I was sitting in a restaurant in Mondulkiri, listening to backpackers haggling over elephant rides – “That one’s a very bullshit operation for the elephants…Yeah, but we got offered two bucks cheaper from the other guy” – when Brendan finally called. “Hey, So Pheakj forgot to wake me again. Do you fancy going to the waterfall?”
He hired two moto drivers and we headed off through the windswept valleys surrounding the one-horse town of Sen Monorom. Children waved at us as we crawled past trying to avoid craters in the red dust roads. We climbed higher, the engine screaming, and arrived in a jungle clearing with an elephant tethered by one ear to a shack. Just out of reach were 100 green bananas, and the beast was eyeing them morosely while batting away flies with his ears.
Brendan looked at the waterfall jump. It was usually about 10 metres high, but he said the water level was much lower than last month, not just from the dry season but the dam up river. The Elephant Man threw a stone into the water indicating where he claimed it was deep enough to jump. But as he was not jumping himself, I was taking no chances.
We climbed down through the jungle and bathed in the pool. Something was nibbling away at my feet. I swam to the other side and foam thundered down around me. The sound was deafening and for a moment I forgot all about what the locals call “anacondas”. A little boy scampered across the rocks, picking up beer cans. We climbed back up and the Elephant Man took a photo of us and printed it out on a contraption hooked up to a car battery.
We got back on the motos and stopped off at a karaoke bar specialising in wild boar meat. A line of drunk highlanders were taking it in turns with the microphone. One of them staggered over and slurred a few words. He had cruel eyes but I think he was trying to make friends. Brendan’s girlfriend So Pheakj sang a few songs, but the only tune they had in English was Jingle Bells.
We watched the last of the sun dip behind the hills and then headed back to the jungle shack – one of the few places in town that stays open after dark. It was traditional to cook a communal meal there a couple of nights a week. Grella, who owned the place, was moaning about her husband’s cooking. He’d bought a snake from the market and his friend was chopping the meat and bones into paste.
“I say to them cook it in steaks so you can take the meat from the bones. You might as well have it so everyone can eat – not just two people,” she said.
It smelled unpleasant, like frogs that have been sitting in the sun too long. He fried it in a wok with lemon grass and lime leaves and it came out as a brown mush filled with tiny, sharp bones. Even So Pheakj didn’t eat it.
The next day I woke early. A monk was announcing to the village, and everyone in a 100-mile radius judging by the cost of the PA system, that a young couple were getting married. Grella drove us through the hills in her battered Toyota and we stopped off at the Sea Forest. The sun was behind us, and when you squinted your eyes and stared out to the horizon, the tree-top mist flattened into a dark grey strip, and for a second I thought I saw a distant ship. I thought about land grabs and illegal logging in Cambodia, and how much of that stunning forest would still be left in 20 years.
We passed more wooden shacks filled with Bunong people dressed in filthy rags. Over them loomed a huge mansion on a hill. “It’s owned by Hun Sen’s nephew,” said Grella. “He never uses it. He only comes once a year and then lights fireworks to let everyone know he’s here.” It sums up everything about Cambodia, she added.
We headed down to the market to buy food for that night’s meal. The place was a muddy, fly-ridden sauna. I bought two kilos of pork from a stall that seemed to have less flies, then vegetables, spices, and kroeung curry paste. We got back to the shack and started a fire.
The dogs were eating out of the biggest saucepan and Grella went away to clean it as I got to work on the carrots and onions. I put more wood on and the meat sizzled away. Backpackers had started to gather. One of them, a loud, fat American woman with a black dragon tattoo poking out from her vest, gestured at So Pheakj as she crouched over the pot stirring away with a ladle.
“You wouldn’t get that in America,” she bellowed, “a girl cooking for you in high heels. I don’t think women’s rights have caught on here.”
More budget backpackers arrived. There was a middle-aged Spaniard and his wife who’d spent the previous night scrounging drinks. I know things are tight in Spain, but I had no idea people like that existed. They stuck to 1,000 riel rice wine and their bill for the night had come to $0.75 – and like all the backpackers there, they wanted to know the cost of everything and were forever haggling over prices.
I put the pot of pork stew on the table and everyone dug in. The backpackers had two bowls each and then wandered off into the dark, clutching their laptops and expensive cameras. Not one of them had paid a single cent for the food, bought anyone a drink, or left a tip for their hosts. It was an idyllic setting with its warm days, and cool, star-strewn nights, but I felt sorry for Grella and her husband running a business, dealing with those mean bastards all day.
“Those backpackers are arseholes man,” slurred Brendan as the last one left. “That American woman didn’t buy a single drink all night – she just came to use the free WIFI.”