We crossed the sleepy border crossing (with a quarantine station that took our temperatures) into Cambodia and, after a wait for more passengers, continued in a VIP bus down to Kratie (kratch-ay). First impressions from the not-so-VIP seating was of a somewhat desolate landscape.
Houses, looking fairly derelict, dotted along the roadside were very basic: most up on poles; flat, wooden, vertical boards – with gaps between – for exterior cladding; steps or a ramp up to an opening, many without even a door; single room dwellings for the most part.
Occasional people sitting in the shade beneath the building but the overall effect was of a depopulated area. Of course, it’s quite likely that everyone was just sheltering from the sun but, with areas of forest cut and burned (to be replanted with cashew and rubber trees, I think), there was a post-apocalyptic air to the landscape. Given Cambodia’s recent history, that might not be totally inappropriate.
The driving is more aggressive than in laid-back Laos, regular use of the horn, priority given to the largest and loudest, roads (at least that first one) not so much pot-holed as frequently worn through to gravel. It was not immediately obvious which side of the road Cambodians are supposed to drive on. It is quite reminiscent of India. And the approach to garbage disposal definitely leans in the direction of the India model; just chuck it out.
Other houses, up a level from the most basic, had more interesting roof lines. Running from side to side are two parallel ridges, the one towards the front generally being the smaller of the two. A downspout is connected to the valley between the two ridges and directs water into large storage containers on the ground.
Small towns we passed through seemed quite limited in terms of services and amenities. I didn’t notice much in the way of hotels or guest houses – I wonder what it would be like cycling through here.
We arrived in Kratie in the late afternoon and checked into a rather splendid old hotel across the road from the Mekong. It was clean, the rooms were large with high ceilings. And there was quite speedy wifi!
There was, of course, someone associated with the hotel only too happy to arrange our onward travel by mini-bus to Sen Monoram. He apologetically explained that although the seat across the minibus were designed for three, they would accommodate four (smaller-framed, and presumably more used to cramped conditions) Cambodians and he suggested that we purchase three tickets for the two of us. This should ‘guarantee’ us a seat each! Somewhat doubtful, I agreed to this plan. And it did seem to work out.
But they do like to pack them in. The minibus had seats for fourteen (driver, front passenger and four rows each with two seats and a folding seat (allowing access to the rows behind). There was a platform suspended from the back of the bus, loaded with sacks of rice. The passengers’ luggage (backpacks mainly) was tied on top of the rice. And a motor-cycle was then strapped to the back of everything.
When more people than seemed possible were crammed in, we set off. I jokingly asked Bev how long it would be until the first stop to pick up passengers. As it happened, it wasn’t very long at all. We had people riding on the top of the luggage outside the back of the bus and squeezed into every available (and some that were not) place although Bev and I did retain our two full seats even if we did just about have people in our laps. At one stage, in addition to the rice, luggage and motor-cycle, there were 24 passengers (and our invisible friend who bought us some extra space) in this 14-seater!
Not our bus above (no motorcycle strapped to the back) but typically loaded. Notice the rearmost passenger is carrying a cockerel.
According to a Westerner who works with the local Bunong people, things have changed dramatically in the last couple of years since the road to Phnom Penh was paved by the Chinese (who have mining and logging interests in Cambodia). Some speculators, who heard about the proposed paving, bought up land and are now quite wealthy. That goes some way to explain the upmarket Landcruisers and Lexus vehicles that I see around.
Tomorrow, it’s off to walk with the elephants, retired from working life, at the Elephant Valley Project.