We are leaving the jungle and elephants of Sen Monorom behind and make our way to our next stop in our trip: Stung Treng at the Mekong up North.

I want to visit a waterfall

But before we get there we have quite a drive ahead of us. I don’t like drives where you don’t do anything else than just sitting in the back of the car, looking at the back of the front seats. It bores the hell out of me. So, I checked out what could be of interest along the way. My first thought of passing by Bousra falls near Sen Monorom got a stereo response from the driver and guide “No no no no”. Translation: “If we do that, we – the driver and guide – are not able to get back home today, and we then need to find a place to sleep in a province we don’t know enough. This makes us very uncomfortable. And, so this is absolutely not possible.” I got it, I read between the lines.

The first stretch is still a bit boring and we keep ourselves busy with crochet, one of the things we were thought as little girls by our moms. We are making little handbags and flowers for the kids we meet here. They seem to like that. Apparently not only the kids like it, the guide – who is making quite a good living with his travel agency, and has no one to share that with but himself, which in return seems to make him into a player – also wants to have a flower. “A pink one”. My friend and I look at each other and whisper to each other “a PINK one??? That’s for girls!” At least where we live there is still a tradition when babies are born that girls wear pink and boys wear blue. OK, well pink he wants, pink he gets. My friend sticks the pink flower on his cowboy head – yes, indeed – and the guide accepts it with a big smile. Probably his side of the story is a bit different than our side of the story…. and would go something like this “We had to drive two old Western women to Stung Treng. Boy, we charged them so much! They didn’t have any choice but to go with us! I don’t need to work for another 2 weeks now! They were real grandma’s with their crochet, so to keep them busy I asked for a flower aswell. You need to make them feel special, right?”

Close to Banlung we drive onto a dirt road. The dust is blocking the view almost completely. After a while we seem to arrive at the place we wanted to reach, as we see a booth with an official in it. 1 USD entry for the park. I look around. There is no one else. So, they station someone here to ask for 1 USD entry, but probably the cost of having this person here costs much more? This is the Cha Ong Waterfall. I like it a lot. We descent on the freshly, but not so neatly, painted stairs and get a brilliant view from behind the waterfall. Love it, love it, love it.

Yeak Laom Lake

We are having our lunch break at Yeak Laom Lake. A 4000 year old crater filled up to a lake. Just recently the government has taken steps to further protect this area. I love this type of places where people get together to enjoy family gatherings in a nice environment. Stalls selling food, cloths and memorabilia. Children are jumping from the jetty into the lake, a family offers me a drink, everyone is hanging out in the gazebo’s with their hammocks.

I would loved to have stayed longer here, but we need to keep moving “because we don’t have a lot of time”. Yes, yes, I know… YOU don’t have a lot of time… WE do have time… but YOU need to be back home tonight.

I am extremely well prepared for traveling, annoyingly well prepared, a real control freak. Over the last years I have become a bit more flexible… now I see the preparations more as “options” or “alternatives” we can go for instead of the firm, non negotiable rules. So, also with our next accommodation I had figured out where exactly it is located and if it is easy to find. It is not. I keep my “track my walk” app tracing where we are and where we come from. By the time we get to Stung Treng I notice the driver is heading towards the center of the town instead of turning right before the bridge crossing the Mekong. I think I crushed their egos when I said they had to turn back and directed them straight to the accommodation… Sorry guys, this girl knows how to read a map.

Our little piece of paradise at the Mekong

What a great location we are staying at. Not a five star resort and not needed at all for us. This “resort” is a bit built as a little village with cottages bordering the steep riverbank of the Mekong. There are so many cozy corners. We have a great patio with a day bed, a dog guarding our door, and it seems we have been given an upgrade.The view of the sunset over the Mekong with the children playing and bathing is one of the nicest we’ve seen during our trip.

When we got here it was a bit difficult to figure out where we needed to be and who could help us. Not all of the staff speaks English. And you know what? That is fine. One way or another we managed to understand what they wanted to tell us, we got ourselves installed for a drink and by the time we were ready they seemed to have talked to the manager on the phone and we got ourselves a cottage assigned. A young guy is helping us with our luggage and throws the suitcases on his shoulders asif they weight nothing. When he leaves our cottage my friend sees him taking a picture of us. She laughs and says “we’d better take a real selfie together then!” Which we did. How nice and friendly people are here…

In the evening we meet the manager at dinner. We wanted to organize the boat trip to the waterfalls in Laos for the day after. He is praising another tour – the overnight tour “where you camp on an island in the Mekong, with a candlelit diner, releasing fire balloons… all under a full moon”. He is so enthusiastic about the arrangement and keeps going “I will personally be accompanying you, together with two of my staff…” When I ask if we could keep the room during that camping trip, the answer is no. Hmmmm… sounds like there is more to it. We think our room is double booked, we were not supposed to have this big room compared to the reservation I made. But, it’s the things he casually mentioned in between the praising of the tour itself that makes us feel something weird is going on: “… as my staff (ie the nice guy helping us with our suitcases) sent me the picture of you…” What?? We knew the guy took a picture, but why would he be sending this to his boss? To recognize us when he sees us on the premises? Guess it would be pretty obvious when some Western people are walking on your hotel premises, they would be guests or want to be guests?

Anyhow, we decline the nice invite for the candlelit diner, on an island under the moonlight with three Cambodian men and enjoy our big upgraded cottage. We didn’t see the manager again afterwards…

Going upstream to Laos

Our skipper Vishnat picks us up at 7:30 AM for our boattrip to the Laos waterfall. We are going upstream through the protected area of the “Flooded Forest”. The day starts grey, it is chilly and you can’t even see the difference between the sky and the river. Here and there you see trees holding their grounds in the strong currents of the Mekong. It is fascinating to see how high the river seems to get during rainy season, and how much force they put on the trees to bend them permanently in one direction. I am still puzzled on how these trees can actually start to grow. It could only happen I guess, if a seed is able to nestle in between natural debris and is protected from the current. Every other tree also seems to have its own resident bird sitting on top. We learnt from some other guests there is a big diversity of birds in this area, including some rare species.

Life along the river continues to follow its daily rhythm… fishermen are prepping their nets, laundry is being put to dry (hopefully), children playing and waving at us… When we return in the late afternoon the activities have shifted to mainly washing clothes and bathing. Even the water buffaloes stick to that routine of bathing in the evening…

It takes us 2,5 hours to reach a settlement close to the border. We get off and climb the steep bank in the lose sand. People need to have seriously developed glutes here, I definitely feel mine protesting. Later in the evening we find out that Vishnat actually lives in this village. He will not return to his village for the night – obviously, as it would take him again 2,5 hours and would not be able to reach it during daylight. And when you calculate back he probably left before 5 am to reach us at 7:30 a the resort. He will be sleeping in his boat tonight. He has another tour tomorrow. We will see him washing his shirt in the river and getting ready to relax as we bring him some food in the evening.

To get to the Preah Nimith waterfalls we will be passing the border with Laos several times. Not that you would even notice, no signs or border controls. Why would there be… there is no one around on this side of the border. We dock our boat and make our way across a rocky terrain towards the waterfall. I should have put different footwear… slippers are not the right gear. We found a nice spot  with view on the waterfalls to have our prepacked lunch. I am good here, but my friend – without the fear of heights – wants to see it from a bit closer. You go girl! I will start to have our prepacked delicious lunch and relax. It is impressive and loud! We are the only ones on this side of the waterfalls. With my zoomlens I scan the horizon searching for animals or any other interesting subject. I found two of them… young men in their underwear descending down the sharp rocks to try and catch some fish.

On our way back close to the village we try to spot some Irriwaddy dolphins, but they are not in the mood, either have vanished. Clearly, the numbers are going down and we are so lucky to have seen at least a good number of them in Kratie. Hope the population is better protected in the future and will grow again.

On our way back we play the game “spot the water buffalo” and move on to “spot the bird”. Brilliant how the water buffaloes seem to be on a wellness retreat bathing in the river…

A bit further down we get all excited… after spotting a lot of birds in the white-grey-black color range, we spot a very colorful specimen… a Kingfisher. Actually the first Kingfisher I have ever seen. After some research I think it was the “Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) found in in Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.”  And Cambodia now :). 

Mekong Blue

After shopping in town we make a stop at Mekong Blue, an organization dedicated to lifting rural families out of poverty by empowering women with employment and education. They do this by providing job training and a living wage to their silk weavers, along with basic literacy and health education, free lunches and an elementary school for village children. I had planned in advance to get me some nice silk scarfs here, and they didn’t let me down! We got a tour of the facilities. It was not as busy as I expected. Business was slowing down. What a pity.

We look through the window of the school they have on the premises, while the children are chanting the letters and numbers. I am a bit puzzled. Not all children seem to be equal here in Cambodia… a little boy is looking in through the other window, asif he knows that without education he will have a harder life ahead of him.

The next ride

This morning we were supposed to sleep out. Obviously, my internal clock doesn’t agree and wakes me again at 6 am… arghhhh. I see a Whatsapp message from our next driver. He was supposed to pick us up around 11 AM, but that will not happen. His car broke down on his way up here. I like Sarak. We had some chats before we got to Cambodia and it clicked. I trust him. We will figure out something to do in the meanwhile, starting with a slow and lengthy breakfast with views over the Mekong, followed by relaxing on our daybed with … views over the Mekong. Around 11 AM I get an update from Sarak. I smile when I see he has added pictures of his car in the garage with someone working on it. I am impressed… he found a garage… and they are working on it right away! By noon, a new picture and message: the car is fixed! Would never happen in Belgium, such a speedy result… He will be with us in five hours.

By the time we are back from city-tripping to Stung Treng, Sarak has arrived. At least this guy finds our accommodation without a problem, and he had never been in the area either… We are pleasantly surprised to see his wife was with him. We see it immediately… they are expecting! 3 months in. Cool, so we will be on a real family trip for the coming days!
*** You can check out Sarak on TripAdvisor and reach him through the info on his Facebook page. You will see more stories he helped create in the following posts.***

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