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Stung Treng: Gateway to the northeast

Stung Treng: Gateway to the northeast

Perched on the veranda of the Blue Cafe in Stung Treng,overlooking the Sekong River

just before it merges with the much larger Mekong, one can almost forget that Cambodia

has any problems at all.

Limber-legged kids splashing about on the river bank below provide light entertainment

while one takes in a quiet but majestic sunset during a dinner of grilled venison

or fresh-water lobster.

The Blue Cafe is drawing good crowds these days. With the deployment of the UNTAC

Uruguayan Battalion in Stung Treng and a host of other U.N. officials in town, business

is booming.

Not to miss out on a good opportunity, the proprietors now print their menu not only

in Khmer-but in English, French, and Spanish as well-for a dinner crowd that can

include people from a dozen different countries.

The Blue Cafe isn't the only eaterie in town. There's the Green Cafe too. A Frenchman

has taken the challenge of broadening the culinary skills of the chefs there, introducing

them to "Poulet Francaise," among other dishes.

If the cuisine at the Green Cafe is now newly continental, there's still a few quiet

disputes over what music-Arab love songs or western rock-should soften the evening.

Alas, the local staff will wonder for many years why anyone in their right mind is

still awake after 10 p.m.

The main market in town brims with goods that come by road, river, or plane; down

from Laos, across from Vietnam, or up from Phnom Penh.

Super glue is available, as well as Darlie toothpaste, cassettes, imported candies

and Fujiyama bubblegum for 50 riels a pack from Thailand. National seems to have

the market cornered on tape players and radios, while Bentley, 555, and Fine dominate

the cigarette market. You can even find J.E. Cream from Taiwan which promises to

"remove pimples, freckles, and skin blotches." Goods from Vietnam and China

abound as well.

Some of the local UNTAC connoisseurs have placed orders with Stung Treng traders

for French wine that will come from Thailand, via Laos.

The diversity offered in the market leads some to conclude that banditry can't be

much of a problem on the roads coming into town. The biggest worry with Khmer Rouge

toll collectors on Route 13 to Laos, according to UNTAC personnel, is that they only

accept Thai baht.

"If there's margarine from Ho Chi Minh City or chilli sauce from Hanoi in the

shops, you know the road to Vietnam is still open," one UNTAC official said.

Some Khmers give a less rosy perspective. They're unhappy that there are not enough

vegetables around and say that Vietnamese traders who could provide baskets of fresh

greens from across the border are afraid to travel the roads. Restaurateurs apologize

for the high price of beer as they say many imports have to be flown in from Phnom

Penh because the roads and rivers aren't safe.

Despite its remoteness, Stung Treng's local economy hasn't been immune to the vagaries

of the currency situation plaguing the country. Problems with small riel notes have

caused uproars in the market place, and Hun Sen soldiers have threatened stall sellers

with grenades for refusing to accept 50 riel bills.

When radio communications with Phnom Penh broke down in early September, the whole

city was thrown into a panic, with shopkeepers refusing all denominations, including

500 riel notes. The city froze economically, while everyone held their breath, wondering

if anything had gone wrong in Phnom Penh. Such is the level of unease that prevails

among the locals, who mostl, because of a language barrier, live quite separate from

their current neighbors from abroad.

At the end of August Air Kampuchea stopped their weekly commercial flight to Stung

Treng-too many soft spots on the runway. This can only force prices on luxury items

to shoot up further. People and goods can still get to Stung Treng by ferry from

Phnom Penh and Kratie, but traders get charged "river taxes" along the

way.

The airport is still busy though. Stung Treng city is the UNTAC command post for

Sector IV, covering Stung Treng, Ratanakiri, and Mondolkiri provinces. The only practical

way for UNTAC to run the operation up in Cambodia's remote, sparsely populated, mostly

forested northeast is to have choppers flying regularly all over the three provinces.

Kilos of slowly defrosting Uruguayan beef straight from home are shuttled by helicopter

over many miles of virgin jungle to keep the troops happily fed. The matte supply,

at least in Stung Treng, seems adequate for the time being; if you care for a bowl,

any of the Uruguayans are happy to let you sample their most-favored national pastime-a

caffeine-rich, rather bitter, tea-like brew, sipped religiously from morning until

night.

A decaying government guest house along the river is empty most of the time. Its

four rooms, while sparse, hint at a once elegant past.

From the second floor, the rooms open on to a spacious balcony. At the end of a long

day during the rainy season, travellers can sit back and watch the squalls roll up

from the south, one after another.

A friendly crew of Khmers provide a full stock of jasmine tea all day long and the

dunk bath is always kept full. For 7,000 riels per night travellers can't go wrong-as

long as they bring an adequate supply of mosquito repellent to keep them covered

before tucking under the nets.

Stung Treng definitely has a small town ambience and the visiting UNTACers are keeping

up the spirit. There's still enough time in the day to have a chat with anyone who

comes by and, besides, a new face is a welcome source of something different, even

if it's just a "Hello, who are you?"

Heading UNTAC's Electoral Office is Johan Sunder, a Dutchman with more than 20 years

experience in Southeast Asia. At 60, he exudes an enthusiasm garnered from a full

life with few regrets. Retiring from a U.N. career on July 31, he signed up for UNTAC

the next day to keep from getting bored at home. He's genuinely excited to be involved

in helping Cambodia, and happy to be out of Phnom Penh too.

Despite what he calls "organizational problems" in deploying staff and

finding housing-plus a level of fear among the Khmers, particularly about banditry-Sunder

is confident that the electoral office will succeed in its task.

"With peace and a good administration-that's all [the Khmer] need to get this

country going," he says.

Sunder gets around the province by helicopter or zodiac rubber raft on the rivers.

"I've been everywhere. We get good cooperation from the local authorities,"

says Sunder. "We will always be strangers here but if we behave in accordance

with the local customs we shouldn't have any trouble. The people won't be against

us."

UNTAC meets each week with the governor, vice-governor, and other senior officials

to see what's up. One of the SOC recent requests was to beautify the city-with UNTAC's

help. UNTAC Civilian Administration Director Jack Godfrin thinks he can help out.

"They have one large garbage truck, but they lack the dumpsters to collect the

trash," he says. "It's not in our mandate but maybe we can connect them

with an NGO to raise the funds to build one."

That's not likely in the near term. There is only one NGO in town. Youth With A Mission

has set up shop and the Christian nurses are doing their best to keep the local population's

health on the up and up.

They will be joined soon by the another NGO, the Vietnam Veterans of America Association,

which plans to open a prosthesis clinic and may even start a mobile riverine clinic

to ply the waterways, bringing basic health care to villagers that may never have

seen a doctor.

SOC authorities have raised the issue of illegal logging with UNTAC. They know there

are sawmills about town without the "proper papers" but seem powerless

to do anything about them because, as reported to UNTAC, those controlling the mills

have access to a lot of guns.

In any event, most of the guns one sees about town are those toted by the Uruguayans:

automatic assault rifles that convey a solid military presence.

Still the UNTAC armed presence isn't menacing. Kids all over town are happy to practice

their new-found Spanish with the soldiers and "Amigo" is the most common

greeting to those foreigners who venture to one of Cambodia's more charming provincial

capitals.

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