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Second visit: October 23-27, 2000

A year later and this time it's Royal Phnom Penh Airways bringing me to Banlung in an ancient Antonov 24, an aircraft that has me wondering if it was perhaps part of some former Soviet Republic's fire sale. I then notice that the aircraft comes with its own Russian pilot. Did he bring his own Russian vodka? Is he sharing? Upon landing I again take a room at the Mountain Guesthouse, and after complaining about the laziness of the guide they provided me with last year, I'm assured they'll do much better.

Banlung looks no different except I notice the Ratanakiri Restaurant has put a pair of signs out front, this time calling themselves by their more familiar name, the American Restaurant. But refreshing to know - the food, the staff, the clientele - they are the same as ever.

The guide I'm given is likeable enough, though I've already put his name out of my mind, and his English, though not fluent, is at least better than the few sentences I extracted from last year's guide. Unfortunately, this guide hadn't been in Ratanakiri very long and other than repeating to me six times a day that "you'd like me to introduce you to the indigenous peoples," he really didn't know much about the area, nor have a clue as to how to drive a motorbike on soft roads with a passenger on the back. And if all that wasn't enough, in the beginning he often wanted to tell me about the wonderful new churches in the villages, how Jesus Christ was important to his life, and how his missionary friends were going to save all the souls of Ratanakiri..

The Cambodian government speaks often about this new Rule of Law thing that will make Cambodia a functioning, efficient, modern, law-abiding land (or something like that). Do you think they could start with the eviction of all the missionaries who come to places like Ratanakiri to play head games on people who for centuries have been served quite well by their own beliefs? Beliefs which may be Buddhism, animism, ancestor worship, or some combination thereof. Just a thought.

[To read an opposing viewpoint on this issue, you may read a lengthy e-mail I received from a member of one of the missionary families living in Ratanakiri. Click here for the commentary.

I then gave my guide a proper tongue lashing about screwing with people's culture - especially his own - and the subject was never brought up again.

At the first village we visited I attracted a crowd that promptly refreshed my memory on the health problems prevalent in Ratanakiri. One girl was hacking away, having just recovered from a bout with malaria, and another girl had an ear infection so severe it was eating away at her ear lobe. She would not be the last I'd see with this problem. And according to my guide, cholera has been through this village a few times as well.

Heading further west, we found that sure enough, Rule of Law has come to Ratanakiri. A police officer was flagging down motorbikes without license tags, fining them a couple of thousand riels for the infraction. This included us. My driver/guide claimed insolvency so of course the police officer turned to me. "No way, not my bike," was all I'd say, refusing to cough up so much as a 100 riels. After about five or ten minutes of detainment the officer gave up and let us go.

One town I did not visit last year is Ta Veng, which lies along the Tonle San River about 60 kilometers northeast of Banlung and quite a distance east of Voen Sai. Along the way, I stopped at a pair of smaller villages. At the first village a young boy sat in a cart complaining that he had broken his knee and couldn't walk on it. I'm no doctor, but this knee did not look straight. Nearby, a concerned mother held a young girl on her hip. She commented that her girl had a bad ear infection. I looked at the ear - as at the other village, the infection was eating away at the outer ear lobe and the inside looked badly disfigured, but this was worse than what I had seen in the previous village. The woman then said she had tried sticking a burning candle in the ear to stop the infection, dripping the hot wax in it.

At the next village I happened to arrive just as the villagers had killed a pig. One of the village elders was sick with an undetermined stomach ailment, so the village decided to sacrifice a pig and a chicken to the ancestors. From these animals they would also make medicine to help with the man's stomach. I stayed around for about an hour and a half hoping to see some kind of ceremony but it was all rather straight forward. Kill the pig, burn the pig, clean the pig, gut the pig, cook the pig... and I suppose eat the pig.

We eventually reached Ta Veng. Like most of these tiny towns in Ratanakiri, it's little more than a couple of dozen wooden shacks. The three-room school building had two classes in session. As typical with most rural Cambodian schools, the teachers were perfectly agreeable to have me come into the class, sit around and cause general disruption by taking a few photos. In one classroom, the teacher had the students assembled in a circle and he was teaching them a song. In the other room, about 20 younger students were seated for their lesson.

Most of the children were quite shy and preferred that I not take their photo too closely (if at all) but one girl was anything but shy. After a few shots of the room my ever-roving eye noticed a young girl in green who was not taking her eyes off of me  - not for a second. Any movement I made in her direction resulted in smiles, even giggles. I had my model. Her name is Noung Taa and aside from possible aspirations to be an international movie star she also happens to be the granddaughter of the village chief.

Noung Taa

The next day, I returned to Voen Sai. Not so much to see Voen Sai again, but to visit a couple of the villages that dot the road leading there. I had hoped to find some of the kids I had photographed around the well in Karlai commune. One of those photos has been published twice - including on the front cover of the October 2000 Bayon Pearnik magazine.

Galo Po, 11, and Neay, 13, aware of their fame.

I brought a copy of the offending Bayon Pearnik magazine and set out looking for my two kids. Showing the magazine to a number of surprised locals in the vicinity of Karlai, I was led to a pair of huts off in the brush, invisible from the road. We first located the younger of the two girls. She took one look at the magazine and ran away. She returned with the older girl, who expressed the same shock. And together they ran away again. I walked over to the next house and found them hiding in the corner. My first thought was that I had made some tremendous mistake showing up with this magazine cover, but it was anything but. Apparently in Ratanakiri, one expresses excitement and gratitude by running away and hiding in a corner. Conversation with the older girl's mother smoothed things over for me, and I was reassured by all that my visit and the magazine was a good thing.

The older one smoking the rolled tobacco leaf and wearing the krama is Neay and was 12 years old in that picture, the other girl is Galo Po and was 10 years old at the time. I asked if I could get a photograph of them holding the magazine. No problem, they said, but then Galo Po disappeared again, running back to her home, and Neay disappeared behind a wall. After about five minutes I asked what was up with the kids. Turns out they wanted to dress up in their best clothes. The family considered this a very special event and the two girls were planning to look their best for the occasion. The change in Neay was truly remarkable and she hardly resembled the same dirty girl puffing on a tobacco leaf the year before. My guide offered that now that she was 13 years old they wanted to keep her appearance up because they had to start thinking about marriage.

Photos and talk with the family finished, I continued to Voen Sai encountering nothing out ofthe ordinary except a pair of friendly kids gathering and tying leaves in the road. Later I met the same two heading home with their buffalos.

Voen Sai is no different. The bus continues to make its run to Banlung and back each day. In town a couple of small restaurants provide noodles and rice, though it was a challenge to find one that wasn't patronized by some excessively drunk local men.

On my last day in Ratanakiri, I walked over to the Banlung market to (hopefully) take some photos. As usual the shyness of the people in the market rendered almost any photography impossible unless I wanted to hide behind a log somewhere with a 300 or 400 mm lens. I refuse to do that. After getting just a few shots I finally gave up when I noticed one woman, 18 maybe, with a cleft palate that had never been closed. She was obviously quite self-conscious of this and I saw her look at my camera, cover her face with a krama, and then eye me with a look that went well beyond nervous. At that point, I realized I had over-stayed my welcome, at least with camera in hand. I returned to the guesthouse, relaxed for a little bit and headed to the airport.

The plane was late leaving, as they had to first unload several truckloads of cargo. Given that overland travel is two to three days from Phnom Penh, many items like furniture and appliances are flown in.

Today, Ratanakiri remains an area yet to feel the effects of mass tourism. Although recent deforestation has damaged the environment in the short-term, forests can recover. But the Ministry of Tourism is quite gung-ho to develop the province for tourism. Plans to build a new airport and the recent consultation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand on how to develop the region point to eager plans to turn this remote corner of Cambodia into a significant tourist attraction. Given the fragility of the region, both environmentally and culturally, this is a scary thought.


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