Welcome to the jungle

28 Mar

So, parted from my passport, and cut off my my credit card, I had little choice but to stay in Ban Luang. Now, the reason I am here is to go trekking anyway – plus the fact that I didn’t want to end up in Siem Reap at midnight – so since my host, Sophat, has said it’s OK to put stuff on my tab for a while… it’s off into the jungle.

Having been caught up by Rut from Dusseldorf and James from Ireland, and now sharing a room with Seb from Quebec, we also find Polly and Katie from good old Huddersfield and plan for three days of trekking in Ratanakiri province.  I won’t be able to do a thing about my passport or credit cards.. just enjoy the experience.

And so, onto a remork – a motorbike with a trailer. This one’s been modified for extra cooling (big bottle of water attached to the cooling system) and needs refilling in the local lake before we set off, accompanied by our guide, Vutha.

After a bouncy but entertaining journey waving at the local children and trying to stay in the cart, we end up at our starting point. Before leaving, we test the local rice whisky, made on site in the still… and buy some for later. The good stuff is around 49% proof. Seb, on the other hand, buys shampoo…

Making Rice Whisky (2)

We meet up with our ranger, Graam (so easy to call him Graeme – my spelling of his name might not be right, but then his name is actually a tribal name, no even Khmer, so I just get the chance to write it as it sounds) and porter Dag. Dag’s carrying all our food and supplies – we’re just carrying the water and our hammocks & blankets.

And we’re off. These paths are mostly used by the locals (although that might mean a motorbike or two) so Graam has to clear a way from time to time – or we might even need to take a new route entirely, when the forest has been felled in our path.

Much of the forest has been burned – not so much for ‘slash and burn’ farming, but often simply to get an animal from a tree. This is a real problem in the area, which is focussing on sustainable eco touring… certainly some trekkers have been disappointed at the amount of burnt forest they experience.. and yet this is really what life is like here.

Trekking (77)Trekking (89)

We stop for lunch at a dried up river bed, and Graam sets to making cups for our rice whisky (and morning coffee) out of bamboo. Pretty impressive handiwork with a machete! We’re also fascinated that he’s made them so they fit inside each other like Russian dolls

Making Bamboo Cups (2)

More trekking through the jungle – sometimes it opens out and we can see for miles – and other times the jungle closes in around us.  It’s hot and sweaty – the trail is moderate, but the heat makes it harder work, and we are glad of the occasional stop for a rest and to rehydrate. We will miss the fresh, crystal clear water very soon.

Trekking (70)Trekking (83)

We make camp for the night at the river – we’d hoped to be able to wash and maybe even swim, but we’re a bit hesitant to even put our feet in the stagnant water. We do manage to clear a bit of a flowing path in the stream, though, and clean the worst of the dirt off our feet.

And yet, if you raise your eyes up and look beyond the water – to just look beyond the obvious, and allow the sensuous beauty of the jungle in… it’s a beautiful spot, with the sunlight peeking between the trees, and the gentle pattering of the water in the background.

First Camp (6)

The locals fish here by throwing a poisonous bark into the water to kill the fish, which they then just scoop off the surface – the guides are going to have fish for breakfast. Me.. I think I am happy to miss out. Graam sets about cutting bamboo to cook dinner in – the food gets packed into the bamboo and put on the fire. When it comes, it’s tasty and filling, if a little bit lacking in texture – almost to the point of being slimy. I guess the vegetables have cooked down to a mush, a bit like school dinners then.

We make camp by hanging our hammocks on the wood frame that’s there… I suspect we have a large party by the standards of the local trekking industry, which means that the whole thing looks like a Newton’s Cradle. Later on we discover that if Seb moves at one end, the resulting reaction will cause me to nudge Rut who nudges katie and so on… nothing, however, stops Graam snoring.

Trekking First Camp (1)Trekking First Camp (3)Graam

As the sun sinks behind the trees, the sounds of the jungle can be heard… rustling and screeching from the treetops interrupts the gentle splashing of the river. Fireflies dance in the darkness – little pinpricks of light that are almost unseen and elusive.

There’s lots of rice whisky to drink, and cards to be played… lots of laughter and giggles. Graam surprises us by eating a live river crab. And by wearing some very dodgy shorts with a large rip in the rear. At some point, he decides that his divorced daughter needs a new husband, and suddenly Seb is in line for four children and potentially inheriting a tribal hut. Somewhere in that transaction, Polly is engaged too. I keep very quiet, lucky to have escaped.

Somewhere in the evening, one of the girls realises that there is actually an Irish language. Seeking clarity, she asks James whether he is speaking English or Irish at that moment. I nearly fall out of my hammock.

It’s not a great night’s sleep – eventually I dispense with the mosquito net, opting for a respite from the heat and risking the amorous attentions of the insect population. Mercifully, they are not interested.

Sunrise wakes us, the dawn seen through the tree canopy. But someone is using a chainsaw. No, Graam is still snoring gently. Actually, it’s not gentle at. Breakfast is instant noodles and coffee – and very welcome.

Water has to be boiled and cooled before it can be poured into the plastic bottles to replace yesterday’s consumption of 4 litres. No-one is certain whether the addition of tea leaves makes it more or less unpleasant – it’s safe enough, but it tastes vaguely of fish and dirt. But it’s water, and we’re going to need every drop for the days hike.

First Camp (5)

The jungle is lusher today. We discover how cashew nuts grow (hanging from a fruit, which is juicy, sweet and tastes of cashew nuts). Roast them on the fire, get rid of the casing and lo and behold, the best cashew nuts you ever tasted. They are a local cash crop and sold in their husks. No-one seems to eat the fruit though.

Cashew Nut

Across rivers, through forests, up and down hills… and finally into the tribal village. We’re promised a wash here – so we walk down to the local village well, where a couple of pipes pour water out for us to wash in. Which we do, careful not to offend the locals, but very conscious that we are the source of much entertainment as a crowd gathers to watch – although they disperse after the girls have finished.

In the village (31)In the village (37)

Tonight we’re sleeping in the village hut of the Svai village, living amongst the Krung people. Although there are prominent posters proclaiming the virtues of good toilet habits, there are no facilities in the village at all. Apparently the villagers first need educating about the need for a toilet before they will consider building one.

The children are having lessons tonight, and before the official ones, we teach them some arithmetic, tic-tac-toe, some writing – and hot potato.

In the village (45)In the village (47)

Tonight, the conversation is even crazier. We’ve cleared the village shop out of Coca Cola (medicinal, to fight the bugs) but Seb has procured a jar of rice wine. It’s consumed through straws as a cross between a social ritual and a drinking competition. We surrender to the locals (although Seb still continues to go for it) but are touched by the singing contest between the two old solders who fought together against the Khmer Rouge. It’s passionate, powerful and sad all at the same time.

In the village (50)In the village (52)In the village (53)In the village (61)

Tonight, I’m sleeping on the floor of the hut. My back is still recovering from eight hours in a hammock, and still feels a bit like a banana. There are pigs wandering around, and even more strange sounds. And there’s a bug in my mosquito net.

We awake to lots of excitement – one of the local boys has fallen off his motorbike. His family are wailing, but when the girls go to lend their first aid skills, it’s a few bruises, scrapes and maybe concussion. We do get treated to the sight of a motorbike being carried on a motorbike, though.

Trekking (111)Katie & Polly

And then after noodles and coffee, another day of hard trekking. More jungle, more beauty.

Trekking (114)

At the end of it, we meet Graam’s family and their new puppies (four days old!) before getting back on the remork for the trip back to the hotel. Sadly, it runs out of power on the way, and we have to get off and push for a bit.

Trekking (116)Trekking (118)Trekking (122)

Celebrations with a coconut shake at the Coconut shake bar. Apparently they put an egg in it to make it smooth and creamy. And then the fellowship is dissolved.. Rut and James are off for dolphin watching in Kratje, while Seb, Katie and Polly have negotiated a trip on motorcycles to the temple at Preah Vaheah.. three days as a scooter passenger with rucksack, boots, sleeping bags attached. Looks risky – and I am relieved when they mail me to say they are safe.

Seb BikeKatie Bike

And me… well, i need to wait for my credit card to arrive – and then it’s off to Phnom Penh on a bus.

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