Delightful Provincial Cambodia 2 – Pursat to Pramaui (Veal Veng District)
Five kilometers north of Pursat town, the dirt road into Veal Veng district branches off. It is 109 kilometers to the "district capital" of Pramaui (also written Pramoy), and another 75 kilometers to Thmohrdah on the Thai border, close to Trat in Thailand. Those Khmer settlements are unknown even to locals.
— INTO VEAL VENG DISTRICT —
First we pass green, rich farmland which gets water from Phoutisat river even in the driest season; the flat area is sprinkled with sugar palms, the trademark of Cambodian countryside. Then follow soft rolling hills and lose forest. Landmine warnings line the road throughout – Khmers Rouges have obviously mined the whole area around the road. Sometimes enterprising Khmers built poor family homes right behind landmine warning signs.
Norah complains: "Stupid, there are no trees here!" – "Why", I say, "there are trees everywhere?" – Norah: "Yes, but no FRUIT trees around the houses. Nothing to eat, and no shadow." At a coffee stopover, she asks the people why they don't grow fruit trees besides their other activities. They claim their cows would eat all the young trees. Back in the car, Norah is not convinced: "I think they are lazy! Can take care tree in early morning! Wait five years, have something to sell on the market. Can take mangoes or something else. Not difficult."
Without my suggestions, curious Norah would never have cared to venture into Veal Veng district. The area is famous for former Khmers Rouges. Actually, many people here seem a tad less friendly and welcoming than elsewhere in warmhearted Cambodia. We see quite a few dark-faced guys in dirty army attire – easy to imagine they'd like to add some skulls to their collection.
We stop at a coffee shop which actually has a very friendly and talkative lady. Norah asks about Khmers Rouges. A long talk ensues. Then she explains: "Yes, many people here still Khmers Rouges. But no problem. They do nothing. Good heart! In Pol-Pot-time, family from this coffee shop was Khmers Rouges too – what else can they do?"
Two young guys on a moto stop for coffee and explain: "This area very safe. Never lock moto or house. Keep cow one kilometer from house, nobody will steal it."
— PRAMAUI VILLAGE —
Pramaui, the district capital, mainly consists of five stalls around a traffic circle. It's the crossing of the roads between Pursat and Trat in Thailand (east-west) and between Koh Kong and Pailin (south-north). The best map I have seen for that area is the 1:750.000 "Cambodia" by Gecko Maps from Switzerland, sold at Monument Books in Phnom Penh for 10 USD. Another interesting map is put out by a European embassy, promoting their development work in the country.
Pramauis nightly waterhole is managed by an elderly lady plus her bunch of daughters and a very friendly, but deaf son on the northwestern corner of that circle. Her shack specialises in "takalok" (Khmer-style fruit smoothies) and cheap polyester second-hand dresses. She says she gave birth to nine children; four already died of diseases. Her husband also died after being sick; since then, she says, she's happier and fatter: "He only drank and nothing else."
One kilometer out of "town", we discover the ranger station for Phnom Samkoh Wildlife Sanctuary. We meet friendly David from South Africa, who is a conversationalist and has a lot of Khmer staff to cut on illegal poaching and logging. According to David, tigers and elephants roam the forests, but they are disappearing fast – businessmen from Taiwan and Vietnam order their body parts for medicinal reasons. In the last two months alone, five tigers have been killed. David spends a total of a year in this remote area, his wife accompanies him. Whether or not he can stay longer depends on the funding; he belongs to the WWF.
Actually, remote boring Pramaui, where regular mobile phones don't work, is NGO mainland. The place also has a demining headquarter, and a German-funded group owns the richest and most beautiful building – their base to fight poverty.
We stay in one of two guesthouses in "town". A wooden box with shared bath goes for 4 USD. The menu consists of 1) soup with dried beef and 2) fried rice with dried beef. Pramaui has electricity from 6 to 9 pm, and so does our establishment. The shared bathroom is not exactly a wellness paradise; I'd prefer to use the bushes, but all the landmine warnings and Norah's snake forecasts aren't inviting either.
The guesthouse has a few Sikh customers too. They brought their own gas stove to cook their own food, and their unwashed dishes pile up next to the communal shower. They play Indian music from their own transistor and spice it all up with their nose and throat cleansing roars. For their morning comb, they release gorgeous, waist-long jet-black hair from under their turbans – Norah could learn a lesson from them, but refuses. In the daytime we see the Sikhs motorcycling around, obviously trying to sell cheap plastic goods to households. Interestingly, later on, on remote dirt roads in Mondulkiri province, we see more Sikh plastic sellers on motos.
The bed in our wood box "hotel room" is just a cheap matrace – on a cheap wooden board. Or so the dull westerner thinks.
"Oh my darling", sighs Norah, "this board is made from expensive tropical wood! The board consists of just one single piece!" It is about 1,90×1,40 meters large and maybe three centimeters thick. We quickly agree that – should it ever materialize – our own loft in Phnom Penh should have a lot of things made from this wood. Before long Norah has researched that a board like in our bedroom would cost about 90 USD. We learn that we'd need a government permit to bring the wood out of the district. Whether or not this permit will be granted seems uncertain.
We try to explore the road to Koh Kong, but the steal bridge 300 meters south of the roundabout was washed away by the rains last year; there is only motorcycle fording now. We also try the road to Pailin, but the bridge 300 meters north of the Pramaui roundabout broke down too.
Next morning in the lodge, we are greeted by a sad elderly policeman and another plainclothes government guy. We get a polite wai and "Jom-re'ap sua"s from them. I have to fill out a form that asks the usual hotel check-in information – name, passport number, days of stay etc. Norah explains: "This guesthouse here lazy to register their guests. So police comes and gets information for themselves every morning."
Soon Pramaui will have 24 hours electricity. Land prices already go up, and there are plans for a new market area. My enterprising Norah reckons a shop for house building supplies would be good business. Invest now.
A nice series.