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Exploring Cambodia's North-East

by Nick on 21st April 2012

In early April, Selective Asia's founder Nick returned from an inspection trip of Battambang, N.E Cambodia and Southern Laos. With several unvisited destinations on his list, it was a chance to get away from the city and do what he enjoys most – getting off-road and dirty.

'Arriving in Phnom Penh is like greeting an old friend; it’s impossible to forget the smells, the sights, or the hustle and bustle of the city. Passing by the Independence Monument en route from the airport, I had to stop myself giving it a wave.

After the long flight there’s only one thing on my mind - food (surely the best way to start any visit to Asia)! So I joined several Cambodian colleagues at Romdeng, sister to the well established Friends restaurant. Both aim to provide vocational training to create life-changing opportunities for some of Phnom Penh’s many disadvantaged street children, through on-site training and employment.

By eating at either, not only are you donating towards a great cause (we tend to include a visit to Friends in most of our Phnom Penh programmes). You’re also getting to eat some seriously good Khmer cuisine. Think fried bamboo shoots, Khmer spicy chicken soup and a sublime fish curry - all washed down with several Beer Angkor, of course.

Having visited Phnom Penh just last year, my stay was not to be a long one, but there was just enough time to inspect a few new properties. After a very comfortable night's sleep at the wonderful Pavilion, I visited its recently opened and equally excellent sister property Kabiki, aimed at young families visiting the city.

The property is boutique-style and offers superb family rooms with private grassed terraces, and bunk beds for the kids. There are also two swimming pools and a designated play area.

I was equally impressed with the brand new Villa Langka, with its unusual rooms and Colonial atmosphere. I particularly loved Room 20, with its hidden mezzanine floor.

However, I wasn’t here to spend time in Phnom Penh, and was soon dragged away by the ever reliable Mr Valit. We were quickly on the newly paved road to the provincial town of Battambang, one of the few destinations in Cambodia that had previously escaped my attention.

Valit heads the local team in Cambodia, ensuring that everything runs smoothly for our clients from the moment they arrive to the moment they board their plane at the end of their holiday - in short, he’s our very own Mr Fix-It.

I've always said that it’s the getting from A to B that makes travelling in South East Asia so amazing, and Cambodia is certainly no exception. The five hour drive to Battambang - to the west of the Tonlé Sap - passed quickly as we passed through the many hamlets that line the road, stopping to eat and to visit several towns of interest, including an entire population of silversmiths and another of stone workers.

The road may now be paved but little else has changed in decades. I marvelled, as any visitor to Indochina does, at the variety (and size) of goods being transported by moped. A family of five; two mopeds sharing the load of eight (yes, count them) double mattresses; pigs on a ‘one-way ticket’; hale bales literally engulfing the driver to create the illusion of a hay stack on wheels…‘quick, the farmer's not looking - let’s leg it’!

Arriving on the outskirts of Battambang, I stopped to meet the director of the Peaceful Children’s Home, a privately funded orphanage that works with disadvantaged local children and those orphaned due to poverty and their parents' ill-health.

The orphanage does outstanding work with the children, ensuring that they receive a good school education followed by either university or vocational training. In 2007 Selective Asia started working with the orphanage, creating another channel to ensure that we make a positive contribution to the destinations we love to work and travel in.

With help from our local team in Cambodia - in particular Valit and his wife Tharry, one of our most popular guides - we selected the Peaceful Children’s Home for our first project. We are extremely proud to be involved with a group of passionate individuals who make so much difference on a daily basis.

As the sun set, Valit and I arrived at Wat Kor Village and pulled into the drive of the Ancient House, a home-stay just a few miles from the centre of Battambang. A traditional wooden house, the building is over 100 years old and set on stilts close to the banks of the Sangker River.

The aim of home stays is to offer clients the opportunity to experience true Cambodian day-to-day life and interact with locals away from the tourist sites and hotel receptions. After a chance to freshen up, we were served some fine Khmer food, including the best Ammoc fish I’d ever eaten – who needs fine dining when you’ve got Mum's home cooking?!

We spent a relaxing evening conversing with our hosts (a grasp of French helps with the older members, who were schooled during Colonial years), finally falling asleep to the sound of a wedding being held on the far banks of the river.

Awaking to the call of the cockerel (and what I presume were the last standing from the previous night's wedding!), we washed in the Ancient House’s Western-style bathroom and a more traditional water trough ‘shower’.

We spent a pleasant morning in Battambang, exploring the fresh food market early and strolling along the river bank. During the day I visited a number of sites and temples close to Battambang.

The well-known ‘Bamboo Train’ in all honesty was disappointing, but Prasat Banon surpassed expectations. Climbing up the 358 steps was tough in the 35 degree heat, but well worth the effort; I had the summit to myself, allowing me to enjoy the stunning views and the five-towered temple in solitude - aside from a monkey, who seemed more interested in my camera bag than the fresh offerings that had been left that morning.

I also visited the Phnom Sam Pov Pagoda and the infamous ‘ghost cave’. Having visited several killing fields on previous trips, I was particularly pleased to find myself in complete solitude. This was no tourist attraction; it was an opportunity to try and make sense of what this country went through in the late 70s. I came away none the wiser.

For anyone who feels that this type of site should not be open to visitors, you may be interested to know that it is law in Cambodia that the ‘killing fields’ are preserved as they are found, and made open to the public as a way of ensuring that future generations and visitors to the country learn from the horrors that the Cambodian people experienced under the Pol Pot regime.

I find the sites of immense interest, and while it is always disturbing to spend time at any of the 301 known killing fields spread throughout Cambodia, they represent a very real thing that happened, and I feel it my duty to learn as much as I can about Cambodia's recent history.

Back in Battambang, there were hotels to inspect – the stand-out properties being the wonderfully Colonial La Villa, and the recently opened Rottanak Resort, with its glass fronted villas surrounding a stunning swimming pool. Both hotels are within easy walking distance of the town centre. The restaurant at La Villa is superb and no stay in Battambang is complete without a sampling,

Over the subsequent 36 hours, Valit and I covered a huge distance. Although the drive was beautiful I would not really recommend anyone copy it. Our route took us through Siem Reap, south down the eastern side of the Tonlé Sap, then north towards Laos – plotted on a map the journey resembled the lines on a stenograph machine by the time we finally arrived in Banlung - there are several connecting roads still much required in Cambodia!

En route we stopped only to make inspections in Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Chhlong and Kratie. I had visited the latter two around eight years earlier, and this time found that little had changed aside from the welcome arrival of an excellent property in Chhlong - Le Relais.

Located on the banks of the Mekong River in this extremely sleepy and somewhat run down riverside village, Le Relais is truly a step back in time to the days of French rule and rubber plantations (Michelin were based close by). The two Mekong Suites are simply outstanding and I’m told that the chef is superb.

After a night in Siem Reap, our journey was actually taking us right into the north east corner of the country, close to the borders with both Laos and Vietnam.

Although the 12 hour drive was undoubtedly long (and would usually be broken with at least one night's stop in Chhlong or Kratie), it’s one of the finest I’ve ever made in Asia. With the 5* hotels of Siem Reap a distant memory, we passed through dusty hamlets, bustling villages and through provincial towns with their Colonial past still much in evidence. The scenery was breathtaking and the hours passed quickly - too quickly, if anything.

I had a day of ‘holiday’ in Ratanakiri (just three hotel inspections to squeeze in!) so Valit and I switched to two wheels to help maximise our time. I was glad we did. If you're comfortable on a motorbike, the dust trails around the provincial capital of Banlung are a joy.

With the assistance of Saveth, a resident of Banlung for the past 16 years and one of Selective Asia’s regular guides (although car/minibus is his regular form of transportation!), we covered approximately 180kms during daylight hours! This allowed us to include a visit to the Kroung minority tribe village of Kres, where the young boys live in small huts alongside their parents' homes whilst reaching manhood.

We discovered excellent vantage points with panoramic views across the miles of wild forests and national parks that stretched out in front of us. Crossing a Mekong tributary at Vensay, we visited Chinese and Laos villages without the need to actually leave Cambodia! It became evident that the Chinese business acumen wasn’t just a factor in the China Towns found in the western world – the difference in housing, schooling and shops was most obvious.

Back on to the dusty trails and after another 40 kms we reached Kachon Village, undoubtedly the highlight of my day. Having travelled extensively in Asia for the past 16 years I thought I’d seen it all, but once again I was proved wrong.

My simplistic vocabulary cannot possibly describe the eerie atmosphere of the forests surrounding the village – frankly, Stephen King would have struggled. The Jarai people of the village have a very unique mourning process that involves three burials and as many parties. Before dying, the person resides in a hut they build for themselves; they also take care of their own coffins, as well as carving strange, brightly coloured statues resembling human beings of weird proportions.

During my visit, we ventured deep into the forests, where smoke plumes drifted over the wooden statues while a family gathered round the grave of a recently deceased relative. It would be another three months before they re-gathered to bury the body a second time - and there were several celebrations to be had before then.

There was just time to visit several waterfalls as well as take a swim in the wonderfully refreshing crater lake, Yeak Lom, before a final night at the excellent Terre Rouge Lodge, close to the centre of dusty Banlung - then another day, another sunrise – this time we were half way to Laos.'

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