Pain and Delight in Cambodia

Oct 8, 2003
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!
Dec 18, 2003
You must have been in the group along with a Canadian with a recently stitched shoulder, no? Much of this sounds familiar to me from a conversation at the Cal 2, but I could be wrong.

Dengue AND Malaria,, that sucks. Ah, memories...

Great story.
Oct 8, 2003
Absolutely, Bob with the stitched shoulder was part of our group. Seems like he hasn't been raped by any malignant mosquito...
Aug 18, 2004
Salut Philippe. Your report appeared in Bayon Pearnik in Phnom Penh last week or so. See

or see the main page on and look for the August of 2004 edition.

It looks like you went west from Voeun Sai to Siempang on the Sekong River. An earlier report about that route is on

From Siempang, the border crossing with Laos is directly to the west. Maybe this was the road that you found. See the old map on ... 8_07h.html

You probably used this road and then connected somewhere to the road between the Lao border crossing and Stung Treng. See the map of this road on ... 8_11c.html

Sorry to hear about your malaria.
Sep 13, 2004
This WAS a fantastic ride. It wasn't the longest, and was no more memorable than other great trips. But it was distinguished by the remoteness, living outside as long as we did, and mostly, the like minded international crew that assembled for it. And it wasn't even over when we got back to home base... it was time to pay the check as it were.

Yes, I was the guy that contracted the host of nasty diseases on this one trip. I'm pleased to say I've been fully recovered for some time now but it took 3 months, 20 kg, and half my blood to get over everything. It's difficult to say what was worst, the malaria or the dengue... since I had them both at the same time. But Hep E took the cake. For the "least dangerous strain of hepatitis and the only one that doesn't leave any lasting effects" it was quite an ordeal. Even Dr. Gavin Scott was mystified until the 3rd set of lab results came in.

Thoughts of returning to Canada to get treated frequently entered my delusional mind, but were summarily dismissed when i reasoned that there was no way anyone would let me on a plane with my laptop leaking water, until I wrote a program that would stop the leak (I'm a software engineer).

Another inconvenient side effect is anemia, mostly from the dengue, which inhibits the production of platelets to the point where you lose blood internally. Your blood literally leaks through the walls of your blood vessels. I must say I was getting rather sick and tired (pun intended) of collapsing in the hallway walking to the kitchen and generally looking like I just rose from the grave. Not to mention collapsing in the Walkabout one friday night during the Joker draw. ;-) Thanks again to David B and friends for hauling my cold, sweaty keester back to my pad where I could at least keel over without an audience. Despite the attention it doesn't do much for one's social life. And I'm sure I can speak for my roomie California Jim who must have been relieved everytime he poked his head into my room and wasn't hit by a stench that could only come from a decomposing human body.

It definitely was a noteworthy trip though, with two of us getting deathly ill, one with a freshly pinned together shoulder, and last and least, an equipment breakdown.

As I'm currently back in Canada topping up the coffers for the next go, it all seems much like a dream now. Which I suppose it should considering my, ahem, so called state of mind at the time. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat... just with a twelve pack of bugspray.


for pics of this and other trips, visit ... OPIC_ID=11
Aug 18, 2004
Last month, a guy in Cambodia name Matt did a trip to the northwest of Banlung towards Siem Pang, ending up in Stung Treng, that is strikingly similar to the trip done by the riders above. See his report on

Instead of taking the old and easily rideable (on a 250cc dirt bike) Hwy 19 directly between Banlung and Stung Treng, they headed northwest towards the Virochey National Park office on the Se San River. On the other side of the river from this office is the old track to Siem Pang. Matt also suspects that he and his riding partner inadvertently crossed into Laos at some point along the way. My guess is that they came out on the old Hwy 13 just to the south of the Lao border crossing at Voeun Kham. It might be an interesting area to look into for anyone in Cambodia who has a lot of time and camping equipment. Matt and his partner were also forced to spend a night in the jungle somewhere in this area around Siem Pang.


Dec 19, 2005
Fantastic stories. Very inspiring, apart from the diseases bit. Hope you are all ok now, with wrists itching to twist some throttle.
Philippe, we're also belgian (Flemish living in brussels) when we're back we might as well drink a good duvel over a few stories!
Aug 18, 2004
For new visitors, there is one other angle to know about along the Cambodian border with Laos. Here is still another Phnom Penh Post interview with Chou Pi Chhoura, chief of Stung Treng penal police.


Putting the sting in Stung Treng

By Charles McDermid and Cheang Sokha

The American term "wild west" - conjuring lurid images of lawlessness, prostitution and gun-fighting - has been used so often to describe Cambodia's hardscrabble northern border towns that it's intriguing to meet one of its real-life sheriffs face-to-face.

Chou Pi Chhoura, chief of Stung Treng penal police office, is the top anti-drug-trafficking official in Stung Treng province. Assisted by only a 10-man officer corps, he has the enormous, unenviable task of stalking the innumerable smuggling routes that snake across the border with Laos through deep jungle and an intricate web of Mekong waterways.

Pi Chhoura is no John Wayne. In fact, at 47 he's a bespectacled family man with two young children, and serves as a part-time youth basketball coach. His provincial office is ordinary enough; it's only the lethal arsenal of machine guns and shoulder-fired rocket launchers leaning in the corner that hint at a life of stakeouts, stings and undercover operations. Pi Chhoura is the brave face of a grim situation.

"I am very concerned about my safety and the safety of my family, but this is my duty," Pi Chhoura told the Post. "Even with 100 men we could not stop the smugglers. It is a shame for our authorities."

A two-day tour of anti-drug smuggling operations in Stung Treng is a trip to the faulty frontlines of Cambodia's own war on drugs. The 2005 National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) report listed methamphetamine pills - known locally as "yama"- as the nation's most heavily used drug, and named Stung Treng as their biggest point of entry. The province has a roughly 200-km-long border with the Lao provinces of Champasak and Attapeu. Even local authorities admit that the border is porous.

So far this year, Pi Chhoura and his men have made four major busts, made five arrests and confiscated 80,799 pills. All the operations were based on undercover investigations stretching back months, and several required days of waiting deep in the wilderness. In his five years as head of the local drug squad, Pi Chhoura has found smuggled heroin and cannabis, but this year it has been only yama.

"Ever since the Thai crackdown on drugs, the meth being made in Burma is coming down the Mekong and through Stung Treng," said Graham Shaw, NACD technical adviser. "As to what volume is being brought into Cambodia, we just don't know, nobody knows."

According to Shaw, yama is made on an industrial scale in the Wa region of Myanmar (Burma) and most of the pills found in Phnom Penh are stamped with the WY logo of the United Wa Army.

Provincial drug enforcement forces do not receive funding from the NACD's $250,000 annual budget.

"This situation is extremely difficult for the government to combat," Shaw said. "It would be a difficult border for any country to police. You've got jungle, many tributaries of the Mekong, malaria - it's a tough area."

Confounding terrain

Leaving Stung Treng town on a rural road soon reveals swaths of dense jungle penetrated only by ancient footpaths that disappear into darkness. Pi Chhoura says the topography gets increasingly grueling as it nears the Lao border, and that only local foresters can decipher the maze of ancient, canopied pathways.

"The smugglers are very smart: they travel at night and use trails that we don't know about," Pi Chhoura said. "There are very few people living in the area. Sometimes there is only one village for 100 km. There are some villages where only a few residents can speak Khmer. They walk the yama through the jungle to isolated villages where they make the drop-off to drug dealers."

The river presents its own challenges. Although Pi Chhoura explains that the majority of contraband is smuggled over land and road, the river has been a major smuggling route for centuries. Its multitude of islands, sandbars and fluctuating seasonal flows make it nearly impossible to monitor.

"We don't have the transportation, budget or resources to crack down on drugs on the river," he said. "We know that sometimes the smugglers go straight down the river. But sometimes they travel on land for awhile and then get back on boats downstream. There are many boats on the river, we could never check them all."

As bad as the jungle and the river are, it's the new highway that troubles him the most. The ASEAN highway, financed almost entirely by China, is still under construction, but it is already in heavy use by travelers crossing the border.

"Smuggling is increasing because of the road," he said. "They can travel it day or night. The government has a policy not to use checkpoints along the road. We can only stop a car and search it if we have very clear information. The road will be good for travelers and for business, but it is also a good opportunity for smuggling."

Local military police interviewed in Stung Treng said that they are also concerned about regulating the new highway. One mid-ranking military policeman said they are worried about stopping the wrong car for fear of pulling over a government official, or worse, a superior officer.

Jungle chessboard

Like many field operatives, Pi Chhoura has developed a grudging respect for the smugglers with whom he matches wits in the wilderness. He says the majority of the smugglers he has apprehended are hardly glitzy drug lords - most are poor foresters who are exploited by unscrupulous gangsters. These yama "mules" are merely used for their knowledge of the terrain and unassuming appearance. He says they are rarely armed and he does not believe they are drug users.

"The people in the remote districts are very poor," he said. "Many of the villagers cross into Laos and back every day to look for work or to sell forest goods. The drug dealers pay money to people who know the area. It is easy to attract them, and then the drug dealers stay in Laos where we cannot reach them."

Pi Chhoura can even laugh at some of the smuggling tactics he encounters. He said the small pills are easy to hide and are invariably found deep inside bedrolls, bags of rice or sacks of clothes. He chuckles at the time his team busted a yama smuggler who had hidden his stash inside segments of bamboo.

"We noticed a man carrying bamboo through the forest," he said. "Then we realized that there was no reason for anyone to be carrying bamboo into Cambodia. Look around: there's plenty everywhere to just cut down."

More recently, a months-long undercover operation found that a major shipment was going to be smuggled through a remote jungle village. His team trekked by foot to the town and stayed in the bush for two days waiting for the culprits. Discouraged, they were about to give up when he noticed a small group entering the town.

"We noticed that a group of hunters had entered the village from the jungle and didn't come to the market. We knew immediately it was the smugglers: who would walk days through the jungle to a village and not go straight to the market?"

But Pi Chhoura does not take his difficult task lightly. He says he is saddened to see more young people and sex workers using yama in his hometown Stung Treng. He says only more resources and help from the government and NACD will stem the unrelenting flow of yama through his province. He laments the lack of drug-sniffing dogs.

"I recognize that drugs are crossing into our area. It is hard to control them, and it makes our region look very bad."

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 15 / 10, May 19 - June 1, 2006
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