December 29. Today was an easy day as Gita and I decided to head our own ways and stay within the vicinity of Banlung. Personally, I needed time for my butt to rest from the previous day’s excursion. As of last night, Gita hadn’t yet decided if she would extend her stay or depart for Siem Reap in time for New Year’s Eve with a stopover at either Kratie or Kompong Cham. We both were going to see the waterfalls and the crater lake albeit at different times.
Yok picked me up at the lodge at 7:30am and we headed to the Banlung market as I wanted to see the minorities selling their stuff. It looked way better than the pics I saw posted at the internet. There main market was a covered area and seemed relatively orderly. The garbage behind the market was unsightly, though. I should have worn my closed rubber sandals as the floor was wet. Yok pointed to one area in the market which had been allotted to the people coming from the mountains to sell their goods, mostly live chicken (free-range perhaps?) and different vegetables and root crops. If it not for their baskets they would have blended seamlessly with the local Khmer. A bit queasy about seeing butchered animals, I tried to look away whenever I passed stalls with dressed chickens, their heads dangling from the table, and cow and pig parts strung up on meat hooks. It wasn’t quite easy as some of the meat stalls were mixed in with the dry goods stalls. At one point, I had to take a long route around the maze-like market just to skip one particularly distressing meat stall that had some organs displayed.
There really wasn’t anything special about the market if you’ve been to other Southeast Asian markets before. Perhaps the big difference was that everything was for purely local consumption and I didn’t see a single store there selling tourist stuff. The only exception was one store fronting the parking lot which was selling a small selection of baskets , gourds, and other things. Too bad there was no musical instrument. I bought a small gourd instead.
Crater Lake. It was still early when we made it to the Boeang Yeak Lom so there weren’t much people which made for a peaceful outing to this beautiful lake. Unfortunately, I could only enjoy the water from one of the piers dotted around the lake as I still didn’t know how to swim. The Tompoun who “own” the lake and live in small villages around the area believe that this near-perfect circle lake is sacred and home to strange creatures. Do Yok say told of a story of someone who got sick as he cursed the lake when he was unable to catch some fish. They believe that one should never say anything bad about the lake lest the spirits who inhabit it get angry.
Small but interesting was the Cultural Museum a few hundred meters from the start of the trail which circled the lake. Having Do Yok explain the exhibits made it all the more interesting not to mention helpful. Impressive were the gongs displayed Beside it was a small shop where I was able to buy some stringed-instruments. Having Yok, again, was very helpful as he identified the instruments to me. They looked like the real thing and not made specifically for the tourist market which was largely selling textiles and some handicrafts. At the one of stalls at the lake I bought an auntup (loin cloth) in the traditional black and white color for $8 and 2 necklaces of small white beads (samul) for $2. I took a video of Yok tieing the cloth around him so I’d know how to use it.
From the lake, we proceeded to a turn-off from the main road to a leafy village where Yok lived. We stopped by the main house to inquire about the gung trang (10-stringed zither with a gourd). The musician was out but Do Yok asked his mom to make one for me. Yehey! We followed a short small trail which led to his house. He actually had two houses both connected with a short walkway. The second one isn’t finished yet but it is usable as it has a floor, roof, and three walls already. His two little kids, his wife, and his mother were there. The latter had just come home from the hospital for what I suspect was a really bad case of indigestion. Yok had been unable to find the medicine the doctor prescribed from any of the numerous pharmacies we had visited. There didn’t seem to be any modern pharmacies here as the one’s we went to were just small simple stores that had a stock of medicines. I gave here some domperidone with instructions on how she should take it. I figured that even if it weren’t indigestion, the medicine wouldn’t do her any harm anyway so she might was well try it. I get indigestion a lot and from what Do Yok told me it sounded like a really bad case.
They were about to have breakfast of rice and some green leafy vegetable that had been boiled. I politely turned-down the offer to join them. It was 10 am so I was surprised by how later breakfast is. Or maybe it was really early lunch. Or perhaps the Tompoun have their version of brunch.
The weaving village of Panom was nearby so we decided to drop by to look at some weaves and see if I could get an anchew the women’s traditional wrap-around. The small village had a smattering of houses placed around a dirt field. No one was there except a few women weaving on looms under the shade of their stilt houses and children playing. I bought a wrap-around in red and black for $7.5 and a runner for $3.5. The wrap-around still had to be cut and sewn so Do Yok would have to go back for it the next day. A young man offered to make me a gung treng for $15 which Yok would also need to come back for the next day. It was better deal than that offered by another man Yok had met on the junction of the lake that had informed Yok that the guy in the village was too drunk to make an instrument and that he was willing to sell his own gung treng. Too expensive, Yok said.
We had lunch at Pov Sochey. I had a bowl of coconut soup which was sourish soup with pineapple and pork with vegetables while Yok had fried rice. The food was plentiful and tasted good however it would be the cause of my upset stomach the next day. I don’t know if it was the food itself or the tea that was in the tea pot and had been standing there since god know when as I would have another upset stomach the day after having dinner there on another time.
We headed to Ka Tieng to see the waterfall and ride an elephant, something that Yok said he hadn’t done since the time he was a kid and the elephant he was riding on got scared and started running. He almost had the cold feet as when we were on the elephant and just waiting for the other elephant to get going, he turned to me and said he wanted to get off. I told him I would get off too. I’ve only ridden an elephant once, at Ayuthayya in Thailand, and I can’t say I’m really comfortable with it, both with how the elephant is treated and how the elephant would treat the ride. I imagine the elephant turning balistick oll of a sudden and throwing-off the people behind him.
I was told that the pair of elephants always go together even if one had no one riding as it was a mom-and-daughter team. How sweet, I thought. On the other hand, I was quite sorry for them as it meant it was a family doomed to elephant slavery. The mahouts treated them well, though. Much much better than the ones in Ayuthayya who would hit them in the head with a sickle especially if they stopped too long to grab a bite to eat. The teenage mahouts would simply prod them with words and by digging their feet on their sides. I was initially shocked when I saw the large sickle they had and I wanted to get off as no way was I gonna be a party to any cruelty inflicted on them. But the sickle was never used on the elephants. They were there to cut-off some branches or put some marks on trees.
The elephants were stopping by and grabbing some overhead branches as they were so hungry as the owner had gotten drunk the afternoon before and had not let them graze. The mahouts let them be only prodding the daughter elephant which we were riding on when she was taking too much time trying to ensnarly some bushes with her trunk.
We rode through the main dirt track and some smaller tracks in the forest for about an hour. It was more of the experience of riding an elephant rather than sight-seeing as there wasn’t anything to see.
The waterfall was beautiful and could be accessed by some rickety and slippery wooden steps down. Do Yok had earlier told me that the water was polluted due to the waste coming from the rubber plantation upstream. “It’s okay. They don’t know,” he whispered when I pointed out a few white tourists who had just come from their bath.
On the way out, Yok told me that the woman collecting the entrance fee had just been recently widowed. Out of sympathy, as she is also Tompoun, he gave her some money for her child. I was touched by this considering that out of the $15 I payed him today, he pays Borann Lodge $5 for the use of their moto after giving up owning one after two robberies. He also refused to reimburse the 2,000 riyel entrance fee which he paid for me after I forgot.
I had read at a website about the villages along O’Chmey. Yok took me to a Tompoun village which he said was famous for its group of musicians. Unfortunately, the instruments weren’t there and there were no musicians either. I had expressed my interest earlier in buying a small pipe the kind that I have seen a lot of Tompoun men and women and even kids smoking. I had wanted a used one rather than a brand new item that could be purchased cheaply at the market. Approaching a woman smoking by her doorway, he asked to see it and possibly buy it! Unfotunately, it was broken.
The meeting house was nice though especially as the walls were in traditional Tompoun designs.
The Stone Fiel
Yok stopped his moto under the shade of one of the trees ringing a flat plain. “Field of Stones,” he said. I was disappointed as I envisioned a large field dotted with mysterious stones, even monoliths. But what lay before me looked no different from a bare field that could be used as a parking lot. But looking at the vegetation around, you realize its mystery as nothing really grows on the field. Even more interesting is going to a small mound, Yok lifts a heavy rock and slams it down. A deep “thud” ensues. The ground is hollow! I try it myself and another “thud” echoes. Now, I’m interested! A short path leads to the entrance of a cave that Yok dares not enter as he says one can get slip down.
Dinner with Do Yok
From the waterfalls, Yok told me that he would take mo to his mom-in-law’s house so in case I am unable to contact him, I could go visit his mom-in-law, a Khmer, ask his whereabouts. The village was close to Banlung town proper. The houses were in the Khmer style—wood and in stilts— and were built close to each other. The house is fairly large with a spacious front area. An uncle who serves in near the Vietnamese border has come visiting after more than 10 years of absence and he is seated in front together with the mom-in-law. She doesn’t seem too surprised seeing Yok arriving guest. I was to learn later that Yok had lived in the house before he finally went back to his village. He had also had some guests he had been guiding stay at the house before. They don’t mind, he told me.
I relished the chance to set foot in a real living Khmer house and I enjoy it. The wooden floor had been polished smoothly with years of use. A door on the left side led to a bedroom while on the main area were two mattresses on the floor. A middle-aged Khmer woman in a green blouse and sarong stood combing her curly hair in front of a mirror. There was a small kitchen and dining area with a round table and round stools made of solid wood.
Leaving the house, our next and final stop was Yok’s house again as he invited me to eat with his family. Who wouldn’t pass-up this chance? We motored to the market while Yok bought some stuff while I sat at the moto guarding it.
Back at his house, I played ball with the two cute kids while his wife prepared the meal. A little later in the afternoon, the guy from the village who was supposedly drunk arrived with the gung treng! Unfortunately, Yok’s wife had given his beautiful gourd, a souvenir from his trip to Laos, when the guy came calling looking for a gourd to put on the instrument. Yok was a little shocked when his wife told him over the phone while we were at his mom-in-law’s house but he wasn’t really upset. I just told him that he might as well keep the gung treng for himself so he would at least still have his gourd even if it’s top had been chopped off. The guy could always make me another one. I watched him as he took the strings that Yok had bought, patiently unwound them so there would just be single thin string, and put them on the tuning pegs and on the instrument.
That evening, as we drank some alcohol after a dinner of noodles with pork, some cured raw fish (delicious but I was afraid for my stomach), vegetables, and rice, the guy played the instrument. It was magical listening to him amidst the quietness of the village and the moonlight.
Around 8pm, Yok said it was time to bring me home but we would stop by the village headman’s house so he could ride home with Yok to deter any robbers. While waiting, I stepped inside a house that had was being used as a classroom for Tompoun children to learn Khmer. Leading the class was really young teacher who was checking a workbook while the students recited aloud.
Passing through the unlit dirt tracks from the lake and out onto the main road, it was understandable why Yok would be afraid. I heaved a sigh of relief was turned onto the main road and back to Banlung.