words + photos by Don Mankin
Our narrow wooden boat churns upstream powered by what looks like a motor from a small lawn mower. The wide, almost empty river is straight out of “Apocalypse Now.” I feel vaguely like Martin Sheen looking for Colonel Kurtz as I scan the sparsely populated river banks. The small boat has barely enough room for the four of us -- my wife Katherine, our guide, the operator and me.
We are heading to a small, isolated village buried in the jungle about 45 minutes up a tributary of the Mekong River, deep in the heart of Ratanakiri province, a mountainous region in the far northeastern corner of Cambodia. This is as far away from our home in Los Angeles as you can get in this world -- geographically, culturally, and in pretty much any other way you can imagine.
The village we are visiting is home to the ethnic minority people known as the Tompuon, one of the most isolated groups of people I have ever seen – no TV, internet, electricity, or modern sanitation. They survive by cutting timber, growing rice, raising pigs and chickens, and selling trinkets to the few tourists who come their way.
The Tompuon inter their dead in the jungle less than a hundred yards from the village in small pavilions guarded by carved, life-sized wooden figures representing the people buried there, usually a husband and wife. The figures and pavilions are often decorated with objects that reveal something about the deceased – drums for a musician, a figure wearing glasses, and in one case, an electric fan, a curious artifact in a community where the only electricity is provided by car batteries recharged every few days by a diesel-powered generator.
Ratanikiri is not easy to get to. As of this writing there is no domestic air service anywhere in the country other than flights between Siem Reap (the closest town to the ruins at Angkor) and the capital city of Phnom Penh. It takes two days to drive from Phnom Penh, much of it over rough dirt roads, to get to Ban Lung, the provincial capital and the closest town of any size to the Tompuon village. Fortunately, we did not have to do any driving since we had a driver and a guide/interpreter for most of our 15 day trip (NOTE -- We booked this custom tour through Asianventure Tours.)
Travelers who make the effort to get here will see that there is more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. Ratanakiri has much to offer besides strange cemeteries and bad roads. The province is also home to other ethnic minority communities, a bustling market that offers a colorful array of local handicrafts and often unrecognizable food, and numerous waterfalls. The closest waterfall to Ban Lung, Chaa Ong, is the most inviting. A short walk through the forest and down some stairs leads to a rocky ledge behind the falls where you can view the jungle-fringed gorge below through a gauzy veil of crashing water and hanging, dripping roots.
Of course we couldn’t leave Cambodia without visiting ruins and temples. Since Katherine and I had already visited Angkor Wat and the other ruins that comprise the famous Angkor complex 10 years earlier, our plan was to focus on several newly-accessible and lesser known sites on the way to Siem Reap as well as sites in the outlying area.
Getting there was half the fun. It took three days. We drove part of the way along the mighty Mekong, stopping to take a sunset boat ride in Kratie to see the rare freshwater Irawaddy dolphins, and past blocks of crumbling colonial French buildings in the riverside village of Chhlong. Outside of the towns and villages, we drove through watery fields of rice, sparkling in the sun, with water buffalo soaking in muddy ponds to escape the heat.
We also stopped at several temples and ruins along the way, varying greatly in terms of style, period, degree of restoration, and function. Some were primarily of historical or archeological interest, such as the pre-Angkor Hindu ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk scattered throughout the forest. Other sites were of more recent origin and still in active use as Buddhist temples, such as the hill top pagoda of Phnom Santuk, which requires a sweaty but scenic climb up an 809 step stairway. We often had the sites almost completely to ourselves.
But it was the sites near Siem Reap that had the most impact. Beng Mealea, about an hour and half drive from Siem Reap, is dark, sprawling, overgrown, crumbling and remote. It looks like it is being slowly taken over by the jungle. Trees, branches, roots and vines encircle collapsed walls and roofs. I felt like a character in an action-adventure-fantasy movie (a Lara Croft with less testosterone?) climbing over piles of rubble from one room, hallway and courtyard to another. Again our timing was perfect, just before sunset, so hardly anyone else was there for most of our visit.
Closer to Siem Reap in distance but even further away in historical time is the Roluos Group. Dating back to the 9th Century, these sites predate the larger monuments of Angkor and served as their inspiration. It was here at the Bakong, the largest of the group and the last stop in our whirlwind tour, that I finally got it. With help from our guide, I began to see how the designs and artifacts of the Bakong were adopted, modified and enhanced in the imaginations of those who came after them to create the grandeur of the Angkor empire. His words morphed the crude chiseled carvings and stone-stacked towers of the Bakong into the more intricate filigrees and soaring structures of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Banteay Srei.
But the highlight was a visit to a school on the road to Koh Ker, a very remote site in northern Cambodia near the border with Thailand that had only recently been partially cleared of land mines. Once again we were back on very rough roads in an area with little tourist traffic. Visiting a school was on our itinerary, but where and when we stopped was up to us and our guide. We were prepared with a gift, a world atlas in English with lots of illustrations.
Although he wasn’t expecting us, the teacher graciously tolerated the intrusion and seemed grateful for our gift. Most of the kids gawked in amazement, not sure what to make of us. Their faces – some shy, most staring in wonder, others playing towards our cameras as if they were ready for Hollywood, all unbearably cute -- made me teary. My memories and photos still do.
The bottom line – especially for anyone willing to venture off the beaten track -- is that Cambodia is not the easiest place to visit, but it is well worth the effort. The bad roads, noise, and endemic poverty are more than made up for by the gentle, good natured people, the charismatic children (even the ones constantly hawking post cards and scarves), and the hauntingly majestic sites. Cambodia will wrench you out of your everyday bubble and thrust you into another reality, making it all too clear just how different other parts of the world can be. In addition, the dollar goes far, the country is safe, and if you like your travel experiences seasoned with a hefty dose of weird, it doesn’t get much weirder than the life-like totems in the Tompuon cemetery or the tree-wrapped rubble of Beng Mealea.
Most important, the country has a fascinating, unsettling and complex history that will snap you out of your Western-centric complacency. From the ancient majesty of the Khmer Empire to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the poverty and corruption of the present day, Cambodia offers a sobering perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations. It makes you wonder if some future archeologist will one day sift through shards of plastic and metal in the remnants of our cities and towns and marvel at how advanced our own civilization once was and how far it had since fallen.
Don Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. The Wall Street Journal called his latest book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic, 2008), “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year." For more information on Don or Riding the Hulahula, check out his website www.adventuretransformations.com.
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