The biggest laughs came near the end of our brief visit last week to Mondulkiri — the name of a city and verdant province northeast of Phnom Penh and adjacent to Vietnam — during the three-day Cambodia New Year holiday.
On a detour to avoid an impossibly pitted and dusty road under construction on the city’s outskirts, our car took us in the dark along a narrow street that parallels the Mekong River, on which cooled banks are cultivated patches of lettuce.
One relatively recent tradition of Khmer New Year is for clusters of boisterous youths to congregate alongside roadways, many of the kids with faces besmeared with flour or powder, some dripping wet and all of them demanding monetary tributes in a Cambodian version of Halloween: Pay up or get drenched.
We — the four members of our Khmer family, who were eager to lead us on a nearly three-day excursion, plus Lin and me — were fortunate to be in a car safely air conditioned. Although we could have continued to creep dryly onward, we wanted to be nice and so dropped a few notes worth up to 2.5 cents each through barely opened windows into proffered buckets. It was dark, and it must have been hard for the kids to see the denominations.
The result: Big smiles all around. However, there were ahead of us more celebratory clumps of an unknown number than we had notes. Pooling what was in our pockets besides U.S. dollar bills, we had remaining only three of the virtually useless notes. Since I was riding shotgun, they were mine to dispense.
When we reached what we later discovered was the last group, I stuffed a folded single note worth that paltry 2.5 cents through the barely opened window. The teenager shouted “thank-you” in Khmer and then glanced at the value. “Muay roi!” he shrieked in astonishment. “Muay roi!” That’s 100 riel, the nation’s currency used to make small change for dollar or riel purchases.
His shrieks turned, I think, to laughter. I’m not sure because we were guffawing at our unavoidable chutzpah in the face of his extortion. I imagine both sides believed it was all in good fun.
Our expedition began on the Sunday before the New Year a little after 2 p.m. Past rubber-tree plantations, ramshackle housing and countless chickens vying with cows to cross the road, we drove and drove. Dogs indifferently required the driver to react speedily, despite his persistently light foot on the accelerator.
Our companions pointed out fields of pepper plants, shaded and growing up poles taller than a man. It turns out that this vegetation produces peppercorns, which were spread out to dry on tarps in front of dwellings. To the south, Kompot is better known for that spice.
Many of the smallest communities on the way were devoid of activity because of the holiday, while others had many shuttered shops. However, we did, rarely, come across microcosms of bustling consumers bargaining for holiday provisions.
Farther along the road to Mondulkiri, we devoured sandwiches purchased earlier. They were baguettes filled with a thin slab of something called paté, reflecting the influence of the French while pretty much lacking taste and thus the ability to to identify the meat, probably pig offal. (I’m happy not to know.)
Over the next nearly three days, we stopped occasionally along the way to snack at food stands, eat in restaurants, picnic and take advantage of shrubbery to engage in necessary activities. “Rest stops” here are commonly self-made, always convenient and frequently relished, even in Phnom Penh, where locals have few other options.
Arriving approximately an hour after dark at a guesthouse owned by an uncle perhaps halfway to the city of Mondulkiri in the middle of nowhere, we were greeted warmly and shown to our minimalist rooms. “Guesthouse” means “don’t expect much in the way of hotel comfort or amenities,” though most of them seem to offer WiFi that functions (if only in close proximity to the device).
With respect to our room, dimly lit by old fluorescent bulbs, there were a desk, TV, air conditioner and two rough towels. The cramped bathroom with open shower plus toilet had only what one British blogger calls the omnipresent bum jet, a spray nozzle at the end of a hose, and no paper. Because the shower is in the middle of a tiny space and drainage is inadequate, tiptoeing inside when sleep is broken by a sense of urgency is an unforgettable experience.
The exterior of guesthouse and its accompanying dance club were lighted by strings of blue bulbs and other festive illumination in honor of the holiday, an incongruous sight in the grimy enclave that amounts to little more than a truck stop called Raksmey Pkaiy Pich.
Soon after settling in, we were led up a steep flight stairs to a cavern with many closed doors above the club; it looked to me like nothing less than my imagined picture of a bordello. This was my first time inside the numerous businesses with “KTV” in their names that I have noticed around Phnom Penh and on the roads.
Saying that the experience of having dinner there was disorienting is an understatement to the extreme.
I’m guessing that “KTV” refers to karaoke television, and nobody I asked seemed to know for sure. One friend allows that maybe 70 percent of them double as houses of ill repute.
The scarlet second-skin outfits ending at the bottom of bottoms on one end and down the unnaturally large chests of the waitresses at the other end certainly did nothing to disabuse me of that statistic. Whether the women actually have a choice to be there must remain an open question.
Still, the room we were in with its shimmering, shocking-pink lighting, expansive banquettes and nine-foot tall screen (beside which I snapped the photo) seemed kind of big for anything but an orgy.
We were treated to a sumptuous spread of barbecued organic chicken, stir-fried vegetables, soup, stir-fried beef and beverages including beer. The service was exceptional, no doubt in part because the cousin in charge of the whole operation was our host. In keeping with Cambodian custom for visiting family, we were not permitted to pay for room or board despite insistent requests at least for Lin and me to reimburse him.
As for the club below, a group of young men bobbed to the music unaccompanied by women. Apparently, the women arrive fashionably later. The tariff, I am given to understand, rises as the evening wears on: After paying a modest entrance fee, the boys have to keep ordering alcoholic drinks and accompanying comestibles so as not to lose face. The guesthouse functions as a convenient and inexpensive hideout for amorous couples, so I am told.
In the morning, we met at 6 and drove nearly an hour to a town in which we could have breakfast, mainly soups. Where we ate (below) presented something of a contrast to where we had dined the night before. Among other differences was the restroom, a concrete shed containing a squat around the right side of the restaurant.
My soup contained noodles, fish balls, a small brick of congealed pig blood (which I gave to Lin) and bony chunks of chicken. I’ve learned that there is virtually no standard food for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and I’ve adapted when not at home, where premium orange juice from the States, raisin bread or cereal is my usual breakfast fare. For six of us, the tab was $17, that high because I ordered three cups of coffee.
Mondulkiri often is described as cold. By Cambodian standards, that means in the high 80s. It was plenty warm enough for us to join the kids having a ball, but we merely dipped our feet in the water, which was pleasantly cool.
Bousra Waterfall is pretty impressive and inviting, and the environment was a bit the way that I picture a family camp. It was busy but not jammed, and everyone was well-behaved.
If it is beginning to seem as if our trip revolved around food, you would not be mistaken. Whether taking advantage of snack opportunities on the way or digging into the supplies Mom had packed — e.g. jackfruit chips, canned coffee, peanuts and mangos — we always seemed to be stuffing our faces.
After lunch, we walked up to the pool of water closest to the falls and engaged in more picture-taking — our own trove totaled more than 200 for the three days, so you can see that I am sparing you even as I indulge myself. (I expect to post more on Facebook.)
Withal, it was not easy to forget the folks who lined the short path between the water and the parking area, where a conjoined glorified outhouse in which a squat for men and one for women was situated. Food vendors, beggars and musicians, each of them donning typical Cambodian dress, provided poignant and disturbing reminders of life on the other side (as if poverty is not painfully obvious everywhere.)
Trudging up the steep path from the waterfall, we tumbled into our car yet again and made for a Buddhist shrine that overlooks Mondulkiri, where the commercial area doesn’t compare in size even to Manhattan’s Battery Park City. Neither the shrine nor the view is particularly memorable, and the photos I took are not worth publishing.
From the shrine, we headed to a hill that folks regard as a mountain overlooking what is viewed as the “sea forest” because of how winds sweep the treetops and bend them in pleasing waves; they are barely visible in the cloud photos. On a deeply rutted road up the mountain, we passed a duck or two and the family of pigs shown below with a couple of offspring out of the frame.
The mountain is where the clouds captivated me. Yet we left after 20-30 minutes, when rain from them appeared to be approaching in the distance. I have a healthy respect for lightning, which annually kills more Cambodians than motor vehicles, and it was my insistence that we leave.
Stopping to refuel near the hotel, I noticed what I thought were three puppies playfully wrestling with each other near the gas station’s maintenance garage. I drifted over there only to discover that one of the small animals was a wild pig being abused by the dogs as it tried to suckle inappropriate appendages. I didn’t think the dogs would do serious harm, but I also had the unhappy feeling that the pig would never find its way home and thus die of starvation or a predator’s attack.
It happens that the rain we witnessed from the mountaintop didn’t arrive until nightfall, when it clattered against our hotel’s windows like a barrage of flung gravel. After our long day begun at the uncle’s guesthouse, I fell soundly back to sleep despite the clamor.
On our first full day, we fortified ourselves with breakfast after meeting again at 6 a.m. For the first time since we arrived in Phnom Penh, in early December, I had a Western breakfast — overcooked fried eggs ordered over easy, tomatoes, bacon and a toasted baguette ($2.50). The place is owned by an American, who lives behind the dining area with his wife and sweet baby.
Dinner at the same place the previous night was more expensive than our usual Cambodia standard because, being on vacation from my endless vacation, I ordered my first cocktail since our arrival in early December. It was called a mojito and consisted of nothing more than a bit of rum, some mint leaves and lots and lots of sparkling water. It was terrible, so I also had a beer, bringing the check to $28 for all of us.
When I asked how he came to be there, the lanky restaurateur with drooping jaw that matched his sunken eyelids pointed to his Khmer wife, adding that his father had owned the land and that the young couple opened the restaurant one and a half years ago. Given how exhausted they appeared to be after working early at breakfast and late that night, I had to wonder whether he wasn’t having second thoughts about the enterprise.
I had resisted our three-day expedition because I really hate being in a car longer than a couple of hours. I knew that we’d be traveling as much as 10 hours a day, but I also believe it is important to explore the country where I now live. Moreover, the vertiginous landscape was a balm for the sore eyes of dusty Phnom Penh.
My hope was to ride the elephants in some kind of preserve on our final day, but I was outvoted. Our family elected to see river dolphins on the Mekong River instead.
I’ve seen enough dolphins in my life, though there was little solace in ultimately learning what a bad idea it was to consider glimpsing them again, especially since the attraction was in the wrong direction on a day we were heading home.
After we parked the car, we reached the path lined with the inevitable food vendors and were able to look down on the docks. Not only were people climbing up with full coolers and baskets weighted down with food, but we could see that the docks were thronged claustrophobically and maybe dangerously.
Hundreds of Cambodians were trampled or suffocated to death a few years ago when a bridge during the annual Water Festival holiday collapsed in Phnom Penh, and we readily decided against taking a similar risk. If you expand the photo below you’ll have a good idea of what we were up against.
So we turned around and retrieved our car. The entrepreneur who offered parking space a perilous drop below the main road gouged us, and doubtless everyone else, for $2.50, perhaps five times the usual rate.
In addition to the virtues of the countryside, a nice aspect of our journey was the modest roadside farm stands. Whether they were selling various fruits, sticky rice, chicken or Chinese bao, we took advantage of their presence to divert ourselves fairly often.
Finally at home, we were not surprised to see that our town was ghostly. Most stores and restaurants were closed, and the big Western-style supermarket looked almost as though it had been looted. The frozen-food section had nothing left, though there was plenty of premium ice cream from the states available for a mere $18 per approximately a quart.
Worry not: Scrambling from shop to shop, we scraped up what we needed and went twice to the simple Chinese restaurant where they make noodles at the open front. Dinner and lunch for both us totaled $5.50 for each meal.