Cambodia’s Dark History
It’s 2:00 am and I can vaguely remember making plans to visit somewhere with someone tomorrow. Today’s trip had been to Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – now a museum showcasing the horrors that occurred there during the four-year genocide that killed 20% of the Cambodian population between 1975 and 1979. I’d followed this with a haunting walk through the nearby ‘Killing Fields’. After all that, I had been in need of a stiff drink (or ten), and now I was spilling out of a bar early in the morning with all the integrity of an empty wet suit. I had been in Phnom Penh for four days awaiting a visa for Laos to come through, and every night on my way home I passed the same family, a mother and her four young children, sleeping on the pavement of Preah Sisowath Quay.
Tonight, in anticipation of this I bought water to leave them on my way past. I needed to do something, anything, to try and lift the weight of sadness from my chest. I had spent hours within the confines of S-21 Prison and walked in disbelief across the overturned soil mixed with the clothes and bones of the massacred at the nearby ‘Killing Fields’. While there I had tried to find a quiet corner at the edge of that chilling sight to attempt to gain some perspective on everything that lay in front of me. Just then, three boys disturbed my uneasy peace, each of them younger than 10 years of age, approaching from the other side of a wire-mesh fence. The tallest of whom, wearing a distressed expression, in broken English said, ‘You and me, one dollar.’ I barked at him with an anger born out of concern and disbelief, ‘Never say that! Never say that!’ and turned around to leave as fast as possible. As I did, I noticed a sign that informed me of a loud-speaker that once hung in a tree to play music to drown out the groans of those who had not died upon first being struck down with a blow to the neck with an ox-cart axle. Where the hell was I?
The chilling history, the desperation of the youths I met and the forgotten family sleeping on the street urged me to find a different Cambodia, a more encouraging Cambodia.
“Often though, you get more reward tying something or going somewhere you hadn’t thought of before. Ratanakiri was my Cambodian somewhere, its charm as obvious as the red dust it’s coated in.”
In Search of a Different Cambodia
I checked out of my guesthouse the following morning, collected my passport and boarded a bus going north to Kratie, a small town hugging the bank of the Mekong 350 kilometers up Route 7 from Phnom Penh. Mini-cabs and share-taxis are also available but after one too many share-taxi journeys where, despite avoiding death ourselves, we passed by several less fortunate vehicles, I opted for a slower PPPT bus costing less than USD $10.
Upon arriving in Kratie, I ate a snack of sweet sticky rice served in a bamboo tube known locally as kro lan and checked into a guesthouse-cum-restaurant that overlooked the local market square. The ramshackle market was bustling with life, which contrasted against the nearby buildings with their French-Colonial architecture and reclined workers, struggling for energy in the mid afternoon heat. The guesthouse owner was, in between dozes, most helpful and called local motorbike taxi-men to the door. Myself and a few new friends I’d met on the bus took a ride out to a sandbank 20 minutes north of town. We passed villages of stilted houses, balancing under the shade of heavy foliage on our way to board boats and watch endangered Irrawaddy dolphins breach the surface of a calm Mekong as the sun eased towards the horizon. It’s now estimated that there are as few as 80-100 of these rare dolphins living in those waters, and proposed dam construction could see their numbers dwindle further. You squint through the warmth of the sun to see them breach and dive – a must do while passing through Kratie. With limited time on my visa, I said goodbye to the sleepy ease of Kratie and took a bus from outside the Red Sun Falling café to Rattanakiri province in the northeast of the country.
The Phnom Penh Soraya Transport bus passes through Kratie at around 12:30pm and costs USD $8 for the 7 hour journey to Ban Lung. First, the roads take you to Stung Treng, 4 hours north of Kratie. These roads are in need of some attention but are far from the worst you’ll travel on in Cambodia. Once you roll out of Stung Treng the scenery changes from littered concrete streets and low rise buildings to typical northeastern, rural Cambodia. Plantations of rubber and cashew trees, interspersed with freshly burnt arable land and villages pass by one after the other. Rising smoke from the dying embers wafts across the roads that do their best through potholes, loose gravel and dust that hangs like a fog, to ensure that you know you’re leaving civilization. This is Ratanakiri province.
Paradise Found: Waterfalls and Crater Lakes of Northern Cambodia
Ratanakiri province borders Vietnam to the east and Laos to the north. Around three quarters of its land is covered in forest. These forests sit on top of nutrient rich red soil, that in the heat and monsoon conditions that affect the area, get whipped up into the air by speeding bikes and trucks and proceed to fill your mouth and lungs and eyes when you’re walking about, mixing with the smoke from the slash and burn land clearing that’s rife in areas here and cuts visibility down to sweet fuck all when you try and drive anywhere. My destination in Ratanakiri was Ban Lung and I arrived as night fell. It was instantly evident that a lot of the local population make their living from the few backpackers who pass through the town. Our bus was mobbed. People shouted and grabbed at me as I tried to make it to my backpack in the bus’s undercarriage before a towering German speaking good English cut a line through the masses and took me and two others aside. While touts swarmed around us he said he had a car and a nearby guesthouse and that if we didn’t like it he’d bring us back to the town center. A good deal, I thought, and it turned out that the guesthouse was too, and so I stayed.
The German, Chris, used to work for an NGO in Cambodia and had now settled in Ban Lung where he ran tours out of a guesthouse and was to marry a local Khmer girl. Instantly likeable with good knowledge and some friendly Khmer co-workers as motorbike suppliers, Chris and I set about planning our next few days. Ban Lung is a great stepping off point for hiking in Ratanakiri and the surrounding forests are teeming with wildlife. I spent the next few days swimming in rivers and rock pools, drinking rice wine by the Yak Loum volcanic crater lake and showering under waterfalls to cool off and rinse the dust off me in the 40 degree heat. We took sampans for an hour up river where water buffalo and storks bathing in our wake barely noticed us. We traversed a scalding hot beach to visit minority tribe villages of Laotian and Chinese descent. Nearby farmers offered us milk fruit which we slurped down while relaxing under the shade beside a cemetery in which the local tribe had carved wooden effigies of the deceased to decorate the gravesites. We rode for hours through jungle and cashew and rubber plantations and I had my first (and hopefully last) motorbike accident, when in the twilight and with dust in my eyes, I missed a seemingly blatant pothole. At night we chilled out at our guesthouse beside the lake, drinking rice wine and Angkor beer, reflecting on our adventures, telling stories and enjoying the tranquility. This was a world away from the anxiety I felt in Phnom Penh. In fact, this was a world away from most things I’d experienced. There is something to be said for the heavily touristic areas of the countries we want to see. Those places grab the headlines and the imagination while you’re sat behind your desk or stuck in your routine. Often though, you get more reward tying something or going somewhere you hadn’t thought of before. Ratanakiri was my Cambodian somewhere, its charm as obvious as the red dust it’s coated in.