Ratanakiri Provence, Cambodia – After stopping for an afternoon and evening in Kampong Cham – a quiet town along the Mekong near some rubber plantations – we made our way north to Ben Lung hoping to do some trekking in Ratanakiri Provence. Along the way we met Kris a chatty and funny Londoner and a Scottish couple all aiming to do the same thing.
The drive took us up the main road north, then we cut east on a dirt road for the last few hours. The dirt was red and stained your clothes like Georgia clay back home. But this dirt went everywhere. We almost had to put on our masks inside the bus and our luggage was covered in dirt when we arrived.
After checking into the Tribal Guesthouse and relaxing with a banana fruit shake, Kris, Tina and I searched around town for a reliable trekking company. We reviewed a few places and decided on Dutch Couple, the only company that seemed to have their act together. We hoped for a three-day journey, but because of timing we had to settle for a two-day and decided to leave in a couple days giving us a chance to enjoy some of the sights around Ben Lung.
The next morning Tina, Kris, the Scottish couple and I all met for breakfast and decided what we wanted to see that day. The guesthouse rented motorbikes but they were in pretty bad condition. As we were testing them out, the guy from the Scottish couple started the bike while revving the gas. Not knowing the bike was in first gear, he – and the bike – was propelled into the bushes coming to rest up on a tree. I had to turn my head to keep anyone from seeing my laughter. We decided it might be safer for us all if they hired a guide who was also a motor driver, and he would ride on the guide’s bike and his girlfriend would ride on the back of Kris’s.
After taking too much time picking out motorbikes, we all met back at the hotel and headed out to the first sight. We spent that morning riding to various waterfalls – we could swim up to the waterfalls and even explore a little cave behind them. Our guide took us to the market in Ben Long for lunch then we headed out to Yeak Loam lake, a near-perfect circular volcanic creator, for an afternoon swim. The water was clear and refreshing, as was watching Cambodians who swam fully dressed.
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The next morning Tina, Kris and I met a French girl who would be joining us on the trek. I swear she said her name was “Lettuce”. So, along with our tour guide, who went by Mr T (they love American pop culture names – we heard about a guy who went by 50 Cents), we headed out to a nearby village to meet the ranger, Mr Nigh, who would lead us on the trek.
We pulled up to Mr Nigh’s house, loaded up our backpacks and literally started walking though his backyard and up a hill which turned into a cashew nut farm, which on the other side of the hill, turned into jungle. For most of the trek it would be hard to use the word “trail” for the path we were taking. There was lots of overgrowth in some sections, and in other parts, there had been some occasional clearing in the forest making it hard for the guide to find his way. At times the jungle was so dense you couldn’t see the person in front of you if they were more then 10 feet away.
Eventually we made it to our campsite by about 3:30 that afternoon – which was a miracle as it seemed we stopped every 30 minutes because of how hot it was. The site was near an active stream in which we were promised we could swim. But the part that was deep enough for swimming had a bit of pond scum coating the surface. So instead we set up our hammocks and relaxed on a huge tarp the guide had laid out near the water’s edge. Then Tina got stung by a bee.
Mr T started preparing dinner: making dipping sauces, starting fires – one for the steaks and one for the rice. While making the sauces, some people from a nearby hill-tribe walked though our campsite. Mr T bought some green onions which he put in a piece of fresh bamboo to steam over the fire – using the water that would evaporate as the bamboo heated up to cook the onions.
This might have been the best meal I have ever had while camping. The sauces were excellent and the steak was cooked just right. After we ate, Mr T entertained us with some magic card tricks as well as a few puzzles made with sticks. He also broke out some rice wine that he got from someone in the town where Mr Nigh lived.
Once he ran out of tricks and puzzles, he and Mr Nigh started getting restless. And kept saying that ”if you weren’t drinking to get drunk, drink to find someone to do the ‘cooking’ with.” I’ll let you figure out what that means. But since we were in the middle of the jungle with no one to ‘cook’ with, they decided to catch some frogs for a late night snack.
Mr. Nigh got a foot long piece of bamboo and walked around the stream using his headlamp to find frogs. When he found one, he whacked it with the stick, stunning it. Then he picked the frog out of the water on to the rocks, then clubbed it until it stopped moving.
After the ranger had collected about 12 frogs, Mr. T started another fire and made a rack with bamboo sticks which he used to roast the frogs (see video). At one point the rack caught on fire and when Mr .T went to put it out, he dropped all the frogs on the ground. Not to be dismayed, once cooked and cleaned, he made another sauce and then he and the ranger went to town on the frogs. And they ate every part except for the intestinal trail which they pulled out before devouring the bodies.
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Even though we were in the middle of the jungle, we were woken early by the sound of roosters. You just can’t get away from those things – “nature’s car alarms”, Tina calls them. Mr .T got up and started making eggs and toast for breakfast. He also started making tea which was nice until we realized that he made the tea in the same pot he boiled our fresh water in – causing all the water we had for the day to taste like campfire and old tea.
Wanting to cover as much ground as we could before it got too hot, we set out for the return hike, stopping for lunch near another stream where Mr. T made noodles with fish broth. He also almost set the forest on fire by not doing a thorough clearing of the fire pit. Then Tina got stung by a bee. Again. In the same place she had gotten stung by a be the previous day.
We hiked for a few more hours, stopping more frequently as the jungle started roasting us like we did the frogs the night before. We arrived back at the ranger’s house and woke up his wife who had been napping in a hammock. She seemed rather annoyed by this disturbance which was worsened by learning we had to wait at their house for our ride to come get us.
That night we all went out for dinner at a restaurant near the guesthouse. Some of us complained about how hard the hike was, how good the food was and how glad we were to only have gone for two and not three days. Lettuce was silent for most of this and didn’t seem to have as hard a time. She didn’t seem like a hardcore hiker but she did seem a bit younger. Maybe Lettuce was still enjoying her salad days.