Roadtrip to Ratanikiri

This past weekend, I returned to the place where I first fell in love with this country, Banlung, Ratanikiri Province. New friends were arriving and old friends were leaving, so it was a good weekend to go. The roadtrip there, however, was quite the adventure…

5:00pm: I wait for my minivan to pick me up. This is a rare occasion. Typically, there are no night trips to Banlung, but I found one through a friend of a friend of a friend. I wait. Twenty minutes go by, nothing. I call the guy. He mumbles about something and being at his house. I chat with some police officers on the corner. They tell me that it’s good to be friends with police officers, and we exchange phone numbers. I call the guy again. Mumble, mumble, something about fruit, something about a woman, something about a moto. I tell him not to forget me and hang up.

6:00pm: A moto rolls up to the corner with two dudes on it while I’m chatting it up with the cops. Luckily I’m tall, white and skinny, so it doesn’t take much searching for the driver to know that I’m the right woman. I hop onto the moto with the two dudes and we drive all the way across the city.

6:30pm: Finally, we stop at a mini-warehouse stocked with fruit. Five teenage boys are lined up, tossing bags of fruit down the line and into the minivan. The man who I assume to be the driver is heatedly arguing with the woman who I assume to be the fruit seller about the price.

7:00pm: The driver and fruit seller still haven’t agreed on a price, but we are off. The minivan is full of fruit (lychees), me (the foreigner), the fruit seller (Sontea), and the driver (Sim).

7:10pm: Something is wrong with the front left tire. We stop the minivan at a shop and eat dinner while we wait for the mechanic to fix it : sour fish soup, green beans with sliced beef, jasmine tea, and an omelet with beef. $5 for all of us. Sim pays. Despite his nonchalance I think he feels bad for me.

8:00pm: Tire is fixed. Finally leaving Phnom Penh.

8:30pm: Sim appoints me to put karaoke music on the tape player, but it doesn’t work. We are devastated.

8:45pm: The headlights are out. Sim stops and messes with some wires under the dashboard. Apparently this happens often.

9:00pm: We start to pass truck after truck, van after van full of people. People are coming out of the windows, sitting on the roofs, the hoods of these vehicles. I express concern and Sim says that they’re not going much further, maybe 20 minutes or so. They’re returning to their villages for the weekend after working in the city.

9:20pm: Sim’s two phones ring nonstop. He is on his tenth phone call. He tells each one, “Yes, we are going to Ratanikiri. I have two customers: fruit and a foreigner.” He is very amused with his situation.

9:30pm: We get into the inevitable relationship talk. Sim and Sontea both ask me if I have any nice American friends looking for a girl/boyfriend.

10:30pm: We are bored of talking. We start to eat the fruit that surrounds us.

11:30pm: Sim’s still on the phone. “…fruit and a foreigner…” My earplugs are in. Time to sleep.

1:00am: We’re stopping at a gas station. I groggily look around and see that we’ve added a passenger embedded in the fruit somewhere. Through the haze I understand that his name is Haeng.

3:30am: I wake up to us running over a pothole at lightning speed. I reach back to adjust the back of my seat and I feel something in my hair. I have a dreadlock. The entire back of my head is a dreadlock. I look back and Haeng is laughing. I can only see him, not hear him since my earplugs are still in. I don’t ask him if he did this to me. I don’t particularly want to know. I go back to sleep.

4:30am: I wake up to a cow in my face. There are cows in the road. Cows everywhere. The driver cannot stop in time. We are going to hit a cow. One of them is looking into my eyes and his life is flashing before his eyes. The driver cannot stop. The brakes are essentially non-existent. Our giant fruit minivan slams into the cow and it bounces off, falls, and passes underneath our feet. Sim gets out, assesses the damage, hops back into the driver’s seat and speeds away. Through the side mirror I can see that at least one and a half cows are not looking good. I consider asking Sim about it but I don’t particularly want to know. I go back to sleep.

5:30am: We arrive in Banlung! I catch a moto to my friends Helen and Bea’s house in the rain. We eat breakfast, go to Yeak Lom Lake, and this whole trip is suddenly worth it. It was great to enjoy the province, catch up with old friends and celebrate with lucky new ones who get to bask in the wonderment of this place (hi Becca!).

My return trip to Phnom Penh was not as eventful, but while looking out the bus window I was reminded of why I came back to this country. In the city, my favorite things about Cambodia are often overpowered by all of the bustle. The easy rhythm of life in the countryside is calming and moving. Simplicity is woven into the way of life, not something that must be sought after. This realization reignites the wonderment I have for this place and the people who live here. Those who have so little and yet continue onward, sometimes with everything working against them. People like Sim.