After Koh Nhek the scenery changed. Grassy plains, occasional paddies and a mere trickle of villages. According to Mab the whole area was decimated by logging some ten to fifteen years early -- mainly at the hands of Vietnamese logging interests. While Mab mouthed off at the inappropriateness of Vietnamese gutting his country, he had few words for the politicians in Phnom Penh who no doubt gave permission and profited handsomely from the raping of the forests of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri.
Riding through areas with ten years of regrowth was interesting -- I was surprised just how much regrowth there was, yet already there were sections marked for relogging and on one occasion we passed a group of people with a chainsaw doing a bit of "private relogging".
More unusual were the grassy plains. The soil here was very sandy and difficult to ride in and more than once we almost dropped the bike. In these plains nothing grew but grass -- no trees, no bushes, no nothing. Like small moonscapes carved out of the forest, we wondered why they were there -- scars from defoliation during the American war? No answers from Mab or Neung.
It was getting late and we we're yet to reach the Srepok River. Made famous by Apocalypse Now, the Srepok was the river up which Colonel Kurtz had supposedly made his base, and while this was interesting and all, we were more interested in the fact that the road was supposed to improve after Lumphat -- the town on the far side of the Srepok and the old capital of Ratanakiri province.
Five pm, six pm -- we're still on the track and dusk is falling. I'm exhausted and Mab's riding was suffering due to his tiredness. By then we'd been riding almost eleven hours with just a break in Koh Nhek. Then just shy of the Srepok we get separated from Andrew and Neung, then we got lost, then my glasses were torn off my face by a branch. I started to have sense of humour failure. We come into an opening, grass everywhere, a big moon rising through the clear night -- riding through the plains under the moonlight was momentarily exhilarating till I hit another bump and get another jolt of pain shooting up my back.
Then finally we reached the river and it all became worthwhile. The moon rose behind us, the last remnants of sunset on the horizon and then we wheeled the bikes down onto a raft made of two sampans and a deck and the boatman poles us off into the current. We gently motor across the river -- the feeling of isolation is amazing -- we're almost there Mab said -- just one more hour.
Lumphat was once the capital of Ratanakiri province until it was obliterated by air strikes during the American War. Today, all that remains of the original town in the roundabout with the new capital an hour or so away in Ban Lung. We stopped there -- a major temple fair was taking place, but we just stopped for beers and noodles. While normally I'd be interested in checking out the fair, all I wanted to do was get to a hotel and lay down.
The last hour or so is the dustiest part of the entire trip, and, due to the temple fair, traffic is heavy -- as is the dust.
When we reach the main Ban Lung to Stung Treng road, I was ready to get off the bike and kiss the road, and then, thirty minutes later when we arrived at a guesthouse in Ban Lung, I was ready to kiss Mab.
The Sen Monorom to Ban Lung trip is an amazing one. I'm very glad we did it -- the timing, in early November is perfect -- the heaviest of the rains are finished, yet the dust hasn't had time to really get going. The forest is pleasant, but overall I was disappointed -- I had expected some slivers of old growth, but, at least as far as the cover visible from the road, there is nothing left -- as with so many things in Cambodia, ripped out and sold off on the cheap by corrupt and/or uneducated stakeholders for a ridiculously short term gain.