Into the “jungle”

We were told that the bus from Siem Reap to Stung Treng would take 12h. It took 15h. Only 3 hours late, not a big deal, but after all day in a crapy bus we really needed to get out. We arrived at 8pm and on the way we had to take another bus-full of passengers on board. Their fancy air conditioned bus with big seats and TV which was going to Laos broke down in a middle of nowhere and all the 30 something people were waiting for the next passing bus to take them to the closest city. They waited for 2 hours until they pulled over our bus. Squeezed like sardines 4 people in one seat (we made new friends), we finally got to Stung Treng.

From there first thing the next morning, we jumped into a mini bus and headed to Banlung. We were up for a jungle adventure and apparently Banlung was one of the best places in Cambodia for it.

I imagined Banlung to be surrounded by lush jungle and thundering waterfalls, but unfortunately it was nothing like it due to heavy logging. It was once a city surrounded by a jungle, but deforestation and investment in rubber tree plantations made it look more like a small desert with green jungle far on the horizon. Despite that the city was full of tourist offices claiming they each organise the most unique jungle experiences. We were dubious about the quality of the trek considering how highly deforested the area was and how much the deforestation must have affected animals, forcing them to retreat deeper into the jungle. In fact our fears were right. To see the proper jungle at Vichery National Part further up on the north we would need at least a 5 day trip. We didn’t have that much time.

In the end we opted for a two day trek that took us to an ethnic minority village and deeper into primary jungle. It was not what we were hoping for, especially that we didn’t see a single animal, but we appreciated the company of Sat, our Khmer guide, and Neng, a ranger from the ethnic minority village. We stopped for the night at a jungle camp close to a waterfall and it was an absolutely devine place. After a long day of walking in the heat, dipping in crystal clear pool under the waterfall was priceless. Other small groups joined us later and we enjoyed the evening of communal cooking in bamboo, drinking rice wine and listening to stories about jungles and tigers. The next day on the way back Sat and Neng showed us native trees and plants that the locals used for food, water, making of alcohol, wax and even cigarettes. It was fascinating.

The stay in ethnic minority village was very interesting too. The village was separated from the main land by a river and around it there was only forest and further away the jungle. Isolation was clearly visible in their behaviour, manners and communication. They were very reserved, talked little and smiled rarely. It was a closed community and people tended to marry with members of the same village. Their living conditions were poor, looking at them from a western perspective of course. They had no running water and no electricity. They sourced water from the river and used it for drinking and washing. Because they didn’t filter or boil drinking water, illnesses were common, but getting to a doctor on the other side of the river was costly. Poor sanitary conditions and hygiene added to health problems. Khmer saw them as backward and old fashioned and even though both sides cared for their relationship, the differences in dialect and way of life made them very different people.

It was a culturally enriching trek. Even though in terms of nature it didn’t have much to offer, we took the best out of it and didn’t talk about the disappointments.

On our last day in Banlung we rented a motorbike to see nearby waterfalls and lake. Again they were nice, but nothing extraordinary. They each had entry fees though and here the difference in price for a Khmer and a foreigner became clear. We always had an impression that prices for us doubled, but never had a clear confirmation. At Boeng Yeak Laom lake the difference was clearly spelled out on ticket board – Khmer 500 riel, foreigner 6,000 riel. Ale says it’s normal that foreigners are charged more in “these” countries, but for me it’s not right. I can’t imagine charging a guest in my country more just for being a traveler. But I come from a different reality I guess.

On a positive note, Banlung also had some nice surprises on human level. First in the minibus that we took to get to Banlung a young Khmer couple sitting in front of us with their baby girl at some point suddenly turned around and without saying a word passed me their baby. They wanted a photo of their daughter with me! Then they asked Ale for a photo too. The baby was the sweetest prettiest baby girl in all of Cambodia and we took a few shots of her too. We like it how easy people are with their children here. They put them on motorbikes, give them to strangers, leave them to run around the streets. Kids here are much loved but don’t suffer from over-caring.

Going back to positive surprises, one day in Banlung we were looking for a specific tourist information office and couldn’t find it anywhere so we stopped in a guesthouse to ask for directions. There were about 6 girls working there and they were so excited to see us that they couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. At one point one of them came over to me and gave me big kisses on both cheeks. I felt a little embarrassed, but then she did it again and again and even called her friend to give me a kiss too. Funny, nice, weird? Maybe kissing a foreigner brings them luck, I wonder?






















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