Baba Yaga, Harvesting spirit rice and the best cup of coffee in Cambodia

“You falangs, you love sunset, you can't wait to see it! – for Cambodians its different. We are scared of them....When its dark we can't see what is out there. What is coming, creeping out of the shadows. The Khmer Rouge - they hide in the jungle, and when the sun goes down, they come out...” 

April and Laura – my AussIe friends from the elephant sanctuary have joined me on a day trip to discover what else this hidden little gem of Eastern Cambodia has to offer. Our guide, the ebullient Mr Sam, is looking all boy about town, in fashionable denims, jaunty white baseball cap, and cheeky dimples. 

Originally from Kampot, he moved here seventeen years ago when the Khmer Rouge were still hiding in the hills – coming down after sunset to car jack, rob and terrorise the locals. It is only very recently that proper road infrastructure was built to connect this province to Phnom Penh and the rest of the country – Mondulkiri, is as a result, still relatively undiscovered. Its beautiful, off the beaten tourist trail and the sunsets are breathtaking.  

After the obligaory waterfall visit – we head out to a rural village to see how the locals live. There are rice fields on either side of us gradually growing golden under the huge, cloudless sky. Amongst the long shafts stand a farmer with his wife and young daughter. They have bags wrapped around their waist and are gently gathering the purses of seed that drip down the stems. This is spirit rice. Each little grain must be lovingly picked by hand out of respect to the spirit that dwells within. Its a long and arduous task, but so revered is this different type of grain - that no sicle or blade must come near. 

 



After watching for a few back breaking moments we are led to a little cottage, with stooped triangular thatch. A curl of smoke rises from the roof, it looks like Baba Yaga's hut (minus hopping around on a giant chicken foot of course.) The hostess within isn't dissimilar to the old crone of the fairy tales either. She beckons us inside and her walnut face concaves into a broad smile that reveals a top row of gums devoid of teeth (she pulled them out herself) and a bottom row that have been sharpened into points. She carried it out in the name of beauty ... “Sheesh...” I think... “the lengths us women will go to...” 

We crouch down and enter the hut, our eyes stinging from little fire glowing in the middle of the room. She has plucked a papaya fruit from her garden and sitting cross legged, deftly carves it into pieces with her machete. It is the creamiest, sweetest papaya I have ever tasten, fresh off the vine and a million miles away from the anaemic, tasteless gourds that fill the supermarket shelves back home. Her little black eyes glitter with amusement as she watches us and Mr Sam negotiating the cost of a bag of red beans. Seeing a woman as elderly as this is a rare sight in Cambodia, a lot of the older generation having been wiped out under Pol Pot's regime. 

Next stop is lunch at a coffee plantation. We have a little wander around the grounds first whilst they prepare their signature dish. Mr Sam's effervescent enthusiasm and near perfect English means he manages to give us a whistle stop guide around the sexual proclivities of a mango tree, introduce us to the large drooping purple flower of the banana tree and show us where cashew nuts grow – with the added bonus of managing to make it all sound incredibly interesting. 

When lunch is served we take a seat on rugs on a shaded pagoda and watch as the local speciality is laid out before us. Large individual Ban Xeo ( giant pancakes stuffed with fried pork and bean shoots) with our own side dish of sweet dipping sauce and crunchy peanuts are placed down along with a communal platter of diferent aromatic leaves. Some I recognise as sweet basil, mint and coriander but there are some with such lemony, soapy flavours that I think they must be soley native to Asia. Mr Sam demonstrates how we eat it- tearing off a piece of the pancake, wrapping it in a bunch of the leaves and herbs and then dipping it in the sweet sauce and then the peanuts. Its absolutely delicious, one of my favourite meals in Cambodia – and for $1 each - one of my cheapest. We finish with freshly ground coffee from the plantation. 

Unlike Laos where the coffee is watery and riddled with a thick, syrupy condensed milk, the coffee in Cambodia is great and the cuppa on this plantation one of the country's finest. According to Mr Sam they taught the Vietnamese how to grow and harvest coffee and now the Vietnamese buy it off them and sell it as their own. It has a deep, chocolately roasted flavour and you can buy the beans, roasted or whole at the plantation's gift shop. 

After a quick visit to a rubber plantation where we stand amongst the bone white trees and try not to inhale the stink rising from the gluey sap collecting in buckets at the tree bases, we drive up to the top of Spirit Mountain for views across nearby Sen Monoram and the pine dotted plains of Mondulkiri. 

An animist shrine has been set up here by a man called Mr Echo. The villagers regularly come and make animal sacrifices at the temple. Cambodia, like Laos, was a victim in the crossfire of the war between American and Vietnam. At Spirit Mountain prayers were made, and this remained un -hit by American b52s even though the surrounding area was riddled with bombs. 

“Ummm what is he holding in his hand?” asks April

– eyeing the notoriously phallic shape that the Buddha type figure at the centre of the shrine seems to be clutching. 

“Oh its his walking stick” Says Mr Sam oblivious. Of course it is. That's what we thought... 

We leave and head off in the jeep to our final destination today. It occurs to us that we seem to be on what looks like an air strip. 

“Oh yes!” shouts Mr Sam cheerfully steering the landrover “this is Sen Monoram's only airport!” Luckily there is nothing coming in to land! 

Our final stop is the Sea Forest. A beauty spot where you can stand on the baked, red soil and look out at the floating green sea of jungle treetops that retreat in misty swathes as far as the eye can see. The air is cooler still up here and the tranquility of the natural view quieten us to contemplation, until that is, Mondulkiri's resident drunk decides to stagger over and ask for money.

 

 

“Aaawww, sorry, I dunno maaaateeee...” says Laura backing away. 

I can't help laughing – 

“You couldn't sound more Australian if you tried!” 

As always this kind of excursion is made or broken by the quality of the guide. Mr Sam makes an otherwise rather ordinary day out, a delight, with his love of silly jokes, bounds of enthusiasm and he's bright as a tack to boot. He won a WWF scholarship to go to Indonesia which has honed his tour guide skills and his eco sensibilities. 

“ I don't think, in a few years, this will be here....” he says sadly gesturing out to the canopy of tree tops. .. 

"See the way it works here. Poor people, they don't understand their rights, they just want to own their land, so the government sells them it for cheap. Then after a while the government offer to buy back the land for lots more money – so the villagers sell. Then its sold on to the big corporations. They don't care about the forest, or the people who own it. They will cut it down to develop on it.” 

You can see how undeveloped Cambodia and Laos are compared to other bordering countries, and Mondulkiri is more untouched than most parts but I have a sinking feeing that Mr Sam is right and that the beautiful misty SeaForest we have the privelege of looking out over today may not be there even in a few years time. 

Later that night Rich comes to join us as he too has left the Elephant Valley project. The final defectee! We decide to share the traditonal Cambodian BBQ. It arrives in a silver urn that is lit up from underneath. We have a platter of raw meat to cook and vegetables and salads to cook in the broth around the sides. Instead of a sliver of fat to keep the hot plates greased we have a little pot of oil. The BBQ's first anointment causes a tunnel of fire to shoot up out of it and almost take off people's eyebrows. It also causes a large worm to make a sudden wriggle for freedom as it crawls out of the vegetables that we have put in the stock around the base. I scream and run to the other side of the table. 

“Better to discover a whole worm than half a worm” 'says Rich wryly. 

After dinner we head out onto the mean streets of Sen Monoram (there are two) to look for the party. We hear the sound of music and follow it off the beaten track until we get to a bar called The Fat Gecko. I really want a White Russian - but the only drinks they seem to have is beer or vodka. We sit and chat until a couple of sex pats join us and we make our excuses to leave. I still find it incredibly uncomfortable seeing large, ugly old western men with very young beautiful asian women (or boys.) 

Its pitch black when we leave but the stars are so bright we wander along gazing upwards and using the iphone app to try and see the constellations. 

I'm excited. Tomorrow - the roadtrip continues north. All four of us are going to Kratie on the banks of the Mekong to try and get a glimpse of the rare Irawaddy dolphins.