Or “Spiders on the Bus!”
Phnom Penh had turned out to be a little boring, so it was with the hopes of our first Cambodia adventure that we woke up early and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Our destination was the province of Monduhlkiri in the northeast corner of the country. The only way to get there was by a gruelling bus or minivan ride, since we didn’t have enough dineros to splurge for a private taxi :-)
Since the minivans in Cambodia are notoriously packed with 5 people sitting on a bench of 3, we opted for the less crowded bus ride. This would mean that we would add another 3 hours to the journey, but at least we would have our own seat as we entered the oblivion of unconsciousness somewhere along the 6th hour. It didn’t help that the only bus company that went there was Sorya, which had received mixed reviews on the internet, and which everyone bitched about on their way to...you guessed it, Mondulkiri.
Knowing that the worst was ahead of us we tried to get into the zombie mode as soon as possible, meaning me grumpy and trying to block out the world, and Ronni passing out next to me. But as we boarded the bus we were pleasantly surprised at the cool fresh of air-conditioning that awaited us. Both assigned seats and air conditioning?? This must be luxury, memories of Peru’s sweet Cruz del Sur floating into our minds, with their English movies and tuck-me-in blankets!
It took only a few minutes to realize that this was going to be a somewhat different experience. In the two seats behind us a family of 6 had taken refuge, the kicking legs of small children furiously pounding our backs. And before leaving Phnom Penh two pit stops had to be made en route – one to fuel up the bus and the other at the driver’s mistress/mother/cleaning lady?? house. With these very important stops under our belt and the chaotic traffic ahead of us, we started our very slow departure from the city. Now, just to give you an idea of how traffic works here – there are no blinkers, almost no traffic lights and even where there are signs, no one heeds to what they say. In conclusion, I am amazed that there are not more crashes happening, but maybe there are and we just didn’t see them underneath the never-ending stream of busses, trucks, cars and motorbikes...
There aren’t many things that can make a serene, peaceful man like me turn into an aggressive homicidal maniac, but the driver of this bus from hell found just the right thing. Every time we would come up on a moped, tuk tuk, car, person walking along the road, rabbits peaking underneath the trees or just from plain boredom, he would honk his masochistical devil device – the honk!! It sounded like a dentist’s drill, its sound vibrating in every cavity in my mouth, echoing there for at least a minute, until he would honk again and my mouth would vibrate once more...Together with the orchestra of pain he decided that the best way to pass the time would be a DVD filled with Khmer karaoke...in full volume!!! Needless to say that in order to reach my zen place I had to dig so deep that my mind came out in South America...
But somehow two wonderful things happened....we managed to leave Phnom Penh and I somehow entered the fabulous state of unconsciousness for a while. Every time I would emerge from that blissful beach and the soothing sound of waves, the honk and its karaoke wife would await me, making me cringe in pain. Add to that soup the kicking kids from behind and the poor girl that puked next to me, and the ride from hell was completed, and we had 8 more hours to go!!
3 hours into the drive and we made a quick toilet stop where we found ourselves faced with the wonderful picture of restrooms along the highway which are never clean (except in Germany), but for which these (and the ones that would follow them) competed for an Oscar in the Category of “Stinkiest Film Ever Made”. We also saw some BBQ’ed spiders, coated with something blackish and if that didn’t raise the bile in your throat, some undefined small BBQ’ed animal next to it. We decided to go vegetarian and bought some pineapple, in the hopes that no insect larva had found its home there.
When we came back I saw a mysterious plastic bag two rows ahead of me, tucked on the seat of an old local woman. The woman seemed to be ancient, probably a close relative of Jesus, but what had me mesmerized was that the bag was MOVING!!! Crawly, hairy legs about ten cm (I kid you not!!), tried to climb out of the bag, the woman nonchalantly pushing it back. When I pointed out this fascinating turn of events to Ronni, she was less amazed and more panicked, asking what would happen should the bag, oh I don’t know, DROP!!, and the beasts crawl all over the bus. The local ahead of us explained that these spiders were used for medicine against chronic diseases like asthma, their venom apparently helping (whatever doesn’t kill ya will surely cure you!). This fact, as interesting as it was, raised a very important question which someone had to ask – WHERE THESE MOTHERF$&&ERS poisonous??? He turned to the woman, she quietly laughed, replied and then returned to her pets, gently pushing that hairy leg back inside. The man turned to us, and waited for ages until he replied “Well, you see, poisonous yes, but she took the fangs out so that they can’t bite.” Reassuring definitely sounds different than that!
To take my mind off the deadly spiders I turned my attention to the countryside, as the karaoke had been replaced by a dubbed Chinese movie. But the dismal of what I saw outside didn’t help elevate the mood. The stark truth of Cambodia’s poverty awaited my sight on the other side of the window - shambles of houses with no electricity, no sewage, sometimes even no window to speak of. Scrawny children playing with cans, men sitting on wooden steps to their “house” watching the day pass by as they counted the hours. I felt that the poverty we were faced with here was like nothing we had seen before. I guess not all anecdotes can be happy ones...
Time stood still and with 7 hours under our belt we finally had the guts to ask someone “how much more of this??” The answer of ‘two more hours if the bus doesn’t break down’ was not what I had hoped for, but it was all we got. Praying to the Budhist, Jewish, Christian, alien and whoever was listening that the bus would not break down under any circumstance, we made our ascend up the mountain. And although at times it seemed it would have been faster to walk, the bus did not break down (only the air-con!) and finally we arrived in Sen Monoron as the sun had finished up for the day...
We had booked ourselves a stay in the Nature Lodge, and we should have known that with a name like that, the place would be, well, in nature...
It was pitch dark by now and we were beat. My back ached, my arse hurt, and my mind was as numb as if I had been injected with two dozen morpheme needles. So we entered our “chambers’, with the wind howling around us and the knowledge that the bungalow was not closed off and any of the multiple venomous creatures with legs (spiders anyone??) could crawl up and enter our bed. Surprisingly though, unconsciousness was stronger than fear and with only minutes passed, I entered the oblivion of the half dead.
The next morning we were able to properly examine our habitations and make a list of pros and cons. For one, the view from the porch was quite extraordinary, with no civilization in immediate sight.
Next, the breeze that one felt when making a toilet break was quite refreshing, the open air surroundings giving the whole procedure a whiff of adventure :-) And we had on-site entertainment underneath the ‘club-house’ with cows, horses, cocks and other weird two and four leggers hanging around...
We spent the first couple of days doing absolutely nothing, the heat was formidable and the thought of doing any strenuous exercise made us sweat. So Ronni caught up on her reading and I continued my novel, which hopefully in the very distant future will pay for further adventures around the globe. In the afternoon, as sunset approached, we decided to stretch those legs and go for a walk, meeting two interesting locals on the way that immediately took it upon themselves to show us the ropes.
We dubbed them Gertrud and Betrud and they were just adorable to watch as we threw them sticks along the dirt road and they happily ran after it and brought it back. What a fun way to end the day and an important workout session for both Gertrud and Bertrud, who was a bit on the older side.
Watching the sunset we were amazed by what beautiful colours a little bit of pollution and dust can do. I mean, how else can you get these picturesque colours?
It was time to head back to the clubhouse before it got too dark and the creepy animals decided that we were more fun as dinner than as their pre-food entertainment. With Gertrud and Bertrud following us closely, barking at the bushes at whatever imagined and real danger lurked there, we made it safely back and could relax with another ice-tea.
The highlight, for which we had suffered through a gruelling 9.5 hour bus ride and rustic accommodations, had finally arrived. At last we would go and visit the Elephant Valley Project, a sanctuary for abused and weak elephants. A safe haven where these animals could rest and wander around freely in the jungle, or as the mission statement says, ‘let elephants be elephants’. Unfortunately I had participated in a common local sport – the toilet run! Yep, no visit to Cambodia is perfected until you get some sort of bug in your system, and this time it was me. So the decision if we should go or not was only done in the morning, where I told myself to man up and put my pants on :-)
The day started as any adventure should – with us sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, speeding along a dirt road, choking on the amount of dust in our lugs. It was fun, I admit, but I think I would have enjoyed it more about 6 months ago... :-)
The plan was to spend the morning in one valley, following a normal day in the life of the elephants and their mahouts. This wasn’t a tourist place where we would get to pat, paint and play exciting games with these creatures. We would do nothing more but watch them in the wild – or as wild as a sanctuary can be.
The day was scorching and I didn’t feel that great, but I wouldn’t let anything get in between us and this one-in-a-lifetime experience. So except being one shade shy of deathly pale, everything else was just dandy! Especially since soon after we reached the bottom of the valley, we got our first encounter.
The guide then started to tell us about the background of each elephant, where they came from and what they had suffered through in their life. So therefore, meet Bob and Onion. He is an on-again-off-again gay elephant, in the sense that sometimes he is horny and sometimes not, but since he is the only male in the sanctuary, he’s THE MAN! She’s Onion, his companion, how should I put it...friend with benefits. She would like more, but since Bob is a little gay at times, she’s happy to get what she gets and doesn’t complain about it!
After they left their bath, three other female elephants came in and started their daily wash. Soon the riverbed was filled with spraying and bucket splashing from our side as I tried to help get the dust off their skin...
Was I successful? Partly I guess, partly I took a bath as well :-)
In all, it was fun to see these beautiful creatures roam in the wild, although it was visible that they had all suffered some sort of abuse and were, as Kim the guide put it, “the weird kid that no one wanted to play with”.
It didn’t stop them from inching their way towards us until I was almost eye to eye with one of them, its trunk nearly in my face...ahm, so privacy please!
Yep, we had fun, although it was as hot as a wet sauna and my shirt was soaked through and through and I had several inches of grime on me by now.
It was time to head back up the hill, and believe me when I tell you, that wasn’t any fun!!
But this was the view that awaited us in the project’s HQ, and with a little siesta time ahead of us it was time to munch some rice, because anything else was just too much of a risk and we were after all nowhere near flushing toilets.
The siesta had helped to get a little strength back, so we decided to join the afternoon tour as well. This time, a different valley and elephants that had been more time with the project. This would mean that they would have a more similar behaviour to wild elephants and were a little less ‘stuck’ in their past abuses.
With the afternoon sun shining through the jungle, our first glimpse of them made for a terrific photo opp!
We then rested next to their bathing place where we got more background on these elephants and generally on the local community and their part in the project. It was here that we could hear that there are many hurdles for a non-government organization to succeed in a country like Cambodia, the corruption evident anywhere.
As one of the elephants had to comment, I think this is what one could think of Cambodia’s corruption...
(some ass scratching... :-)
But enough with being serious, it was time to be playful and there is nothing cuter that to watch three females taking a bath and discussing the day’s gossip, all the time playfully nudging their trunks together...
With all the elephants being cute and amazing I also have to tell a little about the jungle itself, its beauty, serenity and yes, its dangers...
With the afternoon upon us, it was a bit easier to survive the hike into the valley, the sun less scorching, the air less thick. But this also meant that mosquito time was near, and with it the fun of getting malaria. Kim, the guide, also warned us of snakes that could roam the shrubbery and even the ants seemed...well, HUGE! I must admit, I was a little scared by all the things one could get, especially since she told us that every week at least one of the local workers got malaria...
Maybe that’s one of the reasons we found this on the way back, a familiar object in a somewhat unfamiliar surroundings.
What was it for? How did it get here? Was it better than going in the bushes? So many questions, none of them answered as I couldn’t bring myself to get any closer :-)
But enough for now, it’s time to wrap this long blog up and go to sleep. We’ve had a long day and ahead of us is an even longer one. So I’ll say goodbye the only way that seems proper!