Days of searching for a great trek company and group to spend our days with had finally come full circle. We were ready to venture off on our 3 day/2 night trek around the jungle of Ratanakiri, Cambodia. The all-star trekking crew couldn’t have been more perfect: Paul (Tour guide, Ban Lung), Hoarb (Ranger/Jungle Boy, Kalai 2 Village), Unknown (Porter, Ban Lung), Sian (Trekker, England), Ronja (Trekker, Germany), Katja (Trekker, Finland), Mara (Trekker, Germany), Brett (Trekker, USA), Christie (Trekker, USA)
Day 1 of Trek near Kalai Village
We began our adventure by packing into a pickup truck that took us 20 minutes to Kalai 2 Village in Oh Jom District where we met with our guides and gathered supplies. Following the path of our indigenous guide, we set off into the Ratanakiri forest. Our first stop was at a village outpost where an older man was boiling a mis-mash of unknown grub they use as pig food. Here, we saw an alter used for the sacrifice of pigs and buffalo. Paul explained how the village people sacrifice animals to heal sick people from evil spirits. The tribes people will not go to the hospital unless they see a successful trip from one of their friends.
Walking through forest fires…frightening
As we walked through the forest, we noticed tree stumps and burned land everywhere. And then, we were frightened beyond belief to see a humongous forest fire ravaging our surroundings. The entire crew ran along the trail to avoid disaster. The strangest thing was that while the entire forest was ablaze and black, our path remained untouched. Paul said the fire was probably from a cigarette and that it would stop at the nearest lake. He also said it was good for the forest come rainy season. We all scratched our heads. Paul explained it’s extremely challenging to educate the local people regarding conservation. They see the police and businessman illegally logging and think it’s okay. And, then figure they can just burn down their forest farm and move on to the next place. Paul and his colleagues are trying to explain the dangerous effects of deforestation for their future people. But the tribes people do not seem to comprehend the devastating effects of destroying their beautiful land.
Campsite near Tarzan lake
After watching Hoarb & Paul handcraft our drinking cups out of bamboo, we trekked a few hours to our lake side camp site. The crew was in great spirits, but schwitzen profusely from the 95 degree heat. We all quickly changed into our swimsuits and ran into the cool lake. Brett tried to imitate jungle boy and Mr. T who were impersonating Tarzan swinging from a thick tree vine into the lake. The wet hand grip forced him straight down, just missing the rocks. (Thank God!) Paul setup our army hammocks and began to cook our first wood-fired wok meal. He also boiled lake water to make hot tea and extra drinking water. Three of us are vegetarian and were delighted to have tofu and veggies provided throughout the adventure. After dinner, Paul busted out a bottle of local rice whiskey and coca cola for us to pour into our bamboo cups.
Infamous “Lake Tea Whiskey” cocktail
Mr T. was a private tour guide with an older German couple. They pitched camp nearby and Mr. T spent the evening drinking whiskey beside the campfire with us. He called his whiskey concoction “11 Tiger”, used by local tribes for medicinal purposes related to aching bones. Christie told the group about how tasty whiskey is with tea (hot toddies). Sian and Christie termed their new cocktail “Lake Tea Whiskey” and this was the hot term used throughout the trip. Paul and Mr. T loved the name and we could tell the’ll use it for future treks. We sat around the campfire singing songs, star gazing and listening to Paul’s jokes intertwined with stories about village life. The girls squirmed each time a small scorpion inched his way towards the camp fire. Mr. T grabbed them and pulled off their stingers before returning them to the forest. How eco-friendly is that?
Paul’s tribal storytelling
Paul vividly described their tribal marriage process. At menstruation (age 13), women receive their own small bride’s hut. Men visit and try to get better acquainted with their potential future bride. If the woman likes the man, she invites him to sleep over. They do nothing sexual this first encounter. If the man has sexual relations without the intention of marriage, he is shunned from the village. Often times, the woman becomes pregnant. If this occurs, the man is obligated to support the woman and child for a period of time. If he does not fulfill this obligation, he must pay the village in cattle. Many men deny that the child is theirs and that the woman was friendly with multiple men. This leads to confusion as to the natural birth father of the child. The last man to have relations with the woman, is deemed the father. Disputes are settled by a tribunal serving as mediators.
Hammock sleeping in the jungle not so bad
Our first night sleep was surprisingly comfortable in our open-air suspended US Army hammocks. The mosquito net provided protection, but we didn’t feel like the forest was infested. Bathroom trips were tricky, especially in the pitch black darkness. Christie read her Kindle while Brett snored the night away with the sounds of Gibbons in the air.
Bathing in the lake
We awoke to the peaceful calm of the jungle while Paul (and crew) were cookin’ up a delicious breakfast. We had coffee in our bamboo cups. Christie took a dip in the brisk lake and decided to shampoo her hair and bathe in the lake. Brett took his first poo in the woods, which wasn’t so bad. The trick is making sure to aim away from your pants and shoes (duh!).
Discovering hidden jewels of the jungle
Our trek led us up and down steep forest terrain with jungle boy stopping to point out various gifts of nature. He chopped off tree bark that smelled like licorice nutmeg for our tea concoction later that evening. Jungle boy stopped us again to peel off a vegetable root used to make “jar wine”. They call the root “tribal candy” and you can taste the bitter sweetness straight from the vine when you chew on it. We also drank straight from the root of a tree. It was like drinking flavored water, actually quite tasty and thirst quenching.
Lunch by the Waterfall in 90 degree heat
We spent a few hours relaxing and eating by a dried up waterfall. Everyone took the opportunity to shower in the mini water stream and cool off a bit. Temperatures must have reached 97 degrees and we were definitely schwitzen. Lunch took quite a bit of time since we were preparing foods for dinner as well. The tree bark tea water was pink in color and surprisingly flavorful. We packed up and set off on a strenuous uphill climb to our evening destination to Voung Village of the Kreng Tribe.
Cashew fruit plantation
Jungle boy took the opportunity to show off for the five ladies by swinging wildly across the jungle on the hanging tree vines. He was testing himself to reach further each time. He pointed out tiny white baby caterpillars hanging off small tree leaves. We were amazed as they look nothing like the caterpillars we learn about growing up. We finally found Voung Village life in sight as we approached a huge cashew nut farm. The farm plots were all burnt black underneath the trees. Older women were around collecting the cashew nut fruits. The yellow fruits were sweet while the red were sour. The nuts are attached at the top and require a bit of work to extract and roast. So, we cut up some fruits and drank their juices. The consensus was that they are super sweet then dry on the gums….. such a new and interesting taste.
Staying in Voung Village and the Kreng Tribe people
Voung Village has about 50 Kreng Tribe families living within an open area of the forest. We were inches away from cattle such as cow, buffalo, chicken and pig. Paul paid 15000 riel ($4) for the entire group to stay that evening in the village’s community hall, which is basically a large hut on stilts in the middle of the village. Everyone wanted to take a quick shower upon arrival. They offered us to use their community shower which consisted of a water well with a bucket. It’s behind a hut but basically you are showing with a buck in public. A few of us just washed hands and returned to the camp. Our stilted hut was rather large and slept 12 people comfortably. It was open on two ends with doorways and steps on only one side. In the middle, a fire pit was provided with wood. The plan was to cook, eat and sleep all in the same space. Paul hung our hammocks and we relaxed for the big dinner feast!
Yummy Khmer food
Cooking dinner included flavorful Khmer food smells and thick smoke covering our hammocks. Mr. T was on the lookout for the coveted “jar wine” possibly provided by the village. Our dinner was a huge buffet of vegetarian and meat dishes. It included water lilly, carrots, cabbage, noodle, tofu, rice and beef. They created several unique curries and other local flavors for each dish. We were all perfectly stuffed and ready to soak in the local night activities.
Jar wine and rice whiskey
While resting, the jar wine arrived. Paul and Mr. T could only get 10 day old jar wine, which is not as strong. They tasted it and determined it was spoiled from the heat. The jar wine apparently takes 30 days to make. It is a mixture of the “tribal candy” tree root (we tasted earlier), rice, sugar and water. You drink it with a large straw out of a jar filled with rice. They add water until the alcohol taste is gone. Since our jar wine was bad, jungle boy ran out to village store to buy local rice whiskey. It came in a plastic bag and you mix it with Coca Cola.
“Chewl Moy” our bamboo whiskey cups and more storytelling
We sat in a circle while Mr. T poured the concoction into one bamboo cup and passed the cup around giving each person a turn to drink. We would repeatedly say “Chewl Moy” for cheers. Katja kept taking 5-10 minutes for each turn. Christie started her stop watch each time to help speed things up. Mr. T explained how you hold a person’s elbow as you give them a drink. It is a sign of respect, especially for elders. Brett was the oldest, so Mr. T wanted to hold his elbow for the first several drinks! Paul again started telling us local tribal tales. When a man does something very bad, such as incest…… he must pay dearly. He pays not just in money or cattle, but in shame. Voung Village consists of both black and white buffalo. For harsh crimes, the village holds a ceremony where the man must witness the hanging of his white buffalo. This is apparently for pure embarrassment. We also talked politics. See Cat Tales: February 2012 for insight into Cambodian politics.
Our last day was filled with exhausting, but short hikes through the forest. Temperatures felt like 100 degrees and we were schwitzen again. Jungle boy climbed into a thorny brush-like area and snagged a bushel of bananas for the group. He was always looking out like a good ranger should. We made it to a cool lake outpost for a refreshing break. Christie and some of the girls dunked their heads into the stream and scrubbed their arms with soap.
Lunch with Hoarb’s family in Kalai village
Then, we made our final descent to Hoarb’s Kalai village home in for lunch. Hoarb wasn’t a jungle boy of many words, but kindness poured through his soul. His father was also a ranger. We met his sister and her four children while he fire-roasted veggies in bamboo (a traditional tribal bamboo concoction). The family played Cambodian pop/hip hop music in the background as we exchanged smiley stares and dance moves. His nephew was adorable and kept shining a red light pointer at the group and laughing at Christie’s dance moves. A village friend cut up a bunch of cashew fruit to help quench our thirst. Real jar wine was provided for tasting and Sian was very appreciative!
We gave Hoarb’s family our knitted house key chain with bell from Inle Lake, Burma. (all kids have loved it) The Shan family at Queen Inn gave it to us as a parting gift on our last day. We wished we had more to leave behind as they were living with very basic amenities (e.g. no toilet, a tiny car battery power generator to charge their cell phones).
A truck pulled up not far from Ban Lung’s main highway. We exchanged hugs with Paul and Hoarb. Hoarb told Paul how he would miss us and was very emotional. We took Paul’s email and promised to keep in touch. Brett taught him how to fist bump handshake. He does the trek tours to learn from foreigners, sharpen his English skills, and save money for his four year old son.
Ending to a perfect jungle trek with amazing new friends
We had such an eye opening experience on so many human levels….. never to be forgotten. There were no exotic animals or birds, but it didn’t matter. Great company and culture is all we need. This is the reason we agreed to do this crazy travel adventure in the first place! The Ratanakiri jungle trek and our wonderful group will always remain one of our best experiences on our journey.
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3 Day Jungle Trek, Ratanakiri, Cambodia