rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-05-22 12:08

A week in the jungle

Actually, only three days really in the jungle, but this part of Cambodia is so damn rural we weren't far from it the whole week.

We left Phnom Penh early on the morning of May 11, I think. I'm pretty sure it was the day of the UEFA Cup final, because that afternoon in Kratie, we saw a few minutes of it. Kratie is about the halfway point between everywhere and Cambodia's mountainous Eastern Provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri, basically the only places in the country which aren't as flat as a pancake. It's a fairly sleepy town which is home to a bunch of aid workers and most of the world's 80 or so remaining irrawaddy dolphins, which we didn't go and see. It's also home to a slightly spaced-out computer programmer from North London, who works from here because his job allows him to work anywhere he has an internet connection - he's in his 50s and says he spends more time here and in Bangkok international airport than anywhere else.

The following day we got a share taxi to Ban Lung, the eventual destination - a provincial capital of 6,000 people near the national park which covers most of the province's border with Laos. The trip is supposed to take 6-7 hours, but we did it in three and a half hours, including a flat tyre and lunch. Badass driving was indeed the order of the day - our man threw his camry around those dirt roads, potholes, wood-plank bridges and what the Khmer call 'saw roads'- dirt roads with the washboard effect - with remarkable alacrity. We didn't feel close to dying too often.

At the Tribal Hotel I dropped the name of one of the waiters in Kratie who'd recommending it, saying that the owner, Ms Kim, was his second mother - and promptly got our room rate cut from $10 to $5 per night. Not bad. We sat and talked with a bloke called Sitha, a trekking guide who wanted to take us around the place, and said we'd meet him again that evening. We wandered the town a bit trying to get a feel for a sane price and a sensible itinerary, but didn't turn up much, so we agreed to go with Sitha - three days and two nights in the bush.

The next day (13th, I think) was a day of planning, so we went to the market in Ban Lung for supplies and gifts for the villagers, and off to Yeak Luom crater lake. This lake isn't far from Ban Lung - you can walk there in an hour, but we got a moto and did many return trips because we were lazy. The lake itself is so round that many people don't think it was actually a volcanic crater at all, but a meteor crater - the volcano cone itself is long gone. It's 48 metres deep in the centre, and drops off very quickly, and I believe the ear infection I now have was caused by diving too deep into it, clogging my ears with space mud. Leaving the crater lake I had another of those bizarre asian experiences - a very drunk old woman offered me a cup of - you guessed it, the same old rice-turps as in Viet Nam. There must be something about me which just makes people want to get me drunk. I drank a little, but since I had to go back on the moto in the dark, I figured it a bad time to get toasted, and she wasn't very pleased. Nevertheless, she drank it herself, and then beckoned towards her house, just down the way. Another guy who was there spoke english, and said she wanted me to go with her to say goodnight. I politely declined on the basis that my friends would be back any moment. Very bizarre.

Deb's and my daypacks weren't big enough for a three-day trip, and our main packs were too big and too full of gear, so we bought a North Farce and a Lowe Apine bag from the market, which were shit, but did the job. Carrying water and hammocks and mosquito nets - not much, really, but bulky. We met Mr Ngai, our local local guide - Sitha is a local from Ban Lung, but Ngai is one of the tribespeople of the area, who's lived in the jungle all his life. He's a short guy, stocky and lean, who wears jandals and carries all his gear in a bamboo pack. Some well-meaning tourists once gave him a pair of hiking boots, but he worse them once and found them uncomfortable and heavy, so back to jandals it was - wet and dry, snakes or no snakes.

We set off through slashed and burnt fields, and virtually the first thing we did was cclimb a bloody great hill to Ngai's farm. Climbing and moving in mid-30s temperatures is a hell of a lot more pain than at NZ temperatures, and the first climb more or less did me in, and the rest of the day's walking I was more or less a zombie. I was a lot fitter last time I did this. We were allsweating out water as fast as we could drink it.The jungle up here is different from at Bokor, which was much like NZ bush - here there are fewer ferns and less undergrowth, the trees are tall and straight and white-trunked. Insects are everywhere - yellow and black ants which sting, millipedes which can bite but aren't dangerous, centipedes which are very dangerous.

Night 1 we camped by a stream where there's a rather withered swimming hole. Ngai and Sitha had used the camp before, and it's a good size for a tarp, seven hammocks and a fire. Ngai cooked sticky rice inside green bamboo - apparently the reason the jungle people and the Lao are smaller than Khmers is because they eat sticky rice in preference to proper rice. The key to cooking rice and whatnot else in bamboo is to get the bamboo where the wall is thick, but the diameter of the empty space inside is not - if the bamboo wall isn't thick enough it'll burn through in the fire; if the space is too thick, the food inside won't cook evenly. Sticky rice cooked in bamboo is something else - it forms a sort of skin, and is chewy, a little like the korean rice cake ddeok, but fragrant.

The next morning we set out for the village where we'd spend our second night - this time heading through dense, trackless jungle. The second day wasn't as bad as the first, but only by virtua of the fact that the biggest hill was towards the end, rather than at the start, of the day's movement. I'd seriously underestimated how much fluid I needed, and had to drink a couple litres salty, sugary water with limes in just to have a game of football with the locals. Ngai ad Sitha had picked some small, spiky red fruits during the day which are just the ticket to keep you moving - like lychees, except incredibly sour and slightly sweet.

The night before we'd arrived, the Chief of Swai (mango, because it has a very old mango tree) village had had a nightmare about a young couple killing and eating their baby. There had also been some sickness in the village, and one of the houses and some banana trees were cordoned off, surrounded by a string fence with dead branches tied to it. In order to combat these evil happenings, he'd ordered the sacrifice of a pig, and when we arrived a big party was being held in the aftermath of said sacrifice - dancing, noisy khmer tekno on a battery-powered ghetto-blaster, and very much drinking. The sacrifice had clearly been a success, and chief and the deputy chief were drunk enough that they joined in the game of kick-around, despite being of advanced age and clearly never having kicked a football in their lives before. Crowds gathered around to watch our every move, but the kids weren't friendly or smiling - afraid, maybe a little curious. Perhaps the strangest piece of cultural difference I've come across: these people (either the Krung or the Jarai, I forget which) have no word in their language, or conception of any need for, 'hello' or 'thank you' - they greet each other with some specific and meaningful enquiry about how you are; whether you've eaten or where you're going, or such, and when you hand them something they take it without a word, or any acknowledgement. So much for certain things being universal.

After dark and after dinner, most of the village gradually gathered in the meeting house, and a tall clay jar of rice wine was brought in, with a bucket of water and a long bamboo straw. The deal is that the jar, which is still full of husks and rice as well as wine, starts out brim-full. They ram the straw in (there's a lot of solid, so it's not easy), and you drink through the straw. As you drink, they top the jar up with water. Before you drink, you agree on a certain quantity - usually one cupful, and if you don't drink the full amount, the rice wine spirit will get angry. It's a pretty ingenious system - at the start of a session, the wine is very strong, but asmore water gets added it gets weaker. To make it temporarily stronger again, you can sink the straw in a different place. The villagersslowly came in and sat around, watching whitey drink rice wine and laughing at us when we didn't know what to do with the cup. Sitha dished out the pressies, but there was a bit of bureaucratic interference as the deputy chief wanted a toy bb gun for himself, and soon enough all the other men did too. Ossie reckoned he was setting up a drunken armed coup. The night wore on and everyone went to bed; it was uneventful apart from the very loud cow noises from beneath us.

The morning was, however, far from uneventful. Ben got up and put on his trousers from where they'd been hanging outside, to dry. He put his hand in his pocket and started swearing about how something had bitten him. We, just waking up, looked on in bemusement, and a fter a short pause to make sure he wasn't going to faint and swallow his tongue, off came the pants again. The wound was weeping and pussing, so I figured I'd get a stick and have a look in the pocket, where I found a little scorpion, a couple inches long, had made itself a nest. Sitha squashed it with a jandal as soon as I let it out and told Ben he wasn't going to die - every time you go collecting bamboo you apparently get stung by scorpions, and it hurts for half an hour and then goes away. The funny part about this was that this day - May 16th - was Jen and Ben's 5th anniversary. Jen is a scorpio.

The rest of the day was spent on the Tonle San river - shallow, partly because of the dry season, and partly because the Vietnamese dammed its headwaters outside Cambodia's jurisdiction and there's bugger all water left. We went upriver to visit a bizarre cemetery at Vern Sai and then back to town after a swim. Coming out of the bush is always a much more exhilarating feeling than going into it, for me. After a few days surviving on very little I get used to is, and upon return to civilisation I feel as if I can do more or less anything, that I'm the master of my surrounds, because civilisation is so much easier than the bush. I found this not quite so much the case in the Cambodian jungle. Partly because of the heat, partly the bugs, but mostly because I don't know it as well as NZ bush, I found it a much less forgiving environment, and came out feeling more relieved than anything else. We have become very firm friends with Sitha - I've told him if he ever makes it to NZ we'll go out into the bush there, and we (mostly Deb) agreed to make him a website to encourage travellers to support him. Again, we've been lucky enough to find one of the good ones. You can see the site at http://jungletrek.blogspot.com.

The 17th, our first day back in Ban Lung, was another reserve day during which we did nothing but make Sitha's site and bum around waiting for washing to be dry. In the afternoon we visited a waterfall, the first genuinely cool water I've experienced since swimming in Xiamen. That night was the Champion's League Final, but power supply and sattelite connection to Ban Lung is so flakey there was no danger of watching it. On the 18th, we left Ban Lung for Kratie, on the road to Siem Reap and thence Thailand.

But things don't always work out as planned. Our five packs didn't all fit in the boot of the camry, so I tied it down using a length of what I considered to be tough chain, which I'd used before for fastening overfull boots closed. It turned out not to be tough enough for the roads, and Jen's pack, which was on top, had fallen out when the chain had snapped at some point. We retraced our tracks as it started raining, but to no avail - we spent an extra day in Ban Lung as they filed claims with their insurance agents, got a police report and as Jen went about trying to buy a few clothes and so on. She lost everything except her money and her passport and the clothes on her back - her least-favorite clothes, since we'd be spending the whole day cooped up in a hot car. The insurance claim is somewhere around 2200 pounds.

On the 20th, we left again for Kratie, and this time arrived with no real hassles. The bus trip the next day to Siem Reap was 10 hours, and we stopped at Skoun - the place in Cambodia most famous for such delicacies as fried tarantulas and crickets. Tarantulas are good eats - like crab, but the skin is a bit oily and odd. Like crab, they set off my allergy , so I have re-stated its bounds to 'anything with more than four legs'. Works for me.

Siem Reap is squarely back on the tourist trail, but also a good time to get things sorted out - for Jen to get some clothes and a new pack, and for me to get my ear - which packed up after the waterfall seen to. These things we did today. I went to the Cambodia - China Friendship Hospital here, and a young guy about 20, with long hair and a little asian goatee and cargo pants asked me what the matter was, then translated for a doctor who looked rather more stupid than I'm accustomed to doctors looking. The young guy was a just-qualified nurse, and was working to become a doctor; he was one of those people who you know instantly are intelligent and capable, and spoke almost perfect english. They tell me I have an ear infection, and have given me vitamins and antibiotics and ear drops. Seems to be working, too - after the consultation my hearing improved somewhat.

Now it's time for grilled chickens and beer for dinner. Tomorrow is probably Angkor Wat.