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Third visit: February 6-11, 2002

Quiz time...

You're boarding an airplane at Pochentong International (that's the airport in Phnom Penh)... but it's a domestic flight. The flight is booked solid. There are solo travelers, there are a few residents - local and expat, and a large tour group or two. Where are you going? Well, the expected answer would be "Siem Reap" but seeing as this is the Ratanakiri section of "Tales of Asia" the answer must then be... "Ratanakiri!!".

Sometime during 2001 when I wasn't paying attention, Ratanakiri became as had been predicted, the new hot destination of Cambodia. When I first visited in 1999 Ratanakiri struggled to get 50 tourists in a month. Now it's getting that much every two or three days.

Foreign tourists are everywhere. Mr. Leng, manager of the Ratanak Hotel, rattled off a list of the various groups he's hosted recently and their countries of origin - most are European, with Dutch, German, and French being the most popular. And the backpackers are shuffling in, most coming overland, as the road from Stung Treng is vastly improved, the road between Stung Treng and Kratie is now safe, and the border crossing to Laos north of Stung Treng is open as well.

And more will come, because here's a little secret between me and you... the border crossing to Vietnam some 70 kilometers east of Banlung is OPEN... maybe! Details and speculation further down this page.

I flew up to Banlung on the 6th of February arriving with a planeload of tourists. As usual I waited an eternity to get my one checked bag because a large quantity of cargo is shipped up on every flight to Ratanakiri and it takes them forever to unload it all. Milling about the airport was the usual collection of hotel and guesthouse owners. I ignored Mrs. Kim from the Mountain Guesthouse and eventually connected with Mr. Leng of the newly-refurbished Ratanak Hotel.

My first request was for a 250cc motorbike. A few minutes later the guy that used to work at Mountain Guesthouse, now working with Mr. Leng, turns up with a Honda AX-1. Not my first choice for a bike, but it will do. The bike itself wasn't in the best of shape and I felt kind of sorry they paid $850 for the thing. Transmission was junk, drive train was junk, suspension was shot, and the motor was half asleep.

After a quick lunch my first day's business was simple. Shoot 60 kilometers north to Ta Veng and deliver a photo to Noung Taa and her family. You already read "Second Visit" so you know who Noung Taa is, right? Good. Well, that photo has sold a couple of times and been a popular part of two exhibitions so the least I could do was give the family an 11 x 14 framed and signed copy for themselves. The same could be said for the photo of the girl peaking over the doorway - the photo on the Ratanakiri introduction page, but trust me, few Khmer families, and especially a hilltribe family, could appreciate in the least the artistic value of a photo that only showed part of a kid's face, so I wouldn't bother with that one.

[Left: Noung Taa and sister, 2002 version]

I had the bike's owner go with me as I needed someone to explain to this family why I was showing up with this big picture. And somebody had to drive while I held that picture. I've forgotten the bike owner's name so from here on out he will be referred to as Bike Owner.

Like so many motodop/guides in Ratanakiri, Bike Owner began complaining about the quality of the road and how long it would take and all the difficulties involved, none of which I was the least bit interested in hearing. "Be quiet and let's go," I said. One thing Ratanakiri motodops and guides need to learn is that if they want to make more money they need to stop telling people how bad the roads are and stop trying to talk people out of going to the places they want to go. In the dry season, Ratanakiri roads aren't that bad and there are certainly much worse roads elsewhere in the country.

So off we went, arriving an hour and a half later, about 2:30 pm, having driven along a road that wasn't that bad at all. Ta Veng is a small village inhabited mostly by the Prao minority. In Ta Veng it wasn't too hard to locate the family house, even easier knowing that Noung Taa's grandfather is the village chief.

We found the family house, a simple wooden structure of three small rooms and virtually no furnishings save a couple of small dusty and faded portraits of some man - perhaps the grandfather at a younger age, not that he was very old now, or maybe Noung Taa's father who never did turn up on this day. Well, gee, have I a photo for you. Noung Taa was off playing somewhere, she was promptly found and brought over to the house. Yes, she remembered me. This year her hair was quite short as she had recently been the victim of a particularly bad case of head lice that resulted in one shaved head.

Before showing them the photo, I had Bike Owner explain that I was a photographer, the picture has been exhibited, sold, etc. Of course they had no idea why anybody would buy a photo of a person they didn't know and the whole idea about photo exhibitions seemed utterly lost on them. So I shut my mouth and we opened up the package.

They really liked it. And at 11 x 14 inches it was about the biggest portrait photo they'd ever seen (gee, what if I had brought a 16 x 20, like what sits on my wall and two other people's as well??). As it was, the size was a bit much for them, especially Noung Taa, who, now seeing such a large portrait of herself, was, unlike the time I met her in October 2000, now rather shy about all the attention.

Than the grandmother wanted to know how much money had the photos sold for? That was not a question that merited a truthful answer as such an answer would have left them absolutely dumbstruck. So I ducked the issue, letting the word "expensive" hang in the air and leaving it up to them to decide for themselves what the cash value of "expensive" is. No doubt a whole lot less than the truth.

The grandmother suggested to Noung Taa that she should ask me for some money because I had sold a photo of her. Reasonable, but how much? I asked Bike Owner... a dollar... five dollars? "Oh, five dollars way too much," he tells me. So I gave Noung Taa 8000 riels - the equivalent of two US dollars. And they were happy with this.

And this is absolutely positively exploitative to the nth degree. But if I had given something fairer, like $30, $40 or even $50, what do you think would happen? What would happen is every time a foreigner turns up in Ta Veng, every kid in the village is going to be standing out in the road trying to get their portraits taken for money. I'll welcome debate on this issue. E-mail me.

The next day, just for the hell of it, I started driving west. And I didn't stop until two and a half hours and 145 kilometers later when I turned up in Stung Treng, stopping at the banks of the mighty Mekong River. A few quick laps around town determined that Stung Treng had nothing to offer and I headed to the market to pick up a new baseball hat. The sun was a bit hot that day and I didn't care to get fried on the return trip. I found a suitable hat. 3000 riels the seller wants for it - 75 US cents. In Siem Reap they'd be asking three, four, maybe five dollars. No need to practice bargaining on this one and I happily hand over the cash.

I drove around a little more looking for the place to eat that would be least likely to poison me. I found a small restaurant a block north of the market. I don't recall the name. Inside a teenager was teaching chemistry to four other teens, three girls and a boy, who all paused from their studies to giggle at my arrival. The restaurant had an English menu with all of about six items listed, each costing a buck.

[Left: Unusual discovery in the forest along the road between Stung Treng and Banlung.]

When I was ready to leave the family that owns the restaurant asked me, speaking in very simple Khmer (the only Khmer I can understand), where I was going.
"Banlung," I said.
"And where did you just come from?"
"Banlung," I said again most matter-of-factly.
They paused and looked around at each other. Then the father says to confirm what he's trying his best to believe, "You came from Banlung to here. Eat lunch. And go back to Banlung?!?!?"
"Yes," I answer, speaking as if it's the most normal thing for anyone to do. I bet they're still tying to find the logic in that one.

The next day, the 8th, I took a guide with me but we rode separate bikes. This time I got his name - Mina (pronounced "meena") - a real nice young guy with more than adequate English skills. If you stay at the Ratanak, ask for him. Our first destination was the village of Kachon, a Tompoun minority village along the Sresan River a few kilometers east of Voen Sai. The main attraction here is a cemetery with some rather interesting carvings.

Left: Live band at the house warming party
Center: Jug of homemade rice wine
Right: Lunch?

But before getting there, we passed through the Kreung minority village of Karlai, where two parties were going on - at the first, a house warming party, and at the second, a wedding. In both cases all the attendees, men and women of all ages, were sitting around big pots of rice wine getting absolutely hammered. Seeing the water they were using for the wine - a strangely off-colored liquid in a large metal barrel, I declined to drink any of the wine despite the villager's best efforts to get me drunk. At the second party, the wedding, everybody again was getting hammered and having a great time with the possible exception of the bride and to a lesser extent, the groom. The former looked as if she was walking to her execution.

[Left: The happy couple, The Glowing Bride]

Parties finished, we reached Kachon and the cemetery. My first question to Mina was to inquire as to how old the wood carvings were. Expecting an interesting answer like "very old, maybe two hundred years", Mina instead said, "very new, maybe two years". This was confirmed minutes later when I noticed one of the wood figures was shown to have a mobile phone. See photos below.

We then went to Voen Sai and ferried the motorbikes across the river. Most tourists leave their motos on the south side of the river and walk around the Lao and Chinese villages across the banks. But we were planning to go a bit further, beyond where most tourists travel. We didn't actually travel all that far, maybe seven kilometers, when we reached the Jarai minority village of Rok, where a much larger wedding celebration was taking place. This wedding was quite a raucous event with drunken old ladies dancing and drunken old men falling over themselves. And like in Karlai, the bride and groom seemed to be the only two people not enjoying themselves.

Figures from Kachon Cemerery

Scenes from the wedding at Rok.

More scenes from the wedding at Rok. The bride is in the photo at the bottom right.

We returned to Voen Sai for lunch and then rode a kilometer or two east to the local pagoda and sat on the banks of the river for about an hour chatting with some young monks.

February 9. Again bringing Mina along, today's plan was to head south to the gem mining village and the large waterfall a couple of kilometers away. This is one village I would certainly have gotten hopelessly lost going to and returning from had I not brought Mina along. Halfway there, the road disappears and one travels on a narrow path through the jungle. At one point a vine hanging down from the trees caught the handlebars of my bike, I think it grabbed the turn signal light or something, but whatever it grabbed, it held on long enough to flip the handlebars around and send bike and rider into the dirt.

The gem mining area has been active since about 2000 when someone digging potatoes or something discovered a gemstone. Dozens, no, hundreds of villagers from throughout Ratanakiri and beyond descended on the area hoping to make their fortune. Most eke out a living just barely, but once or twice a month, somebody pulls out a stone worth a few thousand dollars or more and that hope alone keeps everybody going. Near the area, the miners have constructed an entire village that looks quite permanent. At one mine, the mines are really just deep holes in the ground, we stopped and chatted with a group of miners for about an hour, most of whom only wanted to talk about one thing - sex.

Next stop the waterfall. 1000 riels to park a moto and the price of admission - 200 riels for the locals, 1000 riels for the big noses. The waterfall is a nice, multi-stage affair with plenty of calm pools of water for an easy dip without fear of being washed away over the next stage of waterfall.

My final full day, the 10th, I did little but ride out to the Vietnam/Cambodia border basically for the hell of it - sort of like why I rode to Stung Treng three days earlier. The road to Bokeo and beyond has turned to crap again - if anybody important is paying attention there are huge craters left over from the last rainy season that could really stand some fresh fill. Bull dozer and a roller anyone?

Arriving at the border an hour and a half later, I expected to pull up, chat with the guards a minute and leave. But surprise! They ask me for my passport. Well, why would I have my passport with me since this border isn't open? But the border IS open, they tell me. Really? Yes, if I had my passport they'd have stamped me out and stamped me back in (as I have a multi-entry business visa). And the motorbike? No problem, either.

"Damn!" I'm thinking. If I had my passport I could have zipped over to the Vietnam side and while there's no chance I could have gotten through without a visa, I could have at least ascertained as to whether they'd let me in with a visa and what would the status be for the motorbike.

Upon returning to Phnom Penh the following day and relating this story I was admonished several times for not returning to Banlung, getting my passport, returning to the border, getting the stamps - I probably would have been the first barang ever to have Ratanakiri (the stamp probably would have said Oyedao or whatever that district is called) entry and exit stamps in his passport - and finding out from the Vietnamese authorities what the real deal was. Sorry guys, I blew it, I know.


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continue to Practical Information on Ratanakiri




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