Our second time in Cambodia can be divided into two parts: independent travel and travel with two of our friends from back home. As we sat in Pakse deciding on our next move, we had two weeks to play with until their arrival and we have decided to spend them seeing Cambodia we missed out last time and will not get a chance to visit whilst with them, as it was their first time and there was specific things to do and see. We looked into Cardamom Highlands and crossed these off our list: there did not seem to be any way of doing them independently and all the tours were far outside of our budget. We settled on North Eastern Cambodia and headed to Banlung.
Crossing the border was easy and painless enough, visas purchased, stamped out and in and so began our interesting (read: frustrating) experience of Cambodian transport system. The minibus waiting for us was pretty full when we got there, the back was free, but no way to get in without getting half the people off the bus… or so we thought: the driver folded one of the back seats. We looked at him blankly, he motioned for us to climb in through the back, we laughed, he did not… Ah, it seems you are serious… a short Mexican stand-off later we were climbing in over the bags. Another person appeared… same scenario repeated and in they climb with an added hilarity of having to sit on my lap whilst the chair in being unfolded once more locking us all firmly in the back. Another person appears… we hold our breath… a seat is found at the front, we breathe and hence the journey begins.
It turns out we are the only ones on the way to Banlung, or indeed have heard of it, the rest are on their way to either Siem Reap or Phnom Pehn, therefore at the drop off at the crossroads town and during the distribution into appropriate vehicles we are downgraded into a minibus so old that the backs of the chairs can no longer support even the tiny Cambodian woman sitting in front of us and I have to lean on it with my knee to ensure it does not smack me every time a pothole is hit (which is often), fear not, we were the lucky ones as we had plenty of space and even after the bus went round the town twice picking people up, we were on our way before the bus heading to one of the more popular destinations. We had the pleasure of being entertained by the efforts of the other driving team playing human Tetris with 20 full sized Westerners and their luggage and a 16 seater minibus: no one looked happy.
Our hotel in Banlung was a strange one: a hotel/furniture store… Turned out we stayed in the wrong part of town, not wrong as in bad, but wrong as in a middle of nowhere. The place to be seemed to be by the Lake, which was about 30 minutes walk away, not the end of the world and the hotel was cheap and clean. Banlung itself we could see does not entertain a lot of visitors, virtually everyone was gawking at us with mouths wide open and jaws firmly on the ground. A motorbike slowed whilst passing me and the driver lifted his helmet visor to ensure his jaw was unrestricted whilst dropping, a small naked child stared at me like I was the one parading in the nude. But on the whole, people smiled and waved and shouted ‘Hello’ and we assumed the staring was not hostile.
We rented a tuk tuk for a day and and went to see the waterfalls in the area, which were quite spectacular and the crater lake, which is different to the Lake, but equally as popular with the locals if not more. Crater lake is a spot for swimming and dining in a little shelter either sitting on the floor of the shelter or in hammocks and the Lake is a place to stroll around and dine on a rug by its side. There are quite few minority villages around Banlung and although we chose not to visit, for reasons previously explained, the driver was quite knowledgeable and had a good command of English to explain some of their customs and traditions without the intrusion as we sped past.
After a couple of days we departed for Kratie. The journey was more of a hoot than the destination. We were told to be ready for 7am and at 6.30am there was a knock on the door: they are here! We were not even packed yet! (yes, last minute packing is our thing). Speediest packing ever done in 15 minutes and we were on our way.. to pick up 25 passengers for the 16 seater, and a load of timber… and then we were on our way. We did not know this at the time, but this was one of the most pleasant and comfortable journeys we had in Cambodia. Kratie is a small place on the river with some pretty views and a temple on the hill. Against advice we decided to walk to it and 10 kilometers later we were not sure where we were, where the temple was and we ran out of water. When you do REALLY need tuk tuk, there are none and so we made a decision to walk 10 kilometers back and made a pact to inform the person advising us that we did make it to the temple and it was lovely. The road we walked was through small villages and children in each one would shout ‘Hello’ and wave and smile, but after hours and hours of having to shout ‘Hello’ back and wave I must admit, it does get a little cumbersome.
Another uncomfortable journey later (why would you make someone Ste’s height sit in the back with his knees almost touching his ears, whilst tiny Cambodian people sit in the front with their feet not touching the seat in front should they wish to stretch out their legs is beyond me, but that is what happened), a change in Phnom Pehn for a less uncomfortable bus (Hurray!), we arrived in Kep. Kep is a seaside town which used to be royal playground and home to French aristocracy is now a sleepy get away for the expat community and richer Cambodians, so it is not cheap, but very pleasant. Its a place to eat fresh crab, relax, do some jungle walking, which we did and maybe a dip in the sea, which we did not (it was raining and the water was silty). The beach is very small and artificial, the sand is brought over from Otres, which was our next destination.
Yet another interesting journey: the driver tried to get us to get out an hour in and change into a cab, smelling a rat, we refused and together with a British family who were equally unimpressed. The driver gave up and perhaps as a revenge placed a box of durians under our seats. Perhaps it was the only place to put them and no malice was in his actions, but why would anyone transport 3 durians from one place where they literally grow on trees in plenty to another?
Pondering on the mysterious Cambodian ways, we arrived in Sihanoukville and a short tuk tuk ride later arrived in Otres II on a recommendation of a friend. The place was nice and cheap and food was great, and it would have been fantastic is not for the storm which meant the rain came in through the walls of the bungalow and we had no sleep. The next morning we moved to Otres I and spent few days swimming, eating and drinking before heading up to Siem Reap to meet our friends and experience the most frustrating bus journey to date care of the slowest bus driver in Asia and maybe the world: nevermind the scooters, we were overtaken by a cow at one point.