Sunday, February 27, 2011

Welcome to Combodia: Ban Lung - Cambodia

Based on advice from a pharmacy owner on Don Det that foreigners haven't had much luck with ATMs in the north of Cambodia, we hedged our bets on buying a bus ticket and trying the ATM in Stung Treng.  Stung Treng is placed a short way south of the border crossing just off a major road to Phnom Penh and isn’t as far off the beaten track as our desired destination of Ban Lung.  We figured that if our cards work here then they would also work in Ban Lung and we wouldn't be penniless in the middle of nowhere!  The border crossing was interesting.  The official VISA into Cambodia is twenty dollars US but by the end of the whole process I think we had paid about twenty five each altogether with the additional bribes in the form of phony but 'mandatory' health checks and a dollar here and there for 'processing fees'.  An Israeli guy was the only person who contested the corruption from two busloads of us and he ended up delaying up his entire bus for about an hour.  To his credit he managed to get through only overpaying by about three dollars after being mocked by the corrupt border officials, "Are you a King? You talk like a King!" being one of the official's remarks.  We didn't especially fancy finding out what those border cells were like so kept our necks below the radar.

Now on the Cambodian side of no man's land, we had a short journey to take us to the rather ugly and dusty town of Stung Treng and checked into a pleasant enough six dollar hotel room (US dollars are accepted as readily as Cambodian Real, their native currency).  We then made our way to the ATM which was a fair walk from where we were staying, only to find that none of our cards could withdraw cash and the bank was closed owing to it being a Sunday.  There was a member of staff who was extremely helpful and tried to see why our plastic wasn't working by calling up the helpdesk but could only assume that our issuers had blocked our cards.  There wasn't much we could do but try to plan our next move.  We had enough money for a bus out the next day where we knew we could get money but would sacrifice visiting Ban Lung, the problem was that this bus left at seven am, the same time that the banks opened.  Our other option was to risk it and assume we would be able to get cash from the bank and get the afternoon bus East to Ban Lung.  We were down to our last five dollars so we decided to spend one of them on going online to check out our options.  We Skyped our bank to discover that no blocks had been put in place on the card, meaning that either the ATM was faulty when we visited it or our cards simply would not work there... oh dear.  We had seen a Western Union sign outside the bank so we decided the safest option would be to wire some of our own money to the bank at a bit of cost.  All in all we were now a lot more comfortable that we weren't going to end up penniless on the streets but we were still apprehensive as if it wasn't successful we would have been stuck minus cash. 

Luckily, when we arrived at the bank again on Monday we saw the same member of staff who had tried to help us the day before.  The bank was full of waiting customers and service was slow, but when it was just looking like it was going to close for lunch (a parade of staff marched down the stairs and outside) we were accompanied to the counter to collect our cash.  We were victorious! We then waited around for our bus to Ban Lung that afternoon.  It has just got dark by the time we arrived and were bombarded with moto drivers trying to lure us to their hotels and guest houses.  We opted for Star Hotel, purely because we were tired and it was mentioned as being an okay place to say in the Lonely Planet.  The room was big but slightly unkempt, we took it and decided to eat in the hotel restaurant where the quality and value of the food was amazing.  We opted for a BBQ beef dish, where the meat comes out raw along with some veg and an egg then a member of staff cranks on the gas and cooks it in front of you all for four dollars with twice as much as you could eat.

The following day we set off to find the main attraction of a crater lake which is a large circular lake formed in, you guessed it... a volcanic crater.  Having received directions from the hotel we set off walking in the hot sun.  This was a good chance to see the local area and we walked through a busy and bustling market with vehicles flying from all directions and then onto a road with a few more bars and restaurants aimed at travellers.  The walk was definitely longer than we had planned, perhaps an hour and a half which feels like a lot more in the heat, but because we always thought that we were close to our destination we turned down the moto drivers who stopped to try to pick up a fare. 
We finally found the lake after asking for directions once or twice.  The area is stunning especially so with the sunshine.  It reminded me a lot of Queen's Valley Reservoir in Jersey and there were as many Cambodians if not more than there were foreigners all enjoying themselves in the sunshine and the water.  Whilst we weren't overly keen to leave our bags anywhere (as people would seem to be interested in getting close to them whilst we were in the lake) we managed to stay close to the dock or take it in turns to swim and enjoy cooling off.  We also happened to meet a nice Columbian called Carlos who gave us lots of good advice about South America and it was fun chatting in general.  Having had a nice chilled day we set off for the long walk home, luckily after about twenty minutes or so the hotel owner Mr. Leng drove past in his four wheel drive and gave us a much appreciated lift back.

The crater lake at Ban Lung

The next day was Chinese New Year’s Eve and we had been forewarned as to the drunken state that most of the road users would be in for pretty much the whole of the day.  The road from our hotel was mostly without pavement and felt unsafe even during the day, but at night it was completely unlit with a couple of dangerous crossroads that we had to tackle in order to get anywhere.  We opted to not go too far and decided to see in the New Year at the hotel restaurant which turned out to be a great night, then visit the Crater Lake again the next day.

The lake area was absolutely packed with people on our second visit.  There was a band playing with a typically loud but not great quality PA system and there were people drinking and dancing and still celebrating the New Year.  We went for a wander round the perimeter of the lake to find some space of our own to relax and maybe swim until we ended up settling down next to three Cambodians who insisted that we help them through their crate of beer so we gladly obliged.  We spent the afternoon chatting and learning to count in Khmer before it started to get dark and we remembered that we had a long walk ahead of us for which we may need our wits to stay vigilant for drunk drivers and the rest.  Fortunately they had a sober friend who offered to give us a ride back on his motorbike which we were grateful for as it enabled us to get back before dark.  They gave us their phone number but unfortunately we didn't have a Cambodian sim card to get back in touch before we left.  We were told that Kratie was a good place to go, so we bought a ticket and set off the next morning having had a great few days in Ban Lung.   

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