Where the Wild Things Are: Adventures in Koh Kong, Part II–The Peeps

As I mentioned in my last post, my favourite part of my tour of the Areng Valley was getting to know the Wild KK team.  Then there was our co-tourist, George, who was unpleasant yet amusing to be around.  I hope I can paint an accurate picture of all of them while making you, lovely Internets, laugh.

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Part of our team by the fire on our first night!

Our Wild KK tourism team consisted of our main guide, SN; H, who made all the food and delivered it to our checkpoints (edit–SN called TN and I last night and told us that H had lied to us the entire time–locals made all the food and H just delivered it to us!); D, who assisted in delivering supplies to our campsites and setting things up; and The Monk, who sort of drifted in and out.  Then, here was my amazing pal TN and our less-than-amazing tour partner, George.

Let’s get started, shall we?

SN
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I don’t even know where to start with SN.  He was incredibly talkative and charismatic the entire time and attended to our every need and request.  He constantly tried to convince us that he’d caught the fish everyone ate for dinner that day and that he was friends with all the animals in the jungle, but also that they were afraid of him.

From what little time we had to get to know him, I know this: he grew up in Kampong Thom with several brothers and sisters (I can’t remember how many of each) and his father was an alcoholic when he was young so his mother basically raised them by herself.  He said that she would wake up at 3:00AM everyday to get ready, provide food for the kids before school and go sell vegetables at the market.  He had nothing but great things to say about his mother and wore a piece of rope that belonged to her around his waist–Cambodians believe it provides them with protection against anything that could harm them, namely tigers and wild pigs.

He started dating a girl in Kampong Thom and, when they had been dating for awhile, he came to Phnom Penh for a few weeks to do something (I think it was to take a class).  She told him that she decided to move to Siem Reap province but he didn’t believe her.  He was surprised and heartbroken that she’d actually done it when he returned to Kampong Thom.  He was so heartbroken that he decided to move to Chi Phat with little more than the clothes on his back, where he still lives when he’s not busy guiding people through the Areng Valley.

Like I said, he loved to talk.  He would tell stories about everything.  The night that we all spent at the temple, we huddled around the fire, broke out the rice wine and he pulled out his laptop to show us pictures and play music.  He had some incredible pictures from other adventures he’d guided in the Valley, explaining that one of the guys in the pictures was brokenhearted while they were there and wanted to jump off the waterfall.  There was another guy who he said was “crazy” because he’d do anything, like stand in the middle of a 15 metre waterfall. 

The best part of the night was hearing the story about the monk who wanted them to take tons of pictures of him.  On a previous trek, a senior monk went trekking with the group up the mountain to the waterfall and, according to SN, he’s the only monk who is able to meditate while sitting on a rock in the middle of the falls–a very important person.  Anyway, contrary to what I thought monks were all about, apparently this guy demanded that they take tons of pictures of him everywhere and expected them to take 100s of pictures until he got a shot that caught his good side.  Eventually, SN tired of this and started saying that, if the monk wanted to eat in the morning (since they’re only allowed to eat breakfast and lunch), then he couldn’t ask for more pictures.  In actuality, SN put it in a way that was very Seinfeld-ian: “No food for monk!!”. 

It was clear from the pictures that they hadn’t cut him off soon enough because, every few pictures, there would be a picture of the monk and SN would just say “monk” in the most monotone voice imaginable.  It sounds boring but the homemade rice wine was pretty potent so everything was funny!

To top off, SN had some interesting opinions about TN and I being on such an adventure.  First, he said that, if he saw a woman with bruises on her legs (as TN did after falling so much on day one), he would be afraid of her.  He explained it’s because Khmer women don’t play any sort of sports or anything so, seeing a woman who obviously had participated in some hardcore physical activity was shocking to him. 

Second, he asked us if we wanted to be models–neither of us knew how to reply to that one.  Neither of us are THAT skinny and we don’t meet the height requirements–not by a long shot–so we were perplexed.  According to SN, though, he said that we’re both “slim” and we’re on this crazy trek so we must want to be models!  We just said “No, we don’t want to be models” and proceeded to laugh at him.

Finally, and thankfully, our interactions with SN didn’t stop when we left the valley.  In fact, he called TN last night and we had a delightful chat.  He was at the guesthouse in Thmor Beng we’d stayed at just a week ago with a couple he had just taken through the Valley.  We assumed he wanted to tell us something specific or keep us updated on everyone but, mostly he talked about the fact that he’d gotten a cold from sleeping in the hammocks for a few days in the Valley, where it gets quite cold at night and that it had been very hot yesterday.  The best part was when we asked if he called George like he was calling us and he said “No, I not call George”.  Maybe we weren’t too scary for him after all.

D
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D was a member of the Wild KK team who helped set up our campsites, transport things from place to place and the papa of the two puppies TN and I played with while we were at the temple.  He was pretty quiet the first couple days but, around the fire, we got to know him better.

He had been working with Wild KK only a couple weeks and was from Phnom Penh.  Before he came to work in the valley he had worked for a restaurant in the city called The Vegetarian (which, by the way, is delicious).  Yet, he was still amazed when he found out that I eat vegetarian ALL THE TIME.

On the first night, we were talking about music and, somehow, “Wrecking Ball” made its way into our conversation (I won’t lie, I was probably the one who brought it up).  I’d talked to other Cambodians about celebrities but they never know who Miley Cyrus is, surprisingly.  Obviously, D isn’t like other Cambodians because he started singing “Wrecking Ball” and said that he loved that song.  He biked with us for a little while the second day and, at times, he’d start whistling it.  It was awesome.

Around the fire the next day, we listened to his Western music playlist, which consisted of Bruno Mars, Celine Dion (namely, “The Power of Love” and “My Heart Will Go On”, which I tried to convince them was Canada’s national anthem) and Michael Buble, among some other artists that came completely out of left field.

We sang and we discovered that he’d rescued his dogs just a couple days earlier from the village nearby.  At dinner earlier in the night, we also found out that he’s an animal whisperer of sorts.  At the house where we ate dinner, the family had a cat and I obviously wanted to play with it.  However, the cats here are all but feral, with most of them basically fending for themselves.  When I sat near the cat, it refused to come near me but, when D sat with me, it came right over and sat down.  When it started getting too excited and tried to scratch me, D would slowly start touching it’s head and jawline until it melted into kitty heaven.  After we finished at dinner, he packed up all the food we hadn’t eaten and brought it back to the temple to feed his dogs, which is quite out of the ordinary for people in Cambodia.

All in all, D was certainly the sweetheart of the team and our temple experience was only made better because of his puppies!

The Monk

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I wasn't sure if I was allowed to take pictures of the monk...so I did it when he wasn't looking.

Although we were supposed to be meditating all over the place with a young but very capable monk, we didn’t really see him much outside when we were all hanging around the temple.  He didn’t speak any English but we still learned some things about him that we thought were funny given that he’s a monk.

First, whenever he was able, he’d have the Wild KK DLSR in his hands, taking pictures and looking through them all.  It really surprised us that these monks seemed to be really into pictures!

Second, and more strangely, I don’t think I ever saw him without his mini Beats speaker and headphones.  They sell cheap knockoffs everywhere here and this monk had got hold of some.  I have no idea what he was listening to but I always hoped it was “Wrecking Ball” on repeat.

H

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For some reason, this is the only picture TN and I have of H.

H was probably the most interesting member of the Wild KK, yet he was even quieter than D.  In fact, we hardly heard any of what he had to say until the last few hours we were with the whole team.

The first thing we knew about H was that he could speak Vietnamese, which SN told us after he found out that TN could speak Vietnamese, even though she claims she’s not very good.  Since he’s only been learning English for a couple months, TN spoke to him in Vietnamese and found out some info about his life while we were relaxing between bouts of biking.

He is Khmer but his family lives in Vietnam, where he was born and lived for the first eight years of his life.  Surprisingly, this isn’t where he learned Vietnamese–he didn’t speak a word of it before he came to Cambodia.  We still don’t know why he came to Cambodia but we know he lived in Phnom Penh for a long time, where he went to university and worked.  He learned to speak Vietnamese while working at Ngon, a (not so delicious) Vietnamese/Khmer restaurant in the city, for a year.  Pretty impressive!

I learned the most about him when we stopped to wait for the others at Butterfly Stream on the way out of the Valley on the last day.  It was just he and I sitting on the rocks and listening to the river when he started telling me that he was going to university before he came to work with Wild KK but he left because he can’t let the government destroy the Areng Valley for a hydro dam.

He went on to tell me that he misses his family, who still live in Vietnam, and wants to see them badly but he can’t go back or else the police would arrest him.  When I asked why they would arrest him, he said that he had been the leader of a youth group for peace, something the Vietnamese government doesn’t want to encourage.  He would continually sing Michael Buble’s song “Home” and it was heartbreaking.

Once we’d gotten out of the Valley and to the guesthouse, TN was able to speak to him in Vietnamese and figure out more about his life.  He had met the guy who set us up with this adventure in the first place, A, during a protest in Phnom Penh to support the people of Thailand who want their corrupt Prime Minister to step down.  The government here is not a fan of protests so the police were sent in to dispel the protestors–armed with potentially-fatal slingshots (note: these are not toys, they are weapons–they can and do cause significant harm to people).  He started to run, as did A and they happened to run to the same place for refuge, struck up a conversation and the rest is history.

Clearly, although very soft spoken and clearly a very gentle person, H isn’t afraid of starting trouble.  The most fascinating and horrifying part of his story was that government officials have threatened to kill him for talking to the people living in the Areng Valley to empower them against the hydro dam that the Chinese and Cambodian governments want to build.  He says he worries about staying out there when there are no tourists because they could kill him and nobody would know.

Also, he doesn’t like to drive in the dark because he’s afraid of ghosts.  It’s just incredible who you meet in the strangest of places!

TN

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So happy with the puppy!

If there’s a more hardcore, bite-the-bullet travel buddy out there, I wouldn’t want to meet them because TN is one of the most industrious people I’ve ever met.

This girl fell at least 20 times on the first day we mountain biked, which cut up her legs and hands, left her with a badly bruised body and a damaged spirit but she never said, “I’m done” or “Let’s turn back”.  She exhaled loudly, said she was fine and got right back on her bike.  Then, once we reached the river where we spent the night, she was still able to joke and have fun, even about herself, despite being so battered.

For the next few days, both of us would fall and she would be the one walking her bike through some areas more than I but she still would never complain!  Since she’s a very knowledgeable pharmacist, she patched herself up with all the weird and wonderful potions she brought, popped some Advil and kept going.

She kept me going when I didn’t want to, we laughed together at George (you’ll see why soon), we made an excellent kayak team and we shared a heart to heart when we spent our last night in the super-dodgy guesthouse.  Seriously, it’s a miracle that this girl is single!

George

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Our introduction to our co-traveller. Yes, that's him taking picture #4957 on the way to the valley...with his camera still attached to his tripod.

This is going to get long.

Before we headed off to the Valley, TN and I knew that we had one other person joining us, by the name of George.  We didn’t know anything about him, other than his name, but I think we both expected something different than he actually was.   I think I could probably write an entire post about our four days with George (the fact that I don’t care about protecting his identity should give you an indication right away about how I feel about him).  We first met him when he got in the front seat of our minivan that was to deliver us to Thmor Beng–I’m eternally grateful that we were in the back seat.

He was older than I expected him to be (I guessed around 50 but it turns out he just looked old because he told us he was 39) and was definitely more insane than I expected him to be.

Right off the bat, we knew that it was going to be an interesting four days with George.  For starters, he was wearing what looked like a safari get-up–a tan hat, tan long-sleeved shirt, tan pants and heavy-looking trekking boots.  As I noticed later, it actually was a matching outfit, indicated by the matching tags on all components and that he was wearing elastic bands around his ankles, I suppose to prevent animals from running up there.  A little weird, yes, but still within the realms of normal.

This wasn’t really an indication of his sanity but it did speak to how much time he’s spent in Asian countries: he put on his seatbelt.  For those of you who have never been to Asia, safety isn’t really the top priority and you’re lucky if your vehicle even has seatbelts.  However, locals would never wear them.  Seeing that he put his on made it clear that he probably had never been to Asia or had not travelled very much within it, if he had.

The next indication was his camera.  While I wouldn’t be one to drag a giant DSLR camera into the jungle for four days when I have to carry all my belongings on my back, this again fell under the realms of normal, albeit a bit excessive.  What tipped the scales in the crazy direction was the fact that he also brought his tripod for his camera.  Where did he think he was going to set up a tripod in the middle of nowhere??  On top of that, he left his camera attached to his tripod when he pulled it out to take pictures along the way, which was–no joke–every few minutes.  This guy must have had 300 pictures by the time we got to Thmor Beng!  It was especially annoying because he started getting out of the van to take pictures of everything and we had to wait for him to get back in before we could keep going.  Also really annoying was that he seemed to treat the locals like they were in a zoo–taking pictures without permission and ogling constantly.

Still, in a rare moment where I tried to pretend that I’m a good person, I tried to tell myself that maybe he was a really nice guy that’s just really into pictures.

That changed when we made it to the junction where the national road meets the really dodgy road to Thmor Beng.  Our amazing guide, SN, met us there, introduced himself and we all chatted for a few minutes.  I always worry about having things to eat when I’m travelling so I decided to check with SN to ensure they knew that I’m a die-hard veggie lover.  That was all well and good but George decided to make a really lame joke along the lines of “Oh!  What do you eat?  You must eat tons of the meat!  Ha ha ha!” in his stupid accent.  I’ll be clear: I don’t mind if people joke about the fact that I don’t eat meat, eggs or milk but I expect that, if someone does, it’s at least funny.

Anyway, we finally made it to Thmor Beng where we went to a little local place for lunch and got to know each other.  The next crazy indication came before we had even pulled out our chairs.  TN and I were told–in fact, it was implored upon us–to only bring one small bag of absolute necessities because we’d be carrying everything on our backs the entire time we were in the Areng Valley.  This guy not only brought his DSLR camera, tripod but a full duffle bag that was probably as tall and heavy as I am.  When TN and I saw this, we just turned to each other and laughed, knowing that we would be very interested in seeing how that would go over with SN.

When he saw it, SN made this sound that Cambodians make when something less-than-ideal happens that’s also a little bit surprising.  I would describe it as “ugh” with and “ooo” sound in place of the “u”.  Anyway, he made this sound and said that we had to do something with it because he couldn’t bring it with him into the valley.  The solution was to drop it off at someone’s house.

For lunch, we had rice (obviously), fried morning glory (a leafy green that I’m getting SO sick of) and a fish soup for the other three.  At one point, SN offered George more of the fish soup and George sort of went off on him, saying that “doesn’t eat much meat because it’s bad for you.  I’m basically vegetarian…just eat a little meat for the health.  You shouldn’t eat so much meat”.  What?  Just an hour earlier, he was making fun of me for not consuming meat or eggs and now he reveals that he’s “basically a vegetarian” in an asshole kind of way?  That’s when I really started to dislike him.

Once we were on the road, TN had an incident where she got too close to my back tire and didn’t think to use her breaks to stop from hitting me, which caused a little fender bender (but nobody was hurt or even fell).  After that, George was convinced that she had no idea what breaks were and took it upon himself to not only show her how to squeeze the breaks over and over and over and over but he’d also remind her at random intervals “Use your breaks–like this!” as if she has the mind of a goldfish.

When he’d catch up to me (which wasn’t often–I liked to go ahead of SN and soar down all those hills myself), he constantly tell me that the ride was “a little difficult” for him because he was jetlagged…”just a little”.  I don’t know if he was trying to impress me or is just bad at making normal conversation–or maybe it was a bit of both–but it got annoying and started to come off as cocky, even if he didn’t intend it that way.

The best part was when we were sitting around the fire on that first night and, somehow, he brought up Cambodia’s plethora of problems.  He decided to offer a complete solution to everything and it was very simple: everyone just pull a Gandhi and go on strike!  When we pointed out that that would very likely harm the people more than the government and that Cambodia’s government doesn’t have the cleanest track record for killing people (in fact, the day before, police officers shot and killed four people for participating in a strike), his response was “But if everyone in the country goes on strike, they can’t kill everyone” and “If they try to do that, the UN will come and fix it”.  Are you kidding me?

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I guess he still had the jetlag.

We argued for a little while, citing examples like the Khmer Rouge and Syria but eventually left him in his little dream world.  From then on, we mostly just laughed at him, especially the fact that he referred to all sentient beings other than humans as “animals”.  Tiger?  Animal.  Elephant?  Animal.  Ant?  Animal.  Mosquito?  Most definitely an animal.  It was especially hilarious when he’d think there were ants in his hammock or worms in a banana that had large seeds.

Another good line from that night was when he asked our guide to go to the jungle because he wanted to see “really big trees”.  We told him that he didn’t need to go to the jungle specifically to see “really big trees”, he could see them all over Angkor Wat, especially at Ta Prohm but he protested, saying that he wanted to see the trees that aren’t for tourists (what were we, then?).  We just laughed, said “Oh, yeah, those trees that have been there for hundreds of years were planted for tourists to see now.  Good point.  Let’s go to the jungle to see trees” and were on our way.

Naturally, there was a lot of stopping on his part to take five million pictures but we expected that after being in a car with him for 10 minutes.  One particular incident stands out in my mind as absolutely ridiculous, though.  It happened when we stopped to get some coconuts after we begged for more water before biking for several hours in the hot sun.  He obviously took at least 200 pictures of the guy climbing the coconut tree, the house, the tree, the woman raking, the chickens but then he decided to take video of himself drinking the coconut water. 

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Picture #376 957 of the guy in the coconut tree.

He got SN to hold his camera, plopped himself on the ground, stuck the straw in his mouth, took a long swig then did the most exaggerated gesture (I feel like that’s not a strong enough word but I don’t know what else to call it) of refreshment I think I will ever see.  It started with a loud “Khaaaaw!” along with a head shake then continued on to include some “Whoooo!!!”s and more head shaking.  I wish SO BADLY I had that moment on video because I could hardly believe what I was seeing, it was that ridiculous. 

Well, the most ridiculous thing I’d seen until a few minutes later when SN chopped open the coconut so he could eat the flesh.  He asked to borrow a couple spoons from the household where we stopped to eat the flesh with and handed one to George.  Of course, he took a picture of it, ate the flesh and then asked if he could keep it.  Who asks if they can just keep someone’s spoon?  He said he wanted to keep it because it had Angkor Wat engraved on it and didn’t believe us when we told him that he could buy them, quite literally, at any market.  Thankfully, he wasn’t allowed to keep the spoon.

At the temple, he spouted off a speech about how waiting might be the whole point of life after SN apologized that we spent a lot of our time there waiting.  At the fire that night, after complaining about D and SN’s music, saying it was “ruining the jungle sounds” (side note: we weren’t in a jungle), he realized that he wouldn’t win the battle to turn it off…so he started asking if they had–get this–any heavy metal.  This was just another “What?” moment for us.

The next day, we reached the abandoned village and started trekking.  He was constantly asking about seeing tigers and worried that SN would damage his beloved knife stabbing open the condensed milk (“I think it’s good idea to have a knife in the jungle”…yet he was extremely concerned it would get damaged all the time).  Once we got to the river where we could swim, he took 293 465 pictures while we enjoyed the water.  When SN invited him to come in and enjoy it, he said he wouldn’t because he “didn’t trust the water”.  We don’t know why but he didn’t.

We got back and sat around the small fire that SN was using to cook the fish for dinner, just chatting.  We were getting really hungry so we asked when the fish would be done and SN said “Oh, it’s still not done”, to which George chimed in “Yeah, I don’t think it’s done” when, as far as I can tell, he didn’t have any expertise in cooking fish over a fire and he could hardly see it!

Once dinner was finally served, we all got our metal cups and spoons and dug in.  For some reason, there weren’t enough spoons so SN had to use chopsticks.  Well, when George saw that, he HAD to have chopsticks of his own.  I was genuinely surprised that he didn’t just use the one chopstick he found the best he could and continued with his spoon.

The best part of that night was when I started pretending to meditate because I didn’t want to talk to him.  I was actually quite enjoying myself: the warmth and crackle of the fire, the sounds of the others packing up dinner dishes and talking.  I found out later, from my loyal sidekick TN, that, during my pleasant relaxation time, this lumbering German twit WAS TAKING VIDEO OF ME…without my permission!!!  Again, who does that?!

There were many more insane/hilarious/outright ridiculous moments between then and by the time we got in that random pick up truck to head to the national road but, this is getting long and I think this incident really shows how ignorant he was to how to behave like a normal human being and how little research he’d done on Cambodia before coming.

As I said in Part I of this post, we were stopped several times on the way back to the road and, one of those times, was by the Wildlife Alliance who searched the vehicle to make sure we weren’t carrying any wildlife or timber out of Thmor Beng.  We knew that it was safest to remain in the vehicle and cooperate with them.  However, George hopped right on out, started trying to chat up the officers and then reached back into the truck for his camera bag.  Now, in my experience, when you travel to foreign countries, the one of the first pieces of advice guidebooks and other such things give is “Don’t take pictures members of the police force, military or any kind of officer”.  So I knew that it really wasn’t a good idea to start taking pictures and took it upon myself to say, very loudly, that it would be a really, really stupid idea for him to take pictures–these people had guns and I wasn’t about to get shot for this egg-head’s stupidity!  Thankfully, he wasn’t quite as thick as I thought and opted to not take pictures after that.

The rest of the journey is history!

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The whole gang! Let's just ignore how tired, dirty and generally awful I look...it was a tough four days.

Bye bye, Internets!
Meggo

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