Stung Treng - A Typical Mekong Town.

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April 14th 2011
Published: April 14th 2011
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At first glance Stung Treng doesn't have much going for it but it's the northern-most settlement in Cambodia on the Mekong, so we're stopping for a while. We are now nearly 2,610 miles from the source and just 117 feet above sea level - but almost three miles lower from where the river splutters to life on the plains of Tibet. We are the only people who get off the bus. The sun beats down, the market smells - fish paste and rotting fruit - embrace us, and grown women in pyjamas emblazoned with teddy-bears, polka-dots, and flowers, skirt around us on scooters. I think: 'I don't like it here much'.

But I figure: 'give a place a chance'. Cycling along the broad expanse of the Sekong (a tributary of the Mekong) that afternoon we pass vendors selling soft drinks, and fresh coconuts, grilled fish and tiny pink sausages. Wobbly tables and plastic chairs line the water-front, and ragged umbrellas flap in the slight breeze. Beneath the tables a little jetty buzzes with activity. Ferries no longer run across the Sekong - a new bridge now graces it's shores, but boats across the Mekong packed with freight, vehicles and passengers spew forth their contents regularly. We drank Angkor beer and watched wide-eyed as men on scooters balanced tables, great bundles of sacks, meters long lengths of steel tubing and pink piglets in wicker baskets - sometimes while carrying passengers. What a spectacle - a real life circus act. The sunset was mundane by comparison.

We hired a scooter and over the next few days rode through some of the least populated and undisturbed areas of the Lower Mekong, passing wooden houses on stilts - little more than planks nailed together; and some not even that - plastic sheeting strung around poles, or woven palm leaf walls and rooves. Glimpses inside revealed empty spaces - a raised platform with straw mats for sleeping or hammocks strung from poles. Kids ran around almost naked, bare-footed and snotty nosed. Gaggles of ducks splashed in puddles of water, chickens scurried in the dust, fishing nets dried over wooden poles and wicker fish traps littered the shaded space underneath houses. The poverty was palpable, but even adults smiled and waved as we passed. Kids jumped and shouted 'saadee' and held out hand-palms for high-fives.

It's always encounters with people that make a trip memorable. Like the lady who sold us water at a roadside shop. She smiled when I pointed to the bottles but shook her head when I offered her money. I offered more, thinking it wasn't enough. Again she shook her head. Impasse. Then her daughter got up, added two more bottles to the two I'd already bought, and gave me some money back. Everyone laughed. Again drinking water at another roadside shack, four kids couldn't take their eyes off us. Two brothers swinging in a hammock tried out their English - 'where you from'? Every attempt made them collapse in boisterous fits of giggles, while their sister and her friend laughed shyly covering their mouths with their hands. We could barely understand one another, but laughed a lot, tried delicious ice-coffee, sipping from a little straw which poked out of a plastic bag. Then the lady from the opposite shop came over, and we tried fresh sugar-cane juice - sticky, sweet, wonderful.

We visited Mekong Blue. An initiative to train local women in the art of silk production - a remarkable place. Eighty women work here (and two men!) determined to make a better life for themselves and their children. Mekong Blue offers these women a chance to earn a wage, but more importantly gives them self esteem. An old Cambodian proverb likens men to gold (always precious) and women to skirts (worthless, easily disregarded). These women are taking an active role in providing for their families. An on site kindergarten provides care for small children, while older children are sent to school and encouraged with incentive schemes like a new bicycle for the best student. Approaching it's tenth anniversary, Mekong Blue aims to become self sustaining in the very near future.

On one of our trips bouncing around the rutted, ridged dirt tracks along the north of the Mekong we were happy and amazed to find the Bacsei Resort - just four kilometers and a whole world away from the town of Stung Treng. Wooden bungalows looked out over a gorgeous stretch of the Mekong and the southernmost islands of the Ramsar wetlands, ranging from a deep sea-jade green to sparkling blue, the water constantly changed with reflections of light and sun. Views of a sandy beach, tiny islands and frozen trees, their branches straining to reach an unknown goal, vines and twisting tree roots winding around trunks like knotted cables -it was lush, leafy, exotic. Mr Dara, a quiet young man burning with ambition managed the place for his uncle as his second full time job; he was working to fund his masters study at university. He came to pick us up in town for the short journey to the resort. 'I have moto' he'd told us. We just nodded, not knowing exactly what a moto was, trusting it would be OK. The next morning he rolls up on his 100cc scooter to take us and our four packs to the bungalow! We had a motorbike each but it was an exhilarating ride to say the least! I wondered for the umpteenth time how everyone here rides with such massive loads on such tiny fragile vehicles, but I gritted my teeth and giggled.

'Lonely Planet' says Strung Treng is charm challenged. Poor, riddled with problems - yes. But brimming with some of the nicest people I've met so far on this trip, people who are honest, hard-working, aching for a chance to better themselves. Strung Treng is a great place to visit to get a feel of living along the Mekong, a feel of real Cambodian life.

The cycle trails we followed were set up by the Mekong Discovery Trail an initiative of various organisations to promote tourism and improve living standards of people in rural areas.

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