Friday, February 4, 2011

Cambodia – Ratanakiri, The Road Less Traveled

With only 2 weeks left in Asia before our flights to the US – Ho Chi Minh via Singapore to Los Angeles, then San Diego to Tampa, we have to start thinking about making our way to Vietnam. There are several options to cross the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, and since our tourist visa is valid from February 1st (and we already read up on Vietnam…lol), so we can cross whichever border whenever and wherever we want.
Narrowing down the two options: easy or adventurous; we go for the latter. Easy would have been to take a direct bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, a 7 hour journey and more or less door to door service.

But if you know us, you expect that easy is just not our style. Of course, we chose the more adventurous way which meant an 11 hour bus trip that ended with a long dirt road finale to get up to the northeastern province of Ratanakiri. Our final stop: the town of Banlung, a small, but dynamic town of 17,000 inhabitants. This little town is the provincial capital and also the main trading post of the surrounding Cambodian hill tribes. From there it would then be another day trip to Pleiku in Vietnam – over a small border crossing that probably only sees a few dozen foreigners each month.
We were hopeful that we could join a 2-3 day trekking tour through the wilderness of Ratanakiri. But that was not our only motive to go up there. The Chinese New Year is just around the corner, this would mean that all the “touristy” places popular with the locals (Chinese Cambodians) would be jammed packed full. We thought that the Cambodian hill tribes are probably not too concerned about Chinese New Year, especially since the Khmer celebrate their New Year a bit later on April 13 or 14th. The Chinese population resides mainly in Phnom Penh so we doubted that the Chinese would bother making such a long journey to Banlung or have family in this predominantly hill tribe region.

The 11 hour journey was not all that bad, if you ignore the constant cloud of dust and smoke, combined with a bone-rattling bumpy road. See our Blog post about the road transport in Cambodia to get an impression of the trip and see a short video.

No room left for luggage
Besides the bumpy ride we had to deal with stacking our backpacks in the aisle of the bus and move them every time someone wanted to walk up or down the aisle…the cargo hold of the bus had been stuffed full with vegetables! Perhaps that’s why they call it cargo hold…but we hope that we will find decent food grown there too!

We arrived shortly after dark in Banlung. Normally we prefer to arrive in daylight and immediately look for a place to stay, since everything looks so different in the dark. It is often a lot more challenging finding a place in the dark, especially in rural Cambodia where everybody seems to go to sleep by 8pm. But dark it was and we were pretty knackered from the trip, so we took one of the first available options, and decided to search for a better place the next morning especially since everything was so spread out in this town. We were also quite hungry after the long trip and since we didn’t nibble on any of the insect delicacies (see previous Blog post), our tummies desperately needed some nutrients. Strangely, there were many places open but empty so we were concerned they might be on the verge of closing.

The next day we discovered that the locals are very well aware of the upcoming Chinese New Year (CNY), most hotels decided to double their room rates. A common practice in this part of the world, which we would again encounter in Vietnam. We were quite surprised by that, since everyone is leaving Singapore during CNY and hotels are mostly empty. We have also been traveling in Southeast Asia during CNY but never experienced such a price gauging where rooms doubled in price. We were even told by a resident Dutch lady that the price of food at the local open air market also doubles during this period… go figure!

Luckily, we found a place (Lakeview Lodge) near the lake that was mostly catering to western travelers and the son of the owner made a point that his rates are the same all year, plus they had a decent room available too, including free WiFi (very slow). We had a massive bathroom in this colonial style two level house which was converted into a guest house. The patio was also nice for hanging out. It was decorated with all the family’s personal items such as ornate heavy carved wooden furniture and portraits of the family members.

This son also spoke excellent English and seems to be a smart businessman. You could book a trek, hire a bicycle, motorbike, eat in their restaurant, etc. It certainly is a busy traveler “one stop shop” so he was always arranging something for someone. We heard later that he can get quite upset if his "guests" don't eat at their restaurant or don't book tours with him. But he never bothered us. Even when we asked about transport to the Vietnam border, he said that we should book with an agent in town if they provide direct service to Pleiku; his shuttle would only drop us at the border. So none of that pushiness that others experienced.

"Chon Ong Waterfall"
... running dry
With a place to stay for a few days, we started to explore the options of excursions. Unfortunately due to CNY, the 2-3 day treks were either not going, or fully booked. We wanted to go on a trek with an operator called “The Dutch Couple” but they used CNY to explore a new trekking route. They explained that local copy-cats agencies had started to follow their current route, causing a lot of pollution and damage to the trails… I guess it was also that they could not justify their higher prices any longer either. But they had by far the best reviews on all the online travel portals.

OK, so no trekking. What else is there to do around here? We rented a motorbike and went to one of the waterfalls nearby. It is dry season, so the waterfall was more like a water drizzle.

Busy festivities at
"Boeung Yaek Lom lake"
Next we went to a lake that was formed in the crater of an extinct volcano. Its shape is perfectly round, so perfect that the locals believe it was formed by a meteor strike. The water is said to be crystal clear. Well when we arrived at the lake, it was Banlung’s CNY party hangout. Half the town was gathered around the lake, loud music was blaring from massive speakers with a live keyboard accompaniment. Kids and teenagers were jumping into the lake flapping about in a kind of comical way especially since they were all wearing their street clothes (jeans t-shirts, etc). Most “swimmers” wore bright orange life vests that were piled up near the wooden platforms areas that jutted out into the lake: the skill of knowing how to swim is still rare in large parts of Asia.

Don't know what is in this box,
he insisted that we take his picture!
Families were picnicking everywhere. There were even picnic gazebos that could be rented but most people just brought their own mats. There were plenty of food sellers everywhere so people were eating and drinking beer in copious quantity. And litter was everywhere!

So forget about clear water with this commotion going on, or finding a peaceful place to relax and contemplate life. We stayed there for a short while deciding quickly that we had enough of the local festivities: screaming kids and deafening music were not in our plans today. Maybe the lake is nice when it’s not CNY?

Patrick working on the next
Blog update. The WiFi
is soooo slooooow!
With two of the major sights under our belt and no trekking options upcoming, we used the time to catch up on our Blog writing, photo organizing and just chill-axing. We also met a German couple that had been traveling for nearly 8 months already, a big part of it in Central and South America… so we could get some good information about our upcoming destinations.

Probably the highlight of our trip to Banlung was that we found a little restaurant called Sal’s. It’s tucked away on a side street and looks more like a small bar on stilts even more hidden behind the family’s house. But the food she prepared was incredible!

Best western food in town,
at "Sal's" little restaurant
She explained that she had been together with a British man for almost 5 years (that left her recently before their son was born as he didn’t want her to keep the child) He had taken her to some other countries where she tasted western food and other Asian dishes, and she started to combine various elements of the different cuisines together with local Banlung ingredients that were available. The fish wrap in homemade tortillas was out of this world. Originally we had thought that she might have worked as a chef in a big hotel restaurant in Phnom Penh. We actually ate there twice, both times we were the only guests... too bad that she is so far off the main road and that her sign is hardly visible. But thankfully her place is written up in Lonely Planet, so if you ever go to Banlung make sure you eat at Sal’s.

Our time in Cambodia is coming to an end after 21 days full of new experiences and encounters.

Cambodia is definitely worth a visit. Come here before it’s too developed and saturated with tourists (some parts of Siem Reap and Angkor are already a local version of Disney Land). But it’s still possible to find a un-touristic area even there. We feel that Cambodia is the least developed and explored country so far that we’ve found in Asia. The roads are gradually being paved (like the one that we took to get to Banlung is partially paved now which shortened the travel time considerably as it used to require an overnight stop midway).

Tomorrow, we will cross over to Vietnam, a country that we both have never been to before!