Our jungle guide crept silently through the dense vegetation, careful not to crunch any branches underfoot, his eyes focused upwards towards the canopy of the jungle, hunting for a sign of the black gibbon – the elusive monkey we all hoped to see in the wild. Most of us in the group did a good job of watching and copying the guide, imitating his crouching tiger hidden jungle man moves. We crawled when he crawled, stopped when he stopped, kept very still and quiet when he signalled with his hand and then…CRACK! a big clumsy guy in our group came crashing through the bushes and plunged into the back of us. He must have scared away any living creature within a 100 yard radius. I laughed and thought there is one dude who is definitely not designed for a life in the jungle. I got carried away with that thought while we traipsed around the jungle, looking skyward for signs of life and I wondered if I was cut out for the simple toil of jungle life and whether such a life could ever be appealing.
That was on the second and final day of our 2 days, 1 night jungle trek with Lucky Tours, which we mentioned previously in our what to do for kicks in Banlung post. A few days before that we had met with Mr Tommy, the guy who runs Lucky Tours. We asked him a lot of questions about the different trekking options his company provides, what wildlife we might see and we confirmed that there would be no repeats of seeing animals needlessly suffer, given what happened on the horrific elephant trek we did with another tour company. Satisfied with what we heard, we booked the remote jungle trek, to take place in an area about 60km north of Banlung. It worked out for us at US$70 per person given there were four others on the trip, if it was just us it would have been $90. It seemed a bit steep but we were hoping it would be worth it. We were not disappointed.
On the first morning of the trek we gathered at The Bamboo Restaurant, where Lucky Tours is based. We were joined by two French brothers from Avignon and a French couple from Paris. Everyone seemed really cool and so from the off it felt like it would be a great trip. A load of Cambodian guys then arrived with the motorbikes and supplies, so we all climbed on the back of a bike each and set off. Well, all of us except for the French brothers, who braved it on a bike of their own for a questionable saving of 5 dollars! We whizzed our way north through dusty Cambodian villages, got caked in the red dirt that is everywhere in rural Cambodia and enjoyed the ride.
First stop was a ferry crossing on the Tonle San river. The ferry is more like a big raft with a motor and it was definitely a fun and novel way to get to the other side of the river!
On the other side, we drove for 30 minutes until we reached the edge of the jungle. The road underneath began to change to sand of some sort, given it was dry season the soil must have shrivelled up. It was a crazy ride through the deep sand with the jungle looming above us. Everyone’s bike took a tumble at least once, although there was never any real danger as you couldn’t pick up much speed in that terrain. After about an hour of that bumpy fun-ride, we got to a small farmhouse in the jungle where the motorbikes dropped us off for the start of the trek. We stayed at the farmhouse for an hour to grab something to eat and have a wash in the nearby river. The French brothers needed it more than the rest of us as they had to do the hard work themselves, haha…
The homestay we were staying at that evening was deeper in the jungle, about 2 hours trek away. We had quite a bit of stuff on us with our bags, a few big bottles of water each and a US Army issue hammock each. Ritty, apparently Mr Tommy’s brother (although I think they use the term loosely in Cambodia and it can mean best friends as well), was our tour guide and he had the unenviable task of carting shitloads of rice for our food. That bit of the trek was more like hard work than an experience and we didn’t see much by way of wildlife, but once we reached the clearing in the jungle and saw where we were staying, it was smiles all round. Check this out for a back garden…
Despite an unwelcoming dog (which I figure they have probably eaten by now!), the host family seemed really friendly. It was a little awkward at first, but one of the French brothers, Vincent, started pranking around with their pig so everyone laughed and loosened up. The head of the house was around 35 (he said he didn’t know his exact age!) and although small, he had the kind of lean, defined muscles that us pen pushers will never have. You could tell he was a practical and resourceful man. When we were struggling with the hammocks, he came over and had them tied up in a matter of minutes between various tree stumps with a few expert knots. His oldest son was about 17 and looked like he was in a boy band – despite living in such a remote place they all wore modern clothes, the younger kids even wore football tops although I don’t think they actually knew what football was. There was also his wife, who stayed very invisible while we were there, a pack of younger kids, the unwelcoming dog, a few pups, some chickens and the funny little pig. Quite the party!
Once we had got our hammocks up, we set off into the dense trees lead by jungle man (I can’t remember his name, which is poor form, sorry) and one of his sons who was around 12 and seemed eager to join us. Ritty followed next, acting as translator and the rest of us joined in rank and file at the back.
We spent that afternoon roaming through the forest looking for wildlife and acting like South East Asian Ray Mears wannabes, drinking water from branches that jungle man cut down with a machete and eating plants and jungle fruits that he foraged.
After all that excitement, we headed back to base. While Ritty was cooking up a storm of rice, veggies and tofu for everyone, we headed down to the nearby stream for our evening bath! The water was clean and it was a good laugh splashing about in the little sheltered creek. So we were all were feeling fresh and ready for our jungle banquet afterwards. We had all of Ritty’s food and the hosts had made us “minority soup” which was basically very very very smoked pork in a charcoal like soup, named so because the jungle family is part of the Phnong minority (I think). Weirdly I thought it was tasty, save for little bones/pieces of charred meat that were a nuisance, but the others didn’t seem to like it. The food was washed down with plenty of home-made rice wine, which tasted a bit like sherry. The family from the other house in the clearing joined us and soon the party was underway and we all had a good night’s craic, despite not really having a clue what each other was talking about!
I fell into my hammock around 11pm in a slightly inebriated state and failed to notice that it had got cold. I had not expected the jungle to get cold in Cambodia, but believe me it got fucking freezing! I woke up a couple of hours later, sober, hungover and staring at the stars…while shivering like a maniac. The cloudless night sky sparkling with the light of far off suns may have been beautiful, but at that moment it wasn’t a substitute for a cosy bed and I tried desperately for the rest of the night to get warm by putting on more and more clothes and tightly sealing the cover to my hammock. It was all doomed to failure though and I tossed and turned the rest of the night to fight off the biting cold. I was happy man indeed when the hosts woke at dawn and stoked the embers of the previous night’s fire.
Ritty was up soon after and began rustling up breakfast of egg and veg baguettes. Everyone else soon joined when they smelled the cooking. After breakfast we set off on the final trek with our jungle guide. He took us on a mission to see the gibbons, which we could hear hooting and screeching at dawn in the trees around us.
We searched for a few hours and after the incident with the clumsy guy, I was on autopilot, lost in thought about the environment around me and whether I could ever be part of it. On the surface it is a very romantic and appealing notion to say to hell with it all, the mortgage, the debt, the stressful job with its cruel deadlines and life-sucking hours, the car repayments and congested roads, celebrity obsessions, violence and disparity – modern life. Contrast that with a seemingly stress free, subsistence lifestyle where you provide you own food, grow it out of your own toil, catch it with your own hands, living off your land with no bank or landlord looming over you. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why the simple life has always captivated so many.
So, as I lurched through the undergrowth looking for lesser spotted wildlife, the idea of living such a life seemed very exciting, I felt like I was in a TV programme, a young David Attenborough. It hit me though that this notion probably wasn’t too far from the truth. We had come to experience jungle life on the trek, but really what we were seeing was a version produced for tourists – not that it was fake, just that the itinerary was intuitively devised so that we experienced the best, most enjoyable bits. We didn’t see what happened when someone was injured or sick or feel the fear that must abound when giving birth in such conditions. We did not have to do the back-breaking work that goes into growing rice and maintaining the other crops or deal with the worry that you might not grow enough food to feed your family. We did not have to forget all of our education, nor did we have to forget our knowledge and experience of the vast and diverse world around us – for all that they know is their village, their part of the jungle and maybe a few nearby towns where they get some supplies – that is their world. I also imagine that the certainty of ownership of their land may also be an issue as we heard illegal loggers at work very near the village and having seen the Cambodian government’s eagerness to sell off its beautiful lands to foreign developers with little to no planning restrictions, displacement could be a real risk in the future.
Despite all that, it is an entrancing idea, the simple life, although I think I’m too modernised by now to fully disconnect. Temporary, educational forays into such cultures are what I enjoy, and besides, even simple DIY is beyond me. I can barely hang a picture straight on a wall, so feeding myself and my family off my wits and cunning would end in disaster!
“Look!, look!” came frantic hushed voices “gibbons!”. Sure enough high above us we could see some the shy primates trying to hide from our view. Jungle man was having none of it and he made a little blowing instrument from two leaves and made a sound which sent the gibbons flying through the trees above us. Whether we should have interfered with their behaviour is a question for the monkey experts, but what monkeys do regardless is swing through trees, all our guy did was give them a gentle push. What a sight, it was simultaneously humbling and exhilarating to watch how these close relatives of ours are so well adapted and suited to their environment. The ease with which they leaped distances of 30+ metres from tree to tree is ridiculous. Again, I was too shit a photographer to capture them, so here’s a pic from wikipedia…
Finally getting to witness those endangered animals in the wild was the highlight of the trip but it certainly wasn’t the end! We came across a poisonous snake on the way back to camp, which even made jungle man jump when he saw it. We swam in the river by the first farmhouse after a hot two-hour trek back there and had a few breakdowns and a change of bike on the return journey to Banlung – definitely a great off the beaten track adventure and thoroughly recommended!
Lucky Tours Facebook page is here although to get the quickest reply Mr Tommy”s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cheers for reading and if you’ve any thoughts, keep them to yourself…jokes, give us a shout about whatever you want!