Early in the morning we try and visit the Sombok monastery, the main cultural interest in Kratie, but it is about 10 kilometers out of town and in this rainy season it may be risky to get there – the Mekong is near its high-level mark, and the white-board which is updated daily near the gas station does not indicate any improvement for the next day or two. No choice, it's now or never, off we go...
After some negotiations with a taxi driver, six of us decide to take on rain and possible floods and give it a try. As we move out of Kratie, the road takes us through a series of hamlets, mostly on stilts. The latter are actually proving their worth, as the ground below is completely flooded, and so are the rice fields which begin just behind the hamlets and continue as far as the eye can see. As usual, people, especially children, are friendly and cheerful. The dirt road, all things considered, is in pretty good shape. Traffic is almost nonexistant, except for the omnipresent motorcycles growling to and fro – not an insignificant exception as we would soon find out. After driving for several kilometers our driver makes a right turn and the road suddenly become much rougher, the mud is deeper and pretty soon we are stuck. We push the taxi out of its hole but the driver refuses to go on.
We get out of the taxi and walk, but the road suddenly ends a few hundred meters further; a reinforced concrete bridge is in the making to pass over a flooded area but it is nowhere near to being finished. No one is at work on the site. There would still be a way to go to the monastery by wading the flooded field in front of us, under and around the bridge-to-be. Judging from some Cambodians we see doing just that, we would have water up to our knees, but we hesitate and time is short, we could miss our boat to Stung Treng. To be honest, I am not sure I would have waded anyway, even if we had had the time, at the risk of leeches and infections. We feel a bit silly and are surely disappointed but this is the kind of setbacks one must factor in the trip when travelling in the tropical jungle during the monsoon season…
Back on the taxi, we are resigned to head back to Kratie, or so we thought. Not a minute after we slam the door of the vehicle shut and we are stuck in the mud again. Now all of us are trying to help pushing the vehicle back and forward. At one point it looks as if it can make it, we all jump on board again but the driver steers dangerously close to the of curb of the road and one wheel is about to hang over the edge, some five meters below which the sight of a muddy ditch makes our hearts pump just a bit too fast for comfort. We get off the taxi with some haste. The taxi is stuck again, and it refuses to come out of the hole in which its spinning wheels have confined it. We may no longer wait, so we leave the driver there and run back to the main road to catch some motorcycles and hitch a ride back to “town”.
On the way back, again we pass by the peaceful hamlets we had seen earlier. My driver likes to ride his bike quite fast, it is fun but I must hold on tight to him and to my cameras. The, when we get to Kratie, he inexplicably stops at some shop along the way, and calls someone he knows out. We are short of time and I become a bit impatient, but he had a good reason: as we speak no Khmer and they speak none of our multiple European languages they had not idea where we wanted to go, so the shopkeeper translates and wishes up a happy journey, after which we are, finally, on our way to rejoin the rest of the group and our baggage and can hop onto the boat to Stung Treng. We can only hope the driver was able to get his taxi off the hole after all, and I feel sorry we wre not more helpful and had to leave him there. I leave some money for him at our hotel with a local guide who knows him.
The cigar-tube fast boat up the Mekong, from Kratie to Stung Treng, does not leave early in the morning like all the others we have taken so far. It waits for the cigar-tube which arrives from Phnom Penh around noon, so that those who so wish can transfer from one boat to the other and do the whole trip in one day. When the boat from the capital arrives, on time at noon, we are ready to proceed north. The boat today is smaller than the ones we used so far; same cigar-tube shape, same freezing air-con, same lack of open windows, same only doors at the front of the cabin, same filthy toilet, just smaller. Even the seats, packed as tight as humanly possible, seem smaller; I am anything but a big man, but I barely fit in my place. In addition, for some reason we are unceremoniously told we must all take our seat inside, no seating on the roof allowed. Which is just as well, as it is raining pretty hard.
The cabin is booked solid, every seat is taken. OK the chances of anything happening on a calm river ride are small, but if we had a problem this boat would become a mass grave in no time. Again I count on statistics being on my side, we only have to take this boat once! The TV set starts playing a kung-fu video, and the volume is turned all the way up. Some of the Cambodians on board seem to enjoy it, most others try to doze off; a few pass food and drinks around. Very few chat, a sort of uneasy silence pervades the cabin. A couple of us are uncomfortable, and decide to challenge both our orders and the icy rain and go seat outside on the cabin’s roof. Like everything else on this boat, the passageway around it is smaller too, and so are the hand rails we have to hold on to for our dear life as me walk from the door near the bow toward a free spot amidship on the roof. In the end, half a dozen of us find a way to sit down between a motorcycle and various other trunks and cases. It rains pretty hard and the boat’s speed makes each raindrop hit hard on my face, but it is pleasant and refreshing to be out here in the open.
We have now left the last major town of Cambodia behind us and are cutting through a rural area as we get closer to the Laotian border. The land route is still not entirely safe and stories of hold-ups and even assassinations countinue to discourage overland travel between Cambodia and Laos, but on the river we are feel safe. The Mekong invites us again toward its deeper recesses. Our floating cigar tube penetrates one more time, with inexorable determination, the thick jungle. The poor hamlets, witnesses of a stubborn human will to conquer this all-swallowing nature, become fewer and farther between. Sometimes just a house or two dot the deep green vegetation. The further we sail upstream, the narrower the river becomes, and we are now so close to both river banks can now distinctly make out scenes of life on its river banks.
We can now establish eye contact with the curious inhabitants. Each wave of their hands is both a warm, cheery welcome and a melancholy, definitive adieu. Maybe it’s the boat’s gentle rolling that is numbing my brain, but I can not help but wonder: what are we looking for among these hospitable strangers? What is the point of my being here, as I can not speak to them and will never even see them again? How much more do I understand after this quick passing through? And yet I do remain convinced that even this tenuous connection does make for some communication, and therefore does help me absorb just a bit more the reality of this country.
Landfall in Stung Treng, which means the “river tree”. The bow of our cigar tube gently closes in on the muddy and steep slope of the river bank. The usual wooden plank is laid down and passengers begin to disembark, keeping their precarious balance as the boat crew helps them to the firm ground; after that, it is a dozen meters of uphill steps in the mud to the road. A few boys working for the local guesthouses eagerly approach foreigners, they brandish their bilingual English-Cambodian business cards (sometimes trilingual, in Chinese as well) and offer to help carry our luggage while trying to persuade us their guesthous really is the best in town.
As soon as we are on the ground we have an emergency. One tourist from Milan has dislocated his shoulder and is suffereing extreme pain. The boys from the guesthouses scurry around looking for a doctor, but none is at hand. After an hour or so, someone comes around saying they found a friend of a friend who once did perform the painful maneuver to replace someone’s shoulder. He is available to try and do it again. It is not very reassuring, but it is as good care as we are going to get, and the unfortunate tourist, who can hardly move in his condition, has no choice, accepts the offer. In the evening I will see him again at our guesthouse and he looks much better, the friend of the friend did know what he was doing and the shoulder is back in its place; it still hurts but it will be allright. Phew!