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Kratie & Banlung

Sitting in a tree...

sunny 33 °C
View Forever Summer on chang2n's travel map.

Kratie & Banlung are both small rural cities in Northeastern Cambodia. I figured I'd go this route instead of the beaches found along its Southwestern parts as my dear friend Jake would soon be joining me and frolicking the glorious waters of beautiful Thailand. The roads in Cambodia are a bit sub-par and not very direct, it felt that I had to meander through towns in the completely opposite direction before even heading towards my true destination. This is a tiny glimpse of what flew by me while on the 6.5 hour trek.
Long stretches of dirt roads.
Mini horse (donkey?) are not an odd sight in these strip towns.
Huts often stationed right off the main road as you'd expect, being the dry season there wasn't even a glimpse of water around at the base of these high stilts. The materials of these huts varied from straw, wood, concrete to dismal plastic tarps.
This one was a much wealthier home, as they had a car and a sturdy drive way uphold the weight.
This sight made my mouth drop, I couldn't get over the sheer opulence in this poverty stricken region. What I will also add was that the wooden on on the right was already luxurious compared to the rest of the straw housing I'd seen driving through this one-strip town.
I reached my destination of Kratie (pronounced Kra-chay) which is one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins. This is a view of the Mekong right outside the hostel upon my arrival in the town; the view of the other side had sand, while the main strip of the town (the side where I was staying) was steep and full of patches of bushes and grass and not to mention a pure garbage dumping ground.
A fishing boat
And here are the glimpses of these beautiful mammals, they resemble belugas with their large melon heads and lack of a beak like bottlenose dolphins. We were very lucky to follow and observe a trio of these dolphins, while they appeared to round and trap schools of fish below the surface.
Surprisingly I was able to click at the at the right moments to capture these creatures frolicking and playing at times. Seeing these beautiful animals in their natural habitat was very precious for me. I'm always torn when animals are caged for our viewing pleasure; even with the best intentions it's not right but I still find myself eagerly attending zoos.
Our mini boat captain saw this little patch of island & sand and docked for us to have a stroll. The other tourists swore that they found gold in the sand; I took a quick gander at the sparkles in the sand but dismissed their cries.
These are snap shots of this developing town, no doubt to cater to the growing tourists every year. The French colonial influence is still seen throughout all parts of Cambodia.
I booked my bus trip from Kratie to Banlung on a notorious mini bus, I figured that even though it'll probably be uncomfortable, I get to experience something truly local and I'm mentally prepared for it. It wasn't so bad, just a bit shocking all around. First off, there wasn't an inch of free space on the actual flooring of the vehicle, it was packed with backpacks, guava fruits, rice, miscellaneous packages. In order to climb into the bus, you stepped on all of these things, essentially ruining them.
I liked how this van was blinding yellow, and had plasters of Hello Kitty in every window... perhaps to somehow beat us into happy submission. We started with a total of 20, let me remind you it has seating for 18 (including the driver) and picked up 5 more along the way, I'm certain they would have squeezed in more, if only the 7 French tourists weren't so tall & large by Cambodian standards.
The bus driver was considerate enough to ask the French crew whether 1 more could fit in the back, and it was a unanimous "NO" he got. Two of the picked up men were already holding another stranger's children on their laps in order to be squeezed in, so with no other solution the bus driver decided to squeeze the extra 25th person with him IN THE DRIVER SEAT! He drove like that for nearly 6 hours! You might question that there was a seemingly empty space between the driver & passenger seat, but don't be fooled, it housed a large and particularly spikey multi-crane wooden carving. And even though you can't see it clearly the passenger seat already held 2 full grown women sitting on one another's lap.
Our sore bottoms barely held out for unpaved trek, everyone melted together as one during our drive along the red dirt road. This rest spot had a red tinge on everything, trees, houses, flowers all from cars and bikes zooming by.
I arrived to my little eco-lodge which contained 15 minimal yet suped up huts (by Cambodian standards) that was advertises itself as a bird sanctuary. At the lodge if you stayed around during the day, the electricity used was generated from solar panels. From the hours of 6pm - 9pm you are able to charge any electronics or read by their loud generator.
I got accustomed to waking up and sleeping with the sun which was in effect how most Cambodians live. And at night, the stars! Growing up in the city, and knowing myself to be a city gal it never ceases to delight me seeing a night sky not just sprinkled but heavily painted with stars.
I would have appreciated all of this more if I wasn't eaten alive by the mosquitoes out in these woods. Is there anything worst than mosquitoes?! This is the one thing in nature that I don't believe deserves life! I now equate it with hating the cold, but unfortunately if I want Forever Summer, I'll need to endure these assholes... and you can purchase mosquito repellents that contain 95% DEET! That's pretty intense non?
It took a bit to build up my courage to do these pitch black walks at night as the generator only provided lights in the huts. Not sure why but the little LED light I bought at Mountain Equipment Co-Op shines red light, so my choices were either in pitch black or a bloody red canvas - what would you pick?. I knew there were many crawly things with multiple legs to surprise me everywhere I go as I had witnessed them during the day.
And had surprises in my hut such as geckos (I've gotten well used to these since Vietnam), frogs (not scary) and THESE MOTHER FUCKERS! Even in the intense heat and the "protection" of mosquito nets, I mummified myself every night in bed since his unexpected visit. It's actual body was not very large, maybe an inch, but I saw WAY too much detail and with the added length of it's 8 legs, it encompassed nearly the size of your hand. ps, it didn't quite crawl, it hopped! Eeeekkk!
Daily walks were taken on and around the lodge and the landscape was different from anything I had seen.
I came across huts in these hills, and passed by indigenous women and children (I didn't take any photos, as I was told they found it taboo and I didn't want to offend anyone). The best part for me was just sharing a simple smile and nod with them, they were always covered up heavily, headwrap, long sleeves, long pants + dresses sometimes barefoot, sometimes sandaled. Always with a wicker basket on their backs strapped by both shoulders and often a walking stick.
I often got lost as I choose random forks of road to stroll through and it was always quiet with the exception of winds and bird calls. SO many strange calls but so lovely all the same. I saw this boy riding his bike, then tossing it aside to climb and jump on the branches of this tree. Many of the pods fell to the ground, I didn't stay long enough to watch whether he gathered them, but instinctively I knew that he did.
I trekked out often to Banlung's famous lake, known as the Yak Loum crater lake. Here's an overview
The locals found the lake sacred due to it's near perfect circular shape and did their best to keep it pollution free.
The circular trek along it's circumference was lovely as well.
Banlung also had several waterfalls in it's vicinities and I stubbornly refused the hires of motorbikes to take me there and instead rented a bike at a $1 a day. Big mistake. First off, I didn't have a map, other than a hand drawn map and some guidance off the internet. Secondly I went with the presumption that there would be directional signs along the road; wrong again.
Thirdly, I didn't think that city bikes with a cute little basket would make that much difference in my silly ride; it did. I felt every bit of gravel, stone and bump in my ride and I back tracked and rode along EVERY path that could be taken on my search of one of these falls. I guess I'll simply share that I never reached my intended destination, but I had fun in my failure.
I witnessed the slash & burn farming techniques done by the locals, the heat from the fire + the intense sun + my body temperature from riding = Summer heat overload. But I did quite like the smell & scent of burning.
Obviously I took an escape in the shade from the heat; while I enjoyed sweet mandarins and chugging my water, a young man biked up nearly right in front of me with an awkward long ladder in hand yet naturally. Even though he parked directly in front of me, he did not acknowledge my smile. I assumed like me, he was seeking shade, but he immediately threw up the ladder against a tree and ascended it.
He started to scrap meticulously the tree trunk.
And placed little plastic bags along the base to capture it's white sap.
Then I started to take notice that every tree had the same scrapings and string previously strung to guide the sap.
He had repeated these same actions for about 10 trees until another one of his buddy came along, who started doing the same; parked his bike right near my person, ignored me and started his climb. A third man came by after my observing them for 1/2 an hour and sat beside me, I shared my mandarins with him while he spoke to me in Khmer even though I couldn't understand or respond. After 5 minutes, he called out to another man passing by on a motor bike who spoke English. Then all was explained to me. These men were collecting the sap from rubber trees which were exported to surrounding countries as there were no factories in Cambodia to turn into plastic. These trees were scrapped & sapped once a day for the mature trees and twice for the younger trees. We chatted on other topics and ate the mandarins, and with the language barrier absolved, the 2 young man came down and took a break with us with happy smiles. Towards the end the man who spoke English offered to take me to the waterfall he guessed I was looking for. I declined his offer as I didn't want to trouble anyone, he even said that we can take my bike easily; I didn't want to imagine how it was probably going to be strapped to my head or something along that line. So I thanked him and asked for verbal directions instead. We all parted our separate ways after 2 hours and with each of them urging me to not travel on my own around these parts as it could be dangerous. I didn't follow their advice (Stop yelling at me, I can already sense it) and went out biking the next day once again failing to find my waterfall but discovered beautiful sights once again. This time I did not come across a single person, only birds, cows, dogs and a pig.
So my 5 days out in the wilderness came to an end, I went into town to catch my bus to Siem Reap. Even though I felt a tinge of melancholy for leaving Banlung, I was screaming with excitement to feel the beat & energy of the city. I wouldn't be surprised if within a decade's time Banlung would be completely changed at the rate Cambodia's developing.
Good bye for now!

Posted by chang2n 20:10 Archived in Cambodia

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LOVE the little beluga-dolphins! I feel the same as you do about zoos. Fascinated by animals you don't see but heartbroken to see them caged and living in tiny, poorly mimicked habitats.

Ewwwww and eeeeek to the crazy spiders! Lord help me if such creatures await us in Thailand and Laos!

Tick, tock! Cannot wait for the Jake and Mr. Chang reunion! Xoxo

by Jake

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