Our last stop in Cambodia, Ratanakiri Province, up in the far north east of the country, and we were based in the capital, Ban Lung. Home of "Cambodian snow", our trekking guide, Yok, gleefully informed us! No, not the white stuff everyone back home was getting at the same time, but the red stuff that billows up from the road and hangs in the air for an eternity when a vehicle goes past, covering everything in sight with an orangey-red film. Other vehicles, trees, hedges, buildings, cows (which was hilarious, seeing orange versions of the pristine white cattle we'd come to associate with rural Cambodia!), dogs,... and backpackers! Scrub as I might, a week later I was still turning white guesthouse towels pale shades of orange after drying off from a shower. Not good for contact lenses, either, at the time, so I got into the habit of just shutting my eyes for thirty seconds when an orange dust cloud approached - an interesting experience when on the back of a speeding motorbike!
And enter Mike S*****! (Hilariously, I've just had to remove his name over a year after the event, as it's July 2012 and Mike is trying to get a new job, and this blog entry comes up second on Google when you put his name in! I'm chuffed, I beat Facebook!). Alluded to in my Siem Reap blog entry (see "excuses for not writing blog" section), and who joined our party at this point. A quick run down on the fourth member of the team for the following two weeks: name: Mike S*****; age: about twenty-nine, I think; home residence: Newbury, Berks, UK; profession: something to do with mobile phones at Vodafone; marital status: finished one, considering another; likes: Beerlao, jumping into pools of water, beginning sentences with "so", generally arsing around; dislikes: long bus journeys, drinks that aren't Beerlao, Motorola; strengths: technical know-how, breaking wind, snoring; weaknesses: technical jibbering, breaking wind, snoring. All in all, an excellent CV, and welcomed whole-heartedly! Mike was travelling for a total of about five months, and found us at Treetop Ecolodge in Ban Lung, about halfway through his trip, where he was looking to hook up with a jungle trek group. Which was us! And then we didn't shake him off for another two weeks, until we reached Vientiane. But it was good fun, great for me to get some bloke company, with sport suddenly becoming a valid topic of conversation and card games requiring an element of skill becoming acceptable, and nice for Paula and Sara to get some space from me for a while, I'm sure! Incidentally, does anyone know the definition of "ecolodge"? Based purely on experience, my understanding is that they are made entirely of wood, have cold showers, are a long walk from bus stations and are considerably more expensive than your average guesthouse, although do have great restaurant terraces with amazing landscape views. Is that right?
However, rewind a day, as Mike turned up on our second evening there, and we'd already been up to stuff by that point. Namely, a hike to Yeak Lom, a nearby lake set in a 700,000 year old volcanic crater. Almost perfectly circular, about 3km in circumference, with fantastic deep blue waters and jungle right to the edge all the way around, apart from a handfull of small, timber jetties allowing access for visitors. It was perfect for a dip after a hot, sweaty walk, and despite supposedly being a major tourist lure, was really peaceful, with only a dozen or so other people there, and nature definitely close at hand, with constant rustling sounds coming from the undergrowth as we made our way around the lakeside path. One of which was my first decent snake spot, and I even got a picture of it! Poisonous, apparently, making it a better spot still in my book. So a really good day, with additional comedy provided by the nearby restaurant shack, which had a fantastic, varied, three page menu, which could meet your every culinary desires,... as long as you wanted instant noodles with vegetables and egg! Fortunately, that's precisely what we were after.
And then that evening, Mike showed up, and after I'd eavesdropped on his conversation with a member of staff from an adjacent table (he was talking loudly, to be fair) and heard he was after a jungle trek, he accepted our invitation to join us, came over for a couple of beers, and the rest is history. And Paula made a wonderful first impression within the first half an hour, by sitting there crying for ten minutes after accidentally chomping on a whole green chilli that had cunningly hidden itself under a lettuce leaf. I'm not exaggerating, either, in the way one does when describing chilli incidents, she was properly crying! So much so, that it was at least a further ten minutes before it was allowed to be funny.
Our jungle trek was a two day effort, with an overnight stop in the wilds in imitation US army hammocks (camo hammock and mosquito net all in one), lead by our two brilliant guides, Yok and Nai, both of whom were from local ethnic minority tribes. I say jungle, incidentally, but I'm not sure exactly how genuinely jungly it really was, and I suspect our in-group jesting about being lead down the middle of a hundred metre strip of forest flanked either side by perfectly manicured green lawns and timber framed villas of Cambodian suburbia may not have been too far off the mark! (Replacing suburbia with farms, that is). But who cares, we had fun, and it took a machete to hack our way through sections of it, so it felt jungle-like! Nai, who had just a few words of English, but whose territory we were in, lead the way, and Yok was our principal guide and virtually fluent English speaker. And like I said, he was brilliant. His knowledge was phenomenal, of both local nature and culture. The former, from having been a farmer, tour guide and herbalist, and the latter of course from being from a genuine local minority tribe. He was thoughtful and considerate, and really looked after us throughout. And possibly best of all, he was a small guy (they were both tiny, making it all the more hilarious watching them get to work on all the free food that the tour budget provided!) with a huge personality! Always cheery, with an infectious big smile and sparkle in the eye, full of charisma, and an endless source of "true" stories. Many of which were very bad, or at least didn't translate well from Khmer into English, but blank looks all round as he delivered a punchline didn't ever dampen his enthusiasm for launching into the next one (particularly after the umpteenth round of rice wine). Perhaps not all suitable for children, mind you, as not only were some of them a tad rude, but I don't think he had any idea that the words he'd learnt for the male and female genitalia, c**k and c**t, weren't the scientifically accepted ones, which made it all the funnier!
And so, after two days of sweating, laughing, multiple games of "who am I? / twenty questions", and enough food to feed twice our number, we rolled back into Ban Lung for a final night in Cambodia before our journey into Laos the following day. Actually, I say "rolled", but what I should have said was "raced like death-defying maniacs", as the short motorbike hops to and from the start of our trek were two of the hairiest quarters of an hour I've ever endured! Speeding up and down bumpy, rock-strewn dirt roads as fast as either the bikes or bends would allow, through zero visibility dust clouds for all but the first in line, may have been bread and butter for our riders, but us less experienced, helmet-less passengers were a little less convinced of our safety! Apparently, though, Cambodian motorbike riders are excellent. Well, if being able to handle your bike well on account of haring around like a rally driver every day makes you an "excellent rider", then I guess that's true... I'm not convinced.
Only two more things to mention. Firstly, it's clear to me that bamboo is the most incredible, versatile material the world has to offer. On our jungle trek alone, we either used or witnessed its use as food, tea, cooking vessel (for boiling water), cups, cutlery, shelter (structural frames, wall panels and roof material), first aid (a gauze to stop bleeding), hiking poles, tools (machete handle), hunting traps, music (flute), drainage, road foundations and boat construction. I was intending to go on and research further, but have since found out that both National Geographic and the Bamboo Museum in Chiang Mai have got there first (the latter declaring over 1,500 uses! Paula and I haven't been there, but Mike emailed to tell us, having sped on ahead), so I'll leave my personal commendation at that.
Secondly, I was delighted to hear that Roy Hodgson's tenure at Liverpool ended, and the second coming of King Kenny began - magnificent news! Even though my feet were never on English soil for a game under Roy, reliable sources and the odd bit of coverage I did pick up here and there made me more than aware of the dismal failure of his time in charge, so no doubt the right decision. Result.