Whiskey and waterfalls

February 6, 2013

When I moved to Phnom Penh, I thought, and hoped, it would be the start of a prolonged period of travelling around Cambodia, and the region, getting to know this fabulous part of the world. Late-stage capitalism had other ideas, and I find myself chained to a desk, and to the city, far more than I’d like.

Last weekend, though, I got to get out on Phnom Penh, thanks to a trip organised for ‘business dignitaries and opinion formers’, a category I would honestly never have imagined myself to be part of.  Nonetheless, I said I’d go, and at some unearthly hour of the morning I found myself clambering aboard one of a fleet of minibuses to venture to the eastern province of Mondulkiri, near the border with Vietnam. Mondulkiri is the largest province in the country; its capital is called Sen Monorom. I didn’t know this, despite being here for nearly a year, which demonstrates quite how off the beaten track it is.

The trip was organised by Cambodia’s biggest bank, called Acleda, and the occasion was the opening of their 238th branch. I have an account with them; if I hadn’t, I would have opened one at the first available opportunity, because they’re truly brilliant, and very much part of the rehabilitation of this country.

So we took a six-hour drive to Sen Monorom (it used to take two days, until last year), and were launched into a huge and elaborate ceremony to mark the opening. Due, I can only imagine, to the classic beauty of my hand-made linen suit, I was asked to sit on the podium with the grown-ups, as various grandees made speeches, in Khmer, about Acleda’s capital adequacy ratios (I’m speculating) and listened to the staff sing rousing songs and perform perfectly pleasant dances in honour of the new branch.

This was followed by hours upon hours of dinner and karaoke. At one point, I counted eight cases of 18-year-old Chivas Regal being wheeled in. I don’t have much substantial to say about things after that, but I gather the evening ended with all the guests doing a Gangnam-style conga line down Sen Monorom’s main road.

The next day, we were driven around Mondulkiri, to see the sights. Waterfalls, mainly. Half of the other ‘opinion formers’ treated this as an excuse to drink heavily from the vast amount of alcohol the bank had laid on. This may have made the rather underwhelming series of riparian water/air-features more interesting: I was busy reading The Spectator in the back of my van.

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Mondulkiri has a tourism department: you might be forgiven for thinking that the province is quite a tough sell. Because there’s not a lot to see, although we saw pretty much all of it. It’s hilly, sort of, and they grow avocados, pepper, strawberries, cashew nuts and coffee, which, sad to say, is utterly disgusting.

Dignitaries and opinion formers, apparently

Dignitaries and opinion formers, apparently

The highlight came at sunset when we found ourselves on one of the highest points in the province, watching the full moon rise as the sun set. Gazing out across the blasted heath, with the forests undulating below, I remembered why I’d come to Cambodia in the first place. A weekend in Sen Monorom? Yes, please. Thank you, Acleda Bank; thank you life.

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