Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The North East - or There and Back Again

“You want to go to Kampong Cham?”
“Kampong Cham?”
“But why?”

It's Monday. I've decided I only need one more day in Phnom Penh. It's a biggish city, my ankle is still too swollen to walk on it all day, and taking a tuk-tuk everywhere by myself is just too expensive. So today's plan is to see the Palace and National Museum in the morning, take a tuk-tuk to the Russian Market to look for the elusive lesser-spotted pancake machete, then rest up in a coffee shop for the afternoon.
Tomorrow, I'll start heading northeast towards Ratanikiri Province and the Vashu National Park, with my first stop at Kampong Cham to see the only wooden Wat in Cambodia to survive the Khmer Rouge (more have been built since, but this is the only remaining from before).

The receptionist at my hostel is struggling to understand why I want to go there.
I'm pleased to know I may actually again be heading somewhere a bit out of the way.
We come to a mutual accord of misunderstanding, and I have a bus ticket to Kampong Cham.

The day goes to plan.
The palace and museum are both a little disappointing – much of the palace is closed off, and what isn't can mostly be seen from the road. The museum is pretty, and has some interesting statuary, but it's very small for a $5 entry fee when you're used to museums you can lose yourself in for a week. For free. I am a little spoilt in that regard.
On the other hand, I acquire a number of pancake machetes.

At an unusually civilised hour on Tuesday morning, I take a bus to Kampong Cham. There is a tuk-tuk waiting to take me to my hotel, and when I get there I find myself precariously perched in a room at the top, with only the narrowest passage along the rooftop leading to my door. The hotelier manages this and my large rucksack with aplomb. I and my small rucksack follow with decidedly more attention to not stumbling against the low railing, set just at a convenient height to pivot around were one to approach it with momentum.

On the other side of my room is another door.
There is slightly more space on the other side of this one.

All your Mekong is belong to me!

Kampong Cham itself is not the prettiest town, and a day tour of the Wat and a local village were enough for me. I decided not to buy any of the production of woven silk – I'm doing disappointingly well at not falling in love with things and needing to buy them. So far. Cutlery aside.

I stayed there for two nights and moved on to the next natural stopping point on the route, Kratie. Again set on the banks of the Mekong, Kratie is a small town with a lot of guesthouses. The one I had managed to reserve a room at (the issues in Phnom Penh made me a bit nervous of chancing it further afield) was at the edge of town on the river bank, and the food there was the best I've had since Kampot.

15Km north of town, at a village called Kampi, there is a population of Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, the purpose for my visiting Kratie. On my second day, I hired a bike, and cycled up to see them, sharing a boat onto the river with two other people from my hostel who had left by motorbike shortly before I did, but did not seem to have long arrived when I pulled up on my bike. This is more a testament to the condition of the roads than of my cycling prowess.
I'd forgotten to charge my camera the night before, and it ran out of battery about 15 minutes into the hour-long boat hire, but dolphins are rather tricky to get photos of anyway.
We saw three or four of them – a number which seemed to disappoint the others, but I was happy with that, considering there are only 70 in the 100km of Mekong between there and the Laos border.

This is the best photo I got. Dolphin and bird.

The next two days I spent relaxing, reading and watching boats trundle along the river as it changed colour with the shifting sun. Then I followed Alex and Margo – fellow travellers at the Balcony Guesthouse – to Ban Lung, the final calling point on my whistle-stop tour of the northeast.

I wasn't sure how long to spend in Ban Lung, but as it is an 8 hour bus journey from Kratie, I wasn't expecting it to be only a single day. That is how is turned out, though. I just didn't like the town.
I am trying as far as possible to not have expectations on this trip, but sadly there has been a lot of progress in logging the area since my guidebook was written. I was hoping perhaps to do a similar thing to Chi Phat and do a trek, but it is now necessary to do a trek of 7 days or more to get to an area where you are actually in the jungle. I didn't have that long, so I decided to stick to the crater lake and waterfalls cycleable from Ban Lung in a day.

 Arty shots with the manual setting on my camera... Sorry.

 Subterranean Homesick Alien

 You can scramble around behind this one, but I decided against it.

 Really good cafe, not in the guidebook. Bad guidebook! Good cafe. Have a cookie. 
(The cookies were gooood.)

 Me. Crater lake. Sun in eyes.

From cycling only about 35km I was exhausted! The roads were the first in several weeks not to be pancake flat, few of them were tarmacked, and the bicycle had only 3 gears and a rusty chain. It was somewhat hard work.
The next day, I would head to Siem Reap. An 18 hour bus trip, but a worthwhile one, as there is only one real road in the province, so the route was just my previous week's travels in reverse!

I was staying at the sister guesthouse of the one on Kratie, and it served the same good food, much cheaper than anything else in the viscinity, so Alex and Margo came to eat with me the second evening. It was good to catch up with them, and as they are heading next to Laos, we may meet up again there once they have travelled through southern Laos and me through Thailand.

I'd enjoy that. They're good people. I don't have photos of them, but their website is here:

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