This last trip was an exquisite splendor of its own kind and lasted 17days but little did we know that it was to harbour some rather unpleasant surprises... I originally headed off with four friends, although one soon returned to Phnom Penh due to mechanical problems. We first drove to the Mondulkiri province, green and hilly and counting 2 people per sq km. Had two days and nights out in the hammocks at the base of a double-drop waterfall which was lovely and refreshing and put us in a nice holiday mood. Next came the much anticipated and mysterious goldmines of Prei Meas (Golden Forest). I had heard of them before and their location is little known and remote which meant that we hired a local villager to lead the way on his moto. The drive was rocky and difficult through a labyrinth of different trails. We passed a broken down truck, extremely loaded and sadly we were unable to take any of the golddiggers nor their wives with us on the back as the terrain was way too rough. We left them to die and drove on. The mines are totally unique. One huge apocalyptic area full of deep holes and shafts. People digging everywhere, hauling rocks out of the shafts and fighting for the ones they consider being the best. These rocks are being broken down in smaller pieces by hand and the work is done by small kids, women with babies on their backs, grandmothers, etc... Rougher than in the wild west. Later the smaller stones are grinded and sifted for gold. It's an interesting process to follow and the more than primitive conditions guarantee strong impressions. We left the goldmines the next day and evoluated through the most wonderful virgin forest with huge majestic trees and vines and golden sunlight delicately peeping through. Had many more days driving along small trails and sleeping in the hammocks at night and ended up in the far north-eastern province of Ratanakiri. We started with a bath in the splendid Yeak Lom circular crater lake, formed 700.000 years ago. Continued very much east and crossed the river on little boats towards super rugged territory along the Vietnamese border, home of the animist Jarai tribes. Absolutely unspoiled and unvisited and a true delight for people like us, not knowing how far or where the single track trails would lead. After some hours of beautiful riding we decided to set camp close to a river. Soon enough we got visit from a bunch of Jarai kids, all smoking impressive cigars of tobacco rolled in banana leaves. Six year old boys among them, the oldest was twelve! We had a good laugh and they accepted our american cigarettes with great interest and pride. Weird feeling to offer young kids cigarettes but I knew it was good for them and this made me feel better.... I got a huge pack of Chinese sugar crackers out and soon everybody was peacefully munching and puffing away, all neatly squatted in a row in front of us. Authentic jungle people. Suddenly I got the brilliant idea of appearing with a bottle of super strong rice liquor we had been given in one of the previous villages with a mini home distillery. I handed the bottle to the 7 year old next to me who took a real big gulp and made a funny wry face and started slamming his chest. Aaahh! Strong strong!!! He gave the alcohol through to an even smaller boy who started gulping as if his life depended on it. It was extraordinary. I rushed to the kid, wanting to snatch the bottle away from him but his little 9 year old neighbour was faster and started vigourously sucking the liquid. Before I realised what was happening they were fighting over the bottle until we took it away from them. Unreal! Leaving that area we headed further west. Somewhere along the line we missed a connecting trail and got hopelessly lost. I heard people speak Laotian and asked were we were, Laos or Cambodia? Everybody answered : "but you're in Laos!" Shit, we had crossed the border, no visa, not even a passport on us. We frantically drove on and soon were following a trail that had been abandonned for decades by the locals. It got more and more overgrown until the situation became ridiculous, virtually impossible to continue . We got off the bikes and decided to go on by foot to explore the immediate surroundings for a better option. I made my way through thick bush and what was suddenly lying in front of me? A young but mature virgin bathing in a pool of milk! Alright, that's not true, but it was a driveable road leading back to Cambodia! Very unexpected to find it there. A big relief, please believe me. Many wild days and nights in hammocks and around the campfire later we arrived in a small village in the middle of nowhere were pigs are kings and dust omni-present. Our intention was to stop briefly for water and go but I started to feel slightly sick and lied down in the hammock of a villager. Quickly I developed some fever, had to throw up and felt really terrible. The locals immediately wanted to scratch my whole body with brass coins and put hot glass succion bulbs on my skin to suck the blood out. After a couple of hours I realised I could go nowhere and we decided to stay over for the night at the chief policeman's house. In the middle of the night I was about to eat some more of the cold rice left but somehow didn't. Next morning I saw that the bowl was filled with mouse droppings as we had had some visitors. What other diseases would I have caught?, did I ask myself. In the morning my condition had improved and we followed sandy trails leading westwards. Hours later, in a bigger town, I felt feverish again and hit the sack. Soon I got terribly high temperatures and felt as if I would die. After two days of hell and always hoping to get better (passing out in the corridor while fetching water) a friend of mine insisted on me going for a bloodtest. The verdict fell hard : malaria falciparum++. The worse strain, deadly too. Driving back to the hotel I passed out on the bike and crashed in the middle of the road. Finally I bought cheap but efficient medicine of two dollar and spent the following days in bed, hoping to pull through alright. With time I did, I'm almost back to normal but still taking it easy. But it's not all : a few days later one of my friends who came along was diagnosed with dengue fever and malaria too! He's still fighting to get better. We won't forget this trip very soon, I can tell ya that for sure!