The northeast corner of Cambodia used to be very remote and difficult to reach, with the appalling state of the only road to the province restricting regular transport links. But in just a few short years the road has improvedly significantly and with it has come an avalanche of new bus services. It’s now possible to get to Phnom Penh in just ten hours on a good day, and there is talk that the main road will be fully paved within three or four years.
For the time being, however, NH78 is still unsealed and throws the signature red dust of the region over everything that passes. The 140 kilometre stretch of dirt varies from a smooth well-graded expanse as wide as a football pitch to narrow rutted tracks joined by creaking wooden bridges that look like they won’t survive the next wet season. This is a very poor region: poverty visible from the bus ranks with some of the worst I saw in northern Laos. Tiny wooden huts built on stilts to escape the wet, sometimes with only three walls and always nearly free of any furniture. In or under these wispy structures families cooked, slept and lived, and the surrounding countryside was often sparse and devoid of useful crops or firewood. For the first time on this trip I felt a sense of desperation in the locals, and to see the weary dead-eyed look in the eyes of a fifteen year old youth was singularly depressing. I met an aid worker called Chris who is helping to establish schools in remote villages here, and he says that once you get more than ten kilometres out of Ban Lung conditions can be “medieval”.
Ban Lung is nonetheless a lively town of around 25,000 people, the provincial capital that also acts as a service centre for all the surrounding and far-flung villages. Chris says that when he first arrived three years ago there were no sealed roads here; now all the main streets are tarmac and through the town the highway is a huge dual carriageway with flowered median strip. The improved transportation has brought more tourists, and while it’s not on the mainstream backpacker circuit yet this area is attracting more and more adventurous types, especially those wanting to trek in the savannah and jungle northeast towards the Vietnamese border. Ban Lung also has some unusual quirks that I never saw in all my travels through Laos, even though Laos is nominally much poorer. For example ice is still delivered in the morning to street vendors on a small trailer hinged to the back of a motorbike, the food and drink sellers sawing the metre-long frozen rectangles to suit and placing the chunks in large plastic chests to keep their wares cool for the day. Nearly every petrol pump is simply a 44-gallon drum on its end with a hand-crank on top, feeding into a large clear glass cylinder so the purity of the fuel can be seen and quantity measured. There is always a parasol on top to prevent this improvised explosive device from going off, but punters still smoke while being refueled.
As the only service town for the whole province, the market area is packed with stalls and shops selling all manner of goods not normally available in the villages. Ban Lung is where you come when you want roofing materials, hardware, pots and pans, medicines, furniture, childrens’ toys, whitegoods, clothing, scooters, shoes and most widely available of all: mobile phones. It seems that every third store is a phone vendor, all hawking the same chinese knock-offs that have flooded markets further north. The food market features the usual plastic hessian roof hung five feet off the ground to offer some protection from the sun; it’s the perfect height for the locals, and I’ve gotten used to stooping endlessly when wandering such places. Here though the heat was particularly oppressive: around the meat section I noticed thick black tubes strung across alleys at head height, which on closer inspection were revealed to be normal thin ropes with a solid crust of well-fed flies.
There are some strange contrasts in the marketplace too: DVD shops also stock a healthy range of modern pop on cassette tape, and television stores carry ancient transistor radios alongside older-style television sets. The market and surrounding streets of shops – all with rubbish liberally strewn along the dusty red verges – are pretty much all you will find in the town; apart from street food vendors and perhaps a dozen restaurants and guesthouses there is little in the way of suburbs. Walk just two kilometres in any direction and you’re well and truly back in the bush, but it’s not all rustic. On a Sunday morning stroll I noticed two small roller rinks for kids, public volleyball courts and even a small ferris wheel on the restaurant strip beside the town’s Kansaign Lake.
The main tourist attraction near town is a volcanic crater lake called Yeak Laom, described in the guidebook as “one of the most serene and sublimely beautiful sites in all of Cambodia”. Quite a rap, and enough to make me walk the four kilometres from town to have a good look. It’s pretty and pleasant, but if this really is one of the natural highlights of Cambodia then I won’t be diverting myself greatly in the future. Vegetation reaches right to the shore and it’s only a few hundred metres across, so you can take in the whole lake in one pleasing view. You can swim in the lake, which I didn’t. You can walk around the lake, which I did. At first glance I thought the area was nearly empty of life, with almost no bird life apparent and the water eerily dark and quiet. However once I started walking the lake’s edge I began to hear the birds and crickets clearly, and moths and butterflies flitted freely about. Snakes and lizards slid noisily off the path as I walked, and I made sure I clumped along as loudly as possible so they would keep away. On the walk back I stopped for lunch at Norden House, which quite improbably is a Swedish hotel and restaurant on the road to the lake. I had to try the house special – Swedish meatballs with mashed potato – which was excellent and authentic, right down to the gravy served in a jug and dill pickles and lingonberries on the side.
I desperately wanted to do a two-day kayak tour while here, but unfortunately the guides won’t do it for just one person and noone else has been interested over the past few days. I considered doing an overnight trek but decided against it, partly for cost and partly because the shorter treks on offer didn’t really interest me that much. I’ve been quite happy to stay in Ban Lung, a decision greatly aided by yet again finding some superb accomodation. Tree Top Eco-Lodge has eleven fabulous bungalows widely spaced on the side of a valley, with rough wooden walkways through the treetops joining them all to the airy and all-wood bar-restaurant. The near-new wooden bungalows are huge with very high ceilings, fan, large balcony and hammock with views over the valley. Each also has a private cold-water bathroom attached, though it’s open to the elements enough for me to find a frog loitering in the toilet bowl last night! The cost for this extravagance: US$10 a night. It’s so pleasant that I haven’t rushed to leave Ban Lung, and it’s been easy to find other travellers to talk to because it’s popular too. Tree Top Lodge is far and away the best value accomodation option in the area, and even though it’s too new to be in most of the guidebooks a reservation is still strongly recommended.