Expeditions, Navigation, Guided Walks and Trekking
Ratanakiri province is in the far north east of Cambodia, bordering Laos to the north and Vietnam to the East. This time last year I was leading a group of teenagers on a jungle trek in the north of the province. This was part of a month long World Challenge expedition for the group from Perth, Australia. To get to our start we had a 12 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh along some pretty dilapidated roads. We arrived in the dark at the bus station outside Banlung the provincial capital. It took all of the Tuk-Tuk’s there to shuttle us to the hotel in town. Early next morning there was a further hours drive north in the back of a small truck, on the way picking up one of our guides from his farm. This track was extremely dusty, so we encouraged the driver to keep his speed up despite the potholes, this was the only way to avoid getting very mucky. This track took us to Virachey village, which was a local market and where the ferry crossing across the river took people further north in the province. Our journey was to be in motorized canoes first up the main Sean River and then branching off up a tributary into the jungle area. These rivers started in Vietnam and not much further downstream joined up with the mighty Mekong. We followed the O’Lalai river for an exciting 15km, disembarking once to walk around some rapids.
A short walk from the river took us to Tra village in a jungle clearing. Food for the 4 day trek seemed like a ton of rice, noodles, eggs and vegetables. There was a scramble amongst us all as we sorted it into equal loads, but I still had around 5kg of rice in my pack.
Pril, our third local guide joined us at the village. Two other guides had joined us in Banlung. Bun-Ni (pronounced Bunny), was our English speaker and Won Son hopped into our lorry just outside town, complete with fishing net. Pril was one of the local minority who lived in the jungle. They were Kavet people, a highland people, who had lived in this area for over a millennium. According to our guidebook these tribes had been exploited as slaves by neighboring empires and even now their way of life is threatened by central government corruption selling off their lands to speculators. Villagers lives were badly effected during the recent wars. The Khmer Rouge built its headquarters in the province in the 1960s. Subsequent bombing of the area by the US during the Vietnam war and then when the Khmer Rouge were at war with Vietnam and the rest of the country devastated the region. So it wasn’t surprising the people we met away from the village on our trek appeared wary of visitors, including us.
Bun-Ni told us that Pril’s name, meant Banana in the Khmer official language. After that he was known as Mr Banana, although it was difficult to tell if he appreciated the joke. He was a little man, proudly wearing the uniform of the Cambodian Army. Our wariness and intrigue about these two local guides started when Bun-Ni (who was a young man) told us that most of the older members of the Cambodian Army were once in the Khmer Rouge. Won Son was our other guide and cook. He was in the army when he was younger and had great story to tell about his life. It was a few days before we heard his full story and how he lost fingers from his left hand.
Our first days trek was a short one, walking first through clearings where the people grow their crops and harvest bamboo. The clearings made way to secondary jungle, where farming had been abandoned and then we were into primary bamboo jungle. The jungle paths were well trodden and often used during the trekking season. That day we met two other World Challenge groups, making their way back to the village or to another camp.
We soon arrived at our campsite, which already had trees trimmed and ground cleared so we could put up our hammocks. These strange Hennessy hammock contraptions have to be put up properly or they will collapse or open up in the night neither to be recommended. So we all had fun finding just the right spot and tree and practicing the figure-of-eight knots needed to keep them fastened to the trees. A small stream ran next to our camping area with rocks on the riverbank forming our fireplace and dining tables. As it got dark Won Son took out his fishing net and stretched it across the river, upstream. After dinner we collected a disappointing catch – just a few small fish. Won Son was disappointed, he said that last time they fished there they had caught a lot enough for dinner, although perhaps they had just fished the river out. The few we had were skewered on bamboo sticks and BBQ’d over the embers. Dipped in the hot chilli sauce they were a delicious small supper.
During the night most of us were woken up by condensation dripping down from the trees and through our nets. We hadn’t planned for that and mistakenly left our flysheets off the hammocks so the breeze would keep us cool.
Next day we were promised a walk up “the mountain”, which sounded better than it turned out. Our guides took us up a narrow path through thick jungle, and only stopped to cut us all bamboo sticks to keep the vegetation back and help with our footing on the sometimes slippery ground. It was hard going up the hills, climbing around 200m to the top of “The Mountain”. Close to the top one of the girls slipped on a damp log and took a nasty fall. All the boys had to keep well away while the teacher gave treatment. It was painful and it was touch and go as to whether we could continue. She bravely decided to continue, but her backpack needed to be shared out amongst us all.
I think we went past the top without realising it, there was certainly no view to be had. Down the other side of the mountain we came across a note pinned to a recently felled mature tree. The note explained that the path ahead was blocked by another fallen tree. It was difficult to see if the trees had been felled by the recent storms that had hit the area, or by illegal logging, probably the former for these trees.
it was time for heavy machete work as the guides cleared a way down the mountain for us, through virgin forest. After an hour of hard slashing we picked up another track which took down to our planned lunch stop beside O’Lalai river. Across the river was Virachey National Park a protected area. The jungle was thicker over there and the area resounded with the cries of strange birds and animals. A couple of hours further trekking alongside the river brought us to our campsite, beautifully located next to more rocky outcrops and a well established stand of trees for our hammocks. That evening after dinner most of the group went for a swim in the river and took the fishing net upstream, hope for a better catch. Sitting drying off on the rocks, we watched a family of four come down the river on freshly cut bamboo rafts. The two children on the back carefully kept their balance as father poled his craft through the white water and mother following standing on her own raft. The fishing nets failed to deliver a catch again, so Mr Banana and Won Son took some of the group down stream to try catching fish with the machete. This involved spotting a fish and hitting it under the water. Lots of splashes later a few tiddlers were caught and even fewer in one piece. Crabs were easier to catch by putting hands under rocks. Again we BBQ’d them for supper. Lovely grub.
Our third day’s route took us on relatively easy paths back south after our loop of the mountain. We passed our first night campsite before making off into the jungle again. Injuries started to effect us, the slip of the previous day making going rather painful and a few areas of heat rash had developed. Our pace slowed down but we had plenty of time to get to our last campsite. As we came closer to our final stop a local farmer walked towards us and gave us the shocking news that our campsite was already occupied. One of the trekking groups that were a couple of days behind us unfortunately had two members effected by sickness. They decided to stay put in their overnight camp, which was supposed to be ours for that night. Guides, leaders and challengers undertook a heated negotiation on what to do. After some feelings were expressed by the Australians amongst us we agreed to share the river bank for cooking and washing. But we had to cut out another area to hang our hammocks for the night. A quick risk assessment threw up the possibility of falling down the steep river bank in the dark if someone made a wayward toilet trip. We spent a happy hour with machetes making a campsite and serviceable fence along the cliff to keep us safe.
After dinner I got talking to Won Son, translated by Bun-Ni. We got to hear his story. It covered his role in the painful recent history of Cambodia. This was such a tragic and difficult story I wrote it all down in my journal and made sense of the timeline by looking up the events in my Lonely Planet guidebook. This was a great story in itself so have recorded it all in a separate blog to follow.
Our last day of the trek was a short return to the village. After leaving the primary jungle area we had camped in, we re-joined our path out from three days ago, back through the abandoned farmland. A running commentary from one of the girls kept us alert to the under foot hazards; “Root, log, branch, fence, stream, root, fence, stream…”. Soon, three metre high grasses and bushes closed in on us. This was different to the jungle we had been in during the previous days. After an hours hard walking through the overgrown fields the vegetation cleared and we approached Tra village across small streams.
On the outskirts of the village were a number of “Love Huts”, where local teenagers sleep together. At the time I don’t think we understood what they were. It only became clear to me what they were when sorting the photos out.
The last of our food was cooked up for lunch, supplemented by welcome iced teas and energy drinks from the village elder’s hut shop.
Here we said our thanks and farewells to Mr Banana before boarded the motorised canoes for another exciting journey down the river back to the road head and our waiting truck. It felt odd being out from the jungle and painful as the truck bounced down the dusty road back to town. Won Son sat with us in the truck with his wok, fishing net and a puppy he was given in the village. He was dropped off at his farm where his wife was there to meet him. He gave the puppy to her, a present from his trip.
We talked our driver into taking a detour by Crater Lake, a perfect circular lake in the jungle outside Banlung. Everybody enjoyed the warm water, washing off the dust from the truck journey.