Covered with my krama, I was ready to speed through Ratanakiri’s orange dust en route to Voensai 28k from Banlung. I had anticipated a quick ride but Doy Yok seemed to be going at it too slow. Perhaps he was just testing my level of confidence with riding on the back of a moto, I said to myself. Gita was with Kun, the Khmer guide Doy Yok had brought along with him the evening before. Leaving Banlung behind, we rode through dirt tracks amidst rubber and cashew plantations and wild grass growing on the side of the road. A few stretches of road only had us which was good as a passing vehicle would send clouds of dust choking us and leaving us covered in dust. At Kalai, a couple of white tourists who had sped past us were taking their packs down getting ready to trek.
About an hour into the journey, we stopped along the road to stretch. Doy Yok pointed to a tall tree with not much leaves on it and with a white bark. He said that sometimes you’ll find a fish inside the tree! It was a story that had been told to him by his father and which he refused to believe until one day he found it for himself. He climbed one and sure enough he saw a fish there. The reason is far from magical. The bird that makes its nest on the tree gets some fish and brings it to its young. Rather than rotting, the fish remains quite fresh as water collects on the nest. He says he’s seen this about three times. Incidentally, the black bird that inhabits the tree is highly prized as it can be trained to talk. Maybe it’s a mynah?
We finally reached Voensai and parked the motos in the small parking lot of a small Chinese eatery overlooking the river. A small market with a few scruffy stalls was set-up on a clearing at the mouth of the short track that led down to the dock. I bought some fried bananas and pork-filled sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. You guessed it— I was afraid of going hungry.
We hired a boat and I offered Gita the front seat so she could have a magnificent view of the surroundings. It was her first time in Cambodia and I think she deserves the view. Do Yok and I sat at the back so we could lie down and sleep. I ate my fried bananas.
If it were not for the noisy motor, it would have been a languid boat ride in the murky river bounded by dense foliage. Villages would come peeping through the trees sometimes. Ahead of us, the mountain tops of Virachey National Park beckoned.
The boat ride took an hour and 10 minutes. We disembarked on the muddy shores of Kachen where women and children were washing and collecting water in hollowed-out gourds.
The Village of Kachon
I was surprised that there were hardly any tourists at the village given that its mentioned in every guidebook and travel forum. There were just us and a family of 4 others. I heaved a sigh of relief that it was nothing like the villages in northern Vietnam. Doy Yok explained to us that we had to visit the village first and the cemetery later as doing the reverse would bring bad luck to the village as we would be bringing spirits to the community. By visiting the cemetery last, any spirit following us would be lost on the water.
An elderly woman sitting on her haunches collected the 5,000 riyel community fee. Gita would later ask to have her picture taken with her as she looks just like her mom.
The Tompoun has three structures for their dwelling— a main house where they sleep and eat, a separate kitchen built just beside the main house, and a toilet which is a little further out. The houses are of wood and built on stilts underneath which are farming equipment, animal cages, and other tools and implements they use. There was enough space between the dwellings and the surroundings were quite neat and leafy.
Dominating the small village is a meeting house which is the heart and soul of the community. In dedicating a newly-built meeting house, the Tompoun requires that everyone parties! Do Yok says that absolutely everyone must come to the meeting house and bring something to eat so they can all party by sacrificing pigs and buffalos and eating and drinking what everyone has brought. The feasting goes on several nights. In dedicating a replacement of a destroyed or worn-out meeting house, the feasting is less fancy.
Community matters aren’t the only things discussed in the meeting house. The government also holds informal classes there where villages are taught healthy, hygienic, and sanitary practices such as boiling water before drinking and washing hands. The elderly are quite resistant to boiling their drinking water as it takes a long time. Why wait they say when you cans imply head to the water source and drink from it immediately?
A small wooden shed sold some clothes, a few toys, and things to eat.
Mostly women and children were in the village as the men were in the farms and the older children in school. We didn’t have much interaction with the locals except to smile at the children. Doy Yok told his jokes while we went around the village.
Visiting the Dead
More remarkable was the graveyard of the Tompoun reached via a short trail that wound in the leafy forest near the river. The graves are scattered around the clearing. Some looked fairly new while others looked a bit abandoned.
At the entrance was small spirit house dedicated to those who died outside the village, particularly soldiers. Doy It really helped that Doy Yok explained the burial practice and the images that were in the graves.
The Tompoun bury their dead in bamboo sheds which after a year is replaced by one made of wood. After about 3 years, it needs to be replaced by one made of cement but that would depend on the capacity of the family to offer sacrifices. Mostof the graves were of wood and only a few were cemented.
We motored back to Voensai to have lunch at the Chinese eatery. It took less than an hour this time as it was downstream. I ate my sticky rice (tasted good) and ordered fried rice and a cold can of Coke. Anything after staying out in the sun tastes good and cold. Other tourists had just finished their lunch. We rested a bit then went back to the boat to cross to the other side and visit the villages there.
The Chinese Among the Khmer and Lao
The Lao and Chinese villages are at the opposite bank from the boat dock. Up the bank was a traditional medicine shop managed by the foundation where Yok had trained years before. Shelves had bags of dried leaves and twigs some of which were labeled. There was medicine for women and for hemorrhoids. In one corner, a woman was hoarding large amounts of dried leaves in a bag obviously to be brought and sold somewhere else.
Walking along the Lao village, a couple of girls in the doorway pointed out to me, said something, then giggled. Yok explained that they were wondering why I couldn’t speak Khmer as they thought I was a special monk that he had brought to visit the village. It was my orange shirt. To the Khmer, orange is the color of the monks. Yok was very much amused by this and would re-tell the story to Kun and to others. Nothing really interesting with the Lao village.
Strikingly different was the Chinese village with its newish houses. Some are quite big and seem out of place in the village. Like all the other Chinese around the world, they’re engaged in —- business. There were shops selling moto parts, dry goods, and even small appliances!
The Chinese really are everywhere. The residents were fifth generous Chinese who set roots in the village to be farmers. But hand it to the Chinese to set-up business.
We headed back to the other side and on the back of the moto for the return trip to Banlung. Yok drove faster this time as I kidded him that we were going too slow. The trip just took an hour which gave us enough time to do a circuit of Boeung Kansaign which was a pretty lake ringed by simple restaurants and accommodations such as the Lake View Lodge and the expensive Terres-Rouge. There was also a small amusement lot that Kun said was very popular with the locals who like to hit the balloons with darts hoping to win a free beer!