How nice to be back in a clean apartment again, taking a cold shower and scrubbing the red dirt out of my toes. We stumbled through the door late this afternoon following a long bus ride from Mondulkiri, where we woke up under a bug net in a chilly cabin in the mountains. Ernest woke up before the sunrise and I could hear him peeing off the railing into the woods below. Tika was nestled under the netting, afraid of the large spiders crawling around the thatched roof. And now—clapping red mud out of shoes, dumping out the clothes, scrubbing dirt from the folds of Puck’s chubby neck and revealing the white of his feet again. And ah! The cartoons are playing again in the living room.
Mondulkiri is Cambodia’s largest and least populated province—something like 2 people to a square kilometer—along the eastern border with Vietnam in the cooler jungle-covered mountains (see this blogger's adventure). It is a breakfast-basket to the country, growing most of Cambodia’s coffee, as well as mangos, papayas and bananas. The ride was eight hours across the flat lands north of Phnom Penh, through Kampong Cham and then across one of the two bridges in Cambodia that crosses the Mekong River—very wide at that point—through Snuol, and then up into hilly country. At the same time I noticed forest changing to orderly rows of sapling rubber-trees, I felt the road change to smooth pavement, a wide two-lane highway with proper shoulder and lane markings. The landscape is also broken by large tracts of clear-cutting and burnt-out forest. Then the highway climbs higher into low mountains and there is only forest and burnt space, a patchwork of green and black on both sides. Twice we passed unlucky motorists stranded with their trucks at the side and I wondered—who is out here? Finally we descended into a clearing where an Angkor Beer billboard, a cluster of buildings, and a cell tower marked the small town of Sen Monorom, our destination.
Pulling into a place like this (nobody pressing at the bus door, a sleeping dog, and two parked cars) can make you feel like you’ve arrived at the end of the printed map. Taking a stab at a suggestion I read online (thank goodness for lonelyplanet and travelfish websites!) we jumped on a slow dusty ride down a long dirt road to a place called Nature Lodge. And funny enough, it seemed like most of our foreign bus companions were riding there too.
Nature Lodge is fanciful never-land kind of place set up by an adventurous Israeli woman and her Khmer husband, along with their beautiful baby daughter, multi-lingual staff, and scores of cattle, horses, chickens, cats and dogs grazing and playing over a hillside beyond Sen Monorom. The ‘reception’ is a massive, friendly German shepherd and a sprawling, multi-layer tree house with long, wide swings hanging below and look-outs over the mountains. The bar, set on a platform in the trees, is a swarm of international backpackers drinking gin and tonics, listening to Billie Holiday, and planning their next trekking adventure. There is no hotel, only one-room cabins dotted over the hillside, and a few outhouses scattered in between. It was a little taste of heaven.
It didn’t take long for the kids to adapt to this new paradise—Yoshi called it a jungly Yellowstone, and Tika said it was like camping in the Shenandoah with Daddy. Showering with a cold-water hose leaning over the outhouse toilet, I could hear their voices running around the field, swinging under a tree, skipping over horse poop. That night Ernest built us a bonfire with bamboo, durian shells and kindling from the field and we sat under a huge sky in almost total darkness. Tik wished they sold marshmallows in Mondulkiri. Then the power went out around seven, and I dug through my bag for my cell phone, the only thing I had to generate enough light to see a few inches in front of us. Finding our way to the cabin, we brushed our teeth and peed and changed clothes by the light of that phone. Then we climbed into the one bed we five had to share, lined up arm-to-arm, and I tucked the edges of our bug net around four sides of the mattress to cover our little fort. Sometime in the middle of the night, the sky tore open with rain, and I laid awake on the edge of the bed, as thunder exploded over us and lightening seemed to crack the trees all around.