In short, it’s all going horribly wrong.
I and my two fellow trekkers (Germans Shaun and Katharina) woke up with the sun. The raucous wake in the village had gone on all night; our hut shaking with the banging tinny music until the wee hours. Our home stay host rustled up a hearty egg breakfast which we scoffed down eagerly.
Our guide, flat out in a drunken stupor, didn’t stir save for snoring and twitching in his hammock.
As scheduled, our two local porters arrived and packed up our food stock for the week. There was little in the way of communication we could have with them as we shared no common language – it was all in the hands of the elusive guide.
He finally came to life but was too hungover to eat breakfast and so we set off on the trek with him listlessly leading us into the unknown.
The aim was to spend eight days walking through Virachey National Park, which is located in deep, isolated jungles made up of lowlands, montane forests, upland savannah and plenty of bamboo thickets.
Funny old things bamboo but sadly, not in a humorous way. Razor sharp once cut, they grow out at odd angles when still alive and pile up on the forest floor covertly when dead. They are, therefore, perfect for launching surprise attacks from both above and below. Two-pronged attacks were frequent; at times narrowly avoiding our eyes, we’d get hit by the sharp end of a cut bamboo pole that was sticking out at head height and while tending to the wound we’d lose our bearings and get tripped up by rogue poles that had fallen underfoot. The worst was when there was a number of poles on the ground, leading to a balancing dance not unlike that of Canadian loggers attempting to stay upright as logs spin furiously beneath them.
Losing our footing would mean landing with heavily on one of the many biting ants nests on the floor of the jungle.
It was noted that our guide did nothing to help navigate us through these troubled bamboo thickets, including failing to tell us that even grabbing a pole for purchase was potentially dangerous, given the thousands of tiny, sharp black needles that formed on them.
He reeked of the alcohol that was sweating out of his pores and constantly had to stop every 100m or so to ‘allow US to catch our breath’. He told us nothing interesting about the environment and in fact said very little at all.
He took us deeper and deeper into the bamboo thicket which was surrounded by trees so tall they blocked out the sky. There wasn’t much of a path and his decisions on which way to go were becoming more and more erratic. We followed on diligently behind him, bloodied, wounded and unable to see the light of day above our heads.
We didn’t need a common language to cotton on that the porters seemed to be getting concerned.
Still silent, the guide persevered further into a forest of thick bamboo. At one point he thought it a good idea to take us to a patch that meant getting on down on our bellies and crawling on the ant-ridden ground. We did this for quite some time, our backpacks scraping along the bamboo roof, ripping holes in the fabric as we went. By the time we came out the other side we had many clothing casualties including Shaun’s walking boots – on only day two of a fairly hard core trek.
The humble porters eventually summoned up the courage to challenge his route. The only thing they managed to agree on was that he’d got us hopelessly lost. They decided to split up in three separate directions, leaving us to wait alone in an uncharted part of the forest.
Luckily they did all return but it wasn’t good news. What little light we had was fading fast and we were nowhere near the spot they had in mind for camping. There was no water nearby and few trees suitable for our hammocks.
Not the best night.
The next day we set off again and, with his hangover now gone, he somehow managed to get back on track.
When we broke for lunch we were dished up a plate each of cucumber and nothing more.
When we later sat around the camp fire and awaited dinner, we were treated to a tomato each.
Bemused, we enquired what the deal was with the food and were told we were running out and so were being rationed. It transpired the guide had decided to take an extremely limited amount of food to serve the six of us for eight days, because it would otherwise be ‘too heavy to carry.’
We forced him to show us what was left and it was pitiful. There was no way it was going to see us through. He’d already proved himself to be a very poor chef so instead of wasting what little remained, we sectioned off what we wanted and decided to prepare our paltry meals ourselves.
There was no other sign of human life in this isolated, hidden jungle and we were three days’ walk from the nearest village. Although we had to continue to trust the guide to get us back safely, it’s no exaggeration to say that we hated him.
The next morning he served up breakfast; noodles softened in unseasoned water. His bag of food hadn’t been closed properly and was alive with ants. They were impossible to separate out of the noodles and so our protein that day came from hundreds and hundreds of jungle ants.
His bag also contained a number of food items that he’d stolen from us during the night.
That day the porters began to gather up any dead animals they came across, stockpiling food in case we ended up with nothing. By the time we reached our camp (again, no water supply), we each had a variety of critters such as rats hanging from our belts.
The remaining days were critical, we were barely eating enough to provide the energy we needed to walk back to the safety of the village.
There was no communication between us and the guide. The porters were sympathetic and distanced themselves from him, trying their best to make sure we were ok but with little way of ensuring that we were.
We did eventually make it back and immediately took the guide to task. He had pocketed over $100 from the money he saved by not buying food. It took all my powers of persuasion to get him to hand it over to us, but I managed it in the end.
That night we took ourselves off to the best restaurant in town and blew the lot on ordering pretty much everything on the menu.
Cambodian food never tasted so good and not an ant or rat in sight.