Trip Information

Just waiting for the rain to stop...
Just waiting for the rain to stop... (12)
Trip Date:2005-06-26 - 2005-07-25
# Photos:41 [View]
Countries visited:Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam
Viewed: 5177
Early morning flight to Ratanakiri, operated by PMT airlines. Twenty seats on an old Russian prop plane. The airconditioner pumped vapour from dry ice around the aircraft to varying degrees, at one point it was so thick you couldnt see the end of the aircraft. Touched down on the red dirt airstrip to be greeted by dogs and kids from the village, the lack of perimeter fence or security allowed them to run onto the strip to greet the plane as it taxied.

Ratanakiri, Cambodia’s far northeastern corner some 630 kilometers from Phnom Penh, bordered by Laos to the north and Vietnam to the east. Minority hill tribes - generically referred to as Khmer Leou, meaning ‘highlander’ - account for about 80% of the province's 70,000 or so inhabitants.

We spent three days in a small "ëcolodge" in the hills in the jungle, trekking to interesting hill tribe villages,where we were offered even more interesting food, including the village of Kachok, a Tampuan minority village, the main attraction here is a cemetery with interesting carvings, and the Krueng village with their high boy houses. We swam in beautiful waterfalls covered in jungle and Yeak Laom volcanic lake and visited Banlung market. The main town Banlung is about two blocks by two blocks with a large covered marketplace and smaller outdoor market, which is at its best early morning. Many of the villagers in the market walked great distances to get there, carrying their produce over their backs in khapas. These are straw baskets of various sizes, usually woven from bamboo and with straps made from rattan.

We could have stayed longer but the moonsoon rain seemed to have set in and the scorpions were coming out. Black about the length of Keith's hand, looked more like a small lobster, apparently we were told the locals go out looking for them after the rains, they are very nice with peanuts..... we passed.........
From Ratankiri to Stung Treng by taxi, we had the taxi to ourselves, seeing us we were the only ones there, which was very fortunate as the road was non-existent, a stretch of red mud with varying size pot holes and craters, took five hours to cover the 124kms and I felt sea sick when we arrived from all the 'dancing', as our driver said, to avoid the holes. The scenery was impressive though, forest forest and more forest, for how much longer we wonder.
From Stung Treng to Kratie, this time not so fortunate more people, locals travelling our way. The taxi, a toyota camry had three passengers in the back we bought three tickets which meant we only had to share with one other guy and his young son, normally its a four persons seat. And the front two seats were occupied by had four, two on the pasenger seat, and the driver and one guy perched on the edge of the drivers seat next to the door. Mmmm not sure how safe it really is, but there is no choice. The road (Chinese built or should I say building) was dead straight, still red dirt but with no holes, so the 144 kms was covered relatively quickly, less than five hours, including almost an hour stop to negotiate a river. The bridge had collapsed and the new one is nowhere near finshed, so each vehicle has to manouvre and balance on two small rafts with planks and be floated across to the other side, the passengers can either balance with the car or climb across the not yet finshed bridge, with a bit of acrobatic skill we did the latter.

From Kratie back up tp the hills of Mondulkiri and Sen Monorom, rolling green hills and wooded valleys. Mondulkiri is bordered by Ratanakiri to the north, Vietnam to the east and southeast, Kratie to the southwest and west, and shares a very small border with Stung Treng to the north. The province is predominantly minority hilltribes.

The town of Sen Monoram is little more than a three sided roundabout, three red laterite roads, a disused airstrip and a small market. But the surrounding area is stunning. A few of the villages still work elephants, the beasts being the most apt to negoiate the small jungle paths. One of the highlights of the trip was a day spent tekking from a Phnoung village partly with the help of an elephant. The elephant usually works in the village or at least around the village, moving timbers, hauling loads, but with forewarning, the mahout will strap something similar to a bamboo shopping basket to its back and take you into the jungle. And when I say simliar to a shopping basket I am talking about shape and size, although they placed a cushion in the bottom for us, it was impossilbe for keith to sit in it comfortably or otherwise, but the trek was great, elephants do not stop eating, so it was very slow, through the undergrowth and jungle, many birds and waterfalls and just so quiet.......the village was most probably the poorest I have ever seen, we were invited into a house to sit down and the people living there had apart from a bed and a simple table had nothing....................

After a freezing cold shower from a bucket of water and a so called pancake for breakfast we left Sen Monorom, took the eight hours bus jounrey to Phnom Penh. The first part of the journey, again muddy roads full of holes which sent us sliding across the track, but after six hours we picked up a normal road and 10 kms outside of PP a real road began complete with painted white central line. Stopped for a lunch stop where crispy bugs, grasshoppers and spiders with rice seemed to be the favourite. The journey was really picturesque through rural cambodia, rice fields turning green, everyone busy, sugar and coconut palms everywhere.

A torrential downpour in Phnom Penh had us soaked in the few minutes it took us to seek shelter in a pavillion along side the river. The kids had great fun, stripping down to their underwear or naked, sliding across the stone floor in the rain.

We continued to follow the Mekong towards the Delta. The delta region begins south of Phnom Penh, where after joining with the Tonle Sap River, the Mekong divides into its two main branches: the lower Mekong, known as the Bassac River, and the Upper Mekong. From here, numerous small tributaries and manmade canals create an environment often better suited to boat travel than to land travel. We took a boat across the border into Vietnam, and Chau Doc. Chau Doc lays just a couple of miles from the Cambodian border a bustling town with a wonderful market, so much fresh produce for sale. There are a number of floating houses (the floats are empty metal drums) which provide a convenient way for families to raise fish underneath. What makes Chau Doc interesting is it's mix of communities, Khmer, Cham, and Chinese. The Cham are mostly muslim, and leave in isolated communities across the river, complete with mosques. Several kms to the south is Sam Mountain, it’s really a hill, but it gives great views of the surrounding countryside and back into southern Cambodia.

After two days in Chau Doc, we left for Can Tho. Can Tho is a lively city, the biggest place we have been to so far, made Phnom Penh look like a sleepy town. It belies the economics of the surrounding area and is certainly more developed than anywhere we had seen in Cambodia. Some locals spend their evening walking and exercising along the city’s newly renovated riverfront. We were approached along the riverfront by a lady with a conical hat and a bad finger and rented her and her son and boat for a trip up the river to the local riverine markets and through the beautiful backwaters. Up at 4am and were chugging to the Phung Hiep market by 5:30 along with the locals and their variety of produce, being on a small boat ouselves we were able to cruise alongside and inbetween the market boats. On the way back the engine failed and we had to be towed through the back waters to Can Tho, passing many riverside settlements of stilt houses the most poverty stricken we were to see in the delta area.

Back on the road to a small place Tra Vinh, three hours bus ride, the rice was being harvested and laid out to dry along the road, squeezing the traffic into a mere one lane. In our opinion the detour wasnt worth it, the town had absolutely nothing going for it at all. As we arrived at the bus station the heavens open for a torrential downpour so we and the other passengers had to hold up for a while, we were the amusement of everyone, certainly passed their time away examining us, especially keith and his white hair. the main reason for us to travel to Tra Vinh was to visit Ang Pagoda an ancient Khmer. The pagoda is 7 kilometres from the centre of Tra Vinh town, hopping on a xe om (motorbike taxi). The pagoda is surrounded by old trees of Ba Om pond the grounds are a bird sanctuary where storks flock at dusk, the raining season affording the best opporunity to see the birds. So we thought, right time, right place, but although it was nice to see, it wasnt worth the long bus ride.

Moving on--a bizare breakfast buffet and a 38 kms xe om ride to Vinh Long on the Upper Mekong. The Mekong, being a kilometer or two wide at this point must be crossed by ferry. Big Danish built ferries are used capable of carrying about a dozen trucks and buses, dozens of motorcycles, and a hundred, maybe two hundred people. Next to the ferry a huge billboard proudly displays the latest feat of Vietnamese civil engineering. A huge suspension bridge which is under construction to carry traffic over the Mekong. We settled ourselves in a very nice guesthouse on the waterfront,a really nice room a peaceful haven away from the chaos, great views over the river and street. After strolling around the town we came back to find a market had bgan right under our window. The river is so wide here, and its hard to grasp that this is only a branch of the mekong. Ferries of all sizes, to-ing and fro-ing to the islands area which covers around 60 square kilometres and has four villages: An Binh, Binh Hoa Phuoc, Hoa Ninh and Dong Phu.

Vinh Long had a certain charm, we enjoyed ourselves there very much, strolling around the fertile An Binh island eating the fruit from the orchards.

After breakfast we took a xe om to the bus station to head back towards Can Tho, but no buses to be had, so with the wind in our hair we sped the 38 kms by xe om picking up the bus in Can Tho to Rach Gia.

This journey really is a hit and miss, Rach Gia capital of Kien Giang Province, we found it a dirty town, I know that rain didnt help but one night was enough. Ironically, the province is said to be the richest in Vietnam, its wealth based on rice and seafood. Nuc Mam, a renowned fish sauce, is produced here. And it is here that we sat on the bridge and watched the Mekong rush under the bridge to the ocean, it was if the river could not wait to free itself. So in the past three years we have travelled not even half of the Mekong's journey. from Huay Xia in Laos, to Luang Prabang, Vientiene, Pakse, Savanakhet, Don Khong and Don Dhet, Stung Treng, Kratie, Phnom Penh, Chau Doc, Can Tho, Vinh Long, Rach Gia.

With only one week left of our trip and having seen the mouth of the river, time to start to move back towards Camobodia. But now not on the river but along the coast to the undeveloped Hon Chong Penisula.

The coast close to the Cambodia border, is dotted with towering limestone formations which make it quite picturesque, unlike the rest of the Delta coast, which is flat. The fishing villages of the Hon Chong peninsula, have so far escaped modern development. Most of the villagers live in small houses, right on the white sand beach.

Our spacious, airy room, which we shared we a green and pink spotted gecko, that insisited at shouting gecko, gecko at us during the night, overlooked a 3 kms bay littered with islands. Hot days, sultry evenings beautiful sunsets and terrific storms. The walk to the far tip of the penisular and the vist to the pagoda gave us the best photo shooting morning so far. And just when we thinking that this could go on forever and Vlaardingen seemed so far away, we remembered that it was appraoching the 24th of July - the date on our return air ticket and that we should perhaps start to head back via Ha Tien to Phnom Penh.