The modest wooden houses that lined the shore thinned out as soon as we launched and until about an hour in, the only other signs of life we saw was one other boat, at least ten times the size of ours, scooping sand out of the river so it could be exported to Singapore. We sat under the tarp to hide from the mid day sun and listened to our internationally accented conversation mix with the rumble of the motor. There were a few other small, wooden houses that popped up here and there, but other than those it was just the rippling blue water beneath us, the lush trees on the bank and the clouds in the bright blue sky.
After about an hour and a half we headed towards the left bank to a cluster of brightly colored homes and a small wooden dock. I tried not to fall in as I took the guides hand and he pulled me onto the creaky wooden planks. We followed the orange-ish red dirt road, passing more multicolored homes on stilts in-between patches of bright green trees. The boat driver lead us to the "tourist office", the largest building where all of the tours and accommodations were organized. It was a large home, set slightly back from the road, with a pathway that led to the main room, an open area with tables and a stove, sheltered with a roof but no walls. The owner, an older Cambodian women who spoke decent English and used lots of hand gestures, left us with a binder of options while she attended to Estelle. We decided on the two day, one night, camp at a waterfall trek. 20 kilometers in, 14 out the next day. Two waterfalls. One guide. One cook. One backpack filled with hammock and supplies. Two breakfasts. Two lunches. One dinner and a whopping price tag of $50.25 per person.
We still had lots of daylight left after finalizing our trekking plans so we rented bikes and followed a village boy, carrying our luggage on the back of his motorbike, to our bungalow. It was a mini woven bamboo hut with a thatched roof, two windows and a porch. The beds both had pepto-bismal pink mosquito nets above them that looked like some version of a girly-girl Christmas ornament gone wrong. The rest of the night was spent riding to, and then swimming and splashing in, a nearby waterfall. The water was the temp of a luke warm bath, but the scenery was beautiful and it was a break from the humid air. We hung out for about an hour, went back to the "tourist office" for a delicious dinner of rice and sautéed veggies, then headed back to our bungalow in the dark, using Nicolle's phone as a flashlight to help navigate the bumpy dirt roads on a bike in the dark.
The next morning, we filled up with small bananas wrapped in rice and a big green banana leaf before being tossed on the grill. It was a sweet treat wrapped in a steaming package and was complimented with our Cambodian (read - "strong!") coffee, sweet potato cakes and standard bowl of rice. It was like some of my favorite breakfasts at home - sweet and sort of like dessert.
We met our guide, Jhom, and our cook, Khay and the French brother and sister duo we would be trekking with while finishing off our meal. We transferred what we needed from our big bags into the smaller ones provided and started on the dirt path out of town, turning off onto a trail before long. The first hour was through a mix of short grasslands and bushes, the kind that leave little thorns all over your pants (thorns that take hours to pick out later and that you still find in the washing machine, and all the clothes washed with them, for another month). During the Khmer Rouge, a terrible regime that killed thousands and thousands of Cambodians, villagers had been forced to cut down all the local trees in an attempt to grow rice fields. It hadn't worked and in depleting all the trees, they'd also depleted all the shade. We'd been given six small, one liter bottles for the day and I was through the first two before we left our first break spot. Between the heat, humidity and my sticky clothes and skin, I couldn't wait to get to the waterfall.
We headed for a patch of tees in the distance and were finally able to escape the sun's rays. I don't know how much cooler it actually was, but not being directly under the sun made it feel like a big difference. Unfortunatley, we weren't the only ones that liked the cooler temperatures . As we filed into the trees one by one, Jhom told us to watch out for leeches. This was the first I'd heard of the creepy little things, but I guess I can see why they don't advertise them. Jhom he was wearing shorts so he could see them crawling up his legs and flick them off before they bit him. I didn't have long enough socks to tuck my pants into, so I rolled them up and tried to keep one eye on my legs and one on the trail. I spotted my first leech a few minutes in; a thin black worm looking thing standing on one end and swaying back and forth, using our passing heat to try and hone in. They can attach to anything, your sock, your laces, the bottom of your shoe, and work their way up to your skin (or in-between your shoe and sock and bite you from there), so it's best to just avoid them all together. My second sighting came after a shriek from the French girl. The writhing black predator had attached itself to her leg and she was doing her best to get it off. I felt a mix of sympathy and disgust. My third sighting was shortly after, when I looked down at my own legs to find one attached just above the back of my right ankle. I tried not to scream and failed miserably. I swatted and pulled at it several times before it finally went flying off and back into the forest. Leeches burrow into you with their teeth and their lack of width makes them hard to grab, so it took several attempts of the leech slipping through my fingers before I finally got it off. It was gross. So gross. So, so gross. That wasn't even close to the last sighting, or my own last episode with a leech, but I'll keep the rest of the gory details to myself.
After stopping for lunch at a stream where Jhom and Kay boiled rice, fried pork and sautéed veggies, the trial opened back up and we were walking into grasslands ranging from knee to over head high. There was plenty of fresh, wild fruit along the trail and Jhom and Khay picked a variety of things for us to taste. There were unripe green berries with a hard outer shell and a seed covered in sour fur (that's what you ate). The next, yellow batch was ripe and was much sweeter than the first. We also got some fresh picked bananas, about half the size of those at home, but twice as tasty. Khay managed to find a Jack Fruit and carried the whole thing the rest of the way. The big, green and thorny oval fruit aren't light, but he set it on his shoulder and carried it the entire way so we could all try it at camp.
The trail wound back into more of a forest, gaining a little elevation as it went. We passed the waterfall about five minutes before we got to camp, but kept going to get everything set up before cooling off in the water. Camp consisted of two wooden bungalows, one bigger and raised off the ground, the other smaller and without a floor. The four of us guests would be sleeping in the bigger one, while the smaller space doubled as the kitchen and Jhom and Khay's bedroom. We hung up our hammocks, changed and headed for the waterfall.
The falls were wider than they were high and with the low flow were divided into two smaller falls, connected by a higher dry rock path in the middle. The water was cooler and more refreshing than the day before and was a good way to wash off the layers of accumulated salt. Some of the rocks, about a quarter of the way up, formed a natural tub that was easily accessible with a little climbing. We alternated between soaking, swimming in the pool underneath or sitting directly below the falling water for a little shoulder massage. We stayed in until just before dinner was ready, doing a leech check on our clothes, that had been laying on the bank, before putting them on and heading back to camp.
Jhom opened the Jack Fruit and we pulled out the sweet yellow pouches, removed the seed from inside and popped the elastically chewy bits into our mouths while dinner cooked. Even with the six of us snacking, the Jack Fruit was so big we were only able to get through a quarter of it. We had a delicious dinner of pork soup with fried rice and bok choy by candlelight, under the canopy of our open bungalow. Afterwards, we sat around on the bamboo benches in the middle of camp and played a word game where we went in a circle spouting out words that started with the last letter of the previous word (so if Nicolle said "elephant", Jhom had to say a word that started with an T). If someone couldn't think of a word, or repeated a word, they had to sing a song in their respective language. It didn't hit me until afterwards, but it was like a vocabulary game for Jhom. He told me later that that's how he had learned English; talking to clients and playing games like this. He was good at it, too. He came up with words just as easily as Nicolle and I did, and some I had to make a mental note to look up the definition for later. We got to hear Frara Jaka, two Cambodian love songs (I think Jhom really liked to sing), Twinkle Twinkle Little Star from Nicolle and the only Czech nursery rhyme I know.
After we'd all lost and had to sing at least once, we crawled into our hammocks and zipped up the mosquito covers. I let the noises of the jungle lull me to sleep - the crickets, the water, the occasional snapping of branches or rustle of leaves (those weren't all that calming, but I fell asleep anyway).
I woke up the next morning not long after the sun peeked over the distant horizon and contemplated the fact that today was my 32nd birthday and I got to spend it waking up in a hammock in a jungle in Cambodia. My day would consist of trekking through the jungle, swimming in waterfalls and really only worrying about staying hydrated. It was a celebration amidst five-and-a-half months of traveling and I got to share it all with one of the most important people in my life, my sister. It was going to be a good day!
We ate fried eggs over noodles, packed up our stuff and and set off. Rhom was excited to tell us that we weren't going through much jungle today, so we weren't going to have to worry about leeches. This path was more inhabited and we saw houses on stilts scattered here and there while we walked back to the main road. Luckily, the first half of the morning was cloudy, so even though it was still hot, we didn't have to walk in the sun. Today was only 14 kilometers instead of 20, so we wouldn't be walking all that long anyway. We again headed into knee to head high grasses to have lunch and a refreshing dip in a waterfall that turned out to be the same waterfall Nicolle and I had visited the day we got there.
After another swim and lunch we started the forty five minute walk to town. There was a sugar cane juice stand on the side of the road about half way in and we stopped to buy a cup. The long sticks of sugarcane go into a grinder with a big wheel on one side where the cane is crushed and the juice is funneled into a glass. I'm not really sure how to describe the taste. A little like sugar water maybe, but that makes it sound bland and it isn't. However it's best described, know that it's refreshing and yummy. We also got to meet Khay's daughter and sister in law, who were running the stand. They didn't speak any English, but we all communicated through Jhom. After a few pleasantries they had Jhom inform us that they thought our white skin was beautiful (and they loved Nicolle's teeth). There seems to be a cultural obsession in parts of Asia, at least the countries I've been to, to have the most pale skin possible. There are whitening agents in everything - sun block, lotion, cream, everything you rub on your skin. Apparently, that's one of the three main standards for beauty - light skin, long hair and a little waist. It's funny that even in a tiny little village in Cambodia you come across self imposed, silly standards of beauty.
We shared a bed that night in the upstairs rooms of one of the home-stays in the village. Most of the family wasn't there, and it was late by the time we checked in and showered, so it was almost straight to our room and to bed. The next morning was another hour and a half beautiful boat ride back to Andong Tuk to catch a bus. The same wonderful scenery surrounded us as we went the opposite direction on the river and said goodbye to my favorite part of our adventure in Cambodia.