Cambodia – along the Mekong, part 1 (Stung Treng)
“Cambodians life is centred on family, faith and food, an existence that has stayed the same for centuries. Families stick together, solve problems collectively, listen to the wisdom of the elders and pool resources. The extended family comes together during times of trouble and times of joy, celebrating festivals and successes, mourning deaths and disappointments. Whether the Cambodian house is big or small, there will be a lot of people living inside.”
After I read this paragraph from lonely planet I really wanted to spend some time with a family or with a local community. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Apart from some areas like Siem Reap, Phom Phen and the Kampot region information is hard to come by and impossible to confirm. This was apparent when I decided to explore the northern region of Cambodia. I wanted to visit the mountain regions, to visit the Mekong and also stay in a beautiful environment. I had had enough of cities and large groups of tourists who congregate. I was thinking that the further north/northwest I could travel the chance of gaining a unique view from people who live far away from the hustle and bustle would be a great learning experience. So rather than go west to the islands of Thailand I went north-east. This route is also a favourite route for those wanting to head to 4000 islands and to travel further north in Laos.
When I started to speak to the passengers on the bus from Siem Reap I quickly realised I was the only one who was getting off the bus at Stung Treng and very few had even heard of Kratie. When I arrived I knew I was in a completely different world than the one I had just left. (Siem Reap has become the Archaeologist version of Disneyland) There wasn’t any drivers waiting at the steps of the bus ready to drag me to their waiting Tuk Tuks. Normally I am surrounded by hoards of drivers screaming in unison wanting to take me and my money. I was also miffed because now I had to lug my bags 650 meters, my walking gait at the time made the a hunchback look like a catwalk model. As I limped towards my hotel I past the market, it reminded me of places I visited 30 years ago in Africa, overripe fruit, withering veggies and meat that was unrecognisable. I did learn however that many indigenous people kill wild animals because it is seen as valuable food source. This practice is highly policed today and only a few months before I arrived a massive police presence was enforced for anyone selling wild animals. Someone obviously didn’t agree and the market was set on fire. No wonder the place was a mess. When I arrived at my hotel the management were bemused that I would be staying for 3 nights. I found this a little unnerving but I took it on. When I enquired about visiting the surrounding area I was greeted with a puzzled look. There was the odd organised trip but the price was ridiculous and you needed more than 3 people. The later an impossibility to organise. So with 3 days already booked I decided to make my own travel plans and hire a push bike and forget about trying to organise a visit to more remote regions. But first I wanted to check out the place and find a spot to watch the sun set along the river. In my imagination, I could picture sitting on the banks with a beverage and enjoying the serenity of it all.
Stung Treng is a border town, a place to refuel and restock and a place you never see promoted in the travel brochures, my perfect town. As I strolled along the broken boulevard along the Meekong I felt like ET. I was a novelty and at times there seemed to be a million eyes peering at me. However by making eye contact, a warm smile and a wave often eased their fears or curiosity. It was the children who really broke the ice, they would walk with me and ask the only english they knew; What is your name and where are you from? My knowledge of language is appalling so when I attempted to respond I was often met with hysterical laughter. They would also ride their bikes ahead of me, showing the way or challenging me to a race, most just wanted a smile and some sort of recognition. The walk was just stunning, as the sun was setting behind the river, it was a pity that the romance of it was lost when I tried to find a place to sit and take it all in. I eventually found a viewing area next to an industrial dump site, the wedding party also enjoyed the photo opportunity. The walk back was a little further than I had intended and somehow I ended up taking an unfamiliar stroll through the back streets rather than along the river. I could feel the staring eyes watching me as I passed, for a moment I felt I was a character in the Village of the dammed, white eyes popping up behind bushes like fire flies. It was no surprise as the sun was setting and as the full moon was rising, I felt like calling home.
The bike ride along the Mekong was one of highlights of my time in Cambodia. Like usual where I imagined I could ride compared to my ability was way out of whack. I knew the road along the river was flat so in my mind riding for 20-25 kms one way was doable. Yup, Nup. Sure if I managed to think about the seat before I left I am sure I could have managed a longer ride but riding a male bike with a hard seat did not sit so comfortably. There was also, unbeknown to me the destruction of the land with very few areas that had tree cover, the sun was scorching making a romantic leisurely ride more a race for shade. Additionally, although I had a mountain bike I hadn’t thought about the numerous bridges that were not made for motor or bike riding. Anyway with all of this my journey along this remote road was incredible. There wasn’t a time where people would stand along the road for meet and greet. Local shop owners were happy to refresh my thirsty palette and introduce me to their family and friends. Riding along the empty road at times was peaceful. There was a sense of just me and the river. The only noise was the distant putt putt sound of the motor boats. However that never lasted too long thanks to the Cambodians love of karaoke that filled the air. I love Karaoke but the Cambodians just go that extra mile. I noticed this when I was resting opposite a convenience store, come bar, come family house. Like usual they offered me some food and water and I sat on the rivers edge enjoying the tranquility of it all. That suddenly changed when a group of people showed up including children and women with food. They pulled out the speaker, grabbed the mike and proceed to sing Cambodias top 10 hits. They were so invested in it, a time for family and friends to share each others company rather than working in the hot sun for hours on end. They all knew that later in the day they would be working in the fields again but for a few hours they could forget. I just wish they had the lyrics to a Madonna song, Like a Prayer came to mind. Luckily for them they didn’t.
When I decided to return to Stung Treng I realised I had taken the wrong turn and was riding in a deforested area for 2-3 km’s. The heat was unbearable, I was loosing energy and my backside was screaming so with nothing else to gain I turned around. Now I don’t know what changed when I turned around but all of a sudden my mind started to deteriorate. Rather than enjoying a leisurely ride back I started to wish that I hadn’t ridden as far as had. I couldn’t sit on the seat anymore and I nearly rode the 25km’s back standing on the pedals. My legs were on auto pilot and every bump was agony. I could hear the children calling at me but I couldn’t lift my head, I couldn’t even wave my arm, I just wanted to get back. I do think the last 5 km were the worst, that awful feeling you have when you are just in reach but the ending is still so far away. By this stage even if I could, I couldn’t even get off the bike, my butt was like a coconut. When I did return I literally fell in my room and for the next few days my lumpy bum certainly paid the price. However when going over my journey and looking at some of the film and photographs I took, the pain was just a result of an amazing trip. Sometimes you have to push yourself to find the greatest reward.
Just a footnote, (6 months earlier, Stung Treng was ravaged by a major flood caused by a dam wall breaking, killing hundreds and completely inundating the town. this has had a major effect on the morale of the town including townships downstream. I do make light of my time, but acknowledge the people are suffering and still no sign of compensation.)