foreign policy of the last 8 years. Off we went to another stall on the other side of the street, where they were much more friendly.
The $2 Cambodian meal was delicious. I noticed the meat in my soup wasn't exactly prime cuts. Bits of bone and marrow,
pieces of liver or kidney, gristle and cartilage. It was delicious and I ate every bit, but it made me sad. Who needs meat anyways? I used the bathroom, which involved walking through their living quarters out the back of the building near the pigs. It was without a doubt the deepest I got into countryside life in Cambodia! Snoul was quite an experience, and I wish it nothing but the best in the future as tourism to Ratanakiri expands.
After this stop came the long haul to Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province. Hour after hour passed, people got on an off the bus. Plastic chairs in the aisle filled with people sitting motionless for hours, as my butt fell asleep and my back ached on a plush cushion. Its times like this and experiences like Snoul which really shake your mind and help you realize what a privileged and easy life we live in developed societies. As I looked at the time I couldn't believe 8 hours has passed since the 630am departure. I also couldn't believe how the hours kept passing by, and how we didn't seem to be any closer to Ban Lung. Fortunately
the bus had TVs and I got my fair share of Cambodian karaoke and comedy shows. Outside passed by houses of all shapes and sizes, cars piled high with people and livestock, moto's with furniture and family's. A drunk man even stood in the center of the road as the bus whizzed past at 45 mph.
3pm. 4pm. 5pm. 6pm, the sun begins to set. 7pm and its totally dark. 12 hours since departure, how much farther can it possibly be? It became apparent we were arriving 30 minutes later as we approached the 13th hour. We were exhausted, hot and hadn't really moved all day. It was a rush getting off the bus in the dusty town of Ban Lung in what felt like the middle of the night. A man approached us in the crowd of people as the bus unloaded its cargo. He told us his name was Lina and gave us his card saying he was a local guide. We made our way to the Terre Rouge Guest House, a well manicured and made out of ornately crafted wood inside and out. It was like paradise after seeing so many sights all day long. After
showers and dinner we planned out the next few days of activities. The Terre Rouge Guesthouse was an incredible place, which delicious food and very friendly staff. The building itself was incredibly beautiful, right on the lake shore outside of town(walking distance) and crafted of wood. Its owned by a very friendly French man who used to be the special forces. Countless pieces of art, culture objects and french pop-art adorn the walls- while the garden is filled with tropical flowers. I cant say enough how much of a little piece of heaven it was!
We met Lina at his window front office the next morning. He was super nice, knowledgeable and gave us the options around the Ban Lung area. The next day was busy, we travelled through Rubber Tree forests, saw the 30 meter waterfall of Chaa Ong, a hilltop Wat overlooking Ban Lung, ventured on moto's to the Lava Rocks and rain forest outside of town and ended the day with a swim in the spectacular Yeak Lom Lake. I would most certainly swim in this lake every evening if I lived in Ban Lung! Its a perfect crater .75 km wide, surrounded by thick forest
and filled with clear, cool water.
The next day we travelled by car to Veun Sai on the banks of the Tonle San river to see the Kachon Ethnic Culture and the Chinese village. I'm posting those pictures in a separate entry!
On the 4th day of this excursion we left Ratanakiri, but not by bus. My sister managed to arrange a private plane flight back to Phnom Penh through work contacts. It was $80 over the cost of the bus- but it was a 45 minute flight! Is an extra $80 worth missing 12 hours of back breaking, lung suffocating, sleep depriving, bumpy road riding? you bet!! I didn't really realize until we lifted off my credo about airplanes- the extra cost is worth the incredible aerial views alone!
Ratanakiri is the nature capital of Cambodia, and rapidly expanding its tourism. Be aware there was no ATM when we visited, no general store with snacks. It felt like a wild west town, but with moto's instead of horses. It was the most down to earth experience I had in Cambodia. It didn't have the excitement of the big city in Phnom Penh, or the mystical opulence
of the Angkor temples. What it did have was right up my alley though- lakes, rain forest, waterfalls, nature, cashew groves, rubber tree groves, gem mining and amazing culture. Lina, our amazing guide:
cell: 855 12 274 380
There are more photos below