My journey to Cambodia entailed bailing out a flooded Bangkok hostel, crashing in the bus to the border and sharing a beer with an American at the border’s no man’s land casino. Such surprises set me up perfectly for my adventures in Cambodia.
Due to the bus crash, I arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital, late in the evening. We’d hit a car on the highway and beyond damaging a lot of bodywork, a few hours waiting for police in a long traffic jam, everyone was absolutely safe. With no charge on my phone to find the name of my booked hostel and no money in my wallet, getting to a bed required a very fortunate best-guess direction to walk in.
Strolling the streets after midnight with a full backpack and a bemused face had me chuckling. Even cash posed me a problem – I hadn’t got any Cambodian Riel. Searching around in a bleary-eyed state I couldn’t understand why ATMs would only dispense dollars. I hadn’t realised that US Dollars were accepted nearly everywhere but the deep countryside and were entirely interchangeable at a fixed exchange rate of 4000 Riel: $1. With no money, it was a walk into town.
Looking for somewhere to grab a bit of charge late at night isn’t that easy but in my shady attempt to plug into a socket through an open door, a bank security guard helped me out. Kindly, he offered me both the use of a plug and the toilet in his guardhouse. Wonderful – I was only a block away from my hostel – even more wonderful.
Waking the next morning, Phnom Penh bought one of my more sobering days travelling. For 4 years from 1975, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia with an iron palm – committing the atrocities of genocide, they simultaneously squashed every aspect of individuality from their population. Terrible as this was, I wanted to understand more.
S21 or Toul Sleng prison was definitely the place to start. Near the centre of the city, Security Prison 21 was just one of the many execution centres processing those deemed to have committed espionage against the country. Thousands of people were taken to the former school, beaten and held for information without trial, representation or any hope of appeal. Torture was rife in the prison; in fact it was the normality.
Classroom turned interrogation room
Initially, removing those who stood against the Communist Party of Kampuchea drove the cull. Later, it turned to any with a hint of misplaced suspicion and culminated in deaths of those associated with such people. With families coerced into turning on each other to avoid their own persecution, fear was cultivated across the entire country.
When the Khmer Rouge had taken power, they immediately gutted the cities and forced the entire population into the countryside to return them to their origins as workers and peasants. This was completed under the guise of communism but in reality bore little relation to anything under Lenin or Mao – it was communism on steroids. This meant little coordination; families were divided and distributed. It served to increase the distrust in these broken communities and propagated the fear further.
The stories of Cambodian imprisonments are varied but what ties them together is the lack of justice. Even 9 foreign nationals were captured, tortured and forced into confessing crimes they never knew anything of or had not occurred. In demonstration of this, an Australian man, Kerry Hamill, was killed for ‘confessing’ to be a CIA operative and named Colonel Sanders of KFC fame as his contact. It’s fair to say the majority of reasons for imprisonment were baseless.
The faces of those who were process through S21
The fact that won’t leave my mind even now is that around a quarter of Cambodia’s population were killed in only 4 years – it was beyond decimation. Anyone considered an intellectual was killed: these were members of the previous regime, government officials, academics, engineers, teachers, doctors, foreign language speakers and even those who just wore glasses. With a whole generation wiped out, three quarters of Cambodia’s population today is too young to remember the Khmer Rouge and they are relatively under-educated. The irony is that Pol Pot and several of his high command were previously teachers themselves.
While Pol Pot is probably the name most would associate with the Khmer Rouge, S21 was Comrade Duch’s domain. You may have heard of him as Kang Kek Iew was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010 having surrendered to authorities after years in hiding. Pol Pot, however, hid in Cambodia’s northern jungles for many years while resisting later governments – he ended his days in relative comfort under a moderate house arrest by his own party.
The exterior of the building left exactly how it was. You can just about see the bricks inside that made up the tiny 1m sleeping cells
This is testament to the international community’s naivety and unwillingness to accept influence from Soviet/Vietnamese communism. For many years they were blind to the atrocities that were committed or to even accept they occurred. Regardless of their demise in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge were recognised as the legitimate party of power with presentation in the UN until 1993. In spite of the combined forces of Vietnam and Cambodian resistance in removing the Khmer Rouge, their discovery of the killing fields wasn’t accepted until many years later.
Mass grave of 450 victims
Bracelets hung around the sites of the mass graves
Visiting the killing fields themselves and knowing that thousands had died at the hands of vicious and cruel instruments such as spiked palm fronds was as saddening as it sounds. Bullets were too precious to be wasted on planned deaths. There are many killing sites across the country: from large to small, from cave to jungle, from obvious to hidden, all are terrifying. While the information about the Khmer Rouge’s reign is far more informational at S21, there’s nothing that replaces the bones still rising from the soil and collected each year at the Choeung Ek killing fields outside of Phnom Penh.
Skulls of the unnamed collected and stored in the national monument
I’m certainly glad I had my day out with my smiling tuk tuk driver, Pop. We had a good day and renting his services was $15 well spent. I learnt a lot and one of the most repeated messages is to tell others what happened – I’m using this blog to do that. Genocide is terrible and something I hope never to see in my life. As with the Holocaust, it should never have occurred. We must all walk with our eyes and ears open in order to see and stop genocide from happening the world over.
A smile for the end of my day with Pop
From Phnom Penh, it was off to Banlung in the northeast. I’d chosen it randomly from a board in the hostel I’d stayed. What a great choice this turned out to be.
The journey was eight hours on a VIP minivan with plenty of space. It’s incredible how little an 8-hour bus journey is to me now: I’m entirely desensitised. What I’m responsive to is seeing a dead body – on the journey I saw my first ever; a young female killed on a motorbike and left in the middle of the road. Our bus just drove on by :(
Arrival bought me to Banlung Balcony hostel, which has to be one of the best places I’ve stayed yet. I slept in a wooden bungalow raised on stilts and dined with sunset views on comfy seating overlooking a lake. It was glorious.
Sunset view from Banlung Balcony
On my first day in the town I rented a motorbike and took it for a ride on the province’s red dust tracks to visit 3 waterfalls. To get about here a semi-automatic bike is recommended and as I hadn’t ridden a motorbike with gears since I passed my CBT back in the UK a couple of years ago it was a entertaining if stop-start ride out of town.
Getting out in the real countryside of Cambodia was awesome. Not many travellers venture to Banlung and even fewer head unaccompanied around Ratanakiri Province. I loved riding the roads with the wind rushing past and the swept up dust coating me.
I visited Cha Ong first: in the area, it’s the waterfall with the longest drop plunging down onto many rocks below. It’s definitely a bit of a challenge to find and I had a few adventures down some tracks that were not the most direct route. Stopping at a roadside shop I shared a coke with the owner and gained some directions to get me there.
Just a short drive further and I came across a small wooden shack with a man lazing softly in the sun. All of the waterfalls’ land is community owned and there’s very small tourist fee for upkeep – at 2000 Riel (~40 pence) it’s definitely a price I could afford to pay! Cha Ong was a pretty decent waterfall – you could get at it from all sides: either walking behind it in the undercut rock shelter, peering over from the top or gazing up from the large rocks below. Talking to the locals it’s truly wonderful during the rainy season when the additional water turns its 18m drop into quite a spectacle.
Cha Ong waterfall
The other two waterfalls I visited were pretty close to each other on the south side of Banlung. Katieng was absolutely my favourite of the three with a 10m drop into a huge plunge pool and I watched several local children splashing about with a ball while I read my book. Kan Chang is just a little further along and having done a little bit of research it appears that I just visited rapids and waterflows above the waterfall – I certainly didn’t see the reported 7m drop – whoops!
Even more red-haired than usual ;)
The day out on the bike is definitely one I won’t forget. Cruising about and creating copper dust clouds filled me with childish joy. A motorbike is probably the best way to visit the waterfalls because there’s a little more adventure.
My only tiny regret is that I didn’t visit the Yaek Laom volcanic lake with its clear blue water filling a crater over 700,000 years old. Locals consider it sacred and it’s a must do that I didn’t do – another whoops! Tuk tuks will take you to all three waterfalls and potentially the lake too for around $20 – great if shared between a few travellers. It does nothing to replace the freedom I found winding along random roads through rubber plantations and up dried out mudflows. As you can see below I got just a little dirty :)
One dusty day
The main reason travellers go to Banlung is to take part in the local trekking scene. There are a few national parks in Cambodia and one of them is the Virachey National Park tucked up in the northeastern corner bordering Laos/Vietnam. It was also my intention to do a spot of trekking here and in great fortune, I stumbled upon some wonderful people and a once in a lifetime experience.
Coming back from my dusty day on the bike, I was speaking to the hostel owner about his wonderful homemade pizzas and enquiring about trekking options. He pointed me in the direction of two guys who had just been doing the same. I caught eyes with one of them and was invited over to share a table over a cold beer.
Denis and Alex, two Frenchmen, one travelling after quitting his New York job in high finance and the other studying in China, were immediately after information on my plans in Banlung. Having met the previous evening, they’d spent the day visiting several of the trekking agents in the town to find out what was on offer. Having found a great option, they were now on a traveller recruitment drive to help bring the cost down. Once they’d explained the itinerary, it took all of 5 seconds to decide that I was in. Shortly after, the three of us pulled over a German girl, Marina. Our ‘you only live once’ enthusiastic persuasion convinced her to stay longer for the 4 day adventure tour. The team was born.
The next day was spent packing and prepping for our tour. A swift visit to Parrot tours and our excursion was booked at a cost of $36 per day. Compared to many of the other treks in the area it was pricier. There are two reasons for this: firstly, many of the other trekking companies don’t actually take you into the primary jungle of the Virachey National Park and therefore avoid the $15 national park fee and secondly, the tour involved various extra aspects such as rafting and a homestay evening. In every possible way, the additional expense was justified and worth it – if you’re going to do it, do it properly. I’d recommend Parrot tours in Banlung highly. However, our guides have very recently set themselves up separately as Green Jungle Trekking Tours so I’m recommending them too!
In the evening prior to set off we also recruited Mateusz. He was a Polish charter boat sailor who had spent a career crossing the Atlantic and sailing the Caribbean and Mediterranean. This reduced the cost a little more and we were a dream team of five.
Daylight bought motorbike rides north along the earthy arteries of Ratanakiri Province and another skin of fine dust provided a fake tan. A puncture on Alex’s bike had three of us on the back of my motorbike and the adventure had begun before we’d even travelled 10km. In what felt like true exploring, we boarded a flatbed ferry and crossed a tributary of the Mekong River to a village where our hiking began.
Marina, Denis, Alex and Mateusz onboard the flatbed river ferry
It’s important to mention our guides at this point. Rithy (Ti) was our Banlung based, English-speaking god of good times and banter. Our other two guides were minority locals who said very few words and spoke novels with their smiles. All three had lived, worked and grown up in jungle: they knew it backwards and their navigation when there was no path to take or at night was truly incredible. It was genuine jungle craft and it was mesmerising.
While we were waiting for the local guides to grab a couple of last bits including a homemade crossbow and large cooking pan shared by the village, Rithy took us hunting in the scrubland for tarantulas. Identifiable by small, perfectly circular deep holes about an inch or two wide, tarantulas can be coaxed out of their abodes with a thin stick. Once we’d found a hole, the guides immediately stabbed it with a stick; we collected some dried leaves for a fire and roasted the tarantula whole. Then we ate the tarantula. We ate the entire tarantula: leaves, eyes, fangs, eggs, everything. And I’ll tell you what, it was delicious.
After this entertaining start, we were off – hiking, fording rivers with our packs over our heads (life goal right there) and cutting through the jungle with machetes. Our destination for the evening was a waterfall basin where were could swim and hang our hammocks at the water’s edge around the campfire our guides cooked on. Diving into the water was the most refreshing thing I’d done in a long while and lying under the waterfalls was a good massage for bag carrying shoulders.
Most meals were rice based but the guides did some pretty good work with the food they’d bought. Chicken was available on the first day and later on fish was caught to accompany the many vegetables we had. On that first night we also had frog legs to dine on after our evening’s night hike.
Our second day bought a full day’s trekking through the jungle. The further we went, the denser it got. Crunching through fallen bamboo probably reduced our likelihood of seeing animal life but the smiles it bought to our faces were worthwhile. Stopping wherever we wanted and building a cooking fire there and then gave spontaneity to an organised tour – it felt like we really could have been the first people to walk over some patches of land.
Evening had us arrive at a riverbank and after a brief discussion, we decided to camp further down where it was less muddy. Cue putting our packs into large plastic bags and pushing them downriver while we bodysurfed rapids to a rocky shore beach. Here we found a father and son making camp for themselves – we set our hammocks right next to them and exchanged foods. Late into the evening we played cards with our local guides showing mischievous streaks and some dodgy card tricks.
Larking about by the river
Before we’d risen for the third day, our magnificent guides had cut down a forest of bamboo – I’m so glad that it grows quickly. By the time breakfast was cooked (including a water snake gifted to us by the father and son after they’d caught it eating their fish) and we’d decamped, the rafts were ready to pole downstream. Built with 8 bamboo stalks across and around 8-10 metres in length they were stable and floated well.
The rest of the day was spent frolicking down the river, splashing each other and racing. Messing about on water has to be one of my favourite things to do; in the sun and with the beauty of the national park all around, it was truly a great day. We drifted past locals harvesting mahogany and floating it behind their rafts with others casting nets for fish: life on the water flourished.
That afternoon, we tied up the rafts at one of the guides’ father-in-law’s riverside house and slept at there. Mateusz and I still opted for the hammocks – we just loved them. Our evening was spent celebrating with vats of local rice wine brewed by the family. They had a great, if slightly odd, ceremony whereby a large bamboo straw was pushed into the fermented grain vats. Water was then poured in and we took turns drinking through the straw until another cup of water could be added to the vat. It definitely encouraged bravado and we had everyone taking turns for ‘just one more’ cup. The cards came out and losers drank more. We watched the sun disappear from our perch overlooking a bend in the river. A memorable evening indeed :)
Ceremonial rice wine
We left the jungle behind with a casual stroll along beaten earth tracks on our final day. Back to the village and we had our final dinner with the local guides while resting in the shade of the trees waiting for our motorbike escorts. Then it was the short ride back to the ferry, over the river and another dusty ride back to Banlung. Here’s the photo of the team and Ti after we’d finished up. You can probably tell from the smiles on our faces that we’d had the adventure of a lifetime; even if Ti’s face looks like he might be glad to get rid of us!
Me, Ti, Mateusz, Alex, Marina and Denis post jungle adventure
I must say that the first chilled beer and a meal without rice was definitely a treat. We had burgers – we were western tourists after all!
Wednesday 11th January – Nomads Hostel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Thursday 12th January – Banlung Balcony Hostel, Banlung, Cambodia
Friday 13th January – Banlung Balcony Hostel, Banlung, Cambodia
Saturday 14th January – Banlung Balcony Hostel, Banlung, Cambodia
Sunday 15th January – Hammock, 1st day trekking in Virachey National Park, Cambodia
Monday 16th January – Hammock, 2nd day trekking in Virachey National Park, Cambodia
Tuesday 17th January – Riverside homestay, 3rd day trekking, Cambodia
Wednesday 18th January – Banlung Balcony Hostel, Banlung, Cambodia