Cambodia Trip – Sen Monorom


Unforgettable… our visit to Sen Monorom…

How much can you stuff in a van?

“There are no drivers for tomorrow”. “huh?”. “No, there are no drivers”. “huh?”. “There is shared VIP van”.

O my God, this triggers thousands of questions in my head, and I know it sounds spoilt and I should be grateful there is at least transportation: will all the luggage fit? and will it be safe? will I be able to keep my medicin coolbox and camera gear with me? how much space will I have for my legs to move around? will it be comfortable enough? will there be airco or will we melt? what if I need to go to the toilet? what if I snore when I doze off?

There is no other way. Luckily we were the first ones getting in. As we would be heading to the East, we make sure to have a spot on the left side of the van, we don’t want to be grilled chicken by the time we arrive. Picking up passengers takes us a whole hour (as expected). In between stops goods and inventory are loaded as well, including tree logs (????) and a scooter. Yes. A scooter.

After two hours we have a pitstop for breakfast. I was more intrigued by the whole set up than breakfast itself: the owners’ livingspace was right behind the restaurant and their bathroom (toilet without flush, no sink, no shower, with the family toothbrushes in a little basket near the window) served as toilet for the guests. I can’t imagine living like this. It was dark and dingy and didn’t look like it was being cleaned or aired regularly. And if this was indeed the living-area-slash-bedroom-with-ensuite, they surely lived frugal. Not to speak about the trust they have in their customers not to grab or damage anything.

In any case, traveling with a shared van is no longer a no-no, it was pretty good actually.

Things to do

We have some stuff to sort out – like a private driver to Stung Treng (our next stop), which proves to be quite hard. The province border between Mondulkiri (where we are now) and Ranatikiri (where we go next) seems to keep all inhabitants neatly in their province and the existence of the new highway doesn’t help (yet). The bus and van schedules would take us a whole day, so this is really only a plan C or D for us. So, we talk to anyone we can get a hold of. The lodge we are staying in is not that helpful in finding a solution, only the standard list of bus schedules. I asked around online, but no fishes that bite. Eventually, we end up in a coffee bar – new style – and asked the girls managing the bar. They start calling their connections, and 15 minutes later a guy comes to say hi and wanted to do it. We are not sure, it is clear that our ask is a novel one and people don’t know yet what to expect and are not sure what fun stuff there is to see for their guests enroute. The price reflects the insecurity. We feel a bit like lemons being squeezed. Argh… we need to think about this one and promise to let them know later today.

Next to do: All long pants are dirty, so I need to find some new ones for tomorrow. Not easy, all good up to size 38, but not for my size! “your friend yes, you size NO!” Thank you very much, this makes me feel really good… and fat. The only thing I can find is colorful pyama-like pants in a stretchy synthetic fabric.

Whipe-out

Before we left for Cambodia I read about a huge fire destroying Sen Monorom town. When we got there it was just two weeks post the whipe-out. We hear the stories about people trying to save their property adjacent to the market area with hoses and buckets. The majority of the old market stalls and houses were incinerated. Chilling… Incredible only 2 people died. A lot of the victims moved out of town back into the countryside. But life seems to move on for the ones staying. The remaining stalls are open, children play in the debris, actual walkways take already form through the now open area.

Walking with elephants

Today is the day I have been looking forward to for months! We are visiting the Elephant Valley Project. So, an early day today. By 7 am our tuk tuk is waiting for us at the entrance. We organized that yesterday, or at least we hoped we organized it as we were explaining with hands and feet at what time we expected him. He drops us at the Hefalump Café where we need to fill in a long form. Apparently, the government wants to know where the tourists are, especially in the remote areas. It is a safety thing. We also read the safety instructions from the organization itself, one of them being “Do not put your hands in the mouth of the elephant”. Obviously, we were not planning to do so.

I like the concept and approach of the EVP. It is set up and run like a real business, not one of those happy-go-lucky ngo’s. So, off we go for our walk to the valley. I see 3 cm holes in the ground surrounded by white stuff. Spiderholes… for fat spiders. Some even have a hatch!

It is quite a different experience to see elephants in the jungle, like walking into a National Geographic documentary. The first three elephants we meet have their own particular character. The eldest of the three is blind in one eye and due to that doesn’t feel comfortable laying down while bathing. She also has artitis for which she gets turmeric… like I do! The youngest one goes all the way… falling into the water… playing around… using her trunk as a hose… The middle one elegantly gets into a comfortable position as she gets ready for her beauty treatment… She is also a motherfigure for the youngest one. They are always together. They communicate with each other and we hear the youngest one making question like sounds when we approach, upon which the middle one seems to respond in a reassuring way…

We make our way to base camp for a delicious lunch. I am so happy! There is jackfruit on the menu! Love it and it has been since my business travels to Bangladesh that I have eaten it! With a full belly, we hang out in the hammocks with some other ladies of the group. All volunteers, mostly 20 year old, except one fellow of 38 who is starting a second life apparently. We’re exchanging travel stories and the ladies are intrigued by our boldness of asking local people anything we want to know. Well, at least we find out interesting stuff everywhere we go!

In the afternoon we start our second hike to meet two other elephants. One of them is “round” and “fluffy”… she eats about everything… a lot of it. I like her already :). The other one is the tallest of the females and has a giga-traumatic past which ended in a concrete bunker to hide her from being discovered. In the beginning when she was in the reservation she bombarded the mahouts in the morning with rocks and logs she had been gathering throughout the night. She had post traumatic stress syndrome… These two ladies are quite something. One night they “went out” and emptied a complete farm. One of them had de-rooted the tree her leash was connected to and freed the other one. Probably they had “cravings”… like some of us also have… and went on a raid for food. In another adventure both of them where part of a love triangle with the male elephant on the reservation. The male was fond of the tall lady, but she didn’t fancy him. The round one though didn’t mind starting something with the casanova and started to come onto him. Upon which the male ran away…

What a day…

Hanging around at some Bunong villages

Another day and a different adventure. Not sure what to expect. We will be integrating into the Bunong villages and way of life. The Bunong are indigineous to the area. This “tour” is organized as part of the WEHH project as a way to diversify their income while help protecting the forest and ecosystem.

“Toek” is our guide today. He is 25, just married to Ima, has a lovely 8 months old baby and as good tradition prescribes moved into his parents-in-law’s place, whom by the way also have a toddler of 2 running around :). This is our first stop. We are offered bananas from their garden and are exploring their passion fruit trees for ripe passion fruits… divine.

We have a relax morning, strolling through the fields, seeing the water buffaloes graze in the pond, chicken with chicks everywhere, pigs and piglets running around… Every house seems to have a dog. Children saying “Hello! Hello!” as we pass by. We end up in a traditional house with a thatch roof. Four families live in here. Something which is difficult for me to comprehend. The whole house is smaller than half of my living room. I feel a spoilt brad now.

Time for lunch in the next village. Again a delicious and lavish meal. After lunch is siesta time, and we are being placed in a hammock underneath one of the houses to take some rest. Guess this is what is normally done? Or are they trying to get rid of us? It doesn’t take long before we fall asleep. When we wake up an hour or so later, a bunch of animals had installed themselves around me. Sure feels homely and well accepted in the village. The lady of the house shows some traditional weaving and we buy all of her stock, which she obviously didn’t expect… big smile and thank you’s.

We hike towards the community’s nice waterfall. By this time my feet are covered with Sen Monorom’s typical orange sand. It is sticky and stubborn. I have the hardest time washing it off in the pool of the waterfall. I am so surprised we don’t see that many people here. It is so tranquil.

During our walk we saw a hair salon in one of the villages. Obviously, we wanted to try this. The hair dresser got her degree in Phnom Penh. Her salon was also a neighborhood shop. Shampoo was sold by the portion, not in bottles. But then the treatment… OMG. With only a bit of water and some shampoo she started to massage this into our hair starting at the top of the head, adding bit by bit some more and by the end our hair was completely washed. Definitely worth it. My friend has the curliest hair and loves to have straight hair – mission impossible in this humid climate. Well, let’s say the curls didn’t come back after her treatment, maybe the iron was a bit too hot.

We had to laugh with Toek’s reply when I asked what “that little white pool” in the middle of the landscape was for. “Indicates boundary of land…not like Donald Trump… building a wall”. Maybe a remote area, but well aware of what is going on in the world.

Nightly critters

Third night in Sen Monorom and the third night we get spooked. The first night we took the stairs down from the lounge onto the path to the lodges, when we saw big rocks next to the path… which we didn’t see before. That was strange. There was not a lot of light and we looked again. The rocks moved!… it were the house-cows which apparently had their sleeping spots next to the path.

The second night I heard a loud scream from my friend’s bed… a “huge” spider had also found a nice sleeping spot on the wall and was looking straight at her. The walls of the lodge and actually also the floor are full of cracks, so anything can crawl right in. My friend grabs her slipper, pushes the spider through a crack back outside and ensures the mosquito net is tucked in.

The last evening at the lodge was really the cherry on the cake. I was enjoying a nice, warm shower when I saw movement in the toilet. Did something we “dropped” there crawled back up???? It has legs! “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!” I call my friend “There is a frog in the toilet!!” By the time she is in the bathroom it is gone “Where?”. A few seconds later it is back, now it is already above the water! “Flush it! Flush it!” We don’t want to look at its face when we do that, so close the lit and flush. Slowly we lift the lit to check if it is gone…. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaarggghhhhh!”… it has jumped or whatever under the seat. I drop the lit and look again… it moved again. We try again and now it seems gone. With torches and in our pyama’s we go outside and don’t see anything suspicious. Good, we solved it. Haha, nope! An hour later I hear my friend scream out of the bathroom. The frog is now on the wall close to the door looking at us. Clearly it doesn’t understand what the fuzz is about and logically there shouldn’t be any either, I know… Anyway, my friend grabs a towel and catches it and start to run towards the frontdoor. Halfway the room it falls out of the towel “You lost him! You lost him!”. It escapes back to the bathroom. We need to do something different and maybe more radical… We use the shower to spray him through the cracks out of the lodge. We didn’t see it again.

Karma would get us back soon….