And we have met a whole bunch of characters, locals and foreigners alike, that could fill a book with their idiosyncracies. We’ve played cards with a group of people representing six countries, including an Argentinian who didn’t know the rules and played anyway.
I played a 45 minute game of ‘football’ with a four-year old boy at a homestay in the jungle, not with a ball, but a small cardboard box that slid across the cool tiles. When his baby sister cried, I took her into the garden to pick colourful flowers, which she held in her tiny brown hands like precious jewels.
At the homestay in the jungle, Tyrhone and I climbed up a wooden ladder to our bed, perched high above the earth on stilts, the mosquito net blowing in the gentle breeze. From there, we saw the sun rise over the Cardamom mountains, and reflected on the night before – a late night boat ride through the mangroves, our guide chanting “merry christmas!” every time we approached a tree lit with fire flies. The plankton put on a show too, lighting up the dark water as we dragged our hands through it.
We trekked through dense jungle for several hours, arriving at a natural pool, covered in sweat. Stripping off, we submerged our weary bodies in the cool, clear water, whilst our guide cooked us a tasty lunch on the rocks nearby.
Cashew fruit, fresh oranges, and bamboo dripping with water were passed along the line to taste as we trekked. Machete in hand, our guides slashed their way through the jungle, stopping to rest occasionally so our heart rates could recover.
We learned about Cambodia from our guide, Jay, who dropped out of law school to return to his family farm in the foothills of the Cardamom mountains, where he is happiest. Broken hearted, his girlfriend left to study in America, without saying goodbye.
He showed us his home, revealing her to us slowly, untill we were in love without realising it. The difficulty of the jungle didn’t surpass its beauty – a tall, tangled mess of fifty different greens. He trusted us not to fall, or trip, or be poked in the eye by a thorny tree. At least not seriously.
We crossed bending bamboo bridges only strong enough for one (barely), and greeted people living in the mountains in small wooden houses.
We dined on fresh fish, rice, noodles and garlic-infused vegetables whose taste seemed intensified by our natural surroundings.
And finally, we relaxed at ‘the floating house’ built by Jay and his brother. Built from bamboo and wood, it sits in the middle of the river, floating on large, plastic barrels. After a swim in the river, we returned to town in the small wooden boat, no-one saying much as we braved the intense afternoon heat.
After sharing a cold drink together, we farewelled our ‘friends’, knowing we had shared something truly special.
We’re back in civilization now, at a clean, comfortable guest house overlooking the river in Koh Kong. The jungle was amazing, but so are cold drinks, clean beds, fans, and Harry Potter movies on HBO. What can I say, we’re city folk at heart.
Koh Kong has been full of surprises, all of them good. When we arrived at Paddy’s guest house after the four-hour bus ride from Sihanoukville, I wasn’t so sure. Tall, gangly Paddy greeted us with a wide, white smile, leading us upstairs to the top floor of the wooden house. At $5 per night for two people, we expected basic, and it certainly delivered! But Paddy was just so damn nice, apologising profusely for the fact that our rooms weren’t yet ready, that we felt like we had to give him a go.
Even though our room doubled as a mosquito breeding ground, and was home to a variety of unpleasant smells, well, actually just one smell resembling sewerage, we stayed for two nights (I told you he was nice!) before setting off to the jungle for two days. We figured there would be less mosquitoes there…
A couple from Belgium, us, a Greek/Argentinian couple from Crete, Marty and a tall, blonde Dutch girl (yes, he was happy!) filed into the small wooden boat that would take us up the river and through the mangroves to our homestay in the jungle. It was the family home of our guide, Jay, whose calm demeanor suggested a wisdom beyond his 26 years.
The beauty of this adventure, was that we had no idea what to expect. The day before, another tour operator had tried to sell us on his jungle trek, bad-mouthing Paddy’s as inferior to his (of course). But, as I said, Paddy was so nice. We had to do his tour! And even though Paddy revealed little information other than a homestay in the jungle, and possibly a swim in the river, we went along.
We couldn’t have asked for more from our time at Jay’s place in the jungle. The trekking was hard, and it was hot, but it was worth it. And we have taken away so many unique experiences not only from the place, but the people we experienced it with, including the other travellers.
As nice as Paddy was, after the trek, we moved somewhere more comfortable. For $10, we have a large, comfortable room, with a private balcony overlooking the river. After washing off the dirt and changing into clean clothes, we watched the large red sun sink into the horizon, throwing splashes of pink and gold into the sky.
Sometimes things just work out. This was one of those times.