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Posted by Tim on May 14, 2009
Ban Lung Part 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

In January, we traveled down to Washington, DC to bear witness to the inauguration of Barack Obama. Our partners in crime for this excursion were our friends Rachel (sometimes known as "MoonUnit Polka" around these parts) and her rockstar boyfriend, the Jonatron.

The night before the inauguration, we went out for some libation and pub food with Rachel. We were sitting around a small table next to a window that looked out over street, swapping stories and downing nachos (vegan nachos, which somehow managed to be delicious even though they were forsaking all that is good in this world). At some point, the subject at hand turned to the spiders, bugs, and other creepy-crawlies that Jessica and I encountered on our trip.

"Oh, wait, hang on," I declared around a mouthful of faux-cheese and fake meat, "I have a story for you. One we've never told on the website."

I then launched into what in hindsight turned out to be a much longer tale than I'd intended. Rachel, who knew spiders were coming, got progressively more and more stressed as she tried to anticipate when they'd make their appearance. Her body language reflected this tension, as she gradually began to sort of coil up into a defensive posture. When we realized this was happening, I made a point of stopping every now and then to say, "the spiders aren't coming yet." Eventually, at the climax of the tale, I announced the spiders were finally about to make their appearance.

So as not to torture you as I tormented Rachel, let me state from the outset that this will be a three-part story, and the spiders will not appear until part three. If you have a fear of arachnids, you'll be fine reading parts one and two of the Ban Lung Saga. (Part two, it should be noted, does feature a swarm of flying buggies, but no spiders.)

This is a tale about our beloved Cambodia, and the adventures that befell us in an out of the way corner of it.

And with that, I present to you the opening act of the Ban Lung Saga.


Return to Cambodia

On the warm, pleasant evening of March 24, 2006, we and our beloved Klaus were sitting on red plastic chairs around a red plastic table on the side of Rambutri Street in Bangkok. We were enjoying a few pre-dinner Chang beers and talking about where our path might lead next. As Jessica has described before, it was then that we elected to return to Cambodia a second time. Her list of reasons for that decision included this: We could head up to the northeast to see the crater lake we didn’t get a chance to visit last time.

'Ban Lung is located in the northeastern corner of Cambodia
The vast majority of the visitors that Cambodia receives are clustered around the middle portion, focusing on Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Most of the others spend their time along the southwestern coast, particularly in sleazy Sihanoukville. With the exception of the few hardy souls traveling the northward overland route into Laos, very few venture into the northeast province of Ratankiri. Which of course made it very appealing to us.

The capital of Ratankiri is the disheveled little town of Ban Lung. Just outside of Ban Lung is fabled Boeng Yeak Lom, a perfectly-round crater lake renowned for its remote beauty. It sounded perfect.

We just needed to figure out how to get there.


The Road to Ban Lung

We flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, and after a few days there made our way back up to Kratie (pronounced krah-cheh). This sleepy little provincial town had become a real favorite of ours, and was the site of some of the real high points of our trip: teaching English to classrooms full of children, meeting our friends Sam and the Monk, and of course our adventure with them out to visit Sam's village.

It also happened to be halfway betweeen Phnom Penh and Ban Lung, and served as a good base of operations for us to figure out how we were going to get the rest of the way.

Note: bear in mind that the state of roads in Cambodia is a rather transient affair. The information below refers to their condition when we were there back in 2006. None of it is likely to relate to what condition they may be in now.

We knew that highway 7 headed northward to the town of Stung Treng (about halfway to Ban Lung), but our Lonely Planet guide had this to say about it:

Hmm, that sounded less than appealing. We checked into our other options, and voilá! There was also the option of taking a "small, long tail rocket boat" up the Mekong River from Kratie to Stung Treng. It sounded far preferable at first, but further investigation revealed this passage in the guidebook:

So yeah, the boat was pretty much out. I'm not a fan of "broken bitumen" (whatever that is), but at least the description of the road mentioned death exactly zero times.

From Stung Treng, another road led to Ban Lung. However, in a continuing theme, the guide said it was in "miserable shape" and referred to traveling along it as "punishment in the extreme."

'The road from Stung Treng is the problem with getting to Ban Lung

Because of the condition of the road, no buses ply their way between Kratie and Ban Lung. We had two options: chartering a private taxi (or sharing one with other passengers), and traveling by pickup truck.

Pickup trucks serve a purpose in Cambodia similar to that of songthaews in Thailand. But where they have roofs and benches in Thailand, in Cambodia traveling by pickup truck just means squeezing in to the bed of the truck with a bunch of other people. The pickup truck would spend 7 hours making its way from Stung Treng to Ban Lung, while a taxi would take only 4 – but on the other hand the truck would be cheaper. Also, on the one hand we hadn't yet traveled by pickup in Cambodia, so it was appealing on that front; but on the other hand, the roads sounded horrific, and we weren't sure we wanted to bounce along them in the bed of a truck. Hmmm.

We were torn as to which mode of transportation we should take. So we decided to consult with an expert.


Reunion

On our last trip to Kratie, we had become inordinately fond of the Red Sun Falling restaurant, and of its proprietor, the scruffy yet debonaire Joe. We'd been eagerly looking forward to returning ever since we'd started thinking about passing through Cambodia again. The man makes some mean, mean waffles.

When we got to the restaurant that evening, it was pretty packed. We'd been hoping to grab seats at the bar so we could ask Joe the best way to get to Ban Lung, but had to make do with settling into the ridiculously comfy oversized wicker chairs out by the street. (Remember, this is tiny little Kratie, so there wasn't any traffic along that street: just an unobstructed view of the Mekong River on the other side.)

We ordered dinner, and asked our waiter if he could pass a message to Joe for us. We knew he was busy, but if he had a chance could he swing over to give us a little advice. We said to tell him that it was Jessica and Tim from a couple of months ago. We thought there was a good chance he'd remember us.

We watched as our waiter went to deliver the message. Joe was cooking up a storm behind the bar, and having a drink himself for each one he served. He was flying.

"Oh please!" he retorted to the waiter with a grin, waving his hand flamboyantly. "Everyone always comes in here thinking I'm going to remember them. Well, we'll just see about that!"

He tipsily weaved his way through the restaurant out to where we sat, squatted abruptly beside me, and turned to look at us for the first time.

There was a long pause. Then he broke into an even broader smile, his teeth shining in the candlelight.

"Shit," he said, beginning to laugh uncontrollably, "I do remember you."


An Unexpected Package

'Mr. Scruffy Yet Debonaire himselfJoe didn't leave our table for the rest of the evening. (Who takes over the cooking when something like that happens, I can't tell you, but the restaurant didn't miss a beat.)

"Look, I got a package," he began in mock-seriousness, one eyebrow raised, "from the States. From someone named Alastair McGregor. And I tell you, I went crazy trying to figure out who that could be!" Joe is originally from Chicago, but isn't much in the habit of receiving packages from his homeland. Much less than from people he didn't know.

"So I open it," he continued, "and inside is the most lovely letter from your father, and all of this construction paper!"

A couple of months earlier, when we'd last had a drink at the Red Sun Falling, the walls had been covered with pink and red construction paper hearts for Valentine's day. One of the things we'd talked about was how impossible it was for him to find construction paper in Kratie. Later, on a whim, we'd asked my father if he could possibly mail Joe some construction paper, half as a joke, half as a token of how much we missed him. Dad had happily obliged, and included the aforementioned "most lovely letter" as well.

Joe paused to order another drink from our much-amused waiter, and then shook his finger at us. "Now, do you know why it was so confusing to me? I'll tell you. The postage on the package..." (he here dissolved into laughter again for a short while) "...was twenty six US dollars! Can you imagine? That's more than I spend in a week!"

He laughed himself silly, and had to wipe away tears before continuing.

"Although," he concluded, "it really was very nice paper. I don't remember if I ever thanked him – make sure you let him know it meant a lot to me. I don't get many packages from home."


Great Big Balls

Joe was on fire that night. We just had to wind him up with a question, and then we could sit back and watch The Joe Show. We did exactly that, explaining our dilemma about how to get to Ban Lung, and asking his opinion.

It turned out he had been there twice himself, once in a taxi, and then once on a truck. He talked to us about the taxi first...

The road was just crazy, the bumpiest I've ever been on. And those shared taxis! Make sure if you take a taxi, you rent out the whole car. Or at least the back seat!

I paid my 25,000 riel (about US $6.25) and figured I'd be sharing the car with a couple other people. They put four of us in the back seat! I didn't even get a window seat, I had to share the hump with this other guy. And, oh my God, the way he was sitting!

Joe pulled his chair back from the table, to give us a better view as he spread his legs about as far apart as he could.

My God, there were four of us poor bastards trying to fit back there, and this guy is sitting there like this!

He started waving his hands suggestively in the area between his legs, doing an imitation of the offending passenger.

My balls! He was quite loud at this point, and having a ball, amusing himself (and us) almost to the point of tears. My balls are soooo big! Move over, my enormous balls need to breathe!

Two customers, on their way out, stopped by our table to tell Joe how much they'd loved his food. But he was on a roll.

My balls, he yelled at them, laughing maniacally. My balls are sooo big!

They left with a rather confused expression. The three of us ordered another round.


A Whole Lot of Fish

It was a little later in the evening that Joe gave us his take on the pickup truck option.

Oh, yeah, I did that the last time. It cost me, I think, 10 or 15 thousand riel (US $3 or so) to get from Stung Treng over to Ban Lung. You could pay more to sit up front in the cab, but I didn't want another "my balls!" situation, you see.

(At this point in the conversation, we all just started hollering "my balls" for a few minutes, laughing ourselves silly. Then Joe returned to his story.)

So I'm in the back of the truck, and again, I can't believe how many people are climbing in with me. I managed to get a corner, up just behind the driver. I had this angry old woman in front of me who was just mean. I was terrified of her. She'd get so angry if I touched her, but we're all crammed in together and I didn't really have much choice.

So I'm all scooted over the side, trying to keep away from her, and then we set off. And oh my Buddah! I thought the roads were bad in a taxi! In a truck it's so much worse. I kept thinking I was going to be thrown right out, we were bouncing around so badly.

And all I'm thinking to myself is seven hours. It's a seven hour trip. I just didn't know if I could make it seven hours like that.

And then after a couple of hours, we pull into this village to stop, and we all climbed back out of the truck to stretch our legs. I've never been in so much pain in my life!

Then – get this – they didn't let us get back in right away. I wanted to get in first, so I could get a different spot where I didn't feel like I was going to be thrown out, but I had to wait.

And they brought over this blue tarp and laid it down in the bed of the truck. And I'm thinking well that's a strange thing to do now! I mean, we're already as dirty as we were going to get. And then...

Joe paused for dramatic effect, taking a long pull from his drink. Most of the rest of the patrons had left by now, and it was mostly just the three of us at the restaurant.

And then they came back and filled the bed of the truck with ice and fish. They put another tarp on top of that, and told us to get back in!

It was such a ludicrous scene to imagine, Jessica and I both burst out laughing again.


To Be Continued...

Our decision was made: we'd be taking a taxi (renting out the "whole car"), not a truck. Neither of us wanted to spend seven bone-rattling hours on a pile of ice and fish.

Two days later, we left for Ban Lung. We had no idea what we were in store for.

Tune in soon for part two of the Ban Lung Saga. As promised, part two will not contain any spiders, fear not. Just the dusty, remote town of Ban Lung, in all its glory. (Oh, and a cameo appearance by the Eighth Plague of Egypt.)

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Klaus-Spotting

Klaus-Spotting

Let's Talk About Monks, Baby

Let's Talk About Monks, Baby

Teaching in Kratie, Cambodia

Teaching in Kratie, Cambodia

Subpolka
May 15, 2009 at 9:55am
Damn you, second paragraph! You lured me in with the promise of a cameo appearance and then…spiders! Always with the spiders!

NSP likes to bring bits of his kitty-kibble into the bedroom at night. And, whenever I wake up to loud crunchings from the corner, I think of you guys. And cringe.

Further comments withheld until third installation. Which I may or may not read. ;)

Tim the hedgehog
May 15, 2009 at 1:52pm

Damn you, second paragraph! You lured me in with the promise of a cameo appearance and then…spiders! Always with the spiders!

LOL! :)

In our defense, I think this is only our third post mentioning spiders. (We certainly have a dozen more stories about them that we're sitting on.)

It is also, I think, your second cameo appearance on Hedgehogs! (Well, the first was more of a "co-starring" role. Or maybe one of those "and introducing…" ones.)

NSP likes to bring bits of his kitty-kibble into the bedroom at night. And, whenever I wake up to loud crunchings from the corner, I think of you guys. And cringe.

And everyone else reading this just got a lot more curious as to what's coming…

Janet
May 16, 2009 at 1:12pm
I want to know how COLD the rest of that trip was!
Tim the hedgehog
May 19, 2009 at 6:40am
LOL! I'd never thought about that part!

One the other hand, it was around 105°F (40°C) during our time in Ban Lung. The ice may well have been a welcome bit of air conditioning for poor Joe. :)

Shana
May 27, 2009 at 9:27pm
dreadfully curious..

and laughing, so far. :)

Tim the hedgehog
May 29, 2009 at 7:13am
:D

Part 2 should be coming up within the next week, have no fear!


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Except where otherwise noted all text, images, and videos are copyright © 2004–2012 by Jessica McHugh and Timothy McGregor