After spending time in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville (beach town), it was time to head for the hills. I was craving the countryside, villages and fewer tourists. The mercury was also on the rise, and parts of Eastern Cambodia offer cooler temps, so I bought a bus ticket to Ban Lung in Ratanakiri province. It’s in the far northeast of the country, near the Laos border.
The 11 hour bus ride was thankfully uneventful. I even had two seats to myself for much of the journey… something I would learn to appreciate dearly on bus rides to come. I booked the Tree Top Ecolodge based on Lonely Planet’s TOP CHOICE recommendation, “…Tree Top boasts rough-hewn walkways leading to all-wood bungalows with mosquito nets, thatch roofs and verandas with verdant valley vistas. The restaurant dangles over a lush ravine with great views of the hillside and beyond.” Sold.
Aside from a few initial glitches that were fixed, Tree Top was the oasis I was craving. The outdoor restaurant/lounge area provided the perfect gathering spot for travelers, and I was barely there 10 minutes before being approached by a Swiss girl named Nathalie. “Did you just get here?” she asked. “Yeah, just arrived from Phnom Pehn,” I replied. “Any interest in sharing a tuk tuk tomorrow to visit the lake and waterfalls?” I hadn’t figured out my plans yet, but those were definitely on my list so I quickly agreed.
Nathalie and I met the next morning at 9am. She inquired about the tuk tuk, which would be $25 for the day, but a motorbike was only $7. She assured me she was a good driver, and even had a scooter back in Switzerland. No problemo.
We ventured out with our sweat-stained helmets and a bad photocopy of a hand-drawn map. The town itself is not charming, but we were headed just outside. We would hit up Ka Tieng and Kinchaan, two of three waterfalls in the area. Ban Lung is known as “red earth” due to its terracotta dirt which clings to everything, so by the time we reached Kinchaan, my flip-flopped feet looked like the victims of a spray tan gone terribly wrong. Good thing this stop included water. After crossing a flimsy suspension bridge and a small hike down, we found ourselves surrounded by rocks and water. The waterfall was small, but nice, and provided a backdrop for what we figured was some sort of tourism photo shoot. Women in traditional tribe attire posed for the camera as we watched. We then proceeded to Ka Tieng, and after a short visit we continued on to Boek Yeak Lom, better known as Crater Lake. The perfectly circular lake is thought to have been formed 700,000 years ago by a meteor. However or whenever it was formed, it was paradise.
A few wooden piers surround the lake, making for convenient swimming spots. It was Sunday, so the place was full of locals and vacationing Khmer. We found a somewhat quiet pier, so we took the opportunity to cool off and de-orange ourselves. The water was cool and clear. Perfection. Cambodians are more modest than Westerners, so we kept covered while on the dock. Nathalie even swam with her sarong around her. I just left mine at the edge and wrapped it around as I climbed out.
The next day Nathalie and I decided to go back to the lake with sandwiches and some reading material, but this time we hired TWO motorbikes so I could learn. She told me how to turn it on, how to start it and… most importantly… how to brake. Left hand: back brake; right hand: front brake. “Never brake with only the right or you may fishtale,” she warned. Okey doke, “left, left, left” I tried to sear into my brain. It was a bit rocky at the outset. “It’s easier to balance when you get going,” she said. “Starting is the hardest part.” Ok, here goes nothing! A surge of freedom pulsed through me as I drove.
After turning down the dusty red path to the lake and parking my bike, I pulled off my helmet and shouted, “That was so much fun!!” This time, instead of the pier, we paid $5 to plop ourselves in one of the bamboo huts lining the lake. It was much quieter than the day prior, so we got a prime location. We each grabbed a hammock and read. Then we swam. Then we ate our sandwiches. Then we read some more. It was quite the stressful day.
Around 3:30 we decided to pack it in, but weren’t ready to return the bikes, so we did a little exploring. We whizzed down small, unknown paths which led us through sprawling rubber tree plantations. There were lots of trees, but hardly any people. For a brief moment I wondered if the $.75 worth of gas I put in was enough (the fuel gauge was broken), but I was too content to worry. As it approached 5:30pm and we ran out of drive-able road (and soon, daylight), we decided to turn back. Just as we came up on the main highway, my bike slowed. Then it stalled. Hmmm. I restarted the motor. It coughed at me, but didn’t turn over. Just before I started to panic, I noticed a small shop that sold liters of gas in whiskey bottles, right at the corner. I told Nathalie I was dry, and we started laughing hysterically at the good fortune of it happening RIGHT in front of a gas shack instead of in the middle of rubber trees… or on the highway. Thank you petrol fairy, I seriously owe you one.
Our next biking adventure would require much more skill than we possessed. Nathalie heard that you could hire a driver to traverse the brand new “road” between Ban Lung and Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri province. Only motorbikes were allowed on this new road, which was unpaved and under construction. Riding the bus would mean backtracking quite a bit, taking twice as long. And hey, I was all about the bike now! So we hired Mr. Happy and his cousin from Tree Top Lodge to take us on the 6-hour journey through unspoiled forest, where not many people had gone before. I managed to pull out my iPhone for a few shots along the way (yes, I’m quite talented). It was beautiful and bumpy and fantastic. When we finally reached Sen Monorom, the four of us looked like Oompa Loompas; we were orange from head to toe. After checking into our room, I had one of the most satisfying showers of my life.
Aside from cooler temperatures and rural surroundings, I wanted to visit some villages in the area, so I hired a motorbike driver/guide in both Ban Lung and Sen Monorom. Around Ban Lung we saw mostly Krung people who make money from logging. Unfortunately this is destroying the forests at an alarming rate, but the government isn’t doing much to stop it. A lot of the wood is sold to the Vietnamese, who then sell to the Chinese. It’s an environmental horror, but when these villagers can make $700 from a quality slab of wood, you understand their incentive. In Sen Monorom, many villagers belong to the Bunong tribe who are known for working with elephants.
There are a lot of elephant tours in Sen Monorom, but the Elephant Valley Project is an NGO that rescues pachyderms from hard labor and helps them learn to be regular elephants again. Some come from the tourist industry where they were forced to carry people for long hours, while others were used in the logging industry to drag logs behind them or on their back. Elephants need to eat about 18 hours/day, so neither lifestyle is conducive to their needs. I was happy my payment for a day with the ellies went toward their care and well being.
The Elephant Valley Project doesn’t let visitors ride the animals, feed them or even touch them. We simply walked with them in the forest to observe their elephantness, which meant watching them bathe and eat. The trek was a lot more intensive than I thought, but thankfully my ailing back didn’t fail me and I got within five feet of these magnificent creatures. Some had tails that had been whacked off; others had protruding spines. They were all learning to be normal, although most would live out their lives here. I was feeling almost normal myself, pretty proud of my hiking accomplishment, until a 20-something girl on our tour overheard me tell our guide about my herniated disc. “Oh, that’s why you were so slow!” she said to me. Actually, that’s probably more because I’m nearing 40 and out of shape. Thanks for that reminder as well. P.S. Your brows could use a wax.
While it takes a conscious effort to visit Northeast Cambodia, it was was one of my favorite parts of the country. I loved the local guides that rode me around villages on motorbike. They weren’t well-traveled paths with tourist stops. No kickbacks for visiting a gift shop or eating in a cafe. This was the real deal–rural Cambodian life unedited. And I didn’t see one other tourist during these village excursions. That’s difficult to find these days when even the “off-the-beaten-path” destinations can be overrun with tourists seeking exactly that. Kind of ironic. I also like that I put my money in the pockets of local guides. The prices were fair, their knowledge deep and the experiences unforgettable.