Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Far Reaches of Northern Cambodia

 (Dates to be determined)

A small, rattly bus similar to the yellow ones I went to elementary school in, was packed full and we were the only foreigners on the bus.  Our next destination, in the most remote reaches of Cambodia, doesn't warrant those large, comfortable coaches and we found ourselves sitting on a lightly padded wooden bench above the raised wheel arch on our way to Kampong Cham where we would break up a two day journey en-route to Banlung in the northeast corner of the country.  Even the route was similar to that of a school bus as it followed dusty, bumpy backroads, dropping people off directly in front of their bamboo huts in the countryside.  The predicted eight hour journey turned into ten;  nowhere near our longest bus ride, but we got off in Kampong Cham feeling exhausted and drained. 

We found a $4 room without windows which shielded us from the noise of the town.  Having a quick read of the sights in our invaluable Lonely Planet we decided to walk down alongside the Mekong to a bamboo bridge which connected an island to the west bank.  Each year, this bridge gets washed away with the floods of the monsoon and is then rebuilt for the dry season.  We strolled along the shores as the evening sun headed for the horizon the locals calling greetings as we passed.  Children and adults alike offered smiles and enthusiastic waves.  Not once are we accosted by a tuk tuk driver, no shopkeepers called out to make a sale and nobody offered a massage.  A group of four muslim girls studying english in the local school rode their bikes alongside us, eager for a chance to practice their learnings and we chatted with them for a while.  I don't know what it is about muslims but across the entire peninsula they have, without fail, always been the most welcoming,  accepting and selfless people; always eager for a conversation and wanting nothing more than to help us in any way they can.  Here, on the banks of the Mekong in a small Cambodian town, even these teenage girls just wanted to talk and to offer us a lift on the backs of their bicycles.  It's just an observation, no more, and we excused ourselves of their offer having spent 10 hours sat on bus and eager for a walk, but their openness is refreshingly optimistic amongst both the current climate of news bulletins as well as the (mostly) closed faces of the westerners we see on the street.

As the sun began to set, my eyes were attracted to a large, golden frame of Buddha inside the whitewashed walls surrounding a Buddhist Temple.  Deviating from our intended destination we were drawn inside the compound. An emaciated 4m high golden Buddha greeting us and beyond lay one of the largest on site cemeteries we have come across. Tall, colourful stupas reaching skyward, each with many faces carved into their spires.  The muslim call to prayer sang out on loudspeakers from a mosque up the road and goosebumps ran up and down my soul as the darkness fell around us; one of those exceptionally special emotional moments.  We never got to the bamboo bridge. 

The 12 hours that we spent in Kampong Cham was a refreshing change to the tourist dominated areas of the capital and the west.  Located at the western end of the only bridge in Cambodia to span the Mekong it is an unpretentious town with the charm of a village. It was a blessing to feel the release from Seam Reap.

The following morning we caught the bus for the second leg up into the mountains of NE Cambodia to Banlung, arriving once more in the evening light. The countryside was unremarkable throughout the journey and we were both feeling weary from the attitudes we had encountered over the weeks prior. The mountains themselves are in reality no more than hills but the cooler climate was a relief and after an hour of trawling by tuk tuk from one hotel to another we settled on the LP's recommendation of Tree Top Lodge. A collection of wooden bungalows and buildings set on a ridge across from the town centre.  Wooden panelling and a bathroom enclosed in beautiful stone walls with the added touch of a private balcony for US$7 per night.  US$12 would have gotten us a large, beautiful, private bungalow but counting pennies as we are, we opted for the cheaper room. 

The nice thing about having the time we do, is that of course we don't need to worry about the pressures of travel unless we choose to. Banlung once again provided a short stopping point and we did very little there beyond exploring the charms of the market town and the surrounding area for a few days and relaxing on the common area balcony with low tables and pillows overlooking the valley. Apart from the inevitable waterfalls and rivers, the only feature we found of particular note was a lake set in the perfectly circular crater of an extinct volcano and we spent an enjoyable afternoon in the sun swimming in the cool, clear water and wandering the path around its circumference accompanied by the delighted screams of the local kids playing elsewhere along the shores. 

After four days (and after having a interesting run in with a huge centipede in our room), we boarded a mini bus early in the morning to continue on to Stung Treng, anticipating a four hour layover before the bus arrived from Phnom Phen to take us back into Laos.  We wandered the afternoon market and decided it was a typical dusty border town; there wasn't much more to see here.  Four hours turned into six and six into eight before the proprietor of the hotel informed us that the bus had broken down and we would have to spend the night.

Whist I did yoga the next morning, Julian went out in search of a couple bicycles so we might do a 9km circuit of the local temples before our bus that afternoon.  2.5 hours had passed and I had almost given up hope until finally he walked in with a cheeky, apologetic smile, drenched in sweat and radiating an awful stench.  Having visited a Buddhist temple up on the hill he had met a group of underprivileged children who lived on the grounds and had spent the entire time acting as a climbing frame, providing airplane rides, giving them biro tattoos to match his and playing with their pet monkeys whist taking occasional breaks to cool down, receiving massages from the children (why they wanted to touch his sweaty skin I don't know; I certainly wouldn't have).  He had already decided that he wanted to purchase a few toys to bring to them that afternoon and after packing up, with a rattan ball and a couple of 'footminton' birdies we made our way to the temple on top of the hill. 

He was greeted enthusiastically by the children who came running, offered hugs and took his hand as we walked toward the temple.  inside and out, colourful paintings of Buddhas life covered the walls and ceilings and before the golden shrines, percussion instruments were laid out for all to use.  There were 10-15 huts on the ground used by underprivileged families and here they appear to live a happy, enriching life.  Certainly one thing I love about the Buddhist temples in Cambodia is their charity and their obvious contribution back to the community.  The children introduced me to their pet monkeys which were harnessed to trees and by then about a dozen children had joined us, ranging from 6-13 years old.  They kicked the ball around, played their instruments for us and climbed trees to retrieve pod like strings of vegetables which they fed to us.  The first was a lush and sweet green seeds from a tough, bean like pod.  Shoving a different kind in our mouths a bitter, pungent taste took over which Julian promptly spit over the side, much to the amusement of the kids.  We soon shared fond farewell's and when our bus came to pick us up (only two hours late this time) we left feeling fondly of our experience of the town despite a little needle in the back of our minds which suggested perhaps we were lied to about the broken down bus yesterday as a ruse to have guests in an otherwise empty hotel. 

The border crossing into Laos cemented our impressions of the past weeks. The staff on the coach offered to complete everyones paperwork at the border and quietly inflated the price of each visa by a dollar and then added in another dollar for their efforts. Further to these charges, the Cambodian border officials wanted $2 'stamping' fee, and the Lao officials the same amount for 'overtime' which they start charging after 1600. To his disappointment we declined the coach staff assistance and proposed to do the legwork ourselves having been through Lao once already and knowing the visa costs.  Lonely Planet suggests that the Cambodian stamp charge depends on 'how rich you look' and we accepted it as a given that we must pay, but the 'overtime' bribe on the Lao side is not mentioned and Julian spent 20 minutes arguing with the young guard, trying at least to halve the costs. Accosted by a westerner twice his age, using words like 'bribe' and 'blackmail' the border official would look anywhere but in Julians eyes and obviously embarrassed by the accusations he was eventually moved aside by a more senior officer who after 20+ years of dealing with unhappy tourists simply demanded the money without conscience or argument. When it came to the point of the coach throwing off our luggage, we of course paid, some satisfaction gained in knowing it took a good deal less time to earn the money than it did for them to extort it (before they divided it between the three guards there). It's a good scam though. Approximately 40 people on the coach, the charges only levied at foreigners: Seven days a week, US$2 per passenger for the Cambodians, US$2 for the Laos and another US$2 for the coach staff and the only thing we could do is withhold from the coach. A Japanese passenger had accompanied us in our fruitless crusade and requested a receipt, but you know that's never going to get him anywhere. It is worth noting however for those readers looking to make this border crossing, the Lao side may be paid in kip, 10,000 kip instead of US$2 will save about 35% in real terms. The border guards exchange rate is as criminal as the corruption that demands the bribe.  

It has overall been a disappointing experience of Cambodia. We were eager to visit the country but are left with an impression of a mercenary people and every conversation was punctuated with the thought of corrupt undertones. Despite the rare interaction with genuine openness and kindness from those outside of the tourist areas it was a great relief to be leaving. We had read in Lonely Planet that Cambodia's greatest asset is its people but in our experience, in comparison to the other countries we have passed through; especially those servicing the main tourist spots, have a lot yet to learn about interaction with outsiders. Angkor Wat is impressive beyond words and for the temple park alone the visit to Cambodia has been warranted, but the desperation and the constant bombardment from those looking to make a buck in any way possible was more marked here than anywhere else. By the time we crossed into Laos my head was swimming with suspicions: Do the buses conveniently run late each evening to encourage the overtime charge?  DId the hotel owner lie to us the previous day in order to fill a room the night before?  Surely the bike we were accused of stealing remains at the shop in Siem Reap. I can only  hope our couch surfing host comes to understand the spirit of couch surfing or switches to AirB& or a similar web site. I understand and appreciate that everyone needs to make a living but the stress of being a constant target, a victim in these underhanded games, has taken its toll and has negatively influenced my perspective of this part of the world. At the end of our first loop around the peninsula, we found ourselves locked away behind the walls of our hotels just to gain a little peace.  

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