Bad roads are a fundamental part of the travel experience as a whole, as anyone who has traveled in less than fully developed countries knows. But, whoever wrote that getting there is half the fun, had clearly never traveled in Laos or Cambodia.
By far, the worst road I have ever been on joins Stung Trang, a small village on the Mekong river, to Ban Lung in the eastern Cambodian province of Rattanakhiri. Like all roads off the proverbial beaten path, it is little more than just that: a beaten path. In some sections the jungle is so dense that the tree tops join their humid, tropical heads above and form a tunnel, blocking out the sun. Their fallen siblings create a three-dimensional labyrinth on the road. Birds of bright colors perch in the surroundings and seem to laugh at the vehicles that dare attempt this passage. The distance between the two towns is a mere 110 km, yet it took 15 hours. Ponder that for a moment. If you were to jump into your car right now and drive 110 km, how long would it take? Compare and contrast.
It was by far the most exhausting, bone rattling and emotionally draining journey I’d ever taken. It didn’t help that I was the only foreigner and female, traveling along a road that I later found out the authorities in Phnom Penh still consider unsafe and label as highly insecure. It was also the first time I got an up close look at an AK-47 as one was lying across of the knees of one of my fellow passengers. Unfortunately, this weapon was of no use against the swarm of giant flies that attacked the slow moving vehicle, obscured the driver’s vision and seemed to enjoy the taste of human.
If Satan’s little minions had emerged from the jungle, hijacked the car and drove off leaving us stranded, I wouldn’t have been too shocked. I was on the road from hell.
The locals in Cambodia refer to certain roads as dancing roads because of the endless potholes that make it impossible to stay on your seat for any length of time. This sounds cute, but it isn’t. Your body is tossed to one side and then the other, you hang on but occasionally you hit your head. I heard of someone knocking themselves out cold once and post journey bruises are common. The road to Ban Lung could easily have been called the break dance road because of the almost impossible positions your body is thrown into and the high probability of doing damage to your physical (and mental) self.
Dancing roads are seldom level to begin with and after a heavy rainfall, they turn into a series of pools deep enough and wide enough to accommodate a small herd of water buffalo. All Khmer-speaking passengers keep their eyes peeled on the upcoming road, and assist the driver by recommending him to swerve left or right, or in some cases, to drive right through the middle. The drivers seem to know the potholes well, as if they are mapped out on the collective Cambodian conscience. The driver remains stoic throughout the entire ordeal, betraying no emotion. On this particular journey the driver smiled only once, when we reach one pothole/swimming pool to find it in use by a herd of water buffalo. The expression crept onto his face and sat there looking awkward.
In these situations, when honking doesn’t work in getting the animals to move out of the way, the driver’s assistant will get out of the vehicle and encourage them to vacate with the help of a long stick, kept behind the passenger’s seat just for such occasions.
A vehicle never sets out very far without its own personal mechanic, who like a wet nurse, must be close at hand for the inevitable breakdowns. On the road to Ban Lung we had five of these. We also had two flat tires. This is average. During one stop I watched as the mechanic ran into the forest and came back with some sticks and twigs and proceeded to fix the problem, McGyver style. Within moments we were off.
Vehicles that traverse these roads, and because of it, are old, worn and damaged, functioning at the bare minimum. They are however, packed well above recommended maximums. The jeep I was in on this particular journey contained five people when I got in. We picked up two more on the way out of town. Leg room was not as much an issue as the discomfort from sitting on the parking brake.
It was at this point in my wanderings that I figured that I had earned the hard core badge and nothing was going to get me to retrace my steps along that road. I took a plane.