Friday, 6 February 2015

Banlung (Krong Ban Lung), Cambodia

Showing the route from Laos to Stung Treng and onto Banlung

Our first proper destination in Cambodia, unless counting our overnight stay in Stung Treng. Banlung is in the north-east of the country, not far from either Laos or Vietnam borders and hence an area heavily bombed by the US in the ‘Secret War’.  In fact Banlung only became the provincial capital after the original, Lumphat, was flattened by US bombers trying to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran through the area. It’s a hilly place (300-600m asl) and, until recently, heavily forested.

This is not untypical of Banlung. Looks a bit like a Wild west town!
Cheetah the kitten in our local restaurant (The first one B has wanted to 'Catnap!)
We have two guidebooks covering Cambodia, the oldest one, published in Oct 2009 says of the area: “Vast forested swathes of sparsely inhabited terrain spread north and eastwards towards Vietnam and Laos and are home to several distinct ethnic groups. The thick jungle also provides sanctuary to the majority of Cambodia’s few remaining tigers.” Of Banlung it says: “Adventure enthusiast won’t be disappointed, with waterfalls to discover, ethnic minorities to meet, elephants to ride, river trips to take and beautiful Yeak Loam volcanic lake to take a dip in…there are no paved roads in or around the town, merely dirt tracks which in the dry season suffocate the town with their dust and in the wet season turn into rivers of mud. The town is situated on a plateau dotted with lakes and hills, many of great beauty and serves as a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside.”

Our tuk-tuk and driver
Our view as he drove along
The things described above are still there and we have enjoyed our time here, but improved roads have inevitably lead to heavy deforestation, so it’s a kind of skeleton of what was described.

The Bus Jouney Stung Treng to Banlung:
Our first pleasant surprise was the journey there from Stung Treng which we expected to be 5-6 hours on dirt, bumpy roads, not a bit! It’s now fully sealed with a good surface and, with our pretty fast driving minibus driver we were there in a little over 2 hours! Probably just as well as Jackie had a slightly dodgy tummy and the bus was very overloaded. 
Where once forest stood!
“ We would be picked up from our hotel” we were told, well, we were met at our hotel by a man on a moped who showed us the way to the bus, which was only 200m to be fair, but not quite as advertised. Hanging around on a street corner in the gradually increasing heat of the day an apparently full minibus appeared, opened the rear door, put two more seats up, ushered a couple of locals into those and indicated us to get into their vacated seats right at the back. 
Young rubber trees
Our rucksacks were crammed into impossibly small areas (mine fell out when the door was reopened at the end) and, as we sat down we realised there were rucksacks in our footwell so feet were high and knees bent. In a relatively small van there were four rows of seats, each with four people on, plus two in the front plus the driver, 19 in all. It appeared we were lucky, people in front had even less leg room the seats in front of them being even closer. Fortunately the air-con worked, Jackie dozed most of the way and I managed to read my book, so it could have been a lot worse!

Typical houses we passed on the way
Looking through the window it was clear that improved communications have had an adverse effect on the environment as it looked much more like we would expect in the UK, open grassy hillsides, except it was much drier, with sparse trees. The dryness leads to lots of dust everywhere and it’s impossible to keep clean for long.

The first waterfall
On arrival we were greeted by a couple of tuk-tuk drivers, one who wanted to take us to our hotel or one he recommended (presumably one he gets a kick-back from). For the first time we hadn’t booked anywhere, but had a list we preferred so, after negotiating a $2 fare he drove us there, only for us to find they were full. He took us to our second choice, the Chheng Lok Guesthouse, which is pretty good. $10 per night, big room, air-con, tv, very good wifi and a big entrance and stairway, it’s a very grand building and used to have a great view over the lake, until it was obscured by a new hotel still being built! 
This is a school
We can just see the lake past it and, although they are still building it’s not too intrusive. We’re happy, particularly as it was advertised by the booking agencies at much more (possibly about $16). The guy on reception spoke no English so our tuk-tuk driver translated, but the next young guy who took over from him speaks passable English but is possibly on drugs or something as he always wants to have a joke and never remembers things we’ve told him before, asking the same things each time we see him.

A row of rubber trees prepared with cups in position. Apparently they only draw off the rubber during the wet season, not now
Waterfall number 2
Our tuk-tuk man (whose name we have forgotten) offered to take us out to see the waterfalls and crater lake that we had planned to do for $25 for the day. He spoke reasonable English so, despite me being grumpy and beating him down on the fare to the hotel, we agreed and I apologised for being so grumpy!

Waterfall number two from the top...
We spent the afternoon walking round town and it was as described, very dusty! I suppose deforestation disrupts the natural ecology and cleared land leads to dry, dusty soil which lays everywhere. The trees alongside the roads have brown leaves, in town dust is everywhere, with only the roads clear from the traffic in the centre. At the sides it’s deep sand and all over the pavement, which are irregular, missing, big steps up and down, the odd missing or broken sewer cover, unmarked, just a big hole ready to swallow the unwary, with obstacles such as parked vehicles, motorbikes, street vendors or just rubbish, bricks, sand piles in the way. Everything looks grubby because of the dust and, of course, it gets everywhere! Where we are staying it’s a little better round by a nice lake, but it means we have a 15 minute walk or so into town.

And from the bottom
Our first meal in the hotel’s restaurant which is now negotiated by walking through the building site of the new hotel is quite nice offering Western food as well as local Khmer food. We tried the local food but were a bit disappointed as it was very oily. The beer was also expensive, but seems to be the same everywhere ($1.50 per 330ml).

Banlung on Google Maps. The round lake with its bit of forest is the crater lake, we are right on the other larger of the two lakes. The protected jungle is well to the north and, although jungle treks are on offer it's too far away and too expensive (plus we've done jungle trekking before, it's big trees with thick undergrowth!)
The very wobbly bridge giving access to the third waterfall
The currency in Cambodia:
That brings me to my next point, the money. Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel and there are 4000Riel to $1.00, but the whole country uses the US dollar, all the cash machines hand out dollars and they only use their own currency for small change. Thus, you have to be adept at currency conversions. For example, our first meal came to $11.25. I handed over $20 and got $5 and 15000Riel in change. Well, that’s right, but you’ve got to have your wits about you and be able to work it out quickly. We’ve found out they only like crisp new dollars as well, we have a bit of a battered $10 bill that we brought from the US and, so far no-one will accept it. I guess it’s only worth about £6.60, so no great loss, maybe we can find a US citizen going home who will take it off our hands!

And here it is, it's quite pretty
Waterfalls and Crater Lake Visits:
Anyway, yesterday morning our tuk-tuk driver was waiting outside our hotel at 08:00am when we got back from breakfast so we set off in nice comfy seats, to gradually be impregnated with dust, but we actually felt quite grand sitting there. It turns out he originates from the south of Cambodia, but moved here three years ago as there were too many tuk-tuks there. He rents a room here for $40 per month, but his wife and five children are still down south. His wife comes to see him a few times a year, but he gets back to see his family once a year. I now feel even more guilty for beating him down on the fare!

And here's the Swiftrubber Ltd. Ratanakiri Rubber Plantation HQ. A very grand building in amongst a poor neighbourhood. I guess it provides local employment though
A nursery area for young rubber trees
The Rubber Plantation:
Although there is still a reasonably large forest now under protection in the very north east of the country, the Virachey National Park, the remainder, a vast area, was purchased by the Vietnamese company Swiftrubber Ltd and has become their Ratanakiri Rubber Plantation. The forest, save for a few isolated pockets, has been totally cleared and planted with rubber trees of varying maturity. 

These are immature cashew nuts, before the cashew apple has formed
Our guide told us it takes 5 years for a tree to reach maturity and start producing rubber and at 25 to 30 years they are at the end of their lives, so we could see vast areas of empty brown ploughed soil, vast areas of young trees in brown soil all planted in straight lines, areas of larger trees in straight lines and areas of small nursery trees, but the point is, it’s vast, literally as far as the eye can see, one species, everything else weeded out. In amongst this there are still the waterfalls in small pockets of remaining forest and what they call ‘minority villages’ (we dislike the name ‘minority’, but it is generally used). We’re not sure what they live on, possibly they have a small amount of land, but they are just overwhelmed with dust now, how it must have changed for them over 10 years or so.

Jackie and our guide walking through the minority village. No photos of the house party, we were asked not to take any pictures
Hand weaving - a very slow process!
Minority Village Visit:
We visited one minority village our guide was determined to take us to. It really felt like visiting a zoo or safari park except we were visiting people’s homes and it just doesn’t sit well with us. We saw weaving and there were pigs and chickens running free, plus we saw some cashew nut trees which was very interesting. We could hear some drums in the village and our guide took us over explaining that they were celebrating the building of a new house and were having the customary party. It was an unfinished house, but many people were around it and inside it and they welcomed us as we walked up. “Come inside” they said in quite good English, so in we went. We were invited to sit down and to bang on the drums in time with the others, which they seemed to enjoy and laughed a lot. Then we were offered some of their rice wine, by sucking through a wooden straw, presumably that everyone else had used before. It didn’t seem right not to so we each had a drop of the hard stuff, being encouraged to have some more which we politely refused. They had all had much more than they should have done, so we made our excuses and left, but it was a good experience.

Yeak Loam volcanic crater lake
The jungle trek by the crater lake
The waterfalls and Yeak Loam Crater Lake
The three waterfalls were nothing special, but very scenic nonetheless and we could only imagine what they would be like in the wet season, when they would be 10 times as large. After stopping for a drink (we bought him one, you can tell I was still feeling guilty), we set off for the minority village, followed by the Yeak Loam crater lake.

A quickly taken blurred photo, but can you see the snake slithering into a hole? It wasn't very big
Jackie getting her feet wet - and deciding it's quite cold!
As it’s supposed to be a volcanic lake I assumed we’d have to climb up a volcano to find a lake filled crater, but it was more or less at the level of the surrounding plateau, with only a slight embankment all the way round. It made me wonder whether it’s a meteor crater instead, but there was no information of its geology anywhere. Limited internet information suggests it’s a 4000 year old volcano, 48m deep and 800m in diameter and nearly a perfect circle. It is encircled by jungle and much of it is protected, so once we were in and away from the very touristy bits with swimming platforms, lots of lounging areas of roofed platforms with hammocks and the few restaurants and shops, it was quite nice. We could hear interesting bird noises, saw lots of large spider webs and a small snake slithering into a hole, while we followed a small path through the jungle next to the lake, always with a great view across the water. The 2.5km walk round was soon over and we were back in amongst the many other visitors who had bought a picnic and were milling around, chatting in the raised platforms or jumping off the swimming platforms for a swim in the lake. 

But she goes in anyway - what a heroine!
Jackie with the little puppies
Jackie goes swimming!
Having spotted a quiet platform with only a local couple sitting chatting Jackie changed and went in for a swim, me taking photos and watching, just couldn’t be bothered to get changed and then have to dry everything off, but it looked good and I was tempted. She came out and got changed just as a huge local family invaded our space, chatting, laughing, jumping about as though we weren’t there. They had come to wash their clothes and bathe, so it seemed to be more functional than recreational, though obviously a social occasion as well. This despite the many notices saying ‘no washing’ – who were we to argue!

Oh, now I seem to have one!
A walk round our lake this morning. Our hotel is hidden by the one in the middle
After a short while we left, they obviously not intending to involve us at all, despite us trying to interact with them. We headed back to where our guide was waiting, stopping at a restaurant for some late lunch, seemingly to his displeasure, maybe he was hoping for an early day, but we were paying him for the day. Jackie found four little puppies there who were keen to play, I took photos and, while I was looking at what I had taken I was suddenly aware one of the staff had bought one over to me and plonked it on my lap. It was very cute but very dusty, however by now I was very dusty a well, so after a good bit of cuddling our food arrived. No water to wash hands! Oh well, I’ll just hold the fork at the very end and try not to touch anything!

Jackie with Cheetah
Last nights meal:
Better meal last night after finding the Everest Restaurant not where we expected it. It’s an Indian restaurant and my third attempt at a spicy Jalfrezi curry was a nice meal, but nothing like at home. It’s more like a stir fry in a thickish sauce that wasn’t that spicy, nice, but not quite what I wanted. Jackie’s chicken tikka masala was a bit better, but still nothing like we have at home.

Look at this tiny kitten we came across today
Today and onward plans:
Today, a walk round our local lake followed by breakfast and then prep for our following destinations, lunch out and more computer stuff, including this blog entry. Tomorrow is a bus to Kratie, which looks an OK place on the Mekong, but watch out for the onward bus ticket cartel! Then we’re off to Phnom Penh and all the shocking history of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Could be an interesting few days!

There were three of them in a box in a shop. So tiny they could hardly make a sound, let alone a miaow!

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