I know the first moment it struck me that this three-day excursion to Ratanakiri was not for the faint-hearted.
It was when I entered the bantubtik (bathroom) in the restaurant where we had lunch, about four hours into our 10-hour drive from Phnom Penh.
Not only did I have to walk through a rather grimy section of the building, but the walls and ceiling of the bathroom were heavily hung with more cobwebs than I could count (or would want to). And on the wall behind the loo was a spindly spider itself, weaving a web on the dirty wooden wall. Oh, and it was a squat toilet, I must add, since that’s a particular favourite of most westerners.
Having seen the bathroom, I didn’t really care to think about the kitchen. But, I was in the company of colleagues from DPA and they’d seemed quite happy with their choice. So I put my trust in them and plunged into the cockle soup, stir-fried morning glory and fish omelet.
This experience came shortly before my conversation in the car with Dara, DPA’s finance officer, who shared his memories of his Vietnamese college professors who’d had a particular fondness for dogs. Not as pets. As meals. And Dara went on to describe how he and his classmates would catch dogs on the road to deliver to his teachers.
Then, a little while later, we made another stop to get coffee and I found myself walking through a sandy heap and two inches of water to get to the loo (yes, another squat), holding my trousers up from touching the ground.
The iced coffee was delicious — with the required two inches of sweet, sticky condensed milk –and I couldn’t’ resist, even after seeing the dubious looking crushed iced heaped into our glasses (one of the things we’ve been warned about).
The ice turned out to be fine but I wish someone had warned me that our coffee spot came shortly before the worst section of road on which I’ve ever had the pleasure of travelling. To say it was bumpy would be a vast understatement as it felt like riding on a mechanical bull most of the time.
The first ten minutes were amusing.
The next ten were uncomfortable.
After an hour, I’d already decided I was never returning to Ratanakiri ever again.
I’d been included in this excursion when Sambath (our Executive Director) told me last week that he thought it would be good for me to go along.
Per usual, I didn’t have a clue what was going on until I got there with my colleagues Soratha and Dara (after dropping off another two colleagues, Sandaan and Sopheany, in another town before the bumpy road).
The purpose of the trip turned out to be a workshop being held in Ratanakiri, which is a decent-sized little town at the very north of Cambodia, near the Vietnam and Laos borders.
The workshop, as I realized only halfway through the morning, was actually being conducted by DPA, who had gathered together about 80 village chiefs and committee heads to discuss their grievances and help improve their situations.
Since it was all in Khmer, Soratha sat next to me to translate but, after a while, seemed to lose interest in telling me about building latrines, training teachers and supporting indigenous cultures so my information source dried up.
I wanted to shoot myself in the head with boredom. Thank goodness for video games on mobile phones –even here in Cambodia!
The afternoon took a better turn as the workshop ended at noon so Soratha and I went to visit one of the villages to find out about their newly-formed rice production team.
We drove out of the town and along dusty, red, winding roads looking out across verdant green forests of rubber and cashew trees.
We passed herds of scrawny cows blocking the road and enormous grey buffalo emerging from mud puddles.
We drove through a ten-minute torrential rainstorm, and then watched the clouds part as the sun came out.
Pulling up in front of a large wooden structure which was used for religious ceremonies, we joined the villagers who had gathered to meet with us and all sat on well-worn grass mats on the raised floor.
Soratha asked about their rice production and we learned how new training and seeds provided by DPA were providing a larger crop and that this village expected to harvest more rice this year as a result.
It was interesting to observe the natural segregation taking place here, as with most places we visit, since the men sat in front of us and the women (with their children) sat toward the back of the space.
It was also interesting (and somewhat disheartening) to discover that I was a source of fear to young children. Whenever I tried to take their photo they ran away and burst into tears! (Soratha explained they weren’t used to seeing westerners and were fearful of my presence).
Our day ended with another torrential rainstorm and dinner with my colleagues in a spacious local restaurant with open walls and a cat wandering under the tables. And then it was back to Phnom Penh again.
We departed the hotel at 7am, stopped along the way for breakfast then at a local street vendor, then for a police inspection, then to wash the bus, then at another street vendor, then another police checkpoint, then for lunch, then to drop off every single person in the bus – arriving at my doorstep, finally, at 6:25pm.
And after another long day on the road – this time in a “taxi”, which was actually a minibus shared with a full load of people – I ‘m just relieved to know that my commute to work this morning is no longer than 15 minutes in a tuktuk across town.