Epic car journey from Kratie to Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Picture a Toyota Camry (family-sized saloon car) at the start of a, nominally, 8 hour journey (220km?). Start with 3 in the back (us plus Suzi - an American girl) and a driver, at 9:00am. Drive around picking up a few more passengers and luggage (add 2 in the front passenger seat. Add one more in the back and try to shut the door. Don't forget her two, thankfully small, children).
By now, the driver had kick-boxed the boot shut with all the extra luggage, tying what didn't fit onto the top of the boot. Get back in, shut door, squeeze both bum cheeks down to almost seat level. Now we're off. Or so we thought. One more stop. What for this time? Hang on, why is that chap climbing in beside the driver. No! Why is the driver now sitting on the handbrake, leg stretched over to the accelerator pedal, head bent down by the roof, mirror adjusted out of his line of sight (rested on the side of his head).
Yes, we're off! (Should we get out?!!!).
The first part, tarmac road and novelty value, wasn't too bad (see movie if you have broadband connection (4Mb) - note the right-hand drive... and Cambodians drive on the right!). Soon the potholes began, but that didn't seem to slow down our driver. Maybe that was why, after about an hour, we had our first problem. Puncture. Not so bad this one. A simple change of tyre (after digging the spare out of the boot...) and a quick trip back to the nearest mechanic by our driver to get the spare repaired (no way were we continuing without another spare!) whilst we and our luggage (and the lady's 'fresh' vegetables and raw meat, baking in the sun) awaited his return.
Following his return and a few more potholes, fortunately the tarmac finished completely and we got an excellent dirt road to follow. We came to a river that had 4 bridges: the old bridge, now collapsed because too many heavy structural pins had mysteriously vanished (too many people had nicked and sold off these valuable pins as scrap metal); one replacement with concrete supports built but nothing else; one not as high but with people actually building it (foolishly hammering in these nice, valuable, heavy structural pins... any predictions anyone?) and the last one (Bridge Number Four) just above water level, thrown together from logs and planks and currently passable, with care. No problem.
Across we went without incident and had a lunch stop shortly afterwards, to celebrate. On we continued as the dirt road began to deteriorate, the rain began to fall, and the temperamental windscreen wipers refused to work whenever the rain got too much! As we splashed our way through another large, flooded, dip, the engine raced but the car slowed. Problem. Driver gets out, walks back down the road a bit, picks up lump of cast iron from the road, scratches head, looks puzzled, returns to car with said lump. Having securely placed it on the road in front of the car, we all had a look and knew this was serious. Looked like a piece of driveshaft to my inexpert eyes.
No problem, this is Cambodia. The car is going nowhere. We head off, on the back of a passing truck, back to the nearest piece of habitation (20 mins back down the road). We are left at a roadside restaurant while the driver borrows a motorbike and sets off, mysterious lump in hand, to Stung Treng - the nearest place (5 hours return) to get a replacement. By 8pm (we were getting a little bored) he returned with two, bigger, chunks of metal plus the original. After a brief rest, the driver plus two fellow passengers squeezed onto his motorbike, with torch in hand, and set off to fix the car on-site. By 9pm the local's movie had finished and the restaurant suddenly emptied.
The owners kindly rigged up some mosquito nets and gave us mats to sleep on. The driver had other ideas. At 10pm, to our astonishment, the sounds of a moving vehicle - OUR vehicle, disturbed our rest. So off we went, glad to be reunited with our luggage, but with a few new scratching noises from the car. Fingers crossed, we hoped to survive the last few hours of potholes, and our fatigued driver, speeding up each time he lit up a cigarette - slowing down when he needed another. Were we pleased to see Ban Lung at 2am?! And the two kids? Not a complaint in all the 16 hours - just the foreigners started to get a little grumpy. And do you think the hotel opened its doors to a tooting taxi, ringing of doorbells, banging on windows. Nope. Fortunately we found one of their competitors - a small guesthouse just across the road - only too willing to let us in!