Today is the 25th of June, 2016. This day shall go down in history for me as a simultaneously hilarious, scary, fun, strange, and generally highly memorable day. For so many reasons. Some of which I won’t even divulge.
Today began so… Shaky start to the morning. I followed up on a comment someone had made about malaria abd decided to have a search on Google. I thought Cambodia was very low risk and since medication has side effects and only serves to give you a little extra protection, I decided I wouldn’t take any. Anyway turns out Mondulkiri, the place we are staying in currently, is listed as high risk! So I tried to comfort myself by finding reasons it would be affecting this area, or time of year, but no. Long story short, I got in a flap and wanted to cut short our time here. Anyway, nothing could really be done then so decided to put it out of my mind and continue with the day we had planned.
We could hear the screeching of brakes as our first guide arrived on his bike – the same guy that gave us a lift home last night. I hopped on the back of his bike, and Zoe on the other guide’s, and set off. At first I was a little on edge on the back of this bike. I felt uneasy about the lack of brakes, bumpy road and the fact I wasn’t in control. I’m also not used to riding a bike so naturally it took some getting used to. But after a few minutes I decided to just relax and enjoy it.
The nervousness didn’t last long and I quickly came to love it. I was absolutely thrilling, I loved the sense of freedom, the wind around me, the idea that you could stop off wherever you like, take detours down small paths and just feel more connected with your surroundings. It dawned on me that this sort of thing is the makings of stories I’ll be telling for years to come. The time I was on a motorbike, exploring the jungle in Cambodia. Memories like that don’t fade. I’d like to travel this way more. I might even consider getting a motorbike license in England so I’m properly equipped.
Our first stop was Bousra waterfall and it took us an hour to get there. During this time there were hardly any cars. We passed the odd motorbike, and even an ox-drawn cart. Most of the land was being farmed on a small scale – bananas, coffee and personal food. The building were all on stilts apart from the more traditional ones which belong to the “minority” – groups of people who live a life more in line with indigenous, traditional life. The houses are large and thatched with lots of animals roaming around them. The soil is unusually red, and must be incredibly fertile. When compacted, it makes for a good road generally. However, it can be quite bumpy and can form potholes and puddles, making the ride a little interesting. Coupled with the brakes on the bike which were, let’s say, iffy, meant that I was having to keep an eye on the road. We would go hurtling down every hill and bombing up every hill, to make sure we made it up. Occasionally I think he warned me to hold on, but who knows, language barrier.
Bousra waterfalls were incredible. It comprises of two waterfalls with a flat area of rocks and rock pools between them. When you stand on the flat secrion, the falls above you seem massive. They are relatively well hidden too, surrounded by forest. It really is an idyllic clearing. The locals have obviously come down to enjoy the water, receive a massage from the waterfall and have a wash. Two monks cautiously strip down and edge across the sharp rocks to the falls and play at the edge. A group of women follow them, covered with towels and coax each other to stand under the falling water. It’s extremely loud, but you can still hear the laughter between them. We didn’t want to intrude, especially with the presence of monks but we scrabbled across the slippery rocks enough to get drenched.
As we left, we thought it would be best to go to the toilet before getting back on the bikes, unsure of our next opportunity. There was a small building marked “W.C.” On the walk back up. Inside the cubicle was a GIGANTIC spider which definitely looked at me and licked his lips. Naturally I did the sensible thing and freaked out, squealed and ran out. No sir, not today. I am not a fan of jungle toilets. I can deal with the super furry caterpillars, and other creepy crawlies, but no. Not okay! Nearby, outside this building was about aged about 6 or 7. It was quite early in the morning so not many visitors had arrived yet, mainly Cambodians, but when he saw us he froze and gawped at us as if we were grizzly bears that just appeared out of the forest. This is actually the response we repeatedly get from locals, particularly children. It’s hard not to laugh at the overt reaction – bemusement / interest? Don’t know, but it’s entertaining, if not a little unsettling.
We spoke to or guides about how nice the water was, and they told us they’d take us to a spot where we could swim, so we climbed back on the bikes and headed off. We turned of the main road down an even choppier dirt track, bouncing and wiggling along until we came to a river. The guys took their bikes into the river (while we gave the “are you crazy?!” looks) and revved their engines to spin their back wheels “cleaning their bikes” and flicking water over us all. We then hobbled over rocks and through a small set of waterfalls to a raised rock in the water, set our stuff down and got in the water. Above the waterfalls the water is deep, I can’t reach the bottom and people often jump in from the overhanging trees. I attempted to do this but as I started to climb I encountered a large spider, biting ants and lots of bugs. I’m not exactly hot on murky water as is, so bottled it half way through, much to everyone’s amusement! The water ran fast over the small waterfalls and massaged our backs. It was a fantastically relaxing stop and there was no one in sight but us. Slightly weird at first to be alone with these two guys in their pants in the middle of nowhere, but again, just went with it.
After the river we visited a traditional indigenous family who live together in a large thatched hut. The grass on the roof almost reached the ground and the entrance was very low. Inside there was a fire in the centre and two bamboo ledges, one on each side. Kids were all bundled inside, sat around chatting or swinging in hammocks and a young woman – not much older than 16, newly married, held her 10 day old baby. The girls grandmother, not very old herself, was in one doorway, tossing large quantities of rice. We learnt about how they usually dress and the difference between the cultures. For instance, most Cambodians, when harvesting rice, use a large blade to harvest their crop quickly, whereas the indigenous people strip each blade individually, which takes far more time.
Next we went to a nearby coffee plantation for lunch. We wondered round the large grounds where they grew not only coffee but avocados, dragon fruit, passion fruit, bananas, durian fruit, mangoes and apples.
We went inside and were offered some traditional farmers food. WOW! We had a Cambodian pancake each, which is about 12″ wide, but folded in half and filled with bean sprouts, vegetables, herbs and minced pork. Served with it was a big plate covered with a selection of leaves: avocado, coffee and others which we couldn’t translate but all were delicious with distinct flavours. You grabbed a piece of pancake and rolled it in leaves then dipped it in a tangy sauce with added peanuts and chilli. It was delicious!
To go with this we had a cup of fresh tea, iced coffee prepared with fresh beans from the plantation and we tried one of their dragon fruits. When they cut the dragonfruit open, instead of the flesh being white it was intensely pink. It also tasted different to normal dragonfruit, much sweeter. I’m a big fan. Overall the best meal I’d had in Cambodia!
We then went for another wander around other parts of the grounds to see more fruits. But then the uh … Digestive effects of coffee kicked in and we went off in search of the toilet. Again the jungle toilets did not fail to deliver. There was a severe lack of amenities. Long story short this caused a lot of hysteria and searching for big banana leaves. And once more, a child was standing outside the toilet building, gawping at us. Obviously this only added to the hysteria. A group of teenagers came up, obviously wary of the weirdo English people, came and went, not saying a word to us, hardly maintaining eye contact or returning smiles, but as they stepped over a hose, a guy grabbed one girl and shouted what must have been the equivalent of “OMG SNAKE!!” To scare her, and it worked. Then we were all in fits of giggles together and all barriers were broken down for us to enjoy the universal thing: a joke.
Afterwards we made our way up into some hills and came to a hilltop temple which belongs to an religion older than Buddhism. There is a viewing platform with a view over Sen Monorom, where we are staying, which was beautiful. Here we were greeted with laughs and smiles and children shouting “hello hello how are you?” At us and waving. Many people here seem to be really keen to speak English and love the chance to practice with you. Incense was burning all around us and decorations laid out. There was a shrine where a few people were deep in prayer. It was very peaceful.
Our last stop was a place referred to as the sea forest. It’s known as this because it is a high point from which you can see protected jungle land for as far as the eye can see. Like an ocean of trees. It’s so reassuring to see these large expanses still exist and are protected to guarantee their continued existence. Breath taking, simply breath taking. A fantastic end to our trip before bombing back down into the town.
Almost as soon as we arrive back the heavens open and a colossal volume of water falls within an hour. We are trapped inside The Hangout – where we went to plan the next day’s trip. We decide to wait it out and a few of us huddle around a table as the electricity goes out.
One guy who is sat with us is Cambodian, and speaks impeccable English. He’s very clued up on politics around the world and is happy to answer our questions. All the information we had received so far stopped at 1979 and didn’t speak of how the country rebuilt itself after the Khmer Rouge reign. He spoke about the fight continuing until 1993, and how it was the current Prime Minister who defeated them. He spoke of how he has now been in power for 20 years, has become a very rich man and has power deep rooted in the military since all those in power are appointed directly by him. He said that there will be an election in 2 years and there appears to be a large divide within the country with older members likely to vote for the current party and younger members for the opposition, desperate for change, progression. However, they are also concerned that if the current Party loses, a civil war may break out. The Prime Minister is not likely to leave quietly and since he has the backing of the military, is likely to cause a stir. There is a lot of uncertainty in the future of Cambodia.
Once the rain died down we walked back to our guesthouse to regroup. We ventured out to find food but the nearest place was closed – Sunday, there was just one place nearby that appeared to be open and in the dark we didn’t want to wander further so went to have a look at this place. They were certainly surprised to see us walk in, and shouted to each other without really communicating with us, but some sauces, chillies and lemongrass were brought over to us, ready to garnish our meal. We sat awkwardly for a bit, wondering how this was going to go down, then one other customer (of the two in there) piped up and said “I speak English, I can order for you if you like” so we said yes please, thank you. He invited us to sit with him and try the food and chat. He was very friendly and talkative, eager to find out more about us and tell us more about him. He was very friendly. He asked us what we would like to eat, we asked “what do they have?” “I don’t know how you say, uh… Pig…” “Oh yeah that’s good okay we’ll have that.” “… Uh, insides.” We froze and looked at each other trying not to break face. It was kind of too late at this point to back out, it’d be very rude. I could only manage an “oh” then he said “you can have a big plate or a small plate, which would you like?” We looked at each other and quickly said “ohh just a small. To share. We’re not very hungry!” Wondering how we would cope with a small plate still.
It was thin, rubbery and chewy. Intestine we think. But we had a small plate of it to share and not a whole lot of other options. We didn’t want to seem rude so tentatively ate it. I slathered it in a hot chilli sauce and extra crushed chillies which nearly blew my face off but distracted from what I was eating. It was certainly an experience. It came with a side of fresh raw veg too which is generally something to be avoided round here if you don’t have a hardened stomach so I picked at a bit but left most. In the salad were banana slices, skin on, which were SO unripe it’s not true. I had one and it tastes disgusting and the texture was foul. I smiled though and said “Mmm Zoe, have you tried the banana?” She said no and gave it a go. Her face turned slightly and the best analysis she could say without being rude was “mmm… Very bitter!” HA! If I’m going down I’m taking everyone with me.
I had one particular piece of whatever it was that envied an instantaneous response to spit it out, but managed to control it and just chewed very quickly, forcing a swallow. I couldn’t eat any more after that. We scoffed the side plate of peanuts and insisted we were just far too full to eat anything else. All in all it was entertaining and part of travelling. You don’t get much more authentic. Apparently insides are the preferred part of the animal.
Today has been unforgettable in every way possible, but for all the right reasons! Tomorrow we are headed to an indigenous village, going for a walk through the jungle and chilling with some elephants. Not bad I reckon.