Where the Wild Things Are: Adventures in Koh Kong, Part I–The Adventure

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I recently went on a four day trek in the Areng Valley (within the province of Koh Kong) where we showered in rivers and using a small bucket and barrel water and had no cell phone or internet access.  All I had with me was my day pack of absolute necessities that I carried with me while we mountain-biked and trekked for many hours a day across this amazing valley.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that requires two posts to cover everything; one for all the amazing places we saw and another to describe the incredible people we met.

I wouldn’t have done anything like this while I was in Cambodia had it not been for my trekking-loving friend TN since I had planned to do some trekking in lush Sapa during my time in Vietnam.  She had looked into a bunch of places and had mentioned one tour company that offered small group adventures that could include mountain biking, trekking, kayaking and meditation so I checked it out.  It looked like amazing scenery and the idea that I could meditate on beaches sounded like the perfect getaway to revitalize myself for the new year.  I mean, why not, right?

I set the wheels in motion to participate in one of these amazing adventures and secured myself a place with The Wild KK Project.  After TN saw my proposed itinerary (that included cycling in and out of the valley, kayaking to beaches, trekking to rivers and, of course, meditating with a young monk all over the place), she was keen to come with me on this awesome adventure of a lifetime.

The group at Wild KK did a great job at organizing everything–from meeting with a member to pick up batteries to give to our guide to arranging a minivan to drive us from Phnom Penh to Thmor Beng, a very small town that served as our jumping off point for the Areng Valley to improvising our itinerary as we went along.

I’m going to say this at the beginning: it didn’t turn out how I expected.  At all.  This was due to several factors including copious amounts of mountain biking that neither of us were mentally or physically prepared for and the other person that participated in our tour, George (more about him in Part II of this story).

Our journey started at 6:00AM on Saturday morning when our minivan picked us up.  As we drove through the city, we picked up several locals all travelling to Koh Kong (by the way, you can fit 12 people in a van designed for 8!).  Our last pick up was the one other person joining our tour, who we knew nothing about other than his name was George. 

We drove for about five hours before reaching the junction where the national road meets the turn-off to Thmor Beng, a small town that served as our jumping off point to head into the Valley.  We had lunch at a small local place and had some interesting conversation with this George character.  Afterwards, we got our mountain bikes sorted out, grabbed our helmets and headed down the road into the valley.

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Thmor Beng

From the moment I got onto my bike, I knew that every part of my pelvis was going to hate me by the end of the day, especially considering all the bumps we encountered.  Biking into the valley was incredible: thick forest that emitted a roar from everything living within it and really fun downward slopes that made all the uphill struggles worth it.  Ripping down those hills alone was one of the most fun and freeing experiences I’ve ever had.

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Mountain biking the open road!

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Trees that have been blessed so the Chinese government can't cut them down to build a highway.

Unfortunately, the experience of riding into the valley wasn’t as good for TN, who had never mountain-biked before in her life.  She assumed that it would be very similar to when she rides the stationary bike at the gym.  Well, let’s just say that she forgot to use her breaks, because it just didn’t occur to her to use them, when she got too close to me one time (on level ground, I should add) that caused a little fender-bender.  It was a precursor of what was to come.

We should have reached our check point where we were to eat and spend the night at around 6:00PM or 7:00PM.  Tien started falling a lot, in part due to really terrible roads, in part due to the fact that her bike’s gears didn’t go any lower than seventh, making it very difficult for her to go uphill and in part because she had no experience mountain biking.  With all of the falling and walking we did, we ended up arriving at around 9:00PM, which meant that we biked for several hours only using the light provided by our headlamps, a fun and unnerving experience in and of itself.

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TN's poor legs!

We arrived, left our bikes and floated across the river on a kayak where we proceeded to have a dinner of rice (obviously), a peanut curry and banana stalks.  By that point though, I was completely soaked in sweat after having ridden a mountain bike for five hours straight and only wanted water.

After dinner, the team made a fire and we got introduced to the rest of the gang.  It was a little challenging but we managed.  We spent a few hours in front of the fire, despite it being very late and us being very tired, talking to SN and D.  There were some other people there but it was too dark to see them and properly meet them.  They included a guy who spoke Khmer and Vietnamese and a young monk. 

At times, the conversation around the fire was challenging because George had some very, shall we say, interesting ideas and opinions but, once we got tired of arguing with him (and, trust me, it was like talking to a brick wall), TN and I sat back, admired how vivid the stars were and laughed to ourselves.

Eventually, we retired to our US Army-issued mosquito-net covered hammocks to sleep.  So badass.  Even though I was really tired, I didn’t sleep much because it got so cold in the middle of the night, despite it being very warm when we went to sleep. 

The next day, we got up with the sun and headed out onto the river for kayaking.  They only had three paddles for three people to go kayaking so TN and I shared rowing duties while George sat back and let SN do all the work.  D had a kayak to himself and just followed us around.

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Letting SN do all the work.

There was some amazing scenery that reminded me of the Whiteshell area of Manitoba, which surprised me.  We came upon a little sandbar that had crocodile foot and tail prints on it.  SN told us that it had probably been there the previous night.  We saw giant red squirrels bouncing through the trees, heard gibbons calling to the sky and came across some local women who had been out fishing.

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Our guide decided to stop at a beach that had no evidence of crocodiles and said “Now, we meditate”.  As per the itinerary, I was expecting our meditation sessions to be led by a monk.  Instead, we all sat down, SN sat up, breathed in deeply and all of a sudden we were expected to meditate.  It was strange and I found it really hard to get in a meditative mindset, especially when some men from a nearby village came to fish.  It was a disappointing experience.

We kayaked back to our campsite, had a light brunch of the previous night’s leftovers and we told that we were going to trek a short distance to a billabong to see if we could spot some of the endangered Siamese crocodiles. Nothing but very thorny trees were spotted so we didn’t spend long there before heading back to our campsite to gather our things and do more mountain-biking.  I will point out that we were not supposed to mountain bike again until we left the valley.  It took all of our willpower to get on that bike again–our asses (and TN’s poor, battered legs) hurt like hell and we were incredibly dehydrated because we ran out of filtered water the night before.

It was a torturous journey back to the main road but, we made it.  Thankfully, our guide had pity on us and acquired coconuts so we could get properly hydrated.  I don’t know for sure, but I think he just walked into someone’s yard and asked if he could get four coconuts from their trees.  The owner of the coconut trees tried to knock down some coconuts with a really long stick initially but that proved to be ineffective.  So, he climbed tree, picked the coconuts and tossed them to the ground where SN used a machete to make holes in which to insert straws.

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It was possibly the best drink I’ve ever had.  It was giant, sweet and super-hydrating.  Fun fact: coconut water has tons of electrolytes so it’s a great pre-workout drink!  And, shit, we needed it.

We proceeded to ride for a couple more hours, in the middle of the day, under the Cambodian sun with our ultimate destination being a temple.  Once again, I was soaked with sweat by the time we got there and, since there are no shower facilities in the middle of the wilderness, I felt pretty gross.

We arrived at the temple, which was very different from the pagodas that I’m used to seeing in Phnom Penh.  The buildings were all raised on stilts because the entire area floods in the wet season and the buildings were plain wood, unlike the intricate and colourful pagodas of the city. 

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Even monks have to hang their laundry!

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Sunset at the temple. #viewfrommyhammock

We rested and tried to prepare mentally to travel onward in a little while to an abandoned village.  Again, SN was perceptive and decided we needed to rest that afternoon, especially considering that the road we needed to take to the abandoned village included a three kilometre stretch of, what he called, “bad road”.

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He had a long day.

The temple ended up being my favourite place we visited.  We napped, played with D’s puppies that he’s rescued a few days before and got to know the gang more intimately.  I think the best part was the fact that they had shower facilities.  The “shower” was comprised of two barrels filled with well water with a smaller bucket inside to scoop the water out and was enclosed by straw fence and trees. 

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#hotwatertanks

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No, the water wasn’t hot but, I’ve grown accustomed to cool showers even when it’s cool outside.  Fortunately, it was quite a hot day, I was sweaty and the sun had warmed the water in the barrels so it wasn’t freezing.  It felt so good and refreshing to pour buckets of water on myself, somehow more refreshing than my shower in my room in Phnom Penh.  In fact, I enjoyed that shower so much that I didn’t even care that I was pretty sure that the monk doing some gardening about 10 metres beyond the shower area could see me.  I figured he was breaking more rules if he was sneaking a peek than I was for not caring.  I hope he enjoyed it!

Ah, I’m getting all nostalgic about that glorious shower!

We lounged around until we had to bike back to a village we had passed through earlier for dinner made by locals.  What impressed me about the tour was how focused they were on giving back to the communities within the valley in order to empower them.  Dinner was delicious and we bought some rice wine to enjoy around the fire when we returned to the temple.

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Wrapped up like a baby!

When we returned, the team set up our beds with mosquito nets in bungalows just outside the temple grounds and took care of the serious ant issue they had.  Once that was done, we helped gather wood to make a fire and sat down to enjoy the company and the stars.  We listened to D’s Western-style music playlist that ranged from Michael Buble to Miley Cyrus while SN showed us pictures of other tours they’ve taken people on.  We drank rice wine and laughed at SN’s anger towards the monk who he accused of deleting his favourite song off his lap top.

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Our ant-infested bungalow.

Again, we stayed up too late but eventually decided we needed rest.  As I went into mine and TN’s bungalow, I saw a spider the size of my palm staring back at me.  I don’t remember screaming but, according to TN, I screamed and, within a few seconds, SN and D were at the door to see what was wrong.  I was almost petrified with fear, TN refused to set foot inside the bungalow until it was gone while SN just grabbed the sucker and put it outside.  I’m amazed I slept so well after that incident.

The next day came and that meant more biking.  This was the worst day.  When SN told us there was three kilometres of “bad road”, he meant it.  I didn’t take pictures of this road but, to give you an idea, these were “roads” that would be blocked off in Canada with signs informing people that it was a construction site.  There’s mountain biking and then there’s putting your life on the line to try to bike over and through extensive networks of ruts.  At one point, we literally had to walk our bikes through a construction zone.  It was here that I even started to fall and I felt like I’d done pretty well up until that point.

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Trekking to the abandoned village!

Finally, we reached a point where we started trekking.  If there was one thing TN and I could do, it was trek.  We arrived at the abandoned village where we rested for about half an hour and they all snacked on baguette with condensed milk on top (apparently it’s really good.  Just another thing I’ll have to try when I make my dairy-free condensed milk in the future!).

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The lake at the abandoned village.

No buildings or anything stand here anymore, just a large lake where there were a few water buffalo hanging out.  Once we rested and drank some water, we trekked for an hour to a river where we could swim.  On the way, we saw several hornbills (they’re so huge that you hear their wings displacing the air before you see them) and heard a group of wild pigs in the distance and SN slyly asked to borrow a knife.  Thankfully, we didn’t need it. 

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Onward to the river!

It was a little arduous because we really wanted to rest but swimming in the river was lovely although, a little hazardous because there was only rocks in the riverbed that were very slippery and difficult to walk on. 

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While wading around in the river, I saw at least four types of fish that liked to nibble at my toes.  Once we got out and were waiting for George to stop taking pictures, a butterfly started flying in circles around me wherever I went, landing on me several times.  Maybe it thought I was a flower?

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Yes, I wrapped a scarf around my head. The sun was unforgiving and I don't have a hat!

When we returned, SN put a couple fish he’d “caught” (read: bought from the fishermen we’d passed on the way back) on sharpened sticks to cook over the fire.  When they were finally done, we were all starving.  The entire group settled down on the ground to enjoy our last dinner all together until the stars and by the light of our head lamps.

Afterwards, we sat around the fire for awhile and I pretended to meditate to avoid talking to George, only the second time any of us had attempted to meditate the whole time, despite the original itinerary stating that we were to meditate every day.

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Our last fire as a team in the valley!

There was no rice wine by the fire that night but we made tea by boiling water over the fire and saw a tiny scorpion before we zipped up our hammocks and drifted off for the night.  We knew we had a big day ahead of us–we were supposed to bike all day to get out of the valley.

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Sunset at the abandoned village.

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US Army issued mosquito net-covered hammocks. #hotelsinthewilderness

So, the next morning, we trekked back to our bikes, which George constantly complained he hadn’t “trained enough” for and started on the road back to civilization.  We stopped off for a break at the temple where all of us fell asleep within 20 minutes of being there and SN told TN and I that he arranged for two motos to take us out of the valley since we were too exhausted to bike out.  So, after an hour at the temple, lounging, napping and playing with No and Hy (D’s rescue puppies) we packed up, I climbed on a moto with H and TN got on a moto with SN and we sped off.

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I really enjoyed riding the moto out of the valley despite the fact that I had to hang on for dear life or risk being thrown off.  I was able to fully appreciate the view and not be thinking “Oh my Gaga, when is this torture going to end?!”  We got stuck in some mud and almost hit some chickens that were chilling in the middle of the road but we made it out and to the guesthouse where we were to spend the night.

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Our guesthouse in Thmor Beng.

At this point, I was glad that we’d be going back to some semblance of civilization.  I had been looking forward to having another shower all day and I thought the guesthouse would have decent ones.  Well, the room was okay.  Basic but clean enough.  The couple that owned it were really nice and gave us a giant papaya from their backyard to snack on.  Seriously, this thing was as big as a newborn and TN and I ate almost the whole thing!

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Our guesthouse also had bananas growing in the front, papayas in the back.

The bathroom, on the other hand, made me not want to eat or drink water so I never had to enter it.  It had no light in it, looked like it was bare drywall, looked like it had never been cleaned and I probably contained its own ecosystem.  I certainly wasn’t the only living thing in there.  Needless to say, my shower that I’d been waiting so long for was disappointing.

We waited around for George to get back and then headed to dinner.  Thmor Beng is an extremely small town and the sun sets by 6:00PM this time of year so there was nothing for us to do after dinner but head back to the guesthouse and go to sleep.  It was a good thing we did because we were exhausted and SN planned to drive us to the national road so we could catch and early bus back to Phnom Penh.  Again, I was so excited to back to civilization even though we’d heard that the military presence in the city had increased a lot after the garment worker’s strike turned violent on Friday (in case you missed it, four people died after police started spraying bullets into a crowd of strikers).

Again, things didn’t go as planned.  We woke up early, got an early breakfast but didn’t moto to the national road because another member of the Wild KK team wanted all of us to go together meaning that we had to catch a later bus.

Thus began our hellish voyage home.  SN had arranged for some locals that were travelling to Koh Kong City to deliver us to the national road with them.  We got into a pick up truck with a bunch of people we didn’t know while SN sped off on his moto.  We were to meet him at the national road, where he would purchase bus tickets for us and make sure we caught a bus.

First, we waited for around half an hour for some woman to get in the truck with us.  Then, we got on the road and we thought it would be smooth sailing from there on out.  I don’t know why I expected that, given that nothing else had gone to plan up until that point.

During the drive down this road–which takes a good hour and a half because there are so many ruts and holes–we had to stop to sell something to some people; the old woman we were transporting had to get out and pray when we passed some spirit houses; we got searched by the Wildlife Alliance.

By the time we got there, we were all grumpy and tired.  SN was freaking out because he’d been waiting over an hour for us and thought we would miss the bus.  It turns out, we almost did because, just 10 minutes later, we were on it.

As if we hadn’t been through enough, this bus was awful.  The air conditioning had broken down and we were sweating bullets just sitting in our seats.  They’d opened the emergency exits on the roof and the front door to allow maximum airflow to everyone but it was extremely hot that day.  Thankfully, they managed to repair it when we stopped for lunch.  We had to stop to let those going to Sihanoukville transfer buses.  We had to stop several times because the bus was broken.  We had to stop so they could try to repair the breaks, which were almost completely shot.  Because the breaks were shot, we couldn’t drive very fast.  In the end, a bus trip that should have taken six hours took us nine.  To add insult to injury, our tuk tuk that we called to pick us up never showed so we stood on a random street corner for over half an hour before we gave up and hailed a moto, the driver of which tried to guilt us into paying more than the price we’d agreed on before we got on.  He didn’t seem to get that we knew the ropes already and were very grumpy.

It felt so good to be home.  I took a long shower, chatted with a couple of my housemates and soon drifted off to sleep, thankful to be in my own bed again.

Well, that post went on a lot long than I thought it would.  I’ll end off informing you all that the beautiful Areng Valley may not exist for much longer because the Chinese government wants to build a hydro dam there.  Wild KK is doing their best to prevent this from happening by blessing trees, telling locals about what they can do to defend their homes and land and promoting eco-tourism to this picturesque area of the world.  If you want to learn more about their efforts to save the Areng Valley, click here.  If you’d like to donate to this incredible project, you can do so here.  I can tell you that most of the money goes directly to projects because all of the people that made our adventure possible are either volunteers or receive a very small stipend, around $15 per month.

Even though it wasn’t what I expected at all, I enjoyed my experience in the Areng Valley with Wild KK.  I mountain biked more than I ever thought I could, I pushed through a lot of pain an saw some amazing sites.  However, my favourite parts of the entire thing revolved around talking to the wonderful Wild KK team, getting to know their stories and, trust me, there are some good ones.

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Butterfly stream.

That completes my account of what we did and where we visited in the luscious Areng Valley.  Tune in next time, dear Internets, to learn about the colourful cast of characters that accompanied us!

Meggo

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