After the scooter accident, most of our plans got changed. We wanted to go to Kep and spend a few days on Rabbit Island, we wanted to skip Phnom Penh and go to Ban Lung in the Ratanakiri province for some trekking… But we spent 10 days at Hacienda for me to fully heal, and then we had only 8 days left to reach Laos. So we had to make choices.
The first obvious thing to do was head to Phnom Penh so that it would be easier to get to Laos. The initial plan was to get a bus directly to Don Det to avoid the hassle of getting different buses and finding hostels on the road. So we booked at Nomads Hostel and enjoyed the night market. The next day we spent a day walking around Phnom Penh and enjoying a change of scenery!
Then we took a bus to Kratie, as advised by the owner of Nomads. It took us less than 4 hours and it was a really bumpy ride! But it was fun.
When we arrived in Kratie, we stopped to grab some lunch in town and then headed to our guesthouse which is called Le Tonle.
Le Tonle is a Tourism Training Center and was created by a Swiss NGO called Tourism For Help. Le Tonle and CRDT work together to train young Khmer from difficult backgrounds. They have to come from very poor families and have a certain number of brothers and sisters in order to apply for the program. When they arrive, they speak no English, so here there are Khmer and Western staff teaching them English but also cooking, waiting tables, cleaning rooms, etc.
Le Tonle makes no money, as such. The money you pay when sleeping and eating there goes directly to the training program so that the students here get the best training. In other words: this place is awesome. (Especially if you like to mix travel and volunteering/helping out the locals)
So anyway, we booked a double room there and we really wanted to stay for longer but we couldn’t because they were fully booked for the next night.
That’s when I decided to completely repack my bag, and ended up talking to this French couple who are traveling with their young child! They told us they loved Stung Tren (3 hours north of Kratie, close to the Laos border) and then told us where to go cycle and also where to go in Laos! It was a really nice little discussion.
Next minute, I am running down the stairs asking the girl at reception if they can call Le Tonle in Stung Tren and book a room for us. Once it’s booked, I cross the road to see the guy who is in charge of booking tours and buses and I ask him to book a bus to Stung Tren for us.
After that, we walked to the market and around town, and I finished falling in love with the place… Kratie is just so nice!
The next day, our bus was at 3:30pm so we decided to rent some bikes and go around Koh Trong which is the island opposite Kratie, on the Mekong. You need to take a ferry which costs 1000riel (25cts) per person and same for the bike, so we crossed the Mekong for a dollar!
We went around the island and saw some beautiful landscapes, crossing fields, zigzagging between cows and gazing at rice fields. I felt like this was the best choice for that day. It was also quite windy so we weren’t too hot when cycling.
Just before going back to the ferry, we cycled through a wedding party and were ask by the brother of the bride to stop and, I quote, “Eat rice with [him]!!”. So we sat down and had rice with fish soup and very spicy courgettes. People were trying to speak some English to us but it was hard to communicate. It was great though, to feel so welcome, because since we started our tour of south east Asia, too many times we have felt targeted as the people with money and we missed being able to share our culture with locals. When I was sat at that table enjoying my fish soup, I didn’t feel too much like a tourist, but rather like a human being who happened to stop by. It was such a heart warming experience. Finally, we headed back to the ferry and crossed the Mekong again.
Our bus ride to Stung Tren was seriously bumpy and we even had to stop to help out an other bus that broke down 2 hours before. Good chat with the people from that bus though. It was a lovely mid-trip break!
We walked all the way to Le Tonle which is easy to find when you know where it is! Luckily though, we found, as usually, extremely kind Cambodians to indicate us the way. We were told “straight on then left, past the pagoda keep going! About 400m”. We followed that but then (wrongly) doubted the directions so asked a guy on some sort of truck-motorcycle (everything exists in South East Asia). He told us it was the right way, then spent a whole minute remembering the numbers in English and was so happy to tell us “four hundred!!!”. We smiled and laughed with him and kept going on that dark road. That’s when we saw him driving past us, making signs and pointing ahead, then he drove off. We laughed and kept going and then he appeared again! He was saying “Tonle Tonle!” and pointing ahead again. Then he pointed at me and wanted me to hope on his scooter, but I’ll be honest, I think I have been put off for a while! So we kindly declined with smiles and he said bye and drove off. Cambodians are AWE-SOME.
The two double rooms at Le Tonle were full so we were lucky enough to get a giant family room for the same price.
After settling down, we were told by one of the Khmer person working here that the next was a holiday in Cambodia and therefore Le Tonle should be sort of shut (you can still sleep there but not food available) and all the students and staff were going in small boats on the Mekong to reach a beach on an island and they were going to have food and play games and swim there. Needless to say we said yes!
So here we are the next day waking up at 7:30am, departure 8:30. We all get crammed on a tiny long boat (the kind that sinks in A LOT and also threatens to go upside down at every movement).
At some point we were probably ten (or rather, I was to scared to count!) on that boat (we stopped somewhere half way to pick up people who came by scooter).
So I wasn’t feeling the safest, mostly because I had my camera with me and didn’t want to fall in the Mekong, but at the same time it was absolutely beautiful and so, so exciting to do something so local! So unplanned!
Also, there was barely any tourists as such… Only an Indian guy, Joseph, who is cycling and camping around South East Asia and who has been at Le Tonle for 5 days to recover from a cold and one French woman, Nathalie, volunteering at Le Tonle for 2 months)!
We finally got to the island and the beach, and it was absolutely stunning. I couldn’t believe I was there on the Mekong river, on an island, surrounded by Khmer students who want to learn English but are also shy and so young!
When we decided to go on this trip, this is the kind of experience we really wanted to live. Like the trek in Chiang Rai for example. Something local, something real. Not a package sold me because I am a western and I come here to party and get drunk. This experience, just being there in that moment, was worth all the money in the world. What I learnt in one day with them was worth all the money in the world. After experiencing this, I realize what it is that I have been looking for all this time on this trip: I get away from this touristy package that people constantly want to sell to me.
And I am not even talking about the locals! Even the travelers, they tell you: go to Koh Rong, the parties are awesome! Go to Da Lat you can go canyoning! And then what do you see on Facebook? All these people that you have met and that don’t know each other, doing the same activities in the same places… And I am not saying that it is not cool or awesome or interesting or anything! I am sure it is! But where is the desire to discover a culture? Why travel to ONLY meet people and get drunk or stoned or whatever? Why not go out there, rent a bike, a motorcycle, go in the small villages, get lost in small roads and ACTUALLY experience local life?
I have come to realize that when you travel as a backpacker, you think you are free but really, you are permanently dependent on the buses or trains available from one town to an other and it is very hard to actually experience the freedom of going wherever you wish whenever you wish.
In Kratie and Stung Tren, I have realised this because I have been able evade it! To escape it! I have been able to get on my bike and cycle where I wanted. A feeling that I slightly had when we rented scooters in Chiang Rai, because well, we got lost looking for that waterfall, remember?!
Anyway, back to the Mekong! We unpacked everything and some people stared a fire, some people tried to catch some more fish, some people cut down bamboo leaves to use as a table cloth (on the sand)… To sum up, everybody had their own job!
We are fish from the market cooked on the fire. The way Khmer eat it is: you take a salad leaf, you put some fish in the middle, some sticky rice, wrap it all up and dip it into spicy sauce before eating it! And you know what? It’s absolutely delicious!
After that, we had a beer, went for a swim in the Mekong, played games… There was a muddy area on the opposite island so we swam there and Dennis started sliding down and doing jumps and then everybody started doing the same… The kids had so much fun sliding and drifting, it was wonderful to see.
We swam more and more and played games and ate fruits and tried Palm wine, and around 3pm and packed everything, picked up all our trash and jumped back on the boats to get back to Le Tonle.
It was one of the best days of my life, by far. The words in this post are not strong enough to explain the impact this day had on how I perceive life itself.
In the evening, we went to town to get food and then went straight to bed for well earned sleep.
This morning (see how up to date I am with this blog!), Thursday the 11th of December, I woke up very early and decided to go for a 10 minutes run. I felt that I really needed it. I wanted to run more, but it was already hot, even at 7am, and people were weirdly laughing at me and saying at the same time. I realised that probably nobody goes for runs like this because people here work all day every day. So going for a run is a bit of a Western luxury, something you do before or after work because you do have the time to do it…
It made me think way too much about our Western life and habits so I decided to turn around and run back to Le Tonle and do had an hour of yoga. It was cleansing and soothing. It felt so good!
When Dennis woke up and got ready, we headed to the market with Nathalie. We had heard it is a place not to be missed so we made sure to head there after breakfast!
We absolutely loved the market! For once, it smelled nice there, there were many beautiful things to look at and there were loads of little treats to buy! For example, the sticky rice with beans and coconut:
Or the banana and coconut rice cooked in banana leaves (to DIE for):
Here are a few more pictures of the market, so you can appreciate how awesome it was!
After that, we came back to Le Tonle and decided to go rent mountain bikes and go cycle for a bit. We were told that’s if you cross the China and Cambodia Friendship Bridge you get on a land between the Mekong and the Sekong and that’s the way to the Laos border.
So we started cycling there and it was difficult for me at first because a) I had been running and doing yoga in the morning, b) I never cycle! Dennis used to cycle everyday to go to university so different story!
But after a while I got into it and it was a lot easier. We followed the indications we were given by the people at Le Tonle but I think we followed them wrong but it doesn’t matter in the end because we ended up cycling in such a beautiful area that it didn’t matter where we were supposed to go!
It was a very rural area, people there were farmers or fishermen. I don’t think they were seeing a lot of Westerners there because we seemed to be the attraction!
We saw a beautiful pagoda with cows all around and we stopped for a few minutes. We bought some water in a “shop” close by and then turned left and went on a path along the Sekong.
For lunch, we stopped somewhere we saw some people seating and there were a few tree trunks on the floor. We sat down and took out our mason jars and market soup and starting preparing everything and then ate.
Soon, there were about 20 children staring at us eating, and a few adults. People were coming from the houses across the road! It was absolutely hilarious!
So we finished our food and tried to ask if they were catching crab or fishing and they used their hands to mine a fish. Then I showed my camera and showed an inquiring thumb up, wondering if I could take a picture of them. The adults said “yeah” so Dennis ran amongst them and I took a picture but all the kids were staring at Dennis. I tried to make gestures to attract the kids’ gaze and then the adults understood. This lady got up and out her baby in Dennis’s arms (he wasn’t prepared for that!) and she told all the kids to look at me, and here’s the result!
After that we cycled a bit more around and saw some cows bathing and a lot of children everywhere. It was really beautiful (and hot).
Finally we made our way back in the plants and trees to get back to the bridge and crossed it again and headed back to Dennis took one bike, one last time, to go to the market and buy some treats for the bus ride to Laos the following day. And this was the end to our fantastic time here…
So why did I fell in love with The North of Cambodia? Really? You have no idea?
Because of… Everything. But first, the landscape. The beauty of the Mekong and its riverside is unbelievable. When driving or cycling along, you can see the islands, the forests, the birds and all the fishing boats. I knew the Mekong had its own eco-system, but I did not imagine it would be so obvious when you are face to face with such a huge river.
Second, the people. The kindness of the people in the north is unbelievable! I am not saying that Cambodians everywhere else are not nice, it’s just different. I guess also because it is big cities, people are always different. Here, on the country side, there are so helpful and they want to share their everyday life with you. Sometimes they are too nice and I wanton remind them that it is not because I am a tourist that they should treat me differently. Someone said to us, in Kampot, that Cambodians smile with their hearts, and I believe it now.
Third, the food. THE FOOD. Northern Cambodia is food paradise. There are so many different types of fruits, soups, pastry and treats… It is incredible! I could stay here for a year and I would not get tired of the dishes here.
So yes, I fell in love with Northern Cambodia, I fell in love with the landscape, the people, the food, the atmosphere… And how free it feels to wander around. I fell in love with the markets, the sunrise and the sunsets. I fell in love the Mekong and the orchards on the riverside. I fell in love with the simplicity of life here, and the smile of Cambodian people.