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From the jungle to the Big Mango

August 2, 2013

I’m sitting on the balcony of my hostel off the Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, no sound but that of the traffic buzzing and growling past down below, the hot pink taxis, motorbikes, occasional shiny 4x4s. I think this is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling what the American G.Is felt when they returned to Saigon for R&R after a tour in the jungle, for I too have been in the jungle and though there was no active combat, it was indeed an arduous mission.

Yesterday I made the long journey from the back of beyond in Cambodia, over the border to the Big Mango. It took over twelve hours all in all and the bus finally chucked us off at the infamous backpacker ghetto of Kao San Road. That was miles and miles from where I was supposed to be staying and at this hour of the evening I didn’t fancy a challenging trek across the city, navigating greedy taxi drivers and alien public transport networks, so I let a strange European woman take me to a cheap hotel where I rented a single room and was reminded, for the second time of this trip, of Alex Garland’s The Beach. I didn’t hear any weirdo whispering about a paradisical retreat in the night, but maybe he was drowned out by the Motown tunes coming from the bar below.

It’s a relief to be here though, where there are grilled cheese sandwiches and gin and tonics and big shopping malls and metro systems and wifi and decent coffee. It’s terrible to admit it, but after three days in the very rural Cardamom Mountains, I’ve come to accept I like cities and home comforts.

In the Cardamoms I had been staying in the village of Chi Phat where a DSC_0028community-based eco-tourism scheme has been set up. Getting there was enough of an ordeal. It was supposed to be a simple moto ride, but the heavy rains had caused the river to burst its banks. The moto driver stopped and said said ‘water’ and pointed to his abdomen. I just smiled and nodded but a few yards down the road I realised what he meant as we came to a small, recently formed lake in the road.

“Erm…” I said as I watched, aghast, as the villagers waded through, carrying their bags and boxes above their head as they became more and more submerged in the not stomach- but breast-high terracotta coloured water. There was nothing for it. I couldn’t turn back as we were in the middle of nowhere and there was nowhere else to go, so, with a couple of guys to help me with all my bags, in I went. In wasn’t that bad, though the current was, I thought at this point, strong in places. I picked up another moto when I emerged form the lake, but a little further along the road, there was another expanse of water. Not quite as deep this time, but it was still too much for a motorbike to drive through.. They pushed them through instead and at the other side, no one could get their bikes started. I stood there, dripping wet, choking on the petrol fumes, as they hauled their bikes up vertically to pour the water out of the exhausts and then tried again and again to get the things going. Finally, my guy got his engine running and after a boat over a real river I eventually arrived in Chi Phat.

Carnivorous Pitcher Plants!

Carnivorous Pitcher Plants!

If I was beginning to regret then coming here in the rainy season, over the next two days I would be cursing myself, for I undertook a trek through the jungle with a guide named Jat and a young chef. Within the first half hour of walking, I’d stepped in sinking mud and my boots were waterlogged and filthy. Then we reached the jungle, where the path had become a stream and the leeches were out in force. I’ve never experienced leeches before, and it was not a pleasant experience. It began to chuck it down but we trudged on and I half thought about calling the whole thing off. Lunch, when they finally got the damp wood lit and could cook it, revived me though. In the afternoon the DSC_0039leeches launched a full-on offensive. “We have one more stream to cross” said Jat. When we got to it, I exclaimed “that’s not a stream, it’s a fucking river,” for it was: about six metres wide and flowing faster than any other river I recall seeing. I watched as the chef waded through and struggled against the current. If this young Cambodian was struggling, what chance did I have? Even when they ingeniously managed to string a vine across for me to hold onto I had visions of drifting off down the river until I came to a fatal waterfall and my body washing up somewhere in the jungle for disgusting things to feast on. Jat and the chef were both on the other side now, but I was still standing there, blood dripping down my legs from the leeches, crying out that I couldn’t do it. Again, there was no way back though. Jat came back across and took my backpack, so I took a deep breath and in I went. The currant probably wasn’t, as I exclaimed when I was in the middle of it, strong enough to break your leg, but it was pretty damn strong. I got to the other side though. I think they were impressed I’d done it, “I think you are strong woman,” Jat would tell me at the end of the trek.  Might I add I was also suffering from a cold through all of this.  Anyway, after the river, it was relatively easy going. We reached our jungle

Campsite for the night

Campsite for the night

camp site and after a delicious dinner of cabbage and egg soup and fried bamboo shoots (which they’d earlier picked from a grove we passed though) with rice, I slept soundly in my hammock that night.

The next day was just as muddy and it rained even more, but there were fewer leeches and no raging rivers to cross. I did half-fall through one of those wooden bridges you see in films that always threaten to collapse, but thankfully it was over the bank rather than in the middle of it. Bruised, bloody and filthy, I was so relieved to arrive back in Chi Phat. I wanted a hot shower and pizza, but had to make do with a very cold shower and yet more rice. My hiking boots were wrecked, so no more jungle treks for me, not that I could bear another one anytime soon. I’m off to Kao Tao to learn to dive and drink cocktails on the beach: I think I’ve earned it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 9:35 am

    hahah omg… leeches sound pretty grim! sounds like a good experience though in the jungle though.. and i thought *i* was having it tough because my work shoes were leaking and i stepped in a puddle! lol

    hope you got the pizza in the end..x

  2. August 2, 2013 9:58 am

    I’m enjoying your blog a lot, Heather, although it doesn’t make me too tempted to visit Cambodia (Bangkok I’ve been to). The raging river & leeches may, at least, provide you with some material further down the line – strong indeed!

  3. admin permalink*
    August 2, 2013 1:57 pm

    Thanks for the comments! Didn’t get the pizza in the end, Will, but did get a nice curry tonight:)

    Yeah, David, I think it will provide some inspiration at some point. Cambodia is cool apart – maybe better in the dry season though!

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