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Tag Archives: Ratnakiri

Travels with Pavel: 12 February 2005

It started out as a beautiful blue-sky day with van Gogh clouds, but here we were at a small hamlet on the way back from Voen Sai. We had taken a very bad fall with a gear change I’d executed with less than perfect timing on the accursed mud track that passed for a road. Both of us had bruised left legs and missing flesh to show and the bike wouldn’t start again either. A passing moto driver with another tourist behind him – that’s what the smart tourists do, get the locals to do the driving – stopped and helped start our moto. I’d like to say he got it started with an almighty kick to the engine, but that only happens in the movies.

We only went another 15 minutes before the moto stopped again this time because we ran out of asang or gas! Talk about planning. So after explaining our problem to a few passing moto drivers in the hope of being helped again, two boys on a moto finally volunteered to get us a litre of fuel from the nearest place selling it. And off they rode with the 3,000Riel. They did not allow either of us to accompany them nor did they take the 5,000Riel that I offered them just in case, just 3,000Riel exactly needed to pay for one litre.

And so we waited, washed our wounds and waited until Pavel had the sense to flag down a passing French couple who generously let us have half a bottle of their fuel which a local helped us transfer from one moto to the other. And we were off together till we finally found a place to refill. No sign of the boys yet but as soon as we had refilled and were barely on our way, who should we see tearing down towards us, but the two rascals.

I was still ready to believe that they had been well-intentioned even as they stopped the bike after having zipped past us. Pavel had only to motor back to them for them to promptly hand back the money we’d given them. Pavel thought that the expression on their faces said, “Please don’t beat us!”

Anyway, we were once again very fortunate, thank God – atheist or no atheist. I was beginning to curse my luck but except for some lost skin, I think we came out of the situation pretty well and I’ve seen worse. Pavel, meanwhile, is cooking up a real cock-and-bull story to explain or injuries back in Taiwan by stretching the facts of the day a little.

Primary among them was our running into a young chap holding a machete waiting on the road outside the chunchiet cemeteries – the burial forest of the Tompoun tribe. We were on our way out of the forests, me at the front, when I saw him. His expression was… well, he wasn’t smiling, let us say. So I tucked the moto key into my pocket and freed my hands for action if necessary with a funny feeling going round and round in my stomach. I walked right up to him – not that I knew any tricks to make machetes and other sharp objects disappear or anything – but the man stood right in the middle of the path exiting the chunchiet. So well, I um, I gave him my best smile and my impression of what I thought was a Khmer “hello!” – “s’sday!” And well, he smiled back, machete and all, only to switch back to no-smile mode when Pavel emerged out of the thickets. Now that I think of it, Pavel might have saved my life again for the umpteenth time on this trip. What’re the odds of a guy with a machete being charmed by my smile? We got out of there in a real hurry.

Earlier, we had made our way to Voen Sai on the banks of the Tonle San river, through marginally better roads than yesterday’s – yes, despite the fall later – crossed the river by ferry walked up and down a bit, sat by the river at somebody’s private landing. And while Pavel went for his obligatory swim, I went walking westwards to look for the Chinese villages with the “fine houses.” I saw them, wasn’t much impressed and went back across the river again to begin the real excitement of the day.

Back in our lodgings, clean once again, we had a long chat with Mr. Hak who has 14 acres of land in town on which he wants to build a joint venture hotel with foreign investment, preferably from Pavel and me. I gently steered the conversation to other matters as we discussed the bright prospects for Ratnakiri as border posts opened north to Laos and east to Vietnam in the near future; the numerous NGOs investing a lot of money in the areas – up to US$100,000, some of them; the several Indian traders – about 10 of them, Laurent said he’d seen two – who sold stuff like mosquito nets, cloth and medicines, I think, round the year. Mr. Hak also spoke some about the travails of the Sam Rainsy Party – other main parties are the Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen and the Funcinpec Party – due to which there was American and UN pressure brought to bear on the Hun Sen government. Mr. Hak and his wife had previously worked for NGOs in the area which was what had given them the opportunities to travel. He now ran a driving school and sundry other enterprises. Was also once secretary to the former governor of the province. Big fish, this guy.

Travels with Pavel: 11 February 2005

There’s two sides to me (and there are schizophrenics, yes). One is the cautious fellow, who tries to make the right decision under the circumstances, takes the better-safe-than-sorry approach to life. This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has missed a lot of fun in life as a result. The other side of me is the one that doesn’t want to miss out on anything, always burdened with the feeling that he’s already missed out too much in life, and so thinks, “let’s go for it!” This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has a lot of bruises to show for it. Not that I could’ve stopped Pavel today short of having a full-blown fight. The issue was waterfalls.

The white man’s approach to the elements (and I do not base this observation only on my experiences with Pavel or Sandro, my regular climbing partner in Taiwan) is often based on confronting them, based on immense self-belief and on as much a must-do spirit as the can-do. The Asian by contrast is ready to bow to superior forces. Or maybe the Asian mind just doesn’t see the point of climbing of a mountain, even if it is the highest mountain in the world. The more important mountains for the Asian are the holy ones from Emei Shan in Sichuan to Mt. Kailash in Tibet and of course mythical ones, nobody actually has to climb, like Mount Meru. Or it is the beautiful ones like Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Now me, well, I am caught somewhere in the middle – the consequences of my upbringing I guess, in a world caught between the middle class straight-and-narrow cut-the-risks approach and my Indian schools on the one side and American TV, Western literature and a fantastic 20-volume encyclopedia at home on the other.

So then, all it takes for me is a little encouragement. And Pavel, well, he is the Great Encourager – like Mao was the Great Helmsman. There ought to be constellations in the sky like that.

Three stolen cashew-nut fruits. That was the sum of our nutrition till about 8 in the evening when we finally got back from the last of our waterfalls for the day. I was driving on the right side of the road for the first time in my life and I chose the worst tracks in the world to do it. With the chap riding pillion about twice my size and on a scooter/moto that could barely carry me, it didn’t get better. One brake-too-late-and-crash! into the remains of tree stump in the middle of the bloody track later, I was nursing a bruise swelling beautifully over my ribs from Pavel crushing me against the handle.

The first two waterfalls weren’t the problem. Standing over the first one at Choang and then walking under the falls, was fun. Even if what Pavel called a “massage,” was quite painful at times.

It was the hunt for a seven-tiered beauty advertised in the Lonely Planet that had me in ‘cautious’ mode and asking silly questions like “who would put a waterfall here?!” The dirt track was murderous. Pavel, quite unwilling to listen to reason (as I defined it) was always immediately solicitous of my health after spilling me – even though a few seconds was as long as the solicitousness lasted. One time, the damn scooter reared up right on backwards with me landing beautifully flat on my back. I picked myself up off the track a few seconds later, laughing anyway, but Pavel was looking rather pale, quite like “This time I’ve done it, I must’ve killed him. No?!”

The damn waterfall finally came into our sights at 5pm some two-and-a-half hours after we started from the last one – rubber plantations, cashew-nut plantations, bare-breasted tribal women, rickety wooden-plank bridges and a French-speaking old man in a village a few minutes from the waterfall, all on our way. The French speaker quite clearly put up two fingers to indicate the distance in kilometers but said something that sounded closer to “trois” than “deux” and told us that we should be there in “quinze minutes.” So I, who had 12 minutes ago given Pavel another 10 minutes to look for his waterfall, was prodding him to “hurry up” for another however many minutes more. The waterfall in the end, wasn’t anything to write home about.

Several spills later and in complete darkness (call the light from the lamp of a less-than-100-cc moto, illumination?) for most of the way, we got back into town. Me the god-fearing, god-believer with the atheist. Well, the good thing about this is that the believer tends to pray double. And prayer always helps, doesn’t it?

We’d found ourselves new lodgings. This time we have a room – rat-infested, lizard-infested, dirty pillows and all – together with the aforementioned moto at a daily rate of US$5, which is good in our currently straitened circumstances. However, for dinner at the same place we went to yesterday, we’re charged double for what was pretty much the same thing – or maybe just a little different. Anyway, Mr Hak Boonthan, our new host, will hopefully refurbish his dwellings if he wants to make a proper guesthouse out of it. He will probably name it “Lakeview Guest House,” after our suggestion. We seem to be the first paying guests here – his family occupies the other rooms. Mr. Hak has got photos of his travels in Nepal and of his wife’s in India on the outside wall. I could identify Bombay at least. Talk about a small world.

Travels with Pavel: 10 February 2005

Lazy day. Woke up to loud Khmer pop or rock or whatever it was from the next room. Lunch was in a quiet restaurant overlooking a valley of cashew-nut plantations. Cashew fruit is quite juicy if without any particular taste, if you must know.

Pavel and I decided to leg it to a nearby lake, the area’s main tourist spot. We walked along unpaved roads – this place won’t see tarred roads for a few years yet, I think – and we were cloaked in the red dust every passing vehicle left in its wake, dispensing “Hello!”s on the way.

The entry fee to the lake had quadrupled from that mentioned in the Lonely Planet to US$1 for foreigners. Locals had to pay only 300Riels. Not such a bad deal compared to the Taj Mahal, which simply rips foreigners off when compared to the prices Indians pay.

Like any regular tourist spot now, the children ran the show – taking running jumps into the lake and making as much noise as possible. So we found ourselves a quiet place almost bang opposite the entry point and all the noise. The Boeng Yeak Lam Lake is actually formed over a volcano, several hundred thousand years old and the blue of its waters are the deepest I’ve seen anywhere. They seem to have a character to them, that is sorely missing in the pale blue and sunny sky above.

Yeak Lom Crater Lake

I’ve the dubious distinction of having to be saved twice from drowning – a couple of thousand miles to the west, as the crow flies – in the Bay of Bengal. But the lake seemed harmless, no sudden undercurrent to pull a nasty surprise and where we stood was a line of bamboo poles tied together headed some distance out into the lake. I decided to be brave (with Pavel the lifeguard around) and thrashed my way to the end of the bamboo line in terribly inelegant breaststrokes. Ok, but I felt like a winner anyway. So there we were, Pavel and me, hanging onto bamboo in a volcanic crater lake in the middle of Indochina and talking about more things and places Czech. Totally cool.

We walked back again in the red dust but this time with a thin silver moon hanging in a sky that had built up some character through the day – it was a lovely shade of pink-magenta. Back in our rooms, I watched a violent cartoon called Samurai Jack and then for the first time on TV, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I’d only read that always in comic strip form as a kid.

Travels with Pavel: 9 February 2005

The bus to Kratie advertised as leaving at 10:30 in the morning, left at 10:20. Fortunately, we’d gotten to the bust station early ourselves. On the way we took in Kompong Cham’s small-scale celebrations in town for the New Year of the Rooster – dragon dances in front of each house or shop and children throwing fire-crackers at each other.

It was more of the same flat landscapes for much of the route, except this time we caught sight of rubber and tobacco plantations as well. Getting to Kratie and finding the mini-bus to Stung Treng full, we braced for the first “real” ride of the entire trip. So far every long distance trip had been inside a/c buses donated by South Korea or whoever. Now we would have a nearly 10-hour long trip on the back of a pick-up truck, sitting on an open tailgate.

There were about 20 souls in the back of the pick-up including a Frenchman named Laurent Jeanneau with whom we sat at the tailgate for the entire bumpy, dusty road. After a while, we were reduced to 16 people including three small boys. The Khmer farmers kept up a steady chatter through most of the trip commenting on Pavel’s one-glass shades that he’d managed to break before the trip had even begun.

The ride was exhilarating as far as I was concerned, the first time I truly felt alive, lurching about at the back, having a few close calls in the beginning. During a particularly murderous stretch after dinner break, I often had my butt floating up to a foot above our tarpaulin covered seat. Or maybe it was just the driver driving faster after a good meal… and in the dark. Pavel and I had been on empty stomachs throughout except for a baguette each for breakfast. But I loved the trip and was glad to have done it before this route was black-topped and a/c buses (from South Korea, naturally) came to dominate.

Laurent was an interesting guy, a professional musician – electronic music was his specialty (listen) – he’d recorded tribal music from all parts of the world, including India. He was returning to Cambodia after some nine months following an earlier nine-month stint in Ratnakiri. He spoke Khmer and was returning to take a local tribal artist to perform in France. We spoke quite a lot of the politics, history and societies of the peoples of the region of which he was extremely well-informed.

Finally at about 11 in the night, we landed up in a Banlung that had gone to sleep but still produced two moto drivers out of nowhere. In the event we just walked to a smart little place nearby that offered a striking contrast to the Bopear. Banlung Guest House offered a TV and attached bath plus dusty white sheets at US$5 for doubles. It was two in the morning before I fell asleep – there was Michael Corleone carrying out his first hits, Santino getting killed at the checkpoint and Michael marrying a beautiful Sicilian only to have her blown up in a car bomb. The music of The Godfather (listen) is just so hauntingly beautiful, apt in a strange sort of way for the inky darkness and night sounds outside our windows.