Coming from Kratie, we waited for a while in dusty Snuol for a new bus to arrive and take us the rest of the way to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri province. We met Scott and Zoe, who had just been on the bus that would have originally done the job, but had broken down on the way up from Phnom Penh. Evidently the workhorse buses fare worse than I do in the Cambodian heat, and mechanical breakdowns are a common occurrence when dozens of passengers are expecting some measure of air conditioning inside. We waited for an hour and a half, snacking on local avocados and walking around town. The buildings here are all caked in rust-colored dust, and the unpaved roads gladly tattoo any sandal, shoe or tire the same color. Behind the shiny new cell phone merchant counters, ubiquitous throughout Cambodia, the familiar stench of the local market, cheap chinese goods competing for attention with poultry, live hens bound together at the feet. This is a crossroads town, not more than a pit-stop for most vehicles, locals busily fix up large wheels, tires, and axles for passers-through.
Mercifully, a bus arrived at last and was only half-full once we were all onboard. The road was packed dirt, apparently finished in 2002, and though wide enough for a few vehicles, cars tended to snake wildly within its borders, avoiding the deep pits and crevasses caused by the recent rains. We trudged along at a brisk enough pace, occasionally slowing to clearheadedly navigate the obstacle course.
The hot and dusty climate changed gradually, but definitively. Upon sighting the first conifer I’d seen in months I grinned; the guide book wasn’t wrong in saying that the area is ‘a different Cambodia'; not sure, however, about its resemblance to Switzerland. Unlike the flat, hot country I’d seen thus far, Sen Monorom sits high up in Mondulkiri’s rolling hills, its cooler climate a welcome change of pace.
Our bus finally arrived in the afternoon, and for once I was not swarmed with motodops and touts while getting my bags. I liked this town already. Its two main roads mostly free of traffic, save the occasional moto or pickup, I was reminded of a Cicely, Alaska, from TV’s Northern Exposure, where life is simple, people are friendly and helpful. The young proprietor of Green House, between organizing transportation for us, would serve us fresh jackfruit from his yard and was all too happy get drunk on Coke and Mekong and practice his near-perfect English. Likewise, our guest house packed us lunches with free bananas and avocados for snacks. It was quickly apparent that this is the sort of place where people treat foreigners like friends, and not just another way to make money. Most of the foreigners in these parts work for demining NGOs, and the couple of night spots that catered to us were casual, quiet and pleasant.
Our first full day in Sen Monorom, Scott, Zoe, Céline and I decided to change guest houses, but after walking a kilometer into town we were caught in a torrential deluge that managed to turn town’s roads into the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We took shelter under an awning and just watched. Luckily I’d surrounded myself with photographers, so there were no complaints, as were all to happy to spend the afternoon taking photos in the downpour and the muddy mess that was left when the rains subsided. I was liking this trip more and more.
At the local roundabout, a big statue of water buffaloes mid-stride, and next to the local airstrip (which looks just like any other road in town, only flatter), we ran into Sven, the Belgian guy from Kratie. He’d gotten in a night before we did, with delays. His bus had gotten stuck in the mud and half the passengers helped push it out. I guess we were lucky 😉 He was busy planning a motorcycle ride up to Ratanakiri province, explaining that taking the same road he’d taken to get here was against his philosophy. The start of the rainy season meant, however, that he would eventually have to cancel his trip due to impassable flooded terrain.
We hired a pickup truck to take us around the area. Our driver deftly managed the muddy roads, unlike a 4×4 we passed, that tried time and again to get up the road to no avail. The drive to the impressive Bou Sra waterfalls, some 40km away, was an enjoyable way to take it all in, the least populated province in the country.
In the afternoon we stopped by a local village and visited a traditional thatched-roof house. It was a very awkward moment. Here we were, a bunch of western bozos, gawking at the very basic accommodations and the handful of children who had lined up inside for a photo opportunity. I would like to think that they were somewhat shy, but they’d clearly done this before, and their unsmiling faces showed it. The father of the household, on the other hand, was all smiles despite our language barrier, and all too happy to accept the small change we gave him as payment. I tried to make the best of it, putting aside any guilty exploitative feelings, and tried to understand living here; a whole family under one thatched roof; long, raised wooden floors providing living, sleeping, and sleeping space; glowing embers in the middle, most likely for cooking, providing unnecessary heat and little light… It was a glimpse into these peoples’ lives, and we all felt like tourist schmucks for being there. Oh well; I guess such is the nature of this sort of travel. At the very least it was something concrete to take in, a real contrast to the lifestyles we are accustomed to.
That morning we had been woken up by Buddhist monks, who’d begun funerary chants at 6 in the morning, lasting well into the evening. The bus that we were supposed to take back to Phnom Penh the next day had lost control on the way to Sen Monorom, speeding backwards down a muddy road at a fast clip before swerving into a ditch in an emergency stop. A girl who had been on board apparently jumped out for one reason or another, and was struck dead by the vehicle. A Canadian guy who had been on the bus told us the story, calm but visibly in shock. Somber, it was a reminder that despite the serenely beautiful landscape, we were in a place where weather can spell ruin, and that local medical care is something to avoid.
The bus unavailable, we hired a share taxi to take us back to Phnom Penh. Imagine seven people crammed into Toyota Corolla, facing the same treacherous mud roads. I closed my eyes, resigned to whatever fate that awaited us. We made it back in one piece, and I was left forever impressed by the mechanical godliness of not only the Corolla, but the countless Honda Dream scooters we passed. Over the past month I’d seen these 125cc bikes haul everything from multiple live pigs to entire families precariously balanced on the seat. However, seeing two bikes balancing a full furniture set (armoire, table, etc.), miraculously maintaining traction in a foot of mud, topped it all.
My last night in Cambodia. I tagged along to Céline’s going-away party at a bowling alley in Phnom Penh, where I had little opportunity to reflect on my time here. I’ve had time since.
A month is little time to get to know a place, and I don’t pretend to understand it with any intimacy or real depth. But I knew that I would miss it here. This place is rough around the edges. Really rough compared to its wealthier neighbors. I’ve met many people who were disappointed by Cambodia, having expected sites and attractions on par with Thailand. It’s a pity, because this country offers so much depth with little gloss; the people here are, in a way, more earnest, not yet ruined by tourism; they smile genuine smiles. They are slowly rebuilding, toughened by decades of war and corruption, yet remain forced to seize whatever chance they can to eke out a living, good or bad. The air is rife with opportunity — for business, aid, more corruption, escapism. Westerners used to come here to escape demons and create new ones, assume new identities. But you can sense that despite the “anything goes” existence things are changing, that lawlessness is slowly fading, that progress is happening. So much of the country feels in physical limbo, and between dilapidated, crumbling buildings and war-ravaged infrastructure, first impressions can be depressing. Despite this, I am left with the sense that there is so much potential here, that the people are eager to move forward. NGOs are providing children with second chances; massive Chinese investment, a double-edged sword, is developing infrastructure and commerce; and if the images in shiny Khmer karaoke videos offer anything into national psyche, this youthful country has already projected itself into a new middle class and is trying to grow into those shoes.
But what do I know.
I am left charmed, humbled, hopeful and eager to come back soon.