The deeper into Cambodia I travelled, the less familiar everything became; terrain, customs, food. You don’t have to venture too far from Phnom Penh for the chance to sample the infamous deep fried tarantulas from the smorgasbord of many and varied arachnids and invertebrates on offer. I had, of course, read all about this and was fully convinced I’d be brave enough to try them. However, nothing I’d ever seen or am ever likely to see looked quite so unappetising as the huge vats piled high with cold, rock hard, hairy, black spiders.
I did find the courage to try red ants, but I can’t lie, it wasn’t exactly street food. I did so in a rather lovely restaurant in Siem Reap where they’d been fashioned into a gourmet burger.
Phnom Penh offers everything that you might expect from a cosmopolitan capital city and is really quite seductive. It’s a fantastic introduction to the country and the amazingly friendly Cambodian people. The only group who blight it are the sex tourists who have a penchant for underage children who, call me judgemental, are incredibly easy to spot in their uniform of long, greasy hair, pasty skin, shoulder bags and khaki or beige cargo outfits.
A tuk tuk driver pointed out a city centre street where girls as young as nine were blatantly for hire. Not nearly enough is being done to combat this truly sickening issue.
Despite this very overt elephant in the room I could have spent much longer in PP (even though things had gone horribly wrong just the day before – read Quick, I Need Pol’s Pot for all the gory details – however, be warned, the clue is in the name) but was itching to go trekking and had identified the region known as the ‘Wild East’ as the place to do so.
I booked a ticket for a bus and awaited its arrival in my hotel reception, keeping the manager at boiling point by continually asking when it was going to get there – especially as it was now an hour late. He eventually conceded that something had gone wrong and hailed a tuk tuk to take me to some random junction where I was to wait and flag down the next bus.
My route would take me north and eastwards, stopping first in Sen Monorom where amongst other things I visited the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri.
It gets a great write up but wasn’t my cup of tea at all. The Brits who run it are far too aware of their own self importance and place in society and not nearly aware enough of the importance and place of the local people whose land they have encroached upon and lives they have irreversibly changed in order to retire a handful of wretched elephants. A romantic idea (and obviously great for Nellie and her gang) but there’s nothing altruistic going on here at all which leaves a rather bad taste.
And I thought the tarantulas would be the only things doing that.
Of course, anyone could be accused of unwittingly not always showing locals the respect they deserve. As penance, my own shameful experience is documented here in Bloody Hell – which also took place in Sen Monorom.
Still on course for trekking, my next stop was Kratie, a market town on the banks of the Mekong which I really loved. I chose well by staying at the Balcony Guesthouse, its $8 rooms and excellent restaurant set in secure walled and gated grounds.
I opted to go on the Mekong Discovery Trail, which involved spending a day on the back of a motorbike riding along the banks through beautiful little villages, visiting temples and even swimming at the Kampi water rapids.
We made an early start from the hotel and one of the first legs of the journey was to cross the river on a giant, motorised raft. Passenger-wise there was me, my guide, his motorbike plus two huge male buffaloes and their farmer. Mid-way across, both beasts managed to slip out of their shackles and proceeded to charge around the tiny space before falling into the water and swimming off into the sunrise.
Having managed to narrowly avoid being trampled on, I went on to enjoy the rest of the day and evening. I hooked up with a couple of Brits who had just travelled down from Laos (my next destination) and we raised many a toast that night to anything we could think of before going our separate ways.
I staggered back to the Balcony only to find it was already locked up for the night. The ‘guard dog’ (a small, yappy something or other) heralded my arrival but didn’t succeed in waking anyone up. I was, therefore, forced to scale the gate in as stealthy a manner as I could muster after a regrettable amount of toasts.
For anyone who has seen the film Bridesmaids, my predicament was not unlike the scene right at the beginning when the main character reaches the top of the tall gate and is precariously balancing on top ready to shimmy down, only to encounter someone on the other side who simply opens up the gate, leaving her – or in this case, me – to remain upon high in the straddling position as it swings open.
No explanation was deemed necessary by either of us.
The next day I continued northwards towards Banlung where I would begin my trek to the far reaches of Ratanakiri.
After two hours of waiting for my bus, the hotel manager at the Balcony carefully positioned me and my rucksack onto the back of his motorbike and trundled me off at high speed to a remote stretch of road and, with a cheery, ‘Next bus should be soon,’ he abandoned me.
A pattern was definitely forming.
Getting ever closer, I was looking forward to an exhilarating trek, sitting around the camp fire toasting tasty local fare and shooting the breeze with great company.
What could possibly go wrong?
To be continued …