Short recap thus far: it’s Cambodia, they eat deep fried tarantulas and buses never show. Full recap here in The Cambodia Games Part 1.
And so I checked in to the lovely Treetop Ecolodge from where, at the time, the wonderful local guide Smey operated his Ratanakiri Smiling Tours.
Such a shame that I didn’t appreciate quite how wonderful his merits were at the time. Wearing my usual, ‘I know best’ hat, I was convinced that the government-run outfit that offers alternative packages (which was also recommended in the guide books) was preferable. The main reason was that Smey didn’t have the exact trek I was after which was to go beyond the three day point that most trekkers choose and instead reach the remote grasslands high up – supposedly only rarely visited.
This could be achieved with the official government tourist company and, along with a German couple, I signed up onto what seemed a reputable, safe trek.
Banlung is a lovely town and we whiled away our time there for a couple of days before heading off. I had one afternoon of sheer bliss at Les Terres Rouges indulging in RnR and excellent food, spoiling myself in advance of my long week ahead of tough trekking, sleeping in hammocks and rustic camp food. Only one slight mishap occurred on that afternoon but I soon forgot about it – Barefoot, Fat Bottomed Girl is a handy reminder though.
On the morning we set off, our guide asked us to accompany him to the Banlung market to advise him on the kind of food we wanted to bring with us. Considerate though this seemed, it was a pointless exercise as he ignored what we said and simply checked off the rather short shopping list he himself had composed.
Shortly afterwards we were off.
By late afternoon we had reached a small tribal village, the last settlement to pass through before heading off into the wilderness. Our guide explained that we would be spending the night there in a home stay, acquiring a couple of porters and setting off at dawn.
The village was in remarkably high spirits and we discovered this was due to it being the last night of a week-long wake for a well respected, elderly tribesman. He was to be ‘interred’ the following day (they seemed to just lie corpses on top of the ground and put a bit of loose soil over them to let nature take its course) and the final night’s celebration of a person’s life was typically rather raucous in these parts.
The entire population was utterly pie-eyed by about 5pm on a local brew named ‘sra’ made using fermented rice topped up with Mekong river water. The concoction is passed around in a large carafe and drunk through bamboo straw. When it gets down to the dregs the taste is lethally strong and it’s at this point that more Mekong river water is added – only by this stage they usually forget to boil it first.
Sean (the German lad) wouldn’t go near it, but myself and his significant other Katharina got stuck in. It seemed rude to refuse. I’m happy to say neither of us suffered any consequences and am glad I hadn’t read about this deathly incident which took out a number of villagers before I tried it.
Our guide, meanwhile, proceeded to drink anything at all that was placed in front of him or within grabbing distance.
As soon as night fell the celebrations were cranked up a few notches. Everywhere you looked both men and women were so intoxicated they could barely stand. Some of them couldn’t even manage to sit. The old woman who had been sat next to me (so old she could easily have been the one who had died) leaning against my leg took a sudden nose dive when I myself lost my footing and she crashed to the floor out cold. There was nothing but peels of laughter from the people around as they stumbled past.
Truly awful thumping music resonated from cheap, tinny speakers all around the village. Suddenly, I was dragged into the middle of the open space by a group of inebriated teenage girls, held very tightly at the waist and jostled forward. And so began a dance of sorts. All it entailed was holding the waist of the person in front and trudging ahead in a straight line – like a conga without the fun or energy.
Katharina joined us at a point where we were both wrong footed by a newly introduced dance move. Now, we had to hold hands and go in circles in a half-forward, half-sidewards step, moving faster and faster.
Even though I hadn’t had much by way of alcohol, the weirdness of it all made me feel slightly intoxicated. Being welcomed to participate in this deeply personal event was both scary and humbling in equal measures. Spirits were so high but undoubtedly due to the amount of booze and it felt like the kind of situation that might easily turn at the drop of a hat. It was all very well being a farang (foreigner) while the mood was positive but one wrong move and I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t become the kind of headline back home where people who take more conventional trips shake their heads and say, ‘Well what the hell were they doing there anyway?’
That concern was never closer than when Katharina got caught out by the new dance move and stepped on the flip flop of the person in front, causing her to fall forward, bringing down at least another 20 people to pile on top.
I suggested at that point that we go discretely back to the home stay where we were all bunking up.
All, that is, apart from our guide who didn’t show until the wee hours. He staggered up the ladder to reach our hut on stilts and thrashed around inside the single space singing Bob Marley in screeching Cambodian strains.
Let the trek begin.
To be continued …
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