Two nights in Stung Treng…

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…with two people who didn’t want to be there

My job with Cambodian Red Cross recently took me to Stung Treng, a province on Cambodia’s northern border with Laos and until recently one of the more isolated parts of the country.

Situated on the banks of the Tonle San near the convergence of the Sekong and Mekong Rivers, Stung Treng featured in a local English language magazine last month, billed as ‘Cambodia’s Wild West’. The article described a friendly town close to riverine islands with beaches for swimming, and boat trips to be had to see the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.

ST drugs 2Stung Treng is also a major drug trafficking route into and through Cambodia, which is why the Red Cross suggested we visit as part of the scoping exercise I am doing for them on HIV/AIDS, illicit drug use and harm reduction.

Still, I sold it to Roo as a great family holiday destination, brushing aside his misgivings right up until half an hour before we left Phnom Penh, more than two hours behind schedule. That was the first ill omen for the trip.

The second was getting caught in a brief but blinding tropical downpour that knocked down trees and scattered branches across our path.

Then when we finally made it to Stung Treng, a journey that took 7 hours across 4 provinces, it dawned on me that the early advent of the rainy season in Cambodia had made the river too dirty for swimming, not to mention too treacherous to take a two-year-old out in a small wooden boat in the hope of spotting dolphins.

(Maybe that’s a bit rich coming from a parent who let her kid pat tigers, but I lived in Laos long enough to get affected by the apocryphal stories of the Mekong claiming human sacrifices, whose spirits were later reincarnated as dolphins).

ST big fish 1Don’t get me wrong: Stung Treng is a charming little town. The locals were friendly, accommodation and food good. And in between meetings, we managed a very pleasant ferry ride to the west bank of the Sekong to visit the remains of a Chenla temple at Thala Bolivat (or Barivat).

We met a genial, white-haired francophone on the boat who showed us around the temple ruins and invited us to his home to meet his extended family. Our host (whose name I didn’t catch) was a retired Khmer teacher. Seven of his 10 children survived the Khmer Rouge period, almost all still living in Thala or Stung Treng. We ended up sitting around in his wooden house on stilts, having a conversation in a mix of French, Khmer, Lao and Thai to involve as many of us as possible. It was a lovely experience, albeit hot under the tin roof with no fan (electricity only available from 6-10pm).

ST market 6 drinksWe also enjoyed hanging around Stung Treng’s market, which spreads out on to the main street. And on our first night, we caught a glimpse of the spectacular sunsets over the river that the place is famous for.

But we picked the wrong time of year to visit, and by the morning of Day 3, Tash was not only getting increasingly anxious to go home, she was also feverish and breaking out in facial sores again. So we ditched plans to overnight in Kratie and headed back to Phnom Penh.

This proved to be a wise move as Tash’s condition rapidly deteriorated. She subsequently missed two days of childcare, and I don’t think she’ll ever make it as a skincare model after this week.

A few tips for anyone planning to travel to Stung Treng:

The Stung Treng Guest House (also called the Stung Treng Guest Hotel) is a block from the river on the main road. Clean and new, our spacious room with large double and large single beds, fridge and hot water was great value at USD18.

Next door’s Sorya Khmer restaurant (marked as the New World Restaurant in the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia) is a good place for breakfast (noodle soup, Lao donuts, coffee you can stand a spoon in), lunch or dinner, as is the Sunn Tha, on the opposite side of the main drag further from the river. The Sunn Tha’s fried fish with green mango was particularly good.

The Riverside Restaurant and guest house is the only place we saw Western tourists. It is run by the affable Mr T, who can organise tours, cruises and treks, and has internet access. It is very dimly lit at night, which might be part of its appeal for some. The Dara Restaurant nearby served decent a breakfast though not what we ordered! Unfortunately, Stung Treng doesn’t make the most of its river frontage and instead of looking out over the water, the view from these riverside venues is of a bus stop and petrol station.

Finally, if you plan to swim in the river or take a small child out by boat to see dolphins, do make sure you visit during the dry season (November – April).

Next up for me is a trip to Banteay Meanchey on Cambodia’s western border with Thailand, leaving Monday. This time I’ll be travelling solo.

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One Response to “Two nights in Stung Treng…”

  1. Saratina Says:

    I highly advise AGAINST using mr. T for any tours. He took my money for a bus to Laos and refused to give it back when the bus never came. Instead he had us wait for 6 hours until the next public bus, which was half the price, came, and made us take that bus. We then had to pay to get to don set in Laos by ferry even though we were told the ticket went all the way there. He was incredibly rude through the whole process, and I would like to save other travelers this agony. Just go to sorts directly and book your own ticket there skipping the rude and unethical middle man.

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