RAY ZEPP'S TRAVELS
Collection of Ray Zepp stories from April 2001
Ray Zepp, a teacher who has travelled to the far corners of the globe, published the first edition of his Cambodia Less Traveled guidebook in 1996. The book gives the reader an insight into the 'other' Cambodia, not usually found in the glossy guidebooks and is a treasure trove of anecdotes and experiences in many off the beaten track locations throughout Cambodia. Zepp, now back in Cambodia after a spell living in Micronesia, has also published the fascinating A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas and earlier last year, A Field Guide to the Pagodas of Siem Reap. Ray has also published a new book, Around Battambang, at the end of 2001.
Ray undertook another series of expeditions around Cambodia in April 2001 and his latest travels are detailed below. My thanks to Ray for permission to post these stories:-
I'm now teaching English in Battambang for COERR (Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees), an organization known for its work in the refugee camps, especially Site Two, back in the eighties. I'll probably stay here for another year, or maybe more. But with the opening up of Cambodia, it appears that the possibilities are limitless.
AROUND KAMPONG CHHNANG
I took the train from Battambang to Kampong Chhnang for two reasons. The first was to see how easy it might be to get from Battambang to Phnom Penh via Kampong Chhnang. The second was to see whether it is possible to go from Kampong Chhnang directly to Kampong Thom. Let me explain.
Travel from Battambang to Phnom Penh is one of the main drawbacks to visiting Battambang. The plane costs $50 one way, and the 7-hour road trip is horribly bumpy and dusty (or muddy, depending on the season). The train from Battambang to Phnom takes 12-16 hours, with the last few hours in total darkness (the train has no lights), and you arrive in Phnom Penh well after dark. So I thought perhaps getting off the train near Kampong Chhnang might provide an easier way to get to Phnom Penh before dark.
The other question mark was the trip to Kampong Thom. According to the map, it is only about 60 km as the crow flies. The Lonely Planet guide shows a major road connecting the two. But I had never heard of anyone going that way. When I was last in Kampong Chhnang over 5 years ago, that entire region across the Tonle Sap was Khmer Rouge territory and a no-go zone for foreigners, but I thought that now it might be possible to go to Kampong Thom cross-country.
When I inquired about the train fare to Kampong Chhnang, I just got blank looks from the ticket seller at the train station in Battambang. I ended up paying the entire fare for Phnom Penh, listed as something like 13,400 riel. The only reason I could think of for this odd price was that it is calculated per kilometer or something. The train leaves every other day, so the traveler must ask in advance which day the train travels. It leaves sometime around 7 am, but you should be on the train early to get a seat, as it fills up quickly. I took the train over Khmer New Year, and it was packed.
The train ride is much smoother than the road, but the wooden benches become hard quite quickly. Take a cushion. The countryside is very boring, except for a stretch through wild country after Poursat, where the rail line leaves the road and passes in the shadow of mount Aural, the highest point in Cambodia. But I could not honestly describe the trip as comfortable. There are too many people crammed on the train, and there is a constant stream of beggars and peddlers of foul-smelling concoctions that pass for food. The train waits interminably in desolate spots in the countryside while you swelter in the heat. Does it beat the road? Well, its a lot cheaper. And I find the journey tolerable, if only it were not so long. 16 hours on that bench is no picnic. That is why I decided to get off the train in mid-afternoon.
It is not easy to choose the right station to get off for Kampong Chhnang. It is the first place that looks like a real town after miles of bush. Start looking for it after 4:00, and expect to arrive there around 4:30 if the train is on time, whatever that means. The first sign in English that you will see says Akphiwatt (means development in Khmer), and that will be the only sign you see if you are sitting near the rear of the train, as I was. Up near the road crossing there is another sign saying Sdach Romeas, but you may never see that one. The official Tourist Ministry map calls the place Tuek Phos, a name that no one seems to have heard of, but which is probably a corruption of the name of the District.
When you get off the train, there are taxis and motos waiting to take you immediately into Kampong Chhnang, a distance of 22 kilometers along the excellent highway number 53. A relatively comfortable 40 minute moto ride later, costing 7000 riel, and you are in downtown K. Chhnang, where taxis and even the air conditioned bus are waiting to take you into Phnom Penh before nightfall, well ahead of the train and arriving at the Central Market, more convenient than the train station. I had actually hoped to find a guest house at the railhead at Akphiwatt, but was disappointed. Akphiwatt, or Romeas as the locals call it, is quite uninteresting, except for an odd and prominent building called the Department of Fine Arts (Beaux Arts in French). What Fine Arts exist in rural Kampong Chhnang Province are hard to imagine. But the moto journey into K. Chhnang is pleasant enough in the relative cool of the late afternoon. Coming into town this way, you realize just how large and spread out the town is. You pass a very large CMAC demining camp, indicating the presence of a lot of mines in the area, as well as a large red KFC sign. Dont get you hopes up for Kentucky Fried Chicken, because its the offices of Kampucheans For Christ.
Kampong Chhnang is a very enjoyable and quiet town. I would recommend staying overnight there and spending a quiet rural Cambodian evening before going on in to Phnom Penh the next morning. You can stay at the Krang Dei Meas Guesthouse and walk over to the Mekong Restaurant for an excellent meal. So the answer to my first question was more or less positive: yes, you can save a little time and effort off the trip to Phnom Penh by getting off at Akphiwatt, taking the moto 22 km to K. Chhnang, and then taking the taxi or air-conditioned bus into Phnom Penh either the same evening or the next morning.
Across the Tonle Sap
I had wanted to explore the territory across the Tonle Sap some five years earlier, but was warned against doing so for fear of the Khmer Rouge who controlled the territory. So I wanted to see what it was like over there, even if I did not get to Kampong Thom. Most people said you could not go that way, but others said you could. Amid this usual mixture of Khmer opinions, the only way to find out for sure was to try it. A secondary reason for wanting to explore the area is the alleged existence of old pre-Angkor temples. The official tourist map shows a Prasat Ponna Reay and a Prasat Satv not far across the river. My secondary objective was therefore to find these and perhaps other temples.
There is a regular boat across the Tonle Sap to Kampong Hau in Kampong Leaeng District. It is slow and since it makes its first trip starting from Kampong Hau, it doesnt actually get started back from K. Chhnang until after 8 oclock. I wanted to take advantage of the cool of the morning during the hot season, so I paid five dollars to rent a small boat to take me across. Why so expensive? Because the Tonle Sap is actually a delta of three major rivers at this point. You do directly across the first river from the jetty, slip through a small hole in the barrier to the second river, then travel downstream for about 20 minutes before rounding a point and traveling back up the third river. The entire trip takes about 40 minutes.
My quest for Kampong Thom showed promise in Kampong Hau. There were two large trucks filling up to travel on what looked like a pretty good and major road. And there were motodoups waiting to take me up the road to Kampong Thom and claiming that there were as many as five temples to be seen. So off we went. The road is fine through the relatively large District town of Kampong Leaeng, but becomes sandy after the villages of Sway Rumpear and Phum Daa. Motorcycling becomes difficult as you slide and swerve through the deep sand. This road obviously becomes very muddy in the rainy season, when I would not advise you to attempt it.
Less than an hour up the road we started asking for temples, and were told how to reach Prasat Leaq Pdey, less than a kilometer off to the left. There are few landmarks to guide you there, but if you come to Wat Chrelung on the right, you have just passed it by a hundred meters or so. The temple consists of two small tumbled-down brick towers standing in the middle of a field. There are no houses or even paths nearby. The place is virtually forgotten by all but the cows, but the peace of the birds singing in the countryside with the range of hills in the background gives it a very bucolic setting. Architecturally speaking there is nothing noteworthy. The only remaining carving is that of a frog-like god on a small post.
The next temple, Prasat Srey, is hidden behind a rather large hill called, appropriately, Phnom Prasat, just to the right of the road. There is a well-defined track around the right side of the hill, leading to a small wat with the old temple just behind. Prasat Srey (Ladys Temple) is much larger and in much better condition that Prasat Leaq Pdey. The monks at the wat ask you to contribute 200 riel and to kneel before the Buddha statue. But again, the architecture pales in comparison with the surrounding countryside, with Phnom Prasat on one side and the vast Cambodia plains stretching out on the other. My experience was made even more pleasant by the sound of the coppersmith barbet, a bird whose monotonous tink tink tink call sounds like the hammering of a coppersmith, and is one of the most relaxing sounds of rural Cambodia.
Further along, Prasat Koh Kralor is located to the right of the road, around to the left of another hill. The temples size and condition are midway between the size and condition of the two previous temples described above. At first blush, it looks in very good condition, until you realize that the naga steps and the apsaras are of recent vintage. How can you tell? Easy, they are made of cement! The early date of the temple itself is shown by the large Shiva linga inside, an indication that this was a Hindu temple dating from the Angkor Wat era or even earlier, since brick temples are often older than the stone ones like Angkor Wat.
The day was getting hot. The road was getting sandier. The main road ended at the District Headquarters, and the track became almost impossible thereafter. Apparently those two big trucks loading to the riverfront were only coming this far, for there was no sign of car traffic after this point. We carried on for a few kilometers to a hill called Phnom Tweu Bon (Hill of Good Deeds) where the fourth temple was reputed to be located. But this meant climbing a large hill in the 40 degree heat, and we could not even find the path up the hill. So I decided to give it a miss and move on towards temple number five and Kampong Thom. We had covered nearly 40 km by my reckoning, so Kampong Thom, or at least Highway 6, must be less than 20 km away. But alas, the moto driver decided that the road was impossible. We asked at the village whether it would be possible to go on the Kampong Thom, and they said only by oxcart, and that (or walking) would take another 12 hours.
Hot, exhausted, and discouraged, we decided to go back the way we had come without seeing the fifth temple. Fortunately, there were several villages along the way with drinks shops. A fresh pineapple refreshed my spirits enough to stop and climb a small hill to a wat overlooking the entire Kampong Chhnang area east of the Tonle Sap. My guide pointed out the bomb craters from the American bombing during the Lon Nol regime, and he showed me the village that was decimated with great loss of life from the American bombs. I was amazed that he could tell me, an American, this story without the slightest trace of resentment.
So we arrived back at Kampong Hau in plenty of time for the regular afternoon boat back to Kampong Chhnang. Was it possible to go to Kampong Thom this way? The sandy path might have led to a better road leading to Kampong Thom. But in any event, there is no major thoroughfare leading to Kampong Thom, and anyone wishing to try this route should be prepared for a very difficult journey, certainly not the easy 60 km of major road seemingly indicated by the map in the Lonely Planet.
TBENG MEANCHEY (Preah Vihear Province)
There is a lot of confusion over the name Tbeng Meanchey and the roads leading to it. Tbeng Meanchey is the capital city of Preah Vihear Province, so that many people, including taxi drivers, refer to it as Preah Vihear. But when tourists hear the name of Preah Vihear, they immediately think of the famous temple on the Thai border. Some tourists hire taxis or motos to travel to what they think will be the remote temple, but they end up in a flat, dusty provincial outpost instead. My moto driver told me about a Japanese tourist who showed up in Tbeng Meanchey and asked the moto driver where the temple was. The moto driver took him to the local wat, and the tourist was quite disappointed in its less-than-ancient appearance.
The roads in Preah Vihear Province are also confusing, because new or improved roads take the place of the roads shown on older maps. Most maps are rather useless in traveling around the Province these days. The good news is, of course, that there are new and good roads that make travel a breeze.
It takes only about 3-4 hours to reach Tbeng Meanchey from Kampong Thom. The road is smooth almost the entire way. This is marked on maps as National Highway 12. It takes only one hour to cover the first 47 kilometers to the border of Preah Vihear Province, at which point you pass a large rubber plantation and the landscape becomes must more forested. Another half hour takes you to a major fork in the road at Phnom Dek village, where the taxi will probably stop for a pleasant lunch, no matter what time of day it is. The old highway 12 goes off to the right to the District town of Rovieng, while the new road continues north. Further north, the good road goes off to the right to Chey Saen, while the road to Tbeng Meanchey becomes horrible indeed. Only very sturdy vehicles such as pickup trucks should attempt this road, and in the rainy season I guess even four-wheel drive vehicles will have difficulty here. It is amazing to think that this miserable excuse for a road could be the only way to reach the Provincial Capital, as there are no air flights or no rivers suitable for boat traffic.
But the wild road does have its elements of beauty. There is a very large table-topped mountain off to the left, called Phnom Krang Doung Preah. One can imagine all sorts of wildlife living in the forests surrounding this remote mountain setting. But the state of the road was underlined by an incident that occurred the same evening as our arrival. A soldier driving to Tbeng Meanchey was carrying a hand grenade on his belt, and the bouncing of the car on the bad road dislodged the pin. The car exploded and four people were killed in the accident.
Once you reach Tbeng Meanchey, you are amazed that such an orderly town could exist at the end of such an wild and awful road. The wide, smooth streets are laid out in an organized grid that kept reminding me very much of Banlung in Rattanakiri Province. And the streets are just as dusty as those of Banlung in the dry season. The people appear to be pretty laid back. As my traveling companion put it, Nothing much happens here, and very slowly. Several young men asked us to start an English school, since there was a demand for English speakers and there is no school that teaches English for the moment. Here is an opportunity for an adventurous entrepreneur to set up an English language school to meet the demand as Tbeng Meanchey grows into a commercial and tourist center.
Yes, Tbeng Meanchey could well become a tourist mecca for backpackers, because it is the gateway not only to Preah Vihear temple, but to the temples of Prasat Bakan and Prasat Kaohker. These temples, off in the jungles of northern Cambodia, could become the last bastion of adventure and environmental tourism. Visitors to these lost temples can really experience the feeling of the early explorers alone with the ghosts of the temples in the deep forests of a forgotten land. Prasat Bakan lies south of Tbeng Meanchey in Sangkum Thmey District, while Prasat Kaohker is located to the west of Tbeng Meanchey 25 km west of the District town of Kulen (different from the well-known Phnom Kulen near Siem Reap). Preah Vihear temple is the most remote of all, and is situated at the top of a cliff that is almost impossible to scale. Visitors to Preah Vihear almost always enter from the Thai side, not up the Cambodian cliff. Visits to all three temples require difficult all-terrain motorcycles.
While the town itself is flat and unscenic, the view to the south includes the beautiful mountain Phnom Krang Doung Preah. This is the mountain you passed on the road from Kampong Thom.
Tbeng Meanchey Town
On the negative side, we found the residents on Tbeng Meanchey eager to cheat tourists. The owner of our guest house, called the 27 May Guesthouse (the owners birthday was in May, and 27 is their mobil radio number), were not very friendly; they promised electricity from their generator all night long, but they turned the machine off at midnight and we suffered in the hear without a fan. This led to a long argument the next morning. There are at least four other guesthouses in town, so you should avoid the 27 May.
A much more friendly guesthouse is the Mlup Trabaek in the northeast section of town. They have electricity only from 6 pm to 10 pm, but at least they dont tell you otherwise. They also serve food. They have six two-bed rooms at 15,000 riel per basic room. Other guesthouses include the Chamraan Liep just north of the market on the right, the Bakan, on the street nearest to the taxi stand, and the bright yellow Phnom Prak right in the middle of things. All are very basic, lack all-night electricity, and are relatively expensive at around 15,000 riel per room. A new hotel is almost completed up at the government end of town, but they havent given it a name yet. We were told the precise location of the Ta Prohm Guesthouse up from the market, but we still failed to find it. Perhaps it has closed, or perhaps it is open but just unmarked.
There are several restaurants that serve good food. The Aharatan, a fancy Pali word for restaurant, is just south of the market and features beautiful wooden furniture, no doubt cut from the surrounding forest. But they seemed hard pressed to find us any food, and we were clearly the only customers they had had that day. They ended up going to the nearby market to buy the vegetables and meat to fill our order.
The most popular hangout is on the main east-west street across from the taxi stand. It is called the Restaoran Mlup Doung (shade of the coconut tree), but no coconut tree is present. When I asked about it, they said the tree had been cut down. There is a friendly atmosphere in the café. We had a good breakfast of noodles and coffee before setting out for Stung Treng. We tried a couple of restaurants on the eastern street, but these were loud karaoke joints not too suitable for a quiet evening meal. So we went to a fruit-shake or tikolok stand across from the 27 May. But that, too, proved less than satisfactory, because on this Khmer New Year the kids were throwing fire crackers at us! And there again, we were cheated. We paid for our drinks with a 10,000 riel note and were given change for only a 5000 riel note.
In any event, it is clear that Tbeng Meanchey is well equipped to handle at least the cheap end of the tourist trade. Almost no tourists go there now; the guesthouses are now occupied by government visitors to the burgeoning provincial capital. The inhabitants are sitting on a potential tourist gold mine, but are trying hard to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by cheating the tourists. Other ways of ripping off tourists included slipping a 1000-dong note in change as one of several dollar bills. And the moto drivers, with whom we had settled one price for the trip to Stung Treng, ended by claiming we had agreed on a much higher price. In all, the constant rip-offs left a sour taste in our mouths. We tried to explain to the moto drivers that they are shooting themselves in the foot by cheating the tourists, for in the long run tourists will avoid them. This typical third-world mentality of short-sighted cheating people is thoroughly ingrained. The moto drivers, along with the 27 May Guesthouse owners, are still probably patting themselves on the back for getting an extra few dollars out of us, while in the long run they only hurt themselves. In fact, I will do my duty to future tourists by telling them to avoid moto drivers named Rata and Bieng.
To return to the theme of future tourist boom, let me add that Tbeng Meanchey is not spectacular enough to be a major destination in its own right, even though backpackers may spend a few days there to reach the temples out in the jungles. Rather, the town may end up as a stop along a main tourist route from Laos to Siem Reap. The Lao border is now open on the Mekong River north of Stung Treng. If more river traffic develops along the Mekong to Stung Treng, or if the road is improved to Stung Treng, tourists could come pouring across into Stung Treng. An improved road across to Kampong Thom would make Tbeng Meanchey an ideal stopping off point for the more adventurous tourists. The Stung Treng Tbeng Meanchey Kampong Thom Siem Reap route would be a logical shortcut for tourists who wish to see Laos and Angkor Wat without the hassles of Phnom Penh. The improved boat and land travel are still in the medium-term future, but maybe now is the time to start planning for that future.
ACROSS PREAH VIHEAR to STUNG TRENG
I had heard that is was possible to go by taxi from Kampong Thom across Preah Vihear Province all the way to Stung Treng. Given the new road to Ratanakiri, that would make travel across northern Cambodia a real option to avoid passing through Phnom Penh.
At the taxi stand in Kampong Thom we were told that it is possible to travel by road to Stung Treng, but that no taxis or public pickups ply that route. Instead, we could go to Tbeng Meanchey in only 3-4 hours and then proceed from there. We had also been told (and it was evident from the map) that going via Tbeng Meanchey was far out of the way. We were also told, correctly as it turned out, that the last 30 km of the road to Tbeng Meanchey was horrible and would take a couple of hours, and that in order to go from TM to Stung Treng, we would have to backtrack along that same bad road. We were advised, therefore, to try to rent a car to go directly from Kampong Thom to Stung Treng to skip that 60 km of bad road and save several hours.
Unfortunately, we were unable to rent a car for the journey, and I believe that is not possible. Taxis are authorized to travel their given route only, so if there are no regular taxis to Stung Treng, you cannot rent one specially to take you there. So we went to Tbeng Meanchey, in hopes of catching a further vehicle to Stung Treng. But upon arrival in TM, we were told that the only vehicle that does the Stung Treng route, owned by a Mr. Chiin, was broken and no traffic was headed our way. So we proceeded to inquire about hiring motos for the next day.
The motorcycle drivers said that the road journey back along the Kampong Thom road was far out of the way, and that we could go via a direct track through the forest. The trip was 140 km to the Mekong. From an initial price of 100,000 riel per person, they finally agreed on $20 per person, quite a high price for moto rental in Cambodia, but after all, they would have to make the return trip.
We headed out at 8 oclock the next morning, after a good breakfast at the Restaoran Malup Doung. The road out of Tbang Meanchey starts by fording the Stung Sen River just outside of town. This is the same river that winds its way through Preah Vihear Province down to Kampong Thom. In the wet season it may be difficult to cross this river. But in the dry season it was easy, and the track proceeded through the forest. This used to be a road in years past, and even now we saw large tire tracks from time to time. But in many spots there were large trees across the road so that cars could not pass along most of the route. The tire tracks must come from logging trucks that make their own tracks through the forest. Motos, on the other hand, can either zigzag around the bad spots, or in some cases, must be lifted over fallen tree trunks.
There is some traffic as far as Phum Thmey, but after that we saw no signs of life until the village of Bo Khoen, and the track became less and less distinct through the villages of Boh Thom and Bo Tiep, which we reached after nearly three hours of travel. The forest became more and more dense. There were a few villages, but for the most part this was the real Cambodian outback. By 11:15 we emerged at the lonely outpost of Chaeb District. There were shops that sold bottled water (800 riel) and other food items. It is here that the road comes up from Chey Saen and Kampong Thom.
After Chaeb, the track is better, since the road from Chey Saen has joined the motorcycle track. But the country is very wild and there is no traffic at all. This is the real Cambodian jungle, more dense than the forest around Ratanakiri. If you want to do a jungle trek in Cambodia, I would recommend this stretch. You could take a moto or a car to Chaeb, buy your water and provisions, and head out for Som Kan village, some 60 kilometers away. This could be done in two days, but a three-day walk would be more leisurely. The large trees provide the shade necessary for a long walk. In Som Kan you could probably find someone with a motorbike.
Chaeb is 85 km from your destination, the Mekong. Som Kan, located in Thala District of Stung Treng Province, is only 26 km from the Mekong, and there is very little in between Chaeb and Som Kan except jungle. We stopped for a prolonged lunch stop beside a beautiful jungle stream teeming with butterflies. The peace of the jungle is interrupted only by the occasional cry of a bird. The loudest and most common noise is the scream of the Chinese Francolin, whose Khmer name, Kakie Ta Taa Ta Taaa, is onomatopoeic of its cry. We also saw majestic Crested Serpent Eagles flying just ahead of the motorbikes at treetop level as well as many large green-and-orange woodpeckers. Along this stretch there are still some very large and beautiful trees that the loggers have not cut yet.
Not far after leaving Chaeb the track crosses a well-maintained logging road. This is presumably Highway 12 to Laos, but of course there are no signposts at this intersection or anywhere else along the road. This is, also presumably, a major outlet for illegal logging across the Lao border. Other than this one crossing, there are no roads or tracks of any kind branching off from the well-defined moto track we were traveling on. So if your are traveling that way, it is difficult to get lost.
Around Chuang and Som Kan there is a lot of logging activity. The jungle has been all but destroyed in this last region not far from the Mekong River. The motorbike track becomes a major logging road, so you can make good time all the way to the river. The last 26 km can be done in less than an hour.
So less than 7 hours from our start we emerged suddenly at Thala Bariwatt on the banks of the Mekong. There is a pre-Angkor temple at the site, but it is in ruins and not very interesting. The road ends at the ferry crossing. We had an unpleasant experience with the moto drivers when one of them, named Rata, insisted that we had agreed on $25 instead of the $20 that we clearly remembered. The other driver, Bieng, didnt say much and let Rata do the talking, so we figured it was all Ratas idea to cheat us and Bieng just went along with him without protesting. When negotiating a price in this area, you should write down the agreement for future reference.
Fawlty Towers in Stung Treng
It had been five years since I was last in Stung Treng. It hasnt changed much at all. The biggest change is that the corner shop by the taxi stand that sold bottles of Henry Weinhardt Red Ale now sells only cans of Crown Beer for 1500 riel. But we didnt let that minor change bother us as we sat at the corner shop drinking Crown Beer and watching the lightning flash across the evening sky.
The Hotel Sekong hasnt changed much either. But in many ways, it was the highlight of my trip to Stung Treng, simply because it is a page out of the past. During the 1980s it was the party hotel (as in political party I doubt they ever had raves there). Built by the French, its high-ceilinged, thick-walled rooms are spacious and cool even in the hot season. We spent two nights there a week apart during the busy Khmer New Year period, but we were the only people staying there. The guest register indicated that a foreigner had stayed there some four nights earlier. We were greeted by a laid-back old woman who greeted us in French. She was actually quite helpful. When we went off trekking for a week, she kept some things for us in her own room. She was always very pleasant and made us feel welcome.
The rooms, on the other hand, were not all I had hoped for. The voltage kept fluctuating wildly and often gave up completely. Ditto the water pressure, making a shower during the afternoon all but impossible. At night, the spacious bathroom was crawling with giant cockroaches. I killed 4 the first night and 6 the second, but many more got away.
But the real fun was over at the restaurant next door. There is a sign with a picture of a large animal and a name that I read as Soup Gaor. The Gaur is one of those rare cow/buffalo animals that live in the forests of Stung Treng and Ratanakiri, so I took the name and picture as a sign that the restaurant owners had a sense of humor, since it was doubtful you could really get Gaur Soup there. But as I sat trying to decipher the Khmer writing, I could see that the Khmer word looked more like Popeye than Gaur. When I asked, it turned out that something like popeye is the Khmer word for goat. So in fact, the Gaor was actually Gaot, a misspelling of Goat, and you really could get goat soup there.
The woman in charge of the restaurant was clearly not in the habit of serving customers. Our every request was met with a pained look as though we were asking her to do something extremely unpleasant. One night we had a beer or two at the restaurant, not very late, and she interrupted to say she was tired and could we stop now. On the positive side, the restaurant served that delicious Vietnamese coffee with the little metal strainer placed over the cup. We spent long hours at breakfasts of noodle soup and multiple cups of that fine, strong coffee.
On the final day, as we were preparing to take the airplane back to Phnom Penh and had already checked out, I went into my room to collect my bags, and noticed first that the sheets had already been taken off the bed, evidence that they understood that we were leaving within the next few minutes. But then the maid came in and said, Dont forget your laundry. I didnt even realize that I was missing three shirts and a pair of trousers. The maid had just taken them without asking and they were at that moment being washed. I rushed out to the yard only to find my shirts sopping wet. I had no choice but to put them in a plastic bag and take the whole sodden mess on the airplane with me. At least the maid never asked for payment, and I had a chance to dry the shirts a little bit out at the airport because the plane was late. We didnt have a chance to explore Stung Treng much. We walked up the main street to where I remembered a funky little restaurant from five years ago, but it had long since closed. In fact, we could not find a restaurant in town. All the eating was centered in the market area, where the stalls appeared cleaner than most Cambodian market stalls and the food was delicious. But my companion did get quite ill the next day, undoubtedly from the market food.
We had wanted to take the boat down the Mekong to Kratie, but in the dry season there is not enough water for the trip. All the rivers were very low. I doubt whether the trip up to the Lao border is possible this time of year.
But the Lao border is now open, if you have a visa either way. With a regular boat service in the wet season, there could be a flood of tourists crossing the border. The river could be a way of avoiding the hassle and expense of flying between Laos and Cambodia. There is clearly no regular service. Eventually they will improve the road, making it quite easy for tourists to enter Cambodia that way. If either the waterway or the road materializes, Stung Treng could become the center for a lot of tourist activities. It would become the gateway to the northeast, Ratanakiri, and the hill tribes, especially now that the road to Ratanakiri has been greatly improved. It could also become a hub for travel upriver from Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham, and Kratie, where tourists are almost assured of seeing the endangered river dolphins. Finally, going by road across to Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, and eventually Thailand could become a major tourist route by which tourists could see some of the most interesting highlights of Cambodia (notably Angkor Wat) without passing through Phnom Penh.
UP THE SEKONG RIVER
Stung Treng, contrary to popular opinion, is not located on the Mekong River. It is located just off the Mekong on the Sekong, which only a few more kilometers from Stung Treng splits into the Sekong and the San. There is some confusion, since the older 1:50000 maps call the Sekong the Tonle Kong. The San comes in from the East and Ratanakiri, while the Sekong flows south from the Lao border.
When I was in Stung Treng in 1996, I heard about a weekly boat up the Sekong to a military outpost. I even saw some photographs of the destination: a few isolated huts out in a field. I always wanted to try my luck at this trip. Now in 2001 I heard that it was still possible to take that boat up to Siem Pang. My companion and I were a bit apprehensive about hitting the right day for the boat, and about the possibility of food, water, or lodging once in Siem Pang. Our first good news was that the government boat now goes every other day, so we would have to wait only a day at most. hen we were told even better news: there are now private boats that go every day. We spoke to the owner of one of those boats, who told us he would take us to Siem Pang the next morning at 7:00 for the usual government price of 8000 riel each.
The next morning we decided to check out the government boat first. It does not leave from the main jetty in town, but moors up near Wat Lii (any moto driver can take you). But on the way to Wat Lii, we spoke with a customs official who said that the government boat was being repaired and was not traveling over the Khmer New Year holiday. So we went back to the private boat. In fact, there were several boats waiting, but only one or two passengers. The boat owner we had met the night before welcomed us onto his old rattle-trap boat, even though there were no other passengers. It would appear that since the previous day was Khmer New Year, no one was still traveling to his or her native village, but that tomorrow they would all be headed back to the cities and there might be a tremendous crunch on the return trip. So the boats had to make the trip today, passengers or no, and we wound up being the only passengers on this boat. Two or three other similar boats made the trip, also with only one or two passengers each.
We had been told that the trip would take 11 hours. We figured, from this long amount of time, that the boat would stop at villages where we could buy food and water. But the driver told us that would not be the case: we should buy food and water in Stung Treng. So we bought some bread, water, and sticky rice to last the day. But we were still worried about what we would eat once we arrived in Siem Pang.
The driver was right; there were no large villages along the way. We stopped once to pick up an old man and his grand-daughter, who stared at us the entire journey. Otherwise there were no stops, no villages, and no landmarks of any kind along the way. We had brought along some 1:50000 maps of the area so we could locate our position along the way, but that was hopeless. There was just monotonous, interminable riverbank for hour after hour.
The water level was very low. There were dangerous rocks and rapids the whole way. I could hardly believe that such a journey was even possible. Our little African Queen boat zigzagged from side to side of the river, weaving among the rocks. One man had to be stationed at the front of the boat at all times with a long pole to push off the rocks and look for submerged obstacles. At times, going up the rapids, the boat hardly made any progress at all. At one point, even more reminiscent of The African Queen, the boatman had to get out of the boat and tow it with a long rope through the rocks and rapids.
Except for the continuous lush forest along the banks, there was little scenery to admire. This expedition had started out as a bird-watching jaunt, so I had brought my binoculars. But there were surprisingly few birds to be seen. We had heard reports of sightings of the rare giant ibis hear Siem Pang, but we saw only a few common pond herons. The most common bird was the River Lapwing, hunting and pecking for food among the rocks. We caught a glimpse of a pied hornbill, and spied an osprey sitting atop a dead tree. Otherwise nothing.
Around 2 pm, having given up trying to find our position on the map, we asked the boatman whether we had come to some villages named on the map. To our surprise, we were much farther along than we had imagined. In fact, the boatman said, we would be arriving in Siem Pang in only an hour or so. So the entire trip in the African Queen took only 8 hours, three hours faster than the government boat. It is hard to imagine going much slower than we did. So by 3:15 we could see the houses of Siem Pang. As we drew close to the landing site, we could hardly believe our eyes: at the top of the riverbank was a restaurant with Angkor Beer flags flying! So much for our problem of finding food and drink. Things were going well indeed.
Siem Pang, contrary to our expectations, is actually a town. There are shops, a couple of restaurants, and even a guesthouse. The newly-built guesthouse is run by a nice family who collect samroang nuts to ship to Phnom Penh. These nuts dissolve or at least fall apart in boiling water to make a flavoring for soups. We found it virtually tasteless, but perhaps some people in Phnom Penh find it a delicacy. Our room cost only five dollars, which included a fan and electricity until 10 pm.
Once installed in the guesthouse, we headed back to the restaurant, where the entire village male population had gathered to watch and bet on Thai boxing on the towns only satellite television. We sat outside and tried a Philippine beer called Golden Eagle, unavailable in the rest of Cambodia. Where did they get it? Laos? The restaurant at sunset (after the boxing crowds had left) proved a great place for a meal, which we had to order in advance from two Chinese girls who spoke some English. The balcony is built out over the embankment affording good views of the river. Siem Pang, again contrary to our expectations, is built on the western side of the Sekong. This meant, unfortunately, that the sunset was behind us, and that we would have to cross the river the next day to begin our trek to Ratanakiri. But sunset or no, the evening view overlooking the wild river and the forest beyond is wonderful.
On older maps, Siem Pang is called Sereitoat, the district name. There are roads marked to the north, west, and even east (across the river) from Sereitoat. We saw a truck in town, so at least one of those roads must still function to some degree. We saw no signs that there had ever been a car ferry across the Sekong from Sereitoat (Siem Pang). The town is located further north than the point where the Mekong crosses into Laos. That means that you could actually go westward to the Lao border. According to the tourist map, there are roads by which this is possible, as well as a road to the border crossing to the north. But apparently (see more on the Rectravel Website) the road border to Laos is not open to tourists.
Because of the good facilities (guesthouse and restaurant), a weekend trip to Siem Pang seems an ideal getaway for tourists. After seeing only jungle with no signs of civilization for an entire day along the Sekong river, Siem Pang seems like a real Shangri-la at the end of the world. Sitting out on the balcony with a cold beer watching the evening sky at such a remote spot is a real luxury and a pleasure worth experiencing. Spend a day on the boat, a day or two walking or exploring the surrounding forests, and then returning by boat or perhaps by some vehicle. Or, as we attempted to do, cross the river and walk into Ratanakiri Province.
A WALK INTO RATANAKIRI
Old maps show a road linking Sereitoat (now Siem Pang) in northern Stung Treng Province on the Sekong River with Virachey (now Voeunsay) in Ratanakiri. For such a road to exist, there would almost certainly have been a ferry crossing or bridge at Siem Pang, although today there are no signs of any road crossing of the Sekong. But we figured that such a road, or at least the remnants of a track, might still be there. The residents of Siem Pang said that there was a well-defined track straight across the forest to Voeunsay.
We had decided well in advance that we wanted to do some hiking in Ratanakiri to get away from the noise of cars and motorcycles. This looked like the perfect opportunity. The information we gathered said that it normally takes an oxcart (slower than a persons walk) two days to do the trip, so we planned for a two-day walk. The old 1:50000 maps indicated a total distance of 64 kilometers. That sounded like a tall order for two days, so we decided to hire motorcycles for the first 12 km. We made this decision for several reasons: the first few kilometers from the river might be deforested and given over to agriculture or villages; there is a village called Chunkuh 12 km from the river; we were off to a rather late start anyway that morning; and the next village along the route was some 34 km away from the river. Thus, by cutting off 12 km, we would do a leisurely walk of 22 km through the heart of the forest before spending the night at Ba Kei village across the boundary in Ratanakiri Province.
It costs 5000 riel to take the motorcycles across the river on a boat, and the bikes had to come back without us, so right away we had 10000 riel to fork out. We dealt with the drivers to do the entire trip (only 12 km for us) for about $8 each. They were willing to go all the way to Voeunsay for $20, but we wanted the experience of a walk through the forest.
There is really no village to speak of on the east bank of the river. We found ourselves almost immediately in open forest. The track was clearly defined, but very sandy. That made the motorcycle ride quite precarious, and several times we almost came off the bikes. The rest of the time we slithered and swerved uneasily through the sand. It was not a comfortable ride. We passed only one person along the way coming from what must have been an overnight in the forest a man with a bicycle, a lamp with a small generator, and a high-powered rifle. We couldnt imagine what he might be up to. In any event, we were happy to reach Chuntuh and to start our walk by a rather late 9:00 in the morning. The villagers, especially the children, appeared never to have seen foreigners before. Even teenaged girls ran away from us in fright. But we were able to explain to the large crowd that gathered where we were going, and they pointed us in the right direction.
The 1:50000 maps were quite helpful. We were able to figure out just about where we were most of the time, as long as we kept track of the number of dried creeks we crossed.. The country was quite flat, even though the maps indicated small gradations that we were unable to perceive. The forest was open, so that there was little or no shade for walking. The track was hot and dusty. The temperature was in the thirties and promised to go still higher by noon. But we started off in high spirits. We had brought 6 liters of water apiece, kept our bodies covered with clothing and sunscreen, and were not worried about fatigue or dehydration.
But we were to be surprised. The heat and dust took their toll. At first we had decided to walk an hour and then rest 10 minutes along the way. This figure had dropped, by the end of the day, to walking 20 minutes and resting 15 minutes. The heat slowly exhausted my companion. My feet slowly became badly blistered. By the time we had covered the 22 km to Ba Kei, my companion had consumed all 6 liters of his water, and my feet were so blistered I could hardly walk.
That said, we were still able to appreciate the beauty, both visual and aural, of the forest. We took our rest stops along dried up creek beds where the vegetation was heaviest. There we gazed up at huge trees and listened to a chorus of strange bird calls. We met only one person the entire day. He was walking from Ba Kei to Chuntuh with his four dogs. There were all sorts of little forest birds, but I didnt have time to get out my binoculars to look at them. The most common noise was the loud cry of the francolins: ground birds like quail that hide in the tall grass and scream bloody murder.
We were told earlier by a Frenchman working with the Forestry Department that along a short detour to the south of the track there was a more hilly area rich in wildlife: bears, kouprey (wild cow). Another source said that this open forest was good country for tigers and that the small spindly trees made the tiger stripes perfect camouflage. We thought, as we crossed one dried up stream bed after another, that there must be only a few water holes in the area, and that the hunters know where those water holes were. If so, the animals dont have a chance.
Finally the road passed some houses and rice paddies, so we knew we were nearing Ba Kei. However, Ba Kei is not located right on the track. It is necessary to try a couple of tracks off to the left. We chose a particularly well-worn track that led, fortunately for our feet, a kilometer back into the rather large Lao village of Ba Kei.
A Night in Ba Kei Village
We limped into the village around 5 pm, but at first we didnt see any people. They were all playing Khmer (or Lao) New Year games at the other end of the village. They were, of course, amazed to see us and they stopped their games immediately to crowd around us. We had some crackers we had bought, so we distributed them to the children, many of whom were too afraid of us to come up and accept the cracker in person. My companion Jon started by giving an entire packet of crackers to one child to give to the others, but he ran off with them, and the other children chased him and they fought over the crackers until they all crumbled into powder and in essence no one got any. So I handed mine out one by one. There were still kids who collected a cracker and then ran around to the other side to get another one. The kids reminded me of seagulls fighting over scraps of food.
Well, we certainly were in luck on this New Years Day. A Khmer man (one of the only fluent Khmer speakers in the village) had come from Voeunsay with drinks and ice for the celebration. He was selling shaved ice with syrup topping to the kids, and he had several cans of Crown Beer on ice for us. What a treat after our ordeal with the heat, dust, and blisters.
We were relieved, however, not to remain the center of attention for too long, since we did not wish to interrupt their New Year games. They went back to their games, some of which were the same as the usual Khmer games, but some of which were new to me, for example one in which children fashioned shirts out of black plastic bags and chased a designated boy with a long vertical stick attached to his back and neck. We asked whether the children of Ba Kei attend school. We were told that there is no school in the village, there is a school in Voeunsay 20 km away. But in the rainy season Ba Kei is totally cut off from Voeunsay. So the large majority of children do not go to school at all.
After washing in the nearby stream we had supper at the village chiefs house. His Khmer language was nearly as bad as mine, but we communicated well enough over a meal of pigs trotters and greens. We rigged our hammocks on the porch and were quite comfortable. The family went off to the New Years dance, to which we had been invited, but we sent our apologies. Surely the villagers could see that we were in no condition for dancing that night.
On to Voeunsay
Next morning we were up early and ready to take motos into Voeunsay. This was easily arranged. Voeunsay is the town name for the headquarters of Virachey District. On older maps the town is called Virachey as well. The trip was marked as 19 km on the map, with the same treacherous sandy road conditions we had experienced the day before. About halfway along the road, our drivers veered off along a small path in the forest and shortly thereafter we emerged on the banks of the Virachey, several kilometers downstream from Voeunsay. We then proceeded up the river, where the scenery was some of the best we had seen since Siem Pang. The trees were larger, the forest denser, and the river more picturesque than the open forest ecology we had passed through. The moto journey from Ba Kei to Voeunsay took about an hour and a half.
Although Ba Kei and Chuntuh were largely ethnic Lao villages, there were other minorities along the river and even in Voeunsay, as evidenced by the distinctive baskets carried on the back. The Voeunsay area would be a good one for visiting the hill tribes because so many different ethnic groups all live within a short distance of Voeunsay.
The village of Voeunsay, which is fast becoming a town, lies surprisingly on the far side of the river from Banlung. This means that a ferry crossing is necessary to get from Banlung to Voeunsay. The town is laid out along the river for a couple of kilometers. The inhabitants are mostly Chinese in origin, as evidenced by the Chinese signs on the shops. But oddly, there are no shops or eating stalls right at the ferry crossing. We had expected to have a meal or at least a drink before crossing the river, and were surprised that nothing was available at that spot. But there is a nice café on the Banlung side, where we had coffee and noodle soup while waiting for the Banlung bus.
Yes, there is a bus that shuttles between Banlung and Voeunsay every day. In fact, it has done so every day for at least 10 years and maybe more. It is one of those old Russian Mir buses, right out of the Vietnamese occupation of the country in the 80s. Its insides are in really bad shape, but there are still seats, of a sort, and the ride is almost comfortable. A couple of hours took us to Banlung, where we very happy to check in to the Mountain II Guesthouse for a long rest.
In retrospect, our walk should have been easier than it turned out to be. After all, a 22 km day followed by a 20 km day should not have been too difficult. We should have done some serious walking in preparation, to toughen up our feet against blisters. And we should have done as much walking as possible in the early morning in order to spend more time resting during the heat of the day. Our 9:00 start was what did us in. Anyone else should follow this advice: take plenty of water; prepare for blisters in advance; avoid the heat of the day; wear sturdy shoes.
Finally, we took the taxi from Ratanakiri back to Stung Treng to pick up my companions things. This was one of the best surprises of all: the road has been greatly improved and the trip takes only 3-4 hours. If you want you can even continue all the way to Kratie in the same day. There is plenty of traffic going that way, but the road does get considerably worse south of Stung Treng. We took our trip during the dry season, when there is too little water in the Mekong for river traffic to Kratie. But if you take the taxi to Kratie, you can pick up a boat to Phnom Penh the next day. All in all, transportation in the northeast is becoming much easier, making it easier for tourists to visit this interesting area of the country.
In all, a well prepared trip can be planned by taking the boat from Stung Treng up the Sekong to Siem Pang, crossing the river and walking/motorcycling across to Voeunsay, taking the Mir bus to Banlung, and perhaps even riding the taxi over the newly repaired road back to Stung Treng. Or the trip could be done in the opposite direction. That way you could take the bus to Voeunsay in the morning and begin your walk down the river. The next day you could take a shortened walk to Ba Kei, and the third day walk on the Chuntuh. Or you could probably take motos all the way from Voeunsay to the Sekong River in one afternoon.
Article courtesy of Ray Zepp 2001
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