Five kilometers north of Pursat town, the dirt road into Veal Veng district branches off. It is 109 kilometers to the "district capital" of Pramaui (also written Pramoy), and another 75 kilometers to Thmohrdah on the Thai border, close to Trat in Thailand. Those Khmer settlements are unknown even to many Khmer locals.
Into Veal Veng District
First we pass green, rich farmland which gets water from Phoutisat river even in the dryest season; the flat area is sprinkled with sugar palms, the trademark of Cambodian countryside. Then follow soft rolling hills and lose forest. Landmine warnings line the road throughout – Khmers Rouges have obviously mined the whole area. Sometimes enterprising Khmers built poor family homes right behind landmine warning signs.
Norah complains: "Stupid, there are no trees here!"
"Why", I say, "there are trees everywhere?"
Norah: "Yes, but no FRUIT trees around the houses. Nothing to eat, and no shadow."
At a coffee stopover, she asks the people why they don't grow fruit trees besides their other activities. They claim their cows would eat all the young trees. Back in the car, Norah is not convinced: "I think they are lazy! Can take care tree in early morning! Wait five years, have something to sell on the market. Can take mangoes or something else. Not difficult."
Without my suggestions, curious Norah would never have cared to venture into Veal Veng district. The area is famous for former Khmers Rouges. Actually, many people here seem a tad less friendly and welcoming than elsewhere in warmhearted Cambodia. We see quite a few dark-faced guys in dirty army attire – easy to imagine they'd like to add some skulls to their collection.
We stop at a coffee shop which actually has a very friendly and talkative lady. Norah asks about Khmers Rouges. A long talk ensues. Then she explains: "Yes, many people here still Khmers Rouges. But no problem. They do nothing. Good heart! In Pol-Pot-time, family from this coffee shop was Khmers Rouges too – what else can they do?"
Two young guys on a motorcycle stop for coffee and explain: "This area very safe. Never lock moto or house. Keep cow one kilometer from house, nobody will steal it."
Pramaui, the district capital, mainly consists of five stalls around a traffic circle. It's the crossing of the roads between Pursat and Trat in Thailand (east-west) and between Koh Kong and Pailin (south-north). The best map I have seen for that area is the 1:750.000 "Cambodia" by Gecko Maps from Switzerland, sold at Monument Books in Phnom Penh for 10 USD. Another interesting map is put out by a European embassy, promoting their development work in the country.
Pramauis nightly waterhole is managed by an elderly lady plus her bunch of daughters and a very friendly, but deaf son on the northwestern corner of that circle. Her shack specialises in "takalok" (Khmer-style fruit smoothies) and cheap polyester second-hand dresses. She says she gave birth to nine children; four already died of diseases. Her husband also died after being sick; since then, she says, she's happier and fatter: "He only drank and nothing else."
One kilometer out of "town", we discover the ranger station for Phnom Samkoh Wildlife Sanctuary. We meet friendly David from South Africa, who is a conservationalist and has a lot of Khmer staff to cut on illegal poaching and logging. According to David, tigers and elephants roam the forests, but they are disappearing fast – businessmen from Taiwan and Vietnam order their body parts for medicinal reasons. In the last two months alone, five tigers have been killed. David spends a total of a year in this remote area, his wife accompanies him. Whether or not he can stay longer depends on the funding; he belongs to the WWF.
Actually, remote boring Pramaui, where regular mobile phones don't work, is NGO mainland. On our visit in March 2006, the place also has a demining headquarter, and a German-funded group owns the richest and most beautiful building – their base to fight poverty.
We stay in one of two guesthouses in "town". A wooden box with shared bath goes for four USD. The menue consists of
1) soup with dried beef and
2) fried rice with dried beef.
Pramaui has electricty from 6 to 9 pm, and so does our establishment. The shared bathroom is not exactly a wellness paradise; I'd prefer to use the bushes, but all the landmine warnings and Norah's snake forcasts aren't inviting either.
The guesthouse has a few Sikh customers too. They brought their own gas stove to cook their own food, and their unwashed dishes pile up next to the communal shower. They play Indian music from their own transistor and spice it all up with their nose and throat cleansing roars. For their morning comb, they release gorgeous, waist-long jet-black hair from under their turbans – Norah could learn a lesson from them, but refuses. In the daytime we see the Sikhs motorcycling around, obviously trying to sell cheap plastic goods to households. Interestingly, later on, on remote dirt roads in Mondulkiri province (see part 4), we notice more Sikh plastic sellers on motos.
The bed in our woodbox "hotel room" is just a cheap matrace - on a cheap wooden board. Or so the dull westerner thinks.
"Oh my darling", sighs Norah, "this board is made from expensive tropical wood! The board consists of just one single piece!"
The very dark piece of wood is about 1,90x1,40 meters large and maybe three centimeters thick. We quickly agree that – should it ever materialize – our own loft in Phnom Penh should have many things made from this wood. Before long Norah has researched that a board like in our bedroom would cost about 90 USD. We learn that we'd need a government permit to bring the wood out of the district. Wether or not this permit will be granted seems uncertain.
We try to explore the road to Koh Kong, but back in March 2006, the steal bridge 300 meters south of the roundabout is washed away by the rains; there is motorcycle fording only. We also try the road to Pailin, but the bridge 300 meters north of the Pramaui roundabout broke down too.
Next morning in the lodge, we are greeted by a sad elderly policeman and another plainclothes government guy politely holding their palms up and together and saying "Jom-re'ap sua", the more polite way of greeting. I have to fill out a form that asks the usual hotel check-in information – name, passport number, days of stay. Norah explains: "This guesthouse here lazy to register their guests. So police comes and gets information for themselves every morning."
Soon Pramaui will have 24 hours electricty. Land prices already go up, and there are plans for a new market area. My enterprising Norah reckons a shop for housebuilding supplies would be good business. Invest now.
The Ride to Thmor Dah
Much have we heard about the 75 kilometers from Pramaui to Thmordah, right on the Thai border and not far from Thailand's Trat and the eastern seaboard. In Pursat and Pramaui we were assured that the trip to Thmor Dah will be a beautiful, albeit dangerous mountain ride that should only be done on motorcycle, not on car. Moreover, with Thmordah being so close to the Thai coast, this Khmer outpost is said to have several great Thai seafood restaurants; also, every Tuesday cars may pass the Khmer-Thai border without any checks – for a quick dash to Ko Chang or Pattaya. That's what we heard.
We expect some kind of Shangri-La in the jungle when we set out from dusty Pramaui to Thmordah on the Thai border. Three hours later our jeep hits shabby military barracks, surrounded by three or four noodle shacks. Yet ten minutes later we see Thmordah proper – about four very poor woodshacks with definitely no restaurant between them, not even for instant Mama noodle soup with hot water. And yet ten minutes later it is the Khmer border on a single-lane dirt track: A tiny shack and a Khmer flag, almost overgrown. Even the northern Cambodian border with Laos at Voen Kham/Stung Treng has more glamour.
The ride is enjoyable anyway. In Pramaui you start on a good, two-lane gravel road, lined with the usual mine-warnings. In many places people have roded land to build up new small-scale farms. The road narrows and changes to dirt, and you ascend the first mountain.
The peaks here belong to the Cardamom mountains, some of them reach 1700 meters. I have no idea how high the car climbs. Sometimes the muddy road is so slippery that the car might wash down the hill. Lots of bananas grow right into the car window: "We come back in four to six days", calculates Norah, my ever-hungry Khmer lady, "then we can have a feast".
There are many small steel bridges. Sometimes parts of the bridges broke away (or were removed for house building), and it is scary to balance the car across the gorge on the remains of the bridge. Or we have to do fording. Occasionally I ask Norah to go out and give me directions. Her face says that any REAL man would move the car past the frightening bridges without help from a female. (And he would not expose his lady to the hazards of the local, skin-darkening sunrays.)
Thick in the jungle we meet the first tiny military shack. We are greeted by seven nasty dogs and a bare-breasted soldier. He says he can't decide if we may proceed further. So according to him we have to proceed 20 kilometers further to apply again at other barracks – just what we had in mind anyway.
20 kilometers on through great mountain scene, we finally reach the main barracks of batallion 501. First we roll through a line of wooden all-purpose sales-shacks, then there is a road barrier.
Now we have to talk. It is not clear if we may continue to Thmordah village proper, where we still expect to meet all kinds of Thai seafood restaurants. A guy in camouflage throws a dark look into our jeep. Then Norah is asked around the corner, into a barrack. I saw how she talks Phnom Penh police into anything she needs; but I have no idea how she handles stiff army folk.
While Norah is interrogated, I step out of the car and walk around on the empty road. Another army guy gestures me to follow Norah to the interview shack. I gesture ok, but that I want to lock the car first. He gestures he will watch the Isuzu for me. In the shack there are about four guys in green, one has a shining helmet plus colorful deco and seems to be the boss. I forget etiquette and say the casual "Suasday" – folded hands and a polite "Jom re'ap sua" would surely have been better here.
Norah looks troubled. And she stands. They gesture us to sit down. I am about to settle on a chair when Norah tells me in English "Oh, we go soon, don't sit down". I am sure nobody speaks English here.
Suddenly the leading guy rattles off a number of questions; Norah always answers "até, dahlaeng - até, dahlaeng", something like "no, just touristing". Then we are allowed to continue, they remove the road block for us.
Back in the car, Norah explains: "They asked me to sit down, and they asked you to sit down too. But I did not want to sit down. Not polite of us, but I did not want to settle there – if we sit down, they will talk about money."
And what about the head officer's last sermon?
"Oh, he asked if you want to teach in the area, if you are an environmentalist or a doctor. I assured him we are just tourists."
Obviously, environmentalists are not welcome in an area thick with expensive, but protected wildlife.
Thmordah village and the Khmer-Thai border are complete disappointments – not even the landscape continues its previous grandezza. Of course the whole area has a certain wild west or new frontier ambience, but you can experience that much closer to Pursat as well. So thirty minutes after our negotiations with the army, we are back at the barracks. They gesture me that this time I myself have to shove the road block to the side.
"Do I have to close it again after passing through", I ask Norah?
"Of course NOT!"
We select the biggest all-purpose shack for a meal. The menue consists of
1) soup with dried beef and
2) fried rice with dried beef.
The wall holds pictures of King Sihamoni and former King Sihanouk of Cambodia, plus the King of Thailand.
When a group of soldiers enters the shack, they start the generator. The soldiers watch Muay Thai kickboxing from a Thai station and play cards – sometimes five USD change hands after one single game. The spicy Thai music soundtracks for the TV commercials are such a relief after all the soapy, snivelling Khmer howls I usually have to endure in provincial restaurants. (Don't tell Norah.)
According to the manageress, the vegetables in our fried rice come from Cambodia's Pursat, 170 kilometers east; while the ice in our lemon juice arrives by motocycle every morning from Thailand. Thais may cross the border freely, Khmers not. And about those fabled free dashes into Thailand – yes, that's on Tuesdays, but only until the next poor village on the Thai side. No trips to Pattaya so far.
Norah suggests to buy gasoline here near the border and not back in Pramaui – "here they have Thai gasoline, good quality". A big container of gasoline is first put on a scale. From there, the fuel goes into smaller 1-litre-bottles to check the amount. The Diesel (called "massood" by Khmers) looks like sunflower oil - "very clear, not dirty", observes Norah, "different from Cambodian quality". From the smaller bottles the gasoline goes into another big canister until the requested 15 litres are reached. Then they heave the canister to the car and fill the tank. The bill comes in Thai Baht, but Khmer Riels and US Dollars are welcome, too.
Back to Pursat Town
The ride back into civilisation is fast and smooth. Now I know the critical stretches, I can calculate size of the car, wheelbase and length of load area. Also, finally I understand the several 4WD and 2WD modes.
Just 30 kilometers before Pursat we stop again at our friendly coffee shop. We are welcomed like long-lost family members and invited to a free lunch with the family.
The lady here has another, more costly delicacy for Norah: "Dried deer meat, only five USD per kilo." Silently she asks Norah: "Hope you can buy, or does phu barrang (western uncle) object to protected mountain animal products?" Norah buys two kilos of deer meat for family, friends and neighbors, and we are fed a lot more dried deer meat together with our coffees.
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