Delightful Cambodia 3 – Pramaui to Thmordah (Veal Veng District)
Much have we heard about the 75 kilometers from Pramaui to Thmordah, right on the Thai border and not far from Thailand's Trat and the eastern seaboard. In Pursat and Pramaui we were assured that the trip to Thmorda will be a beautiful, albeit dangerous mountain ride that should only be done on motorcycle, not on car. Moreover, with Thmordah being so close to the Thai coast, this Khmer outpost is said to have several great Thai seafood restaurants; also, every Tuesday cars may pass the Khmer-Thai border without any checks – for a quick dash to Ko Chang, Pattaya or whatever. That's what we heard.
— THE RIDE TO THMORDAH —
We expect some kind of Shangri-La in the jungle when we set out from dusty Pramaui (see previous submission) to Thmordah on the Thai border. Three hours later our jeep hits shabby military barracks, surrounded by three or four noodle shacks. Yet ten minutes later we see Thmordah proper – about four very poor wood shacks with definitely no restaurant between them, not even for Mama noodles with hot water. And yet ten minutes later it is the Khmer border on a single-lane dirt track: A tiny shack and a Khmer flag, almost overgrown. Even the northern Cambodian border with Laos at Voen Kham/Stung Treng has more glamour.
The ride is enjoyable anyway. In Pramaui you start on a good, two-lane gravel road, lined with the usual mine-warnings. In many places people have roded land to build up new small-scale farms. The road narrows and changes to dirt, and you ascend the first mountain.
The peaks here belong to the Cardamom mountains, some of them reach 1700 meters. I have no idea how high the car climbs. Sometimes the muddy road is so slippery that the car might wash down the hill. Lots of bananas grow right into the car window; "we come back in four to six days", calculates Norah, my ever-hungry Khmer woman, "then we can have a feast".
There are many small steel bridges. Sometimes parts of the bridges broke away, and it is scary to balance the car across the gorge on the remains of the bridge. Or we have to do fording. Occasionally I ask Norah to go out and give me directions; her face says that any REAL man would move the car past the frightening bridges without help from a female. (And he would not expose his lady to the hazards of the local, skin-darkening sunrays.)
Thick in the jungle we meet the first tiny military shack. We are greeted by seven nasty dogs and a bare-breasted soldier. He says he can't decide if we may proceed further. So according to him we have to proceed 20 kilometers further to apply again at other barracks – just what we had in mind anyway.
20 kilometers on through great mountain scene, we finally reach the main barracks of battalion 501. First we roll through a line of all-purpose sales-shacks, then there is a road barrier.
Now we have to talk. It is not clear if we may continue to Thmordah village proper, where we still expect to meet all kinds of Thai seafood restaurants. A guy in camouflage throws a dark look into our jeep. Then Norah is asked around the corner, into a barrack. I saw how she talks Phnom Penh police into anything she needs; but I have no idea how she handless stiff army folk.
While Norah is interrogated, I step out of the car and walk around on the empty road. Another army guy gestures me to follow Norah to the interview shack. I gesture ok, but that I want to lock the car first. He gestures he will watch the Isuzu for me. In the shack there are about four guys in green, one has a shining helmet plus colorful deco and seems to be the boss. I forget etiquette and say the casual "Suasday" – a wai and a polite "Jom re'ap sua" would surely have been better here. Norah looks troubled.
Norah stands. They gesture us to sit down. I am about to settle on a chair when Norah says in English "Oh, we go soon, don't sit down". I am sure nobody speaks English here. Suddenly the leading guy rattles off a number of questions; Norah always answers "até, dahlaeng – até, dahlaeng", something like "no, just touristing". Then we are allowed to continue, they remove the road block for us.
Back in the car, Norah explains: "They asked me to sit down, and they asked you to sit down too. But I did not want to sit down. Not polite of us, but I did not want to settle there – if we sit down, they will talk about money." And what about the head officer's last sermon? "Oh, he asked if you want to teach in the area, if you are an environmentalist or a doctor. I assured him we are just tourists." Obviously, environmentalists are not welcome in an area thick with expensive, but protected wildlife.
Thmordah village and the Khmer-Thai border are complete disappointments – not even the landscape continues its previous grandezza. Of course the whole area has a certain wild west or new frontier ambience, but you can experience that already much closer to Pursat. So thirty minutes after our negotiations with the army, we are back at the barracks. They gesture me that this time I myself have to shove the road block to the side. – "Do I have to close it again after passing through", I ask Norah? – "Of course NOT!"
We select the biggest all-purpose shack for a meal. The menu consists of 1) soup with dried beef and 2) fried rice with dried beef. The wall holds pictures of King Sihamoni and former King Sihanouk of Cambodia, plus the King of Thailand.
When a group of soldiers enters the shack, they start the generator. The soldiers watch Muay Thai kickboxing from a Thai station and play cards – sometimes five USD change hands after one single game. The spicy Carabao-style soundtracks for the TV commercials are such a relief after all the supersoapy snivelling Khmer howls I usually have to endure in provincial restaurants. (Don't tell Norah.)
According to the manageress, the vegetables in our fried rice come from Cambodia's Pursat, 170 kilometers east; while the ice in our lemon juice arrives by motorcycle every morning from Thailand. Thais may cross the border freely, Khmers not. And about those fabled free dashes into Thailand – yes, that's on Tuesdays, but only until the next poor village on the Thai side. No trips to Pattaya so far.
Norah suggests to buy gasoline here near the border and not back in Pramaui – "here they have Thai gasoline, good quality". A big container of gasoline is first put on a scale. From there, the fuel goes into smaller 1-litre-bottles to check the amount. The Diesel (called "massood" by Khmers) looks like sunflower oil – "very clear, not dirty", observes Norah, "different from Cambodian quality". From the smaller bottles the gasoline goes into another big canister until the requested 15 litres are reached. Then they heave the canister to the car and fill the tank. The bill comes in Thai Baht, but Khmer Riels and US Dollars are welcome, too.
— BACK TO PURSAT TOWN —
The ride back into civilisation is fast and smooth. Now I know the critical stretches, I can calculate size of the car, wheelbase and length of load area. Also, finally I understand the several 4WD and 2WD modes. Just 30 kilometers before Pursat we stop again at our friendly coffee shop. We are welcomed like long-lost family members and invited to a free lunch with the family.
The lady here has another, more costly delicacy for Norah: "Dried deer meat, only five USD per kilo." Silently she asks Norah: "Hope you can buy, or does phu barrang (western uncle) object to mountain animal products?" Norah buys two kilos of deer meat for family, friends and neighbors, and we are fed a lot more dried deer meat together with our coffees.