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
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
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
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
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