The scooter is unstrapped from the back and the concrete shrines removed from the boot. The back of the minivan rises about a foot. We're in Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province, northeast Cambodia.
After a massive plate of roast beef with garlic, we explore the town.
It's got a bit of a wild west / being on the edge of civilization feel to it. Overloaded scooters and pick-ups bumping along wide puddled dirt roads. Smoke billowing from food stalls on wheels. Gem shops, mobile phone sellers, families eating in roadside food places. Noise, flies, skinny dogs trotting along. All underneath an epic sky, with storm systems drifting along.
We sit at the kerb and watch life go by and the sun go down having a few beers, then stumble back to the hotel and order the roast beef all over again.
We arrange for a couple of the lads at the hotel to take us on a one-day tour. Next morning we're on the back of their scooters headed for the local market.
Markets have been a great way to see people going about their normal lives. This one is no different - money
changing hands, old ladies walking along with carrier bags, fish sloshing in buckets, legs of meat hanging with the hairy hooves still attached, various organs and animal parts on chopping boards, pigs heads, piles of fresh herbs and vegetables like they're from another planet. Flies everywhere. Tubs of fermented fish sauce. Smells. Muddy puddles.
This one's made even better by having a guide who can explain what everything is. We buy some sticky rice mixed with banana amd steamed inside a banana leaf.
Next its a few waterfalls, not all that spectacular due to the low water levels. The guides think its a great idea to race each other on the way. They wear helmets, but as passengers the law says we don't need them (not sure how that one works.)
Mine takes a detour through a rubber plantation in an attempt to head off Paula and her driver, and we almost hit a pig being pulled by a scooter.
Later we visit a 'minority village' (literally a village where minority people live). Lots of houses on stilts, pigs snorting about in the dirt, kids and dogs watching us cautiously from a distance.
or running water. It's quiet as most people are out working in the fields, but we get invited up to one house.
There are about 10 adults inside, sitting round eating what look like supernoodles and smoking roll-ups. An elderly man lies on the mattress in the corner. He's ill and they are carrying out some sort of vigil to make him better.
We chat for a while and drink some of their rice wine from a communal pot. I don't think I've ever felt that far removed from my own life but so welcome at the same time. They make their daughter pose with me for a photo and all have a right laugh. Paula almost finishes the wine, which is a little awkward, and we have to leave.
As we leave we go past the school, and an unbelievably polite and friendly bunch of kids come over for a chat to practice their English.
The day is rounded off with a swim and a snooze at Yeak Laom, a vivid blue lake inside a 700,000-year old volcanic crater.
We leave the next day. It rains all night, and the minivan zig-zags along the
mud 'highway' as we leave town.
Somehow we make it without having to get out and push, passing loads of wheel-spinning cars throwing up arcs of red mud behind them.
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