Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom - Saturday 4 - Monday 6 October 2008
Cambodia has long been renowned for having some of the worst roads in the world, though - mainly due to foreign aid projects - the situation is improving dramatically. It does however deteriorate somewhat towards the end of the wet season- like now!
We started out on the brand new highway 7 (paid for by China) but towards the end of our journey to Sen Monorum (SM) the provincial capital of the remote Mondulkiri province we were on a dirt highway.
The road conditions were still pretty good when we stopped for our roadside picnic. Things started to get sticky (literally) towards the 85km point of the 120km journey. Suddenly we were driving in badly churned mud which didn't even look like a road! At about 5pm we were descending into a valley and we slowly slid across into the ditch at one side of the road. We tried to dig ourselves out and lay rocks down to give the car traction ..but we just couldn't do it. Once darkness fell we thought it was best to dig in for the night. Just when we thought it couldn't get worse it started to rain!
Mercifully it never turned into one of the full scale down pours which this season has. For the first time we had to tuck into our emergency rations - tinned tuna and crackers ….as there was no way we were going anywhere for dinner! It was tricky getting into the car to sleep as it was wedged at a 45 degree angle so we both rolled to the side! We fell asleep until about 2 am when we heard a vehicle ..Andrew flagged them down and it was a Toyota hi-lux full of army/border patrol guys. We couldn't speak to each other but it was pretty obvious what the problem was and they had us pulled out in a couple of minutes. We celebrated with a beer so all 6 of us stood ankle deep in mud toasting our recovery!
The next day we continued on and the final 35kms of the journey was pleasantly uneventful! We were surprised as we approached SM by the landscape change going from rainforest to pine trees on rolling hills. It was very scenic and looked almost English in parts …save for the odd water buffalo!
SM is a laid back little town. It is set in the hills surrounded by minority villages of the Pnong people. It was sunny when we were there but the temperature really drops at night. We had a look around the little town and had lunch at a small restaurant which was full of snakes and other insects in jars but we were cowardly and ordered chicken and rice!
The big attraction around SM is elephant trekking. We met a local guy who told us where the trekking was so we decided to head out to find the elephants. This was far easier said than done! We had a lovely drive out and stopped a few times to ask but everyone looked blank - we had a picture of an elephant in our guide book to explain what we wanted but it wasn't helping! We stopped at a little minority village and the people were very welcoming. It was a very peaceful scene - the kids were playing a game which looked a bit like hop scotch, and people were lying around in hammocks relaxing. They obviously have been converted at some point as they had a little Christian church and it being Sunday they were all practicing singing and playing recorders- maybe a concert coming up? The insisted on me joining them and were trying to get me to sing but I told them I'd rather listen! Singing in Khmer might be a bit tough! Andrew meanwhile was taken off to a house and shown an elephant saddle but still no elephant!
We had just about given up on the idea of the elephant and decided just to have a look at the Bou Sraa Waterfall which is pretty famous throughout Cambodia. The road out to this attraction is only 37 km and it used to be appalling "before invest" but thanks to Chinese aid it has been rebuilt and was pretty good (though a bit boggy in places) it is an interesting drive past ethnic minority straw huts and some crops. Everyone you pass is very friendly and waves, and it seems a really peaceful laid back lifestyle out here.
The falls are pretty impressive -they have a double drop the first being 12metres down the second 25. There was an incredible volume of water which is one reason why it is a good idea to visit this province at the end of the wet season - the waterfalls are all working beautifully. As we were walking back to the car we bumped into the guy we met earlier and told him of our wild elephant chase. He made a (trunk..sorry!) call and ordered one up as you would a taxi! It is not very touristy in these parts and our elephant when he turned up was a working elephant with a sideline in tourism! The seat he had on was generally used for transporting sacks of rice and it was really far from comfortable. We walked across the top of the waterfall which was a bit nerve wracking ..I was terrified he might get spooked but he plodded through I guess he's done it all many times before. We went on an hour's trek through the jungle.. timing it well to get back just before the heavens opened. It was a great experience but I'd certainly want a better seat before doing much more trekking!
That night as it was very wet we wimped out and stayed at a guesthouse with hot water and had a good night's sleep prior to setting off the next day. We had to retrace our steps as the road going to the border via the north is one remaining area which is still impassable. We didn't linger in SM as after the very heavy rains - it didn't stop all night- we were worried that the roads would be very bad on the way back.
They were a bit ropey in parts but we had no real problems. On the last stretch of road we passed a family who had obviously had car problems and we towed them home to Snuol where we once again hit the main highway. When we arrived we were met by the man's friend who spoke English so we were able to communicate. The man- Paulie- was on the way back from a weekend at SM where he'd been staying with his sister and his nephew had come in in the earlier hours of Sunday morning with tales of pulling out some Australians who had been stuck! A true case of what goes around comes around! Paulie insisted on treating us to a meal at a local restaurant and ordered a real banquet - fish with lemongrass, sweet and sour beef and fried chilli chicken - absolutely delicious!
Very well fed we said our goodbyes and headed off up highway 7 to Kratie our last major destination in Cambodia.