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Published: January 31st 2015
Heading down river...
The northeastern provinces of Kratie, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, some of the most remote areas in Cambodia, are home to much of Cambodia's vanishing wildlife and forest, and some landscapes of outstanding natural beauty. Ratanakiri, my next stop, is an isolated province in Eastern Cambodia on the border with Vietnam and home to various ethnic minorities, elephants, waterfalls and pristine jungle.
The bus to Ban Lung was to leave at 1.00pm
, so I made sure I was at the pickup point, Xplore Asia's office, in plenty of time. Honestly, I don't know why I bothered, the bus was an hour late. And it was a local one, not the tourist mini bus I was expecting. That explained why it was so late....local pickups. We eventually hit the road at 2.30 in a very overcrowded mini van. With seating for13 passengers, we had 18 adults and 5 young children on board, including a new born. The kids sat on their parents laps and caused no problems at all.
The problem was caused by a very arrogant European man, one of a group of four who were the last people picked up. He actually suggested that the locals who, according to him, only
This woman was sitting at the top of the walk down to the river.
paid a dollar for their tickets, should leave the bus so he could have more room. Heated words were exchanged between him and the driver and I decided to speak up on behalf of the locals, who had no voice.
I told this arrogant man that this was a local bus, emphasis being on local, and that they had as much right to a seat as he did. How much they, or he, paid for their tickets wasn't the issue here. I suggested he stay in Stung Treng for the night, and catch another bus tomorrow, so he can repeat this same scenario again, because tomorrow will be no different. Needless to say, he and his travelling companions squeezed in, found room for their backpacks and got to Ban Lung in one piece.
We finally arrived in Ban Lung at 4.30pm
. I had no accomodation booked, so was pleased to find touts from Tree Tops Eco Lodge, my starting point for a room, meeting the bus. I accepted their free tuk tuk and now find myself comfortably settled into one of their very rustic rooms, enjoying a bacardi and coke and French pizza in their common area overlooking, wait
for it, treetops!
I organised a day trip for Friday and was ready and waiting at 8.30am
for my pickup. He arrived in a twin cab utility, when I had expected a moto. He had four others to pick up, my guide explained, as they were to the meet the ferry over Tonle San from where I would be leaving too, so he has bought the vehicle instead of a motorcycle.
Well, the other four must have endured the dustiest and roughest ride of their life in the back of the ute, where they elected to ride. I was inside in the air conditioning, in reasonable comfort, sensible me! They had 40klm of suffocating dust clouds and corrugated roads to endure before we finally arrived at Voen Sai, a cluster of Lao, Chinese and Chunchiet (minority) villages an hour later. Thank goodness I wasn't on the back of a motorcycle!
The ferry was unloading when we arrived - people, motos, vehicles. This was some labour intensive process as the ramps were all manoeuvred by hand, every landing. The ferry went across the river and back countless times a day. I knew I had to cross the river and
Kaoh Paek Village
Lao girl in a hammock
assumed I'd be taking the ferry - not so! My guide, Smey from Smiling Tours, informed me we'd be travelling via longboat, just as soon as it returned from upriver. So I sat and watched the ferry cross, and unload, several times and the landing area being rebuilt by a grader in between.
When my longboat finally arrived I eyed it with some trepidation, certain I was in for a dipping before the end of the day. But once I was in and sitting crosslegged on the floor and felt the boat surge out into the river, I was hooked! I enjoyed the 45 minute boat trip to Koak Paek, the Lao minority village I visited further down the river. My guide walked me through this very poor village, explaining their beliefs and way of life. These isolated villagers still live a life seeped in tradition and superstition.
Just that morning two bullocks had been sacrificed, as thanks to the spirits for the improvement in the health of one of the village elders. The heads of these unfortunate beasts were on a sacrificial pyre, surrounded by spirit flags suspended on long bamboo poles. I could smell the kill,
My River Transport
Wasn't too sure about this, but loved it once we were underway.
blood covered the ground under the heads and dogs sniffed and scratched the ground around them. The villagers were partying, the rice wine flowed freely and traditional music was playing from one of the huts. Tomorrow they would dance around the heads, and the hut where the elder lived, before the heads would be knocked to the ground and destroyed. After this, no visitors would be allowed in the village for a week, locals and tourists alike.
After leaving the village we walked to the only cemetery still open to tourists, the ethnic Kachah cemetery. The Tompuon buried their dead in the jungle, less than a hundred yards from the village, in small pavilions guarded by carved, life-sized wooden figures representing the people buried there. The figures and pavilions are often decorated with objects that reveal something about the deceased.
This cemetery is still used today and hundred of tombs are scattered through the jungle around the village. My guide explained the burial process to me, and how the graves are tended for two years before being left to the elements. We returned to the riverbank for the return trip to find the village kids had made themselves
a mud slide, down the bank and straight into the water. They were having a great time!
On Saturday, my final day in Ban Lung, I have another trip organised. This time I'll be on the back of a moto, so will be leaving as early as possible to avoid the midday heat. Pick up is at 7.30am
and Smey is right on time. He had a helmet, face mask and sunglasses for me to wear as we'll be travelling over dry dusty roads again. Today we're visiting three waterfalls and Boeng Yeak Lom, a crater lake, located in the jungle just 10 minutes outside Ban Lung.
We hit the road, riding through dusty villages and sprawling rubber and cashew nut plantations. The first two waterfalls, Ka Tieng and Chaa Ong, were quick visits. They would be so much more spectacular in the wet season, but it was nice just get off the dusty roads and enjoy the verdant surrounds. The third waterfall, Kinchaan, was accessed by a creaky suspension foot bridge over the gorge into which the waterfall flowed. It was a beautiful place, even more so as I was the only person there. The jungle was at
it's best, so close to water, and the huge stands of bamboo took my breath away.
Next, and final stop, was the crater lake, Boeng Yeak Lom. Described by Lonely Planet as being one of the most serene and sublimely beautiful sites in Cambodia, Yeak Lom is a emerald crater lake set amid the vivid greens of the towering jungle. The lake is believed to have been formed 700,000 years ago and some people swear it must have been formed by a meteor strike as it is a perfect circle. The indigenous minority people in the area have long considered Yeak Lom a sacred place.
Lonely Planet was right, it was a beautiful place. The jungle grew right to the edge of the water which was clear and blue. Smey headed to the nearest hammock and I set out to walk the perimeter of the lake, about 2.5klm. The walk was cool and easy to do. I didn't see the lake very often even though the edge was only a couple of metres away as the jungle obscured the view. I was walking a rough path, shaded by a canopy of towering bamboo and jungle vegetation for most
of the way. I have taken the liberty of including an aerial photograph, stolen from the internet, so you can see what a perfect circle the lake is.
Even though my day out was only about 3.5 hours I was pleased to get back to Tree Tops before the midday heat. I could have extended my time away by swimming or just hanging out at the lake in the hammocks in the pavilions along the foreshore, but wasn't really inclined too.
I endured a cold midday shower, did some hand washing and bought a bus ticket to my next destination - Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri Province. I'll be leaving at 8.00am tomorrow morning
for my next adventure, with elephants!
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