Posts Tagged With: Ratanakiri

Ratanakiri Report Part 4: The Death of a Pig and New Year’s Eve

Celebrating the coming of the New Year in a place other than your own is always interesting; more so if in another country and even double more so if in a remote part of another country.  Last year, I was with my eldest sister and two close friends at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.  There were Vietnamese pop musicians rockin and rollin, fireworks, and a huge crowd.

This year (or more appropriately, last year) I was with a Finnish and a Columbian with our Tompoun guide at the Tribal Hotel in Banlung. But before that, we sacrificed a pig (or more appropriately, a piglet).

I woke up that morning with a really upset stomach.  I had gone to the bathroom around four times at dawn already. I’ve had worst LBM but no way was I gonna risk it with the roller-coaster ride to Ta Veng, more than 50k from Banlung. I barely survived yesterday’s upset stomach.  I texted Yok that I was definitely out of commission that day.I’m quite sure it was the food at Pov Socheat that did it.  The lok lak I had last night didn’t seem to be very fresh.  Kun, who I bumped into at the reception area when I had my clothes laundered,  told me that lok lak  isn’t really cooked very well. That explains why it looked and tasted quite raw. The lok lak  I’d been having at my favorite stall in Siem Reap was well-cooked, perhaps for the tourists.

Spent the morning watching National Geographic and Animal Planet and digging through my stash of loperamide I bought at a pharmacy earlier.

I had lunch at Taman just across Pov Socheat. The large restaurant had heavy wooden tables and chairs and large figures that I guess were for sale.  It seems to be a favorite hang-out of moto-riding locals.  Aside from the standard English menu, there was a Vietnamese one with pho bo and com ga and a shelf-full of Vietnamese coffee and other stuff.  The service from the English-speaking staff was friendly and the food was good, albeit a little more expensive than Pv Socheat.

My stomach seemed to be in full control after lunch so I went to Boeung Yeak Lom with Kun.  Who should I see but Yok buying cans of beer at one of the stall?  Because it was New Year, he insisted that he buy me a Coke.  Matti was on a mat seated and drinking with Yok’s family and friends.  Families  were laying on rented mats around the lake enjoying the cool breeze and the shade.

There was no one else in the trail that wound around the lake.  Nothing really much to see in the surrounding forest.  A few trails detoured from the main trail and led up and away to the surrounding villages perhaps.  It did make a for peaceful and relaxing way to break out into a sweat as in spite of the blazing sun, the climate is actually quite cool with really chilly nights.

Back at the main area, I joined Yok’s picnic. In spite not understanding a word they spoke, I had fun just listening to them and watching.  It was a Tompoun day out and everyone was enjoying themselves helped by all the cans of beer.  Seated beside me was Yok’s uncle incessantly cracked jokes to me.  Kun was seated with a lovely girl all dolled-up whom I assumed was a girlfriend as they seemed to be sweet to each other and left together. Kindly Kun waved away my offer to pay him for the ride to the lake when the party broke and I went off with Yok and Matti for the pig sacrifice.

Pig Sacrifice.  Yok had brought the car he bought earlier.  It was a battered Toyota Camry but a car nevertheless and in far-flung Banlung, it was a step-up from a moto. Later during the night while drinking with Jon, the Columbian, who was heading to Voensai the next day, I kidded Yok that he can now ask his guests if they preferred a car instead of a moto.  Matti sat at the bucket seat and I piled at the back with Yok’s wife and kids.  It’s unbelievable how Yok managed to bring his car to his house along the small trails meant for walking or motos.

At the house, they prepared the stuff needed for the pig sacrifice which Yok said would take place near the forest.  We all piled back into the car this time with Yok’s mom, dad, and the village elder who would do the offering.

On the road leading to another village where we were to get the pig, we chanced on two white girls on bicycles.  Concerned that they might be lost, Yok asked Matti to inquire if they knew their way. “Just going around,” the older one answered.  “We’re on our way to sacrifice an animal.  Wanna come with us?  Just follow us,” Matti replied. It must have shocked them.

Stopped by to buy two jars of rice wine (10,000 riyel each) which I sponsored, then went off to get the pig.  We arrived at a small house where Matti and I waited under the shade of a tree while everyone else went off somewhere.  About half an hour later, Yok came running with a piglet dangling from one hand and gleefully shouting, “Let’s go!  Let’s go!”  We all piled back into the car with a wailing pig.  I really felt sorry for the baby pig was it was really small.  Yok didn’t have enough money to buy a real pig so a $25 piglet would do.  I am really queasy seeing animals about to be butchered and the pig’s wailing increased my queasiness more.  I could hardly look at it.  I had told Yok earlier that I wouldn’t look when they kill it.

We stopped at a cross-roads which to the Tompoun is a dwelling place of spirits. The “magic man” had pointed a place such as this where to hold the sacrifice.  The village elder gathered young bamboo to be made into the spirit house.

WARNING: What is described in the following is not the for the queasy.

This poor piglet gave up his life so that someone else may live.

I kept my distance as no way was I going near that wailing piglet and the fate it was going to befall him/her.  Yok’s dad got a heavy twig and started the beating the piglet with it! I thought he was just slapping it to keep it quiet as the piglet had stopped wailing.  He hit on the body and on the head again and again then dropped it on the ground where it lay squirming until it blew its last breath. I had been witness to its death!  Yok would later explain that slitting the throat is for mature pigs while smaller ones are beaten to death. I don’t know which fate is worse.

Making the spirit house.

When the pig stopped squirming, Yok’s dad picked it up and collected the blood oozing out of its mouth in a small plastic bad. The spirit house was finished by this time.  The village elder had put on a ceremonial headband of white strings wound into a thin band.   He took some rice wine and mixed it with the blood in a plastic receptacle.  I was horrified thinking that it was going to be passed around for everyone to drink!  By this time, my curiosity was an anthropologist was being overcome by my queasiness as an ordinary queasy being. I heaved a sigh of relief when the elder offered it to the “spirit house” while saying some prayers after sprinkling it.

The plastic bag with the pig's blood and a sprinkling of dried leaves. The village elder lights up a twig to "smoke" it.

The now-dead piglet was roasted on a fire made from dried leaves and branches collected in the nearby forest.  It little piglet that had been wailing its heart out just a few minutes earlier was now so dead.   A piece of roasted piglet flesh was offered placed at the spirit house to offer to the spirits.

The village elder and Yok’s dad drank from the rice wine jar then Matti and I were invited to sip.  The roasted pig lay beside the jar and I tried really hard not to look at it as I sipped.  The wine was sweetish and didn’t seem to taste very potent unlike the one we had at the Jorai village the day before.

The sacrifice was over.  I congratulated Matti for his first pig sacrifice.  Yok’s mom stayed in the car the whole time as she was not allowed to be part of the sacrifice which was performed for her.  The village elder had asked the spirits not to let Yok’s mom get sick anymore so she could return to her village in Lumphat.

You can now proceed reading.  The queasy part is over.

Back at Yok’s house, the other jar of rice wine was waiting.  Yok’s wife chopped the pig into a million little pieces and cooked it.  The village elder in the meantime, tied a piece of white string around Yok’s mom’s wrist, said some prayers, then cut it with a knife.  The ceremony had come to a final end.

That evening, my gung treng maker arrived with the instrument he had made for me plus a flute.  He was really drunk this time but still managed to sing while playing the gung treng.  I took a few bites of the pig meat with scoops of rice leaving the rest to Matti to finish. I gotta give it him for being such a sport.  He was genuinely interested in everything and anything.

It was past 8 when we bade our goodbyes and Yok brought us back to Borann Lodge.  He was to meet Jon, the Columbian, and explain to him the treks.  We were accompanied by Yok’s wife and youngest boy who wanted to make sure that Yok wouldn’t be drinking and a friend of his.

Singing “Auld Lang Syne:in Banlung.  Jon arrived a few minutes later and we all headed to Tribal Hotel where a small crowd was gathered at the patio restaurant/bar.  I hardly had anything to eat but I didn’t want to offend Yok by eating at the buffet ($6 with a can of beer) which had roast meat in skewers, fried rice, and spring rolls, among other eats.

I had a Beer Lao and Matti filled us up with rhum coke.  I met Jhared, a PhD candidate from the Univ. of Wisconsin who had been in Cambodia for 5 years and in Banlung for 1 year and a half. Previously, I had only corresponded with him through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum where he was known as ‘rasheed.  Big tall guy, nice and friendly.  I envied him for being in such a fascinating place where he was doing his thesis on the lines of minority tours.

Yok’s wife who had been waiting in the car came to get him.  We had earlier expressed concern about she and the little boy waiting but Yok said they were used to waiting up for him and they could sleep in the car.

At the stroke of midnight, we left our tables and gathered at the small garden where the restaurant staff set-off a few fireworks and toasted some champagne that were all handed to us.    Led by a couple of English girls, we formed a circle, held-hands, and sang “Auld Lang Syne.”  I knew the song but it was my first-time to sing it on NYE.

Back to the patio for more drinking where 3 Finnish girls Matti had met earlier joined us. One who was seated at the corner beside me and Jon looked particularly wasted and we both asked, “Are you all right?”  She snapped, “Yes.  Why?  How do I look that’s why you’re asking if I’m all right.”  We both smiled and turned our attention somewhere else.  The one seated on my left had gone to the Philippines before and it was heart-warming to listen to her say how she had a really great time at Palawan and how she had made so many Filipino friends and that she had a lot of heart for the Philippines and the Filipinos while holding both her hands over her heart.

It was past 1 in the morning when Jon and I stumbled back to Borann Lodge.

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Ratanakiri Report Part 3: To Die a Jorai

Gita had left for Kompong Cham in the morning enroute to Siem Reap for New Year’s Eve.  But as luck and Do Yok’s popularity would have it, another traveler joined me to the trip to Andong Meas to visit the Jorai cemetery.  Tall and bespectacled Matti, had arrived in Banlung the previous night and had contacted Do Yok for a 50day trk on the recommendation of his friend.  Since Yok was still “mine” for another 2 days, he opted to just join me in my trips while finished Yok’s services with me.  Again, I had someone to share the $20 boat trip downstream to the Jorai village which would significantly help lower the cost of the trip.

We picked-up Matti at his guesthouse along the main rode at 8 in the morning.  I rode with Kun this time.  He was more appropriately dressed this time with Crocs-like slip-on rubber sandals.  Yesterday, he was in a long-sleeved shirt (well, which Khmer isn’t in long-sleeves), wool trousers, and leather shoes!

Like all the roads out of Banlung, asphalt soon turned to dirt.  The dust on the way to Voensai was nothing compared to what we encountered heading to Andong Meas.  Back at the lodge in the evening, my brown trekking pants had taken on an orange tint.  By this time, I had long given up on laundering my own clothes and submitted to having it laundered instead.  No way was I gonna trouble myself washing all that dusty from my clothes.  It was hard enough soaping yourself clean.

We stopped at a village to see a long house and a boy and girl house that was built by the village for themselves and not something built for tourists.  The cries of a little girl greeted us.   Apparently, her right foot had caught on the spokes of the moto wheel she was riding.  Ouch and super ouch!  People huddled around her while her mother held her in her arms.  I couldn’t bear to look as the guy wiped the wound clean with a piece of cotton dipped in some solution. It all seemed quite professional as he had on a face mask, rubber gloves, and a scissors-like gadget to hold the cotton ball.

It's a long longhouse

The longhouse is old and derelict and hadn’t been used for a long time. There were holes on the ceilings but the plank floors were still sturdy.    On one side of the longhouse were several small rooms all accessed by a wide corrider running the length of the house.

Yok explained that the girls’ rooms were at the far end near the door so if a boy should come visiting, he wouldn’t disturb the others.  It seems that pre-marital sex is accepted in Tompoun culture.  That became evident when Yok explained that should someone want to sleep with a girl in the village, he would have to ask permission from everyone so that should the girl become pregnant, everyone would know who the father is.

This is the girl room beside one of the entrances.

Also interesting were the boys and girls houses built just outside the longhouse.  More of a room really than a house, these separate facilities are for single boys and girls where they come to meet and apparently, per Yok’s story, mate.

Boys on the left and girls on the right

Yok and I bought some nicely decorated gourds from some women resting underneath the house.  The gourds are water vessels and have pretty designs on their bodies.  It really is a tradition of incising designs on the gourds and is not just a tourist thing.   I would have wanted to buy the one that had designs depicting the dead and the funeral rites but it might spook people back at home.

Kun was surprised when I went to the moto to get my wallet from my backpack.  He told me that I shouldn’t leave my bag just lying around especially if I had money in it.  I dunno but I have it in my head that no one in a village such as this one would steal anything .  Maybe I’m just too trusting with these people.   I wouldn’t leave it lying around in Banlung that’s for sure.

Yok drinking fro a gourd he had taken from a villager who had just refilled some vessels from the river.

We stopped for lunch at a small eatery along the road.  “Toilet?”  The guy manning the counter topped with pots of food shook his head. Yok and Kun pointed to the dirt lot behind the eatery and said I could piss there.  I was too embarrassed to tell them I was going to more than piss.  I had began to feel the first pangs of an upset and churning stomach.  It was probably the lunch at Pov Sochey yesterday.  Fortunately, there was a modern gas station just across.  “Toilet?” I asked and was promptly pointed to a concrete row of relatively clean squat toilets behind the main building.  Now, pooping on a squat toilet especially if you have knee issues isn’t exactly easy.  What more if you’ve got a bad case of the runs.  Imagine . . .

The others were done with their lunch by the time I emerged from the toilet all smiling and good to go.  A loperamide pill did the trick for the rest of the trip.

Lunch was quite good, by the way.  The Chinese eatery had pots of cooked food but I chose a hot stew of fried pork cracklings and vegetables warming on a large cauldron over a fire.  The soup was especially tasty but all that pork cracklings made it greasy.

Gems from the ground.  From the main dirt road, we took a left up a small dirt road to a small gem mining area in Bokheo.  Tattered tents were erected over small holes bored through the ground.  A few men and women squatted in enormous mounds of soil patiently sifting their hands through the dirt.

Everything was done very crudely.  It was obviously hard work as the men had to dig a hole several meters deep into the ground then burrow horizontally sending buckets of dirt up to be sifted for gems.  Kun explained that people worked as families as a high-degree of trust was needed.  You wouldn’t one anyone running of with your gems from all that dirt you gathered from beneath the earth.  We were invited to go through the dirt though I wouldn’t know a gem nugget if it hit me on the head.  A woman came along and showed us some cut gems that sparkled in the noon sun.  They were all very colorful and shiny but who knows if they were just colored glass.

From Bokheo, it wasn’t far to Andong Meas where we alighted and parked the motos at a small house cum store that was renting-out a boat.  We had to wait a while for the boat to be ready.  We crossed a short concrete bridge then followed a path by its side down to the river.  The boat ride  upstream to the Jorai cemetery for about 45 minutes.

To die a Jorai.  I had read at Lonely Planet that the cemetery had been badly damaged by typhoon Ketsana a few years back.  This was evident as most of the graveyards seem to have been thrown apart.  Compared to the Tompoun cemetery in Kachon, this one was more simple and less colorful. There weren’t much carved effigies.  What makes Jorai cemeteries unique though is that as much as six people are buried together in a single graveyard.  A couple of young kids followed us and we paid them the 5,000 riyel admission.

Back to the boat and we crossed to the other side to the village.  A vendor had arrived there with his moto laden with tools such as knives and lots of toys. Mostly everyone had gathered around him checking out his stuff.  The houses look similar to that of the Tompoun except that there’s just a single house rather than having a separate kitchen and a rice barn.  I joined Kun and Yok at a gathering of men and women who were all drinking rice wine.  Matti had drunk several cups already and offered me a sip.  It was so strong! Inquiring about instruments, the villagers said they had none.  One man offered to sell his gong set for $500.  I politely told him I would rather pay to hear him play it.

Gold in the river.  Back to the boat for the ride downstream and to the Lao and Chinese villages at Andong Meas.  Enroute, we stopped by the banks to watch women and kids panning for gold in the murky waters of the river.  It was pitiful to watch really small kids under the blazing sun scooping up ground and panning them hoping to see that gleam that would indicate gold.   I watched silently as they went about their work.  Suddenly one small girl looked up at me then went back to her work.  I still remember her round beautiful eyes accentuated by the krama wrapped around her head to keep the sun out.  At that moment, I felt extremely uncomfortable.  I was a spectator to her hard life.  Like so many that had gone and watched before me, I would simply see then go back to my own comfortable life.  I went back to the boat, gingerly stepping around the bowls that contained some black sand that Kun said contains gold, mindful that upsetting the bowl would be upsetting their hard work and the future that clings on it.

Back to Andong Meas and back to the moto. On the way back, at the highway to Banlung, Yok had a flight tire so Kun and I went ahead. 

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Ratanakiri Report Part 2: Around Beoung Yeak Loam, Riding an Elephant, and Dinner with the Tompoun

A Tompoun meeting house just across the road leading to Boeang Yeak Loam

December 29.  Today was an easy day as Gita and I decided to head our own ways and stay within the vicinity of Banlung. Personally, I needed time for my butt to rest from the previous day’s excursion.  As of last night, Gita hadn’t yet decided if she would extend her stay or depart for Siem Reap in time for New Year’s Eve with a stopover at either Kratie or Kompong Cham.  We both were going to see the waterfalls and the crater lake albeit at different times.

Yok picked me up at the lodge at 7:30am and we headed to the Banlung market as I wanted to see the minorities selling their stuff.  It looked way better than the pics I saw posted at the internet.  There main market was a covered area and seemed relatively orderly.  The garbage behind the market was unsightly, though.  I should have worn my closed rubber sandals as the floor was wet.  Yok pointed to one area in the market which had been allotted to the people coming from the mountains to sell their goods, mostly live chicken (free-range perhaps?) and different vegetables and root crops.  If it not for their baskets they would have blended seamlessly with the local Khmer.  A bit queasy about seeing butchered animals, I tried to look away whenever I passed stalls with dressed chickens, their heads dangling from the table, and cow and pig parts strung up on meat hooks.  It wasn’t quite easy as some of the meat stalls were mixed in with the dry goods stalls.  At one point, I had to take a long route around the maze-like market just to skip one particularly distressing meat stall that had some organs displayed.

There really wasn’t anything special about the market if you’ve been to other Southeast Asian markets before.  Perhaps the big difference was that everything was for purely local consumption and I didn’t see a single store there selling tourist stuff.  The only exception was one store fronting the parking lot which was selling a small selection of baskets , gourds, and other things.  Too bad there was no musical instrument.  I bought a small gourd instead.

Crater Lake.  It was still early when we made it to the Boeang Yeak Lom so there weren’t much people which made for a peaceful outing to this beautiful lake.  Unfortunately, I could only enjoy the water from one of  the piers dotted around the lake as I still didn’t know how to swim.  The Tompoun who “own” the lake and live in small villages around the area believe that this near-perfect circle lake is sacred and home to strange creatures.  Do Yok say told of a story of someone who got sick as he cursed the lake when he was unable to catch some fish.  They believe that one should never say anything bad about the lake lest the spirits who inhabit it get angry.

Been here picture. So touristy. Heheheh.

Small but interesting was the Cultural Museum a few hundred meters from the start of the trail which circled the lake.  Having Do Yok explain the exhibits made it all the more interesting not to mention helpful.  Impressive were the gongs displayed Beside it was a small shop where I was able to buy some stringed-instruments.  Having Yok, again, was very helpful as he identified the instruments to me.  They looked like the real thing and not made specifically for the tourist market which was largely selling textiles and some handicrafts.  At the one of stalls at the lake I bought an auntup (loin cloth) in the traditional black and white color for $8 and 2 necklaces of small white beads (samul) for $2. I took a video of Yok tieing the cloth around him so I’d know how to use it.

A set of 8 knobbed gongs

From the lake, we proceeded to a turn-off from the main road to a leafy village where Yok lived.  We stopped by the main house to inquire about the gung trang (10-stringed zither with a gourd).  The musician was out but Do Yok asked his mom to make one for me.  Yehey!  We followed a short small trail which led to his house.   He actually had two houses both connected with a short walkway.  The second one isn’t finished yet but it is usable as it has a floor, roof, and three walls already.  His two little kids, his wife, and his mother were there.  The latter had just come home from the hospital for what I suspect was a really bad case of indigestion.  Yok had been unable to find the medicine the doctor prescribed from any of the numerous pharmacies we had visited.  There didn’t seem to be any modern pharmacies here as the one’s we went to were just small simple stores that had a stock of medicines.  I gave here some domperidone with instructions on how she should take it.  I figured that even if it weren’t indigestion, the medicine wouldn’t do her any harm anyway so she might was well try it. I get indigestion a lot and from what Do Yok told me  it sounded like a really bad case.

Yok's house

They were about to have breakfast of rice and some green leafy vegetable that had been boiled.  I politely turned-down the offer to join them. It was 10 am so I was surprised by how later breakfast is.  Or maybe it was really early lunch.  Or perhaps the Tompoun have their version of brunch.

The weaving village of Panom was nearby so we decided to drop by to look at some weaves and see if I could get an anchew the women’s traditional wrap-around.  The small village had a smattering of houses placed around a dirt field.  No one was there except a few women weaving on looms under the shade of their stilt houses and children playing.  I bought a wrap-around in red and black for $7.5 and a runner for $3.5.  The wrap-around still had to be cut and sewn so Do Yok would have to go back for it the next day. A young man offered to make me a gung treng for $15 which Yok would also need to come back for the next day.  It was better deal than that offered by another man Yok had met on the junction of the lake that had informed Yok that the guy in the village was too drunk to make an instrument and that he was willing to sell his own gung treng.  Too expensive, Yok said.

We had lunch at Pov Sochey.  I had a bowl of coconut soup which was sourish soup with pineapple and pork with vegetables while Yok had fried rice.  The food was plentiful and tasted good however it would be the cause of my upset stomach the next day.  I don’t know if it was the food itself or the tea that was in the tea pot and had been standing there since god know when as I would have another upset stomach the day after having dinner there on another time.

We headed to Ka Tieng to see the waterfall and ride an elephant, something that Yok said he hadn’t done since the time he was a kid and the elephant he was riding on got scared and started running. He almost had the cold feet as when we were on the elephant and just waiting for the other elephant to get going, he turned to me and said he wanted to get off.  I told him I would get off too.  I’ve only ridden an elephant once, at Ayuthayya in Thailand, and I can’t say I’m really comfortable with it, both with how the elephant is treated and how the elephant would treat the ride.  I imagine the elephant turning balistick oll of a sudden and throwing-off the people behind him.

I was told that the pair of elephants always go together even if one had no one riding as it was a mom-and-daughter team. How sweet, I thought.  On the other hand, I was quite sorry for them as it meant it was a family doomed to elephant slavery.  The mahouts treated them well, though.  Much much better than the ones in Ayuthayya who would hit them in the head with a sickle especially if they stopped too long to grab a bite to eat.  The teenage mahouts would simply prod them with words and by digging their feet on their sides.  I was initially shocked when I saw the large sickle they had and I wanted to get off as no way was I gonna be a party to any cruelty inflicted on them. But the sickle was never used on the elephants. They were there to cut-off some branches or put some marks on trees.

The elephants were stopping by and grabbing some overhead branches as they were so hungry as the owner had gotten drunk the afternoon before and had not let them graze.  The mahouts let them be only prodding the daughter elephant which we were riding on when she was taking too much time trying to ensnarly some bushes with her trunk.

We rode through the main dirt track and some smaller tracks in the forest for about an hour.  It was more of the experience of riding an elephant rather than sight-seeing as there wasn’t anything to see.

The waterfall was beautiful and could be accessed by some rickety and slippery wooden steps down. Do Yok had earlier told me that the water was polluted due to the waste coming from the rubber plantation upstream.  “It’s okay.  They don’t know,” he whispered when I pointed out a few white tourists who had just come from their bath.

On the way out, Yok told me that the woman collecting the entrance fee had just been recently widowed.  Out of sympathy, as she is also Tompoun, he gave her some money for her child.  I was touched by this considering that out of the $15 I payed him today, he pays Borann Lodge $5 for the use of their moto after giving up owning one after two robberies.  He also  refused to reimburse the 2,000 riyel entrance fee which he paid for me after I forgot.

O’Chmey

I had read at a website about the villages along O’Chmey. Yok took me to a Tompoun village which he said was famous for its group of musicians. Unfortunately, the instruments weren’t there and there were no musicians either.  I had expressed my interest earlier in buying a small pipe the kind that I have  seen a lot of Tompoun men and women and even kids smoking.  I had wanted a used one rather than a brand new item that could be purchased cheaply at the market.  Approaching a woman smoking by her doorway, he asked to see it and possibly buy it!  Unfotunately, it was broken.

The meeting house was nice though especially as the walls were in traditional Tompoun designs.

The Stone Fiel

Yok stopped his moto under the shade of one of the trees ringing a flat plain.  “Field of Stones,” he said.  I was disappointed as I envisioned a large field dotted with mysterious stones, even monoliths.  But what lay before me looked no different from a bare field that could be used as a parking lot.  But looking at the vegetation around, you realize its mystery as nothing really grows on the field.  Even more interesting is going to a small mound, Yok lifts a heavy rock and slams it down.  A deep “thud” ensues.  The ground is hollow!  I try it myself and another “thud” echoes.  Now, I’m interested!  A short path leads to the entrance of a cave that Yok dares not enter as he says one can get slip down.

Dinner with Do Yok

From the waterfalls, Yok told me that he would take mo to his mom-in-law’s house so in case I am unable to contact him, I could go visit his mom-in-law, a Khmer, ask his whereabouts.  The  village was close to Banlung town proper.  The houses were in the Khmer style—wood and in stilts— and were built close to each other.   The house is fairly large with a spacious front area.  An uncle who serves in near the Vietnamese border has come visiting after more than 10 years of absence and he is seated in front together with the mom-in-law.  She doesn’t seem too surprised seeing Yok arriving guest.  I was to learn later that Yok had lived in the house before he finally went back to his village.  He had also had some guests he had been guiding stay at the house before.  They don’t mind, he told me.

The main living area

I relished the chance to set foot in a real living Khmer house and I enjoy it.  The wooden floor had been polished smoothly with years of use.  A door on the left side led to a bedroom while on the main area were two mattresses on the floor.  A middle-aged Khmer woman in a green blouse and  sarong stood combing her curly hair in front of a mirror.  There was a small kitchen and dining area with a round table and round stools made of solid wood.

Leaving the house, our next and final stop was Yok’s house again as he invited me to eat with his family.  Who wouldn’t pass-up this chance?  We motored to the market while Yok bought some stuff while I sat at the moto guarding it.

Back at his house, I played ball with the two cute kids while his wife prepared the meal.  A little later in the afternoon, the guy from the village who was supposedly drunk arrived with the gung treng! Unfortunately, Yok’s wife had given his beautiful gourd, a souvenir from his trip to Laos, when the guy came calling looking for a gourd to put on the instrument.  Yok was a little shocked when his wife told him over the phone while we were at his mom-in-law’s house but he wasn’t really upset.  I just told him that he might as well keep the gung treng  for himself so he would at least still have his gourd even if it’s top had been chopped off.  The guy could always make me another one.  I watched him as he took the strings that Yok had bought, patiently unwound them so there would just be single thin string, and put them on the tuning pegs and on the instrument.

Yok and his two kids

That evening, as we drank some alcohol after a dinner of noodles with pork, some cured raw fish (delicious but I was afraid for my stomach), vegetables, and rice, the guy played the instrument. It was magical listening to him amidst the quietness of the village and the moonlight.

Around 8pm, Yok said it was time to bring me home but we would stop by the village headman’s house so he could ride home with Yok to deter any robbers.  While waiting, I stepped inside a house that had was being used as a classroom for Tompoun children to learn Khmer.  Leading the class was really young teacher who was checking a workbook while the students recited aloud.

Passing through the unlit dirt tracks from the lake and out onto the main road, it was understandable why Yok would be afraid.  I heaved a sigh of relief was turned onto the main road and back to Banlung.

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Ratanakiri Report Part 1: The Chinese in Voensai and the Dead in Kachon

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.

The main house (L) and the kitchen (R)

Where all the rice is stored

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.

The meeting is the largest structure in the village. Inside is one big communal area.

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.

The simplest ones are nothing more than poles with a thatch roof. Things they would need in their next life are placed on top of the grave.

This grave is made of wood and quite elaborate with effigies and figures on the roof which symbolize a lot of things about the person.

The dead needs something to ride on to cross the after-life. In this case, it's a boat.

How about a helicopter? According to Doy Yok, the deceased was a pilot which explains his flight goggles.

River Lunch

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!

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Banlung – Paint the Town Orange

Kratie to Banlung wasn’t half as bad as Siem Reap to Kratie.  For one, it only took 5 hours and the road from the stretch of the turn-off all he way to Banlung was suprisingly good— by Cambodian and Ratanakiri standards.  The road is currently being upgraded which explain the relatively smooth going.  But it is indeed really dusty.  As we traveled on, orange dust covered trees, plants, houses, and people.  It was just dust dust everywhere.

The Sorya bus I also took from Kratie wasn’t full at all.  I had kidded the guy at the Sorya office that if I had no seat, he would refund my ticket.  The next day while waiting for the bus to pick me up at around 1pm, he kidded that there was only one seat left and that was for me.

The bus arrived around 1:30 andI was the only one that went on board.  There were more almost 10 vacant seats so I got one all to myself.  The bus was large, cold, and had ample leg room.  We had quite a number of stops as everyone seems to be needing to go to the toilet often.

We arrived at the bus station on the outskirts of town close to dusk already. The moto pick-up I had arranged earlier with the Borann Lodge was already there.  Aaaaggghhh!  The pleasure of seeing your name on a sheet of paper amidst all the uncertainty and chaos that arriving on a transport terminal in a strange place brings.  I loaded my pack in front, rode on the back, and we went wheezing off to the lodge.

I was expecting a Wild West kind of town— small buildings set on a dusty plain with no roads.  But no.  There was a sealed main road and other smaller streets.  It was still dusty though as sidewalks and the yards around structures such as houses were still dirty. Surprisingly, there were big restaurants and entertainment centers (!) and hotels.  I was to learn later that the really big establishments like the KTV on the road to Yeak Loam were built for the Chinese and Vietnamese biggies who ere funding all the developments taking place in Banlung— developments that do not necessarily translate to progress, espcially for the local community.

The Borann Lodge is away from the main drag but not far enough to need transport. It has the same owners as the highly-recommended Yaklom Hill Lodge located near Boeang Yeak Lom.  The main building is built like a traditional Khmer house but much bigger.  The moto driver was the one who arranged my check-in as the only person there, a guy who was in his late 30s couldn’t speak English.  He was very pleasant and accommodating though—always smiling and moving mildly. The moto driver took me to my room which was a stand-alone structure like a small cottage behind the main building not without giving me his card for any tours I would like to take.  I had already made arrangements with Do Yok, a Tompoun guide that came highly recommended in travel forums in the internet.

The room was big and had its own bathroom.  The large double had a thick mattress and a sturdy wooden frame, something unusual for a guesthouse in Cambodia.  There was a television with cable and a ceiling fan.  It was cold enough so a/c wasn’t needed.  Best of all, it was only $6 a night!  Outside was a small square with a swing and a wooden table with benches and across was a low tw0-level structure with four rooms all facing the square.  I like the place as it’s quiet and really peaceful.  Absolutely no noise from the streets which, when darkness came in, hardly had any people. There were dogs though and that worried me a bit as I have an inherent fear of dogs that walk the streets.

 came knocking on my door shortly and I opened it to find a short dark man in t-shirt and shorts with a smile on his face and a fairer larger man in trousers and a long-sleeved shit. He introduced himself as Do Yok and the larger man as his friend, Kun, a Khmer.    We talked about what I wanted to do.  Gita, the London-based Indian girl who was on the same bus as me and staying at the room across me, joined us and we made plans to explore Voensai the next day.  With she around, that would mean being able to split the $20 cost of the boat ride to Kachon.

Urging Do Yok on what other itineraries I could do over the next few days, Do Yok gently told me that we should take it a day at a time.  The Tompoun believe that planning what to do in the future is not good as the spirits may do something to deter the plans. That was my first lesson in the culture of the Tompoun.  I knew I had made one of the best decisions in my travel plans—-booking Do Yok.

Unfortunately,  the 3d/2n hike at Virachey National Park I had booked earlier though email with the park office  was out of the question as the lone park ranger had already left with a group earlier in the morning. Doy Yok  had reserved me a slot but I had failed to arrive on time as they were expecting me on the 26th of December which was what I informed them.  Too bad.  I would just stick to the villages then.

Really late dinner was next door at Adam Restaurant. Nice place with friendly English-speaking staff and good food.  I had chicken with vegetables.

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