Caves and Late Night Mountain Exploring

There’s no better way to start a hot day than by jumping into a cool river. Who needs real showers? It’s been well over a week since I’ve washed my hair with soap. Sure, I don’t ever feel clean, but going without long showers, doing make up etc., leaves me so much more time for activities!

Tamara, Devin and Sigrid wake up shortly after, and we all order a “breakie burger” from the hostel and chow down at a table next to the river. It’s pretty amazing. Bacon, a poached egg, hash brown, cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise. I’m all about it.

We spend some time just hanging out and loosely planning our day. There are salt farms, some caves, and we can’t help but want to go back and see the abandoned casino in the dark. Devin, Sigrid, and another backpacker at the hostel named Ilpo, haven’t even been up there yet, so we think it’s justified to make a second visit. It will be so much cooler in the dark!!

For today Tamara and I just rent one scooter to save some money. We could pay $6 each for a bike, or we could split the cost of one and pay $3. Obviously the latter is more appealing.
We make a quick stop at a local market in town and pick up some fruit for snacks during the day. One of the first things I see is a man casually carrying like 20 live geese by their feet. This is the real deal! No lame tourist market. Sigrid and I find a nice looking pineapple and ask the vendor for the price. She holds up two fingers. Whoa, two dollars for one pineapple? No way. She shakes her head and holds up 2 again. Oh. Wait. Could you possibly mean…2,000 riel? 50 cents? Yes? Oh, well then, yes please we shall take it, kind woman. This dollar/riel dual currency thing is still quite confusing.
We find another stall selling mangoes and ask the price. She packs up four in a little bag and holds up one finger. Can it be? I hand her 1,000 riel, she smiles and says “Akhun” (Khmer for thank you). We just paid 25 cents for four mangoes. This is the most magical market in all the land and I’m coming here every day for the rest of my life. With the money I’ll save on fruit, the flight expenses will probably balance out.

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We drive out to the salt fields, along another gravel, dirt, and sand covered road. Pot holes are abundant. I’m happy it’s Tamara driving and not reversed; me holding her life in my hands. I always thought salt was mined. I didn’t understand that it could also be farmed. I still don’t really know how it is farmed. Where does it come from? They look similar to rice fields, and are flooded with water in the same way, but they lose me where salt just magically appears and they rake it up. Voila, bon appetite, sprinkle this on your food.
We pull over and get off our bikes to check out the salt fields more closely. Naturally, I have to try some. I reach down and pick up a couple of grains. It looks just like regular salt to me. Tastes like it too. Same same, not different.

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A local man pulls up on a motorbike, sees us down in the fields, and starts shaking his head. I’m worried we might be in a little trouble here, but Devin is like a used car salesman- cheesy and transparent, yet somehow charming…especially with the locals. He’s told us many tales that involve him talking himself out of a bad situation while on the road. I have faith he can get us out of this one too. He walks over and shakes hands with the man, who speaks absolutely no English. They communicate with nothing but smiles and hand gestures, while the rest of us stand there in silence just watching, feeling slightly confused. Eventually it ends with the Cambodian man holding Devins hand and offering to take us on a private boat tour. We politely decline, get back on our bikes and speed off as fast as we can.

Once we get back to the main road we head towards a place called “Secret Lake” where we hope we can go for a swim. I think there’s a limit to how secretive the lake can really be if it’s on a map, but as long as there aren’t too many tourists it should be a good place to cool off in the Cambodian heat. The lake is way bigger than I expected and lined with hammocks shaded by bamboo huts. We pick a little area next to the water where we can cut up our cheap mangoes and other fruit, and where we can access the water. We walk down to the shore where we have to wade through some uncomfortably muddy water to swim. Even where we can “swim” it’s shallow, muddy, and overrun with seaweed. We paddle around for about 2 minutes before we all agree that it’s the worst lake for swimming ever, and we retreat back to the hammocks.

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Out of nowhere, a huge black rain cloud rolls in, bringing thunder and lightening with it. We’re stuck in the middle of a storm. There’s no point in trying to drive through it, so we wait it out. We sit in our bamboo hut, which is still drenched by the blustery rain, and listen to music and chat until the storm passes. It only lasts about 20 minutes before the clear skies are back and we’re A-OK to drive. Our helmets are soaked, but we’ve just been in a dirty lake anyway so it doesn’t really have too much effect on us.

We backtrack over the newly muddy trails to find our way to some nearby caves. A group of children run after us and offer to guide us through the caves for a “tip” but we’re all broke and don’t want to reinforce the children working like this instead of being in school. We have to pay an “entrance fee” which I’m one thousand percent sure the locals don’t pay, but we bargain it down from $5 to $3 for the group. That’s how you know it’s not a real entry fee…when the price is negotiable. We manage to lose the children and enter into the cave on our own. It’s a bit slippery in some spots after the rain, but still easily maneuverable for the first kilometre or so. The cave is huge. There are dozens of different pathways for us to take and we joke that we should leave a trail of bread crumbs if we plan on finding our way back out. Stalagmites tower over us while bats and spiders scuttle about in the dark. Ilpo is the only one who’s come well prepared and has a head lamp, while the rest of us just have flashlights. I use my iPhone to light my way. We explore for an hour or so, squeezing through tiny holes in the rock, sometimes on our hands and knees, and weaving in and out of the maze of never ending pathways. When we miraculously find our way back out, we’re all so dirty. My clothes are absolutely covered in mud and bat shit… but this is the price of true exploration! What an adventure.

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We make a quick pit stop in town for a cheap dinner. I try Luklak for the first time, which is a traditional Cambodian dish. It’s nothing special, just some rice, saucy beef and fresh vegetables, but it’s good! And for $2 it’s great!

We start out on the long road up the mountain. I don’t really have any desire to sit on the back of a motorbike for an entire hour without getting to do any of the fun driving, but I still don’t really want to risk Tamara’s life on these mountain roads, so I let her keep driving. If we’re quick, we’ll make it up to the top just in time for the sunset.

The clouds are too thick for a clear view of the sunset, but we do make it up to the abandoned casino in time to watch the sky slowly fill with warm candy-coloured tones. We are alone, and explore the creepy abandoned building with flashlights as the night begins to surround us. We find developed photographs in a box on the floor in the basement. The photos are new, but I’ve still got an eerie, horror movie vibe about their discovery. Isn’t this how all the movies start? A group of young twenty-somethings spend the night in a creepy house, find mystery photographs, and then they all die?

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Before the sun has completely set, we ignore the gate and sign that say “Stop” take our bikes down a dirt road to another abandoned building. This one is covered in graffiti and looks much older than the casino. It’s even creepier! The windows and doors are boarded up, but not very well, so it’s still easy to get inside. Some randomly placed furniture and even a pair of flip flops are inside. It’s possible that someone is squatting here but we don’t stay around long enough to find out. Another rusty old building sits a hundred yards out and is accessible by another skinny dirt path. It’s muddy after the rain, and I almost lose a shoe, but we do make it over and find a way inside the building. This one is more decrepit, with some walls completely missing and grass growing up through the cracks in the concrete floors.
Some species of frog or gecko lurk in the swampy overgrown grass around the building, and make noises that sound like laughter. Scattered all over the grounds, and seemingly invisible, the sporadic laughing of the frogs is the creepiest, and coolest, part.

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The last abandoned building we have to see is, of course, an old church. This is definitely where the twenty-somethings die in the horror film. The sky is almost completely without light by this point, and the church is perched just on a small hilltop. Also covered in graffiti, we find a Khmer bible and some loose papers that I assume are hymn lyrics. The building is very compact and only has three or four old worn out rooms. Miraculously, no possessed dolls or anyone with a chainsaw comes to murder us. We make it out alive, but I won’t say unscathed because our legs are all pretty scratched up from the tall grass.

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We get back on our bikes and drive down to the new casino so everyone else can check it out. I warn them not to get too excited. This time we actually enter the casino, despite our looking dirty and homeless. It must be the saddest casino in the world, with next to no customers on a Saturday night, no music, and an otherwise try-too-hard atmosphere. Three staff members crowd around a blackjack table to translate for the dealer, while Devin somehow manages to gamble $10 into $40. Pretty sweet to have any form of extra cash when you’re backpacking, but not a risk I would ever take. $10 could be like a whole day here in Cambodia, and to lose it would be traumatizing. Plus, I only know the very basics of blackjack, so it would be kinda hard for me to win.

We stay for about 20 minutes before Devin has won his money and the rest of us are bored with the empty casino. The abandoned one was more fun. We get on our bikes and head down the mountain towards the hostel after a long day of adventuring. Lightning fills the skies with a storm out in the distance, that we’re thankful to miss. I never thought it would get so cold in Cambodia, but I’m chilly on our windy drive back down.
It’s now very dark and we’re surrounded by thick jungle on either side of the road, so Tamara doesn’t have time to stop when an animal the size of a raccoon comes leaping out into the road. We feel an awful ‘bump’ as we collide with the mystery animal, and both gasp in shock, but there’s nothing we can do. I encourage Tam to keep driving because I’m sure turning back will just upset us. We don’t even know what kind of animal it was exactly, but I think it’s better that way. We both whine about it to each other the whole way down the mountain, feeling absolutely terrible. I will say though, that I’m happy it wasn’t something bigger. In such a thick stretch of jungle, who knows what lives in there.

Back at the hostel, there are lots of people hanging around playing games and swimming in the cool evening river. I join in for some fun before heading to bed for a much needed rest after such a long but awesome day.

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