October 13, 2002

Mondulkiri

Greetings,

In an unprecedented move I'm actually sending another email less than three weeks after my last update. Since I last wrote I spent about a week working on some things in the Phnom Penh office and finished up a few things related to the strategic planning workshop. On the weekend I spent time with some friends, including Braden and Johanna who are here in Cambodia with AFM (Adventist Frontier Missions) working in the Mondulkiri province. Mondulkiri is one of the more remote provinces in Cambodia and they were enjoying their visit to Phnom Penh. I was already thinking about trying to visit them over our long weekend holiday (last weekend), and since they were in Phnom Penh I was able to talk to them about the travel details and finalized plans for the trip. On Sunday I went bowling and then went to a surprise birthday party for Johanna.

During the week I spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh and then had a quick trip to the project in Kompong Thmal. It was nice to see the staff there again since I had been gone for over a month working on workshop stuff.

Friday morning Jonathan (the new German volunteer), Sujoya (a new volunteer from Wales who is working at the mission) and I got up before sunrise and took motos down to the taxi stand area for Mondulkiri. After waiting around for a little bit while they loaded some cargo into the truck, the driver told us to climb on and we were off. The pickups that usually make this particular trip are 4 wheel drive Toyotas with good mud tires on them since the road can be pretty bad, especially if it is raining. The back of our pickup was piled high with luggage, a brand new moto and around 10 or so people plus kids. The first part of the trip was on good, paved roads but the roads weren't so good for some of the later parts. At least it didn't rain very much so most of the road was not too bad. The trip probably would have taken about 10 hours but we had a flat tire along the way. The first time it blew out we stopped and they rolled the wheel a few hundred yards down the road to the nearest repair shop. Unfortunately the repair job didn't hold, so on a remote stretch of road we had to stop and change to the somewhat smaller spare. Once we got to the next small village we got the tire repaired again, and it seemed to hold air the second time. Although the trip was pretty long, the time went by fairly quickly since there was plenty of jungle scenery along the way. Thanks to the flat tire we reached the hilliest part of the road just about sunset and enjoyed an absolutely gorgeous sunset as we wound our way up the mountain road. Parts of the surrounding jungle were quite misty which added to the whole effect, and as a prelude to the sunset we also saw a rainbow. Whenever it started to rain along the way the passengers in the back of the truck would drape a large tarp over everything in an attempt to keep dry. I also had a rain coat which proved to be quite helpful. Before we arrived in Sen Monorom (the capitol of Mondulkiri province) it was completely dark and the clouds had cleared to reveal a star filled sky. It is truly amazing how many stars you can see when there is no electricity, and hence no light pollution along the way to distort the view. Sen Monorom itself does actually have electricity for a few hours in the mornings and evenings so we were welcomed to town by a couple of street lights. Upon arrival we had some trouble locating Braden and Johanna's house since we had agreed to contact them via cell phone when we arrived. Unfortunately for us the local cell tower was too busy so it took quite a while before we could place a call. Once we got through we met up with Braden and Johanna who had prepared a lovely supper for us. Our trip from Phnom Penh ended up taking about 13 hours and the price for the taxi ride was $10 per person. Although we had hoped to get in before dark, the sunset and stars more than made up for the delay.

After a good nights sleep in the relatively cool climate of Mondulkiri (I actually slept with a top sheet for a change), we all got up and had a breakfast of pancakes and fresh fruit. The markets in Sen Monorom are pretty well stocked since Vietnam is actually quite close. Foreigners can't cross the border in this area, but produce and other goods seem to flow quite freely. After breakfast we sang some songs and had our own mini church before hiking a few kilometers out of town to a waterfall. On the 4 km walk to the waterfall we probably saw a total of about 6-8 people once we left town, which is quite a change from the more populated rural areas of Cambodia. We got back from the waterfall just as it started to rain, so we sat on the porch talking and enjoying the cooler temperatures brought by the rain. A couple of people even put on light jackets. After supper we piled into Braden and Johanna's pickup and drove a little ways out of town to watch the sunset, which was beautiful yet again. Saturday night a few of the neighbor kids came over and we sang some songs, then played chicken foot dominoes (Mexican train) using a double 15 domino set. Braden and Johanna have a simple, but comfortable house in Sen Monorom. In some ways Ben and Sharon are more remote in Preah Vihear (no electricity, no cell coverage, not living in town), although the road to Mondulkiri is certainly longer and more difficult. After a few games of dominoes the kids left and we played a few rounds of Pit using spoons before heading to bed. After dark we pretty much stayed indoors and put on plenty of mosquito repellent since malaria is a problem in Mondulkiri. Braden and Johanna have both gotten it several times since moving there. We also took some preventative medication before, during and after the trip.

Sunday morning we got up a little bit early and headed out to one of the Phnong villages. Braden and Johanna have been learning about the Phnong people and have been studying their language as well. The Phnong and several other hill tribes are separate people groups from the Cambodians. Their culture, language and way of life are very different and they often live in the more remote (and hilly) areas of Cambodia. Although Braden and Johanna often visit Phnong villages as part of their research work, this particular visit had another goal…elephant trekking! Upon arrival in the village we were told to wait while they went to get the elephants that we would ride. While waiting we were able to catch a little glimpse into village life and took some pictures. Some of the village structures reminded me of the long houses used by Native Americans in the US. When the elephants showed up the guides saddled them and then we climbed aboard. Jonathan decided not to come along on the elephant outing, but Braden, Johanna, Sujoya and I considered it to be the highlight of the weekend. We rode on the elephants for about two hours over green hills and through some patches of trees. At the end of the two hours we arrived at our destination: a waterfall. Since it had been raining quite a bit over the past few months the water levels were about as high as they get and the current was quite swift. We still had some fun swimming though before eating our picnic lunch on some rocks below the waterfall. After lunch we got back on the elephants and headed back to the Phnong village via a different route. On the way back we got to cross several rivers, one of which was almost deep enough to get us wet on top of the elephants. It was truly amazing how sure footed the elephants were as they slid down and climbed up the muddy river banks. The trip back to the village took around three hours since we took the scenic route through the jungle. We got rained on a little bit at the end of the ride, but we all had rain coats so didn't get very wet. Thankfully the rain didn't last too long so the road back to Sen Monorom wasn't too slippery. Many of the roads in Mondulkiri are made up of hard packed red clay which can get as slippery as ice when wet. Some of them are also very rutted and have little gorges along the sides produced by rain water which are deep and wide enough to swallow a Toyota pickup whole. When we got back to Braden and Johanna's house we were pretty tired so we just had supper, talked a while and then went to bed. The day-long elephant excursion cost $10 per person including the vegetarian picnic lunch and was arranged through one of the local guesthouses.

Monday morning we got up early and caught a taxi back towards Phnom Penh. This time however we arranged with the driver to drop us off near the town of Snuol (motos took us the last 5 km in to town). In Snuol we caught another pickup taxi for the 3 hour ride to Kratie. Kratie is located on the Mekong River and is known as the best place to see rare freshwater dolphins (Irrawaddy Dolphins). After finding a nice, clean hotel ($5 for two rooms with a total of three beds) we arranged to rent a moto from one of the local moto drivers for $3 including gas so that we could drive the 20 km or so out to the dolphin viewing park. We weren't sure if we would be able to spot the dolphins since the water levels are quite high in the river and people kept telling us that we would have to take a boat to see the dolphins. By the time we got to the viewing area it was too late for boats, but we sat and watched the sunset. Just as the clouds were turning bright colors a couple of dolphins surfaced a ways from shore and blew some air out through their blow holes before disappearing below the waves. Although it wasn't exactly an up close and personal dolphin encounter, it was still pretty cool to see the dolphins and the sunset was spectacular with a thunderstorm dumping rain right next to brightly colored clouds.

Tuesday morning we caught a speed boat down the Mekong to the town of Kompong Cham (around 3 hours, $5) where we then caught an air conditioned bus back to Phnom Penh (under 3 hours, $2). Jonathan was ready to get home so he got the last seat on an earlier bus while Sujoya and I waited for the next available seats a couple of hours later. Normally it's not a problem to get seats, but because of the long weekend lots of people were traveling. While waiting Sujoya and I took a moto out to man hill and woman hill which I had been to before on a previous trip to Kompong Cham. The last time I was there I was pretty sick so didn't climb the stairs to the top of woman hill, but this time I made it to the top with no problem. At the top some tourists were getting their names recorded on one of the walls of the Buddhist temple in exchange for a donation. We enjoyed the view of Kompong Cham and the Mekong River before heading back to the bus station. We also got some supper from the local market which ended up including dried bananas, corn on the cob, baguettes, some battered and fried green beans (which I hadn't seen or tried before) and some fruit. In Cambodia there are always little snacks and 'treats', and some of them are even vegetarian. You just never know what the next street vendor is going to have here…

After a good night's sleep in Phnom Penh I spent a few hours in the office in the morning and then caught yet another taxi out to Kompong Thmal. On Thursday I spent some time on a couple of projects in the office, but on Friday morning I went with the staff to distribute some chloramine water purification tables in some flooded villages where they might have a hard time boiling their drinking water. Some of the staff ended up wading through waist deep water, but the group I went with ended up staying pretty dry except for driving through a little bit of water on the road. When we finished with the tablet distribution I caught a taxi back here to Phnom Penh.

Yesterday we had some baptisms and baby dedications in church and I had lunch with some friends. Last night we played settlers with some new expansion rules that made the game more interesting.

After some minor difficulties I finally managed to purchase a plane ticket to visit my parents in Cyprus. Since we have a couple of weeks of local holidays here in November I'm combining them with my vacation time to be gone from October 24 to November 25. I'm looking forward to the trip, especially since I'll also get to see my grandparents and some other relatives who will be visiting Cyprus at the same time as me.

In the time before I leave I'm planning to do some computer training with the ADRA staff in Kompong Thmal. Most of them want to improve their typing skills although a few have other areas of interest too.

Well, that's pretty much all that's been happening with me here in Cambodia. I suppose my next update will probably be from Cyprus. Anyone else want to meet me there? :)

Until next time,

Andrew

Posted by andrew on October 13, 2002
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