The Mondulkiri Adventure


“As children, we used to tie those things on a string and hold on to the other end while they just flew around. Cheap toy.”

— Chetra
In reference to a large, silver-dollar sized beetle with thunderous wings, a snout longer than an aardvarks’ tongue, and a face that could easily haunt the dreams of both children and adult men.

By Mike

Only two weeks after my first day working with Khalibre, the staff left the city of Phnom Penh for a company retreat in Mondulkiri, a northern province bordering Vietnam. Not sure of what to expect, I joined my Cambodian teammates on the charter bus early on a Friday morning. My fellow passengers were excited for the trip, some having never been out of the city before. The retreat included families for those that choose to invite their spouses and children. A handful of kids ranging from one to twelve years old bounced in their seats anxious to get going. The younger ones watched me carefully as I placed my backpack on the overhead shelf. They had seen barangs (foreigners) before, but my pale skin, long brown hair, and gray beard was an unusual site for them. They would shy away and hide their faces when I responded to their stares with a smile and wave.

Finally with all forty-something people settled in their colorful and sporadic patterned fabric seats, we started our eight hour drive to the farmlands. Torng, tasked with the duties of team lead, turned to address the crew while standing in the isle holding onto the nearest seatback to balance himself from the movements of the bus. Shouting some instruction and information in Khmer, the Cambodian language, the passengers listened intently. Unable to understand a word, I watched the countless motorbikes outside the window zip in between cars and the bus, fearless from being smooshed between the vehicles. Soon everyone busted out in laughter, evidently from a funny comment at the end of his speech. I looked at Chetra, a teammate sitting next to me. He spoke English well and delighted in teaching me Khmer. He was also very helpful in translating Khmer to English. The five minute speech was translated into “we’re going to stop for lunch in Snuol”. I figured whatever else was said, I didn’t need to know.

Not far out of the city is where farmlands start. Massive rice fields lined both sides of the highway, attended by farmers wearing large brimmed straw hats, sparing them from the heat of the sun. Some of the houses sat upon four stilts holding the small adobes ten feet above the ground. Having seen the flooding that occurred in the city where drain sewers existed, I could only image how deep the rain water got in the provinces where water exits did not exist. Some houses had tarps laid out on the dirt in front of their houses where they laid wheat grains to be dried by the sun. Other houses put scarecrows at their entrances, not to keep birds from their crops but to ward off evil spirits. Many believed these scarecrows could keep away diseases as well.

Nightfall had come and rain was dumping when we arrived at the resort. A number of bungalows were scattered across the property, which were difficult to see through the thick rain drops. The check-in area was a table outside with a small covering that barely kept all of us from standing in the downpour. Torng handed me a key and told me I was in bungalow number thirty. I asked where that was and he shrugged and turned to fetch keys for the next person. Pointed in the general direction by the non-English speaking resort owner, I found the cabin eventually. The bungalow was a single room with a large bed in the center. Two lumps laid at the bottom of the bed under the bright pink blanket. Fearing the worst and hesitant to discover what the masses were, I pulled back the sheet to find two towels rolled up. The staff had deliberately put the them there to keep dust and ants off them, which proved to be unsuccessful. Plenty of ants still managed to find their way to the linens. Pulling the sheets back more, I found a dozen of them crawling aimlessly across the bedsheets. After brushing them off, I found a bathroom in the back of the room. It was a long room covered with tiles floor to ceiling. It doubled as the bathroom and the shower. Next to the toilet was a shower spigot as high as my waist. Next to that was a nest of spiders that looked quite at home. They were not too happy when I decided to shower while standing on my knees under the disappointingly low pressure water spigot. I joined the arachnids discontent when discovering the water was ice cold and paralyzed my breathing while it hit my skin.

Dinner was an interesting experience. The rain had stopped and the whole group convened at a common area surrounded by wet, soggy grass. My flip-flops failed at keeping my feet dry walking over the thick, spongey blades. A series of lined up picnic tables hosted a variety fruit and vegetables, many of which I had never seen before. Some of the team sat at the tables preparing the food. They stripped skins from root vegetables, cut strips of meat for the barbecue, and cooked up the rice. We had had rice for lunch at Snuol too. I quickly learned that rice was a necessary course at every meal, every day, so it seemed. Chetra manned the giant grille lined with foil over the metal grid above the glowing coals. I heard the sizzle of the steak strips, then watched as he added a handful of whole fish on top of the foil. Each were complete with guts, gills, fins, and empty eyes staring out into the night sky.

While the food cooked, we stood around a campfire in the pit centering the encampment. Having found old pallets of wood for fuel, the flames rose three or four feet high, pushing everyone to step further back into the coolness of the evening air. Having only the dim light from the fire and a few low-watt bulbs on the bungalow porches lining the area, I could barely see what food I was putting on my plate from the buffet line on the picnic tables. Teammates standing next to me in line, anxious and proud so share their local cuisine, scooped food from different dished onto my plate. When I would ask what it was, they either said “you’ll like it” or actually told me in Khmer because it didn’t have an English translation. Equipped with our plates of mystery food, standing in the darkness just far enough from the fire to find the perfect balanced temperature, we feasted.

With bellies full and the fire down to smoldering coals, the families with smaller children turned in. But the others were just getting started. Someone had brought a big karaoke speaker fully equipped with microphone and music inputs. The tunes broke the silence of the night like a thunderous storm. I couldn’t understand any of the words by the singer and the music had a repetitive, mundane beat. Part of the crew had begun dancing around the firepit, bouncing to the music. Encouraged to join, I staggered around the fire, trying to follow the feet of the others engrossed in a traditional Cambodian dance. As the night went on, more and more people called it quits and retreated to the bungalows. I was eventually amongst them.

Finding my way though the dark, I found my cabin just before the rain started again. After a quick brushing of the bedsheets to remove the ants, it was time to sleep. The bungalow was on a hill, so the back half was on stilts that swayed slightly in the wind. I was convinced it would come crashing down if the gusts picked up any more than a firm breeze. The roof was metallic and amplified the sound of each heavy rain drop, causing a deafening sound during the nightly storms. By morning, the ants had returned to the bed, fortunately too small to feast on my flesh. At least I had morning rice and mystery seafood soup to look forward to for breakfast.

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