A Royal Tour-Sen Monorom, Cambodia

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This story is an excerpt from Ed’s book, “A Casual Traveler

Our bus adventures took us from Phnom Penh to Kratie and then to ,Sen Monorom in the untamed northeast section of Cambodia. The second half of the trip to Sen Monorom was spent in a beat up bus, on a dirt road, for over four hours. If there was ever a trip to the boonies, this was it.

My travel companion, Michael, is a seasoned traveler and he promised me a no frills adventure off the beaten path. We booked our bus in advance, but once in Sen Monorom we had to hike up the main road to town in search of lodgings. It was a mystery to me why the bus station was not actually in town.Our bus adventures took us from Phnom Penh to Kratie and then to Sen Monorom, in the untamed northeast section of Cambodia. The second half of the trip to Sen Monorom was spent in a beat up bus, on a dirt road, for over four hours. If there was ever a trip to the boonies, this was it.

I don’t remember if Michael had the hotel on a list or if we just stumbled across it, but we found a really nice place that didn’t suit its neighborhood, at all. It was too nice. We had to pay top dollar for such a find, but I wanted a hot shower and private bath. Michael thought fifteen dollars for a room was scandalous, but he caved in and we each got our own room.

Actually, I think he was more amused with the hotel owner, Madame Deu. She was a Cambodian woman, fairly attractive, well dressed, and very outspoken. Her broken English and Michael’s limited Khmer made for interesting conversation.

Madame Deu was immediately taken by Michael’s natural charm. Although it was in season, there were very few guests staying at the hotel. The Madame still seemed to have enough money to invest in a whole new wing that was in the process of being built. I couldn’t comprehend why since it was already the largest hotel in town.

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While I wandered and admired the hotel’s finely manicured grounds and gardens, Michael hammered out a deal with the Madame for an all day tour in the surrounding countryside and hills. We were in search of the Bousara Waterfalls, which we had heard and read about.

Jana, a young gal from Prague and another hotel guest, was also interested in the tour. The Madame offered us an all day tour for the price of twenty bucks each. Jana was a backpacker who was part way through a year of traveling abroad. She thought the price was a bit steep for her budget, but she decided to join in.

We were all ready to head out at eight in the morning, but Madame Deu said there were car and driver problems. If we had no objections, she offered to take us on the tour herself in her brand-spanking-new Land Rover. With a little arm twisting we accepted the change in plans.

The three of us sat and watched as two of the Madame’s female hotel staff loaded up the Land Rover. I’m not sure if it was Michael or myself who had the bigger smile when we saw the case of Anchor beer, on ice, get loaded on board. To my surprise the two girls hopped in with us, but they sat in the back with the gear so us paying customers could ride in comfort. It was just as Michael had promised—a no frills adventure.

We headed out of town and into the mountains; they resembled the Smokey’s in the southern U.S.A. The roads were either dirt or rock, not gravel, but rock with lots of gigantic pot holes. I told Michael it was a good decision not to rent the scooters, as in our original plan. 100_3013The suspension on the Land Rover got a work out; I had some difficulty in trying not to spill my beer. Yes, breakfast had already been consumed so it was okay to start drinking the beer. Michael said so. We bounced and drove around in the mountains for about an hour then stopped at one of the little roadside villages for a Kodak moment. The locals resided in straw huts. One old guy came out for a photo op, but I think he really wanted to see who the hot white chick (Jana) was. He smiled and posed in front of his humble abode.

Our next stop was the Bousara waterfalls. The parking lot was a cleared section in the middle of the forest; no paving or entrance gate or entrance fees. The sound of the falls in the distance told me we were in the right place, but I wondered why it was so quiet and no one was around. Maybe it had something to do with the arduous drive to get there.

We hiked along dirt paths with the two girls acting as porters hauling our gear. Feeling guilty, I offered to carry the cooler of beer.

Like you’d expect near any tourist attraction there were concession stands and kiosks offering snacks and souvenirs. What I didn’t expect was fresh venison jerky, filleted fish, live chickens ready to be slaughtered for lunch and a litter of puppies, ready to be adopted. I went for the jerky and a bag of deep fried banana chips.

100_3081As in many third world countries, the whole family is part of the business, whether they’re old enough to work or not. Cute little munchkins played in the dirt in front of the stands with the  puppies. A toothless Grandma grinned and waved her meat cleaver at the chickens, in case we were ready for lunch.

We continued along the trail, it ended at the water falls. Even though it was the dry season, my first peek at the falls did not disappoint me. It was beautiful and consisted of two separate falls; the top one drops one hundred and sixty-five feet and the bottom another three hundred fee.

There is a shallow pond about a hundred yards long that separates the two falls. The surrounding area is unspoiled and completely natural—not like our Niagara Falls. There are no gates, fences, guard rails, or park rangers. You can walk right into the pond or swim in the water below the falls and no one will stop you.

There were only a handful of other white folks and tourists there; it was like we had the whole place to ourselves. There was one small group of techie-looking guys with camera equipment who kept following me around taking the same shots that I did. We found out they were a film crew from the Ministry of Tourism  and they were making an infomercial.

My feet get itchy when I have a new place to explore so I wandered around the upper falls and pond taking several pictures and checking things out. I walked right to the bottom lip of the pond where it spills over into the lower falls. It was like standing on the edge of a thirty storey building with no railing.

Someone warned me to be careful; three people had already plunged to their deaths there that year and it was only the beginning of February.

Madame Deu pointed out another path and told me I could follow it to the base of the lower falls. Michael chose to stay with the women and beer, but Jana jumped at the opportunity to go exploring with me. One of the porters led us to the jungle path and then Jana quickly took the lead. I had a hard time keeping up to her on flat ground. Then we came to the stairs.

100_3065It was a wooden stairway—really just a ladder, made out of tree branches. It went about a hundred feet straight down. There was a shaky hand rail on one side. Jana wasted no time in scrambling down the stairs. Not to be shown up by the young chick I edged my way down the stairs, trying to fit my size twelve clodhoppers onto the six inch steps. The porter gal giggled behind me; she wasn’t coming along.

My death grip on the railing and any other tree branch I could grab onto, helped me make it to the bottom.

When I reached the bottom of the gorge I heard the roar of the water fall. After I cleared the thick jungle I saw where Jana had disappeared to. There she was—standing at the base of the three hundred foot falls with her arms stretched out, like she was on the bow of the Titanic.

Mist from the cascade blew from behind and around her—like she was floating, suspended in the clouds. I walked closer. The air was cold, like someone just opened the freezer door. I reached for my camera, but I knew that no picture could properly capture the moment. Jana and I stood there in awe. It was magical.

Meanwhile, back up top, Michael and the women had already gotten into our picnic lunch the Madame had packed for us. They had it all laid out under a nice shady gazebo. Michael handed me a well-deserved cold beer. I noticed the girls were giggling and looking at me—I was soaked in sweat from head to toe. To my chagrin, Jana was completely dry.

100_3071I inhaled a few coolies to re-hydrate and saw Michael feeding one of the locals. It was the toothless Grandma, another victim of Michael’s charm no doubt. We dined on a delicious curried beef and rice dish. My banana chips were a hit, for dessert.

The film crew didn’t bring their own models or actors so they picked out the best looking tourists they could find and invited us to be in their infomercial. I slipped on my Hollywood shades and we did some posing for them.

From Bousara, the Madame drove us to a smaller waterfall. It was unique; the cascade appeared from the jungle, fell into a small pond and then continued on as a river.

This time we were the only people there, we had the whole place to ourselves. Jana wasted no time. Before I even got to the water’s edge she had stripped down to her bikini and then dove into the lake. Michael and I didn’t share her insight and had to improvise by stripping down to our boxer shorts. There were more giggles from the peanut gallery.

By the time we got into the water Jana was standing on the rocks under the waterfall with water pounding down all around her. She stole the show again and did a perfect swan dive through the cascade and into the lake.

100_3092Just when we thought our tour was done and we were almost home, Madame Deu stopped at a beauty salon owned by her sister. We weren’t quite sure what she had in mind and none of us was looking for a hair cut. Jana chickened out, but Michael and I were troopers and we surrendered.

We were treated to a deluxe shampoo and scalp massage. It was quite interesting to say the least—I learned all about that fine line between pleasure and pain when the woman dug her fingers and nails into my head. Jana laughed and took pictures.

Sporting our new hairdos, as the day faded into night, we were treated to one last excursion. Then Madame’s son drove us up to the top of the highest hill in town, their lover’s leap. We stood there soaking up the sunset and panoramic view and the remainder of the beer.

For the final touch the Madame had a nice bonfire was waiting for us when we returned to the hotel.

Three and one half years after this adventure Michael came to visit me in Canada. He said he had brought a special gift—a DVD. I played the disc. It was the infomercial from the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism office. It showed our whole entourage  smiling and standing in front of the Bousara falls.

To see more stories in Ed’s book, “A Casual Traveler” click: www.edmondgagnon.com

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