I have been looking forward to this part of the trip for a long time. During the next two days we attempt to travel from Banlung (Ban Lung) in Rattanakiri to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, straight through forest and mountains. This trip is considered one of the most exciting in Cambodia. The authors of the Adventure Cambodia guide book have dedicated a whole 6-pages section to it, entitled “The Death Highway” (their account is posted further down on this page). This title may be a bit exaggerated but they did it (the other way around) during the wet season and ended up doing much of the journey with broken dirt bikes on oxcarts and tattered Russian jeeps.
We plan to spend the night in Kaoh Nhek, a village about half way to Sen Monorum. Tomorrow we continue to Sen Monorum. What thrills me is that we don’t have any spare clutch lever or front tube left before even getting into the rough part of the trip.
We had long discussion about the relative merits of having a local guides versus doing the trip by ourselves. Lim tells us he would charge about 60$ to get us to Sen Monorum which I feel is inexpensive. After all he would have to return to Banlung on a very long loop through Kratie and Stung Treng. Nobody would go by himself all the way back through the wilderness.
Toby speaks Khmer well and is familiar with the area as he has been up working up here many times over a period of several years. Finally we decide to rely on his pathfinder and language skills and go without local guide.
The trail we are going to travel on has never been constructed as a road with a built up surface. Other than motorbike, it is doable only by oxcart or by skillful driver with a capable truck. I found this travel report by Andrew who did the trip by truck in 2003.
Views over the lake in the morning.
We decide to start the day with an early bath in the Yeak Laom Volcano Lake, just outside the other end of town and a must see in Rattanakiri. The lake is a marvelous piece of natural beauty and local indigenous tribes attach great spiritual significance to it. Until recently this was considered Cambodia’s finest attempt at preserving a natural site, designated as protected area already in 1995 as part of a community driven natural resource management and eco-tourism program. There is even a small but well done museum about indigenous culture, a trail around the lake and a wooden platform for jumps into the deep and clean water.
Katrin and Toby, lake and platform.
Katrin and myself.
After breakfast in the garden of the hotel we head back to Banlung to fill up the bikes.
We are surprised to encounter a whole bunch of people on dirt bikes, all with fancy motos, at least by our standard, and each with the full range of advanced gear. They make a lot of noise. We learn that, while this group travels on main roads only, one unfortunate member fall with his bike and suffered a complicated fraction. He now requires transportation by car to the hospital in Phnom Penh which has sort of ended for all of them what looks like a well-planned bike trip.
Katrin and Becky. The vehicle of the injured biker is on the Land Cruiser’s roof in the background.
We get started and follow the dirt road to Lumphat, a town located about 30km south of Banlung. After a few minutes of riding we overtake the group on bikes whose members are riding slowly and cautiously in an orderly line.
Asking for the way
It may not look like it but the bigger problem is not that there is no track but that there are too many and nobody to ask for the right one.
The road is dusty but decent at first but increasingly turns into a trail with mud and water in many places. The rainy season has ended only few days ago in Phnom Penh and maybe not yet here.
This is when we reach the Srepok (Sre Pok) River close to Lumphat. It is actually on this river and along that stretch of it that much of the movie Apocalypse Now was shot, with Marlon Brando in the role of mad Colonel Kurtz who during the Vietnam War sets up his own army and autonomous zone up here.
We find a ferry at the bank of the river. However, the river bank is fairly steep and slippery. Riding onto the ferry is moderately challenging. You want to go very slowly because otherwise you ride over the few planks on this small boat and straight into the deeper part of the river (Becky had some interesting experiences with similar settings elsewhere).
Toby with Apocalypse Now face expression.
One of the ferry men.
Becky and river
The other bank of the river is as steep as the first one and even more slippery. However, this time around the challenge is reversed: it is not to minimize speed but to maximize it while accelerating on the boat and plank in order to make it all the way up without slipping or getting stuck.
After we pass the river the ‘road’ does not get better. To the contrary.
We keep riding for some time until we reach a small village and a few minutes later an intersection. We want to make sure not to take the wrong way at this point. Toby rides back a few hundred meters were we just passed a group of villagers, in order to ask one of them to show us the way. After what seems like a long period of time Toby comes back, with two villagers on the bike. We learn that local people – I forgot which indigenous group they belong to – have had bad experiences with outsiders in the past and agreed to come along only if two of them could go together.
The villagers show us the way and Toby gives them a ride back to the village.
Katrin and Becky performing a traditional dance to make sure it does not rain today (?).
We keep riding for some time through light forest. It is demanding to follow the narrow trail for longer periods of time, through sand and mud, over roots and rocks. Bikes drop occasionally.
This is when we finish a short break. We have not a very clear idea of how close we are to Kaoh Nheak, where we wont to spend the night. We have not seen people in a long time and increasingly realize that time is becoming an issue.
Then we meet two villagers on an oxcart. We learn that it is still far to Kaoh Nheak.
Becky and Toby are into natural resource management work wise and I learn that this type of light forest is ideal for a wide range of wildlife.
I can imagine how this small creek looks like in the rainy season and that it will be next to impossible to pass it. Even now these spots are not without challenges.
Finding a way in the deep grass is sometimes challenging.
We keep riding and for a long time don’t see anyone again. Then we recognize some sort of lake or river to our left and later see some people on its bank. A few kilometers more and we reach the village.
However, this is not Kaoh Nheak. We talk to villagers and learn that it is still a considerable distance to get there. Nevertheless we ask for the way and continue.
The trail surface along this stretch is mostly dry. It is also extremely hard and has deep oxcart tracks running all over it which makes for a very bumpy and rather slow ride.
We are not exactly sure whether we are still on the right way and start consulting numerous maps. Meanwhile the sun is gone and it is clear that there is less than 1 hour of daylight left.
After a lengthy discussion we decide to ride back to the village and spend the night there.
We reach the village where one lady offers us food, fish, rice and some vegetables. One man is kind enough to offer his house for us to spend the night.
After diner we head over to our host’s house (too bad I forgot his name). He intends to vacate the whole building and to spend the night in the house of his relative. Obviously we don’t want his entire family to endure such inconvenience yet he insists and it is too hard for us to turn his offer down.
We move our stuff into his house. Our host suggests visiting the near river for a bath. We sure can use one. It is a 10 minute ride to the spot. We put on kromas for a Khmer-style bath and get into the water. This is the best bath I had in a long time and it takes long to get rid of all the dust.
Right after we have a bath
Toby has the sensitive idea to take pictures with our host, to give the ladies a chance to change.
Toby and host
Myself and host
We ride back to the village and put the hammocks we brought from Phnom Penh.
All four hammocks have a mosquito net. Only three of them are insulated. I sleep in the fourth hammock. My night is a frosty one and I advise you to bring insulated hammocks for your comfort.
We put up hour bungees between the motos to use them as washing lines for our bathing cloths.
Later villagers invite us to another house to join for diner. This is what we do.
The food is tasty.
This is what the Adventure Cambodia guys write about people in this area:
“The people who live along parts of this sparsely populated stretch of Cambodia are forgotten souls. They have been left by the central government to fend for themselves, without any thought given to basic needs, such as a useable road to travel on or simple health information and access to medicine. You certainly don’t trip over any NGO aid groups here to help, either …”
“Most of these people own nothing from the modern-day world and live in rough bamboo huts lighted in the evening by the bamboo torches they make for themselves”.
The first part remains partly true, certainly as far as usable roads are concerned. As for government services, we do find a newly built school including a teacher and pupils the next day.
That people here own nothing from the modern world is obviously not true, at least not anymore. Almost all houses we see are built from solid timber. The house is lit by strong neon light with electricity supplied by a large and loud generator behind the house. There is also a massive stereo and a TV set.
We have the impression that people may have started the generator for us while we would prefer an evening without neon light an noice. However, there does not seem to be a sensitive way of asking for it.
Toby conversing with Khmer lady.
Our host puts bottles with rice wine on the table, people of all ages emerge in the house and the big stereo rumbles into action.
Few minutes later people start dancing.
Notice in the background TV set and receiver, DVD player and most importantly, a sizeable amplifier. Music consists mostly of Khmer and Lao traditional and pop music.
I have yet another glass before joining the dancing. My Khmer dancing skills are actually pretty undeveloped. Some of the villagers join while most of them prefer to just watch.
Yet another glass
We are all very tired and slightly drunk by the time we head home and go to bed.