“Time to go” the small, sparkly eyed Cambodian known quite traditionally as ‘Jim’ hollers at us, whilst plucking not one but both of our ridiculously heavy backpacks up onto his tiny shoulders. Jim is one of those great multi tasking Asians who acts not only as the guest house tuk-tuk driver, but unofficial tour guide, receptionist, chef, guitarist and cleaner. I wonder just where and when the numerous folk like him I’ve encountered across Asia live, sleep and eat, as you never see them doing either of these. It’s a global mystery.
He marches us out of the guesthouse, past an audience of ‘farrangs’ enjoying their morning Cambodian coffee (which in my opinion is strong enough to bring down a herd of elephants) out into the streets of Kratie where we weave our way through the bustling markets offering wonderfully fragrant tropical fruits such as rambutan and dragon fruit, to the equally appealing baskets of deep fried tarantulas and locusts. Soon enough we find ourselves at the ‘bus station’ where we are to get our air conditioned luxurious minibus to Mondulkiri. The bus station is no more than a rough clearing within the market teaming with livestock and locals, both of which are scrambling onto the numerous minibuses. Like most things in Cambodia, these minibuses are caked in the red dust which covers the landscape, and you’re lucky to find one with a full set of doors and wheels, let alone seat belts. But once you’ve been slumming it in Asia, things like basic road safety become a minor concern, you would settle for a wagon towed by pigs, providing it had the essential air con.
Jim dumps our backpacks next to a sorry looking minivan, already filled to capacity with locals and chickens. Considering the minivan was built for a maximum of 15 people, there are already at least 25 in there, from my count. I cast a nervous glance at both my friend Zoe and Jim, but he assures me this is the one we pre-booked, 10 hour non-stop to Mondulkiri. He flashes us a smile and disappears into the crowds, leaving us to climb aboard the minivan, which felt more like a game of tetras. I end up practically on the lap of a large elderly local woman, who throughout the journey continues to talk to me in her local dialogue, slapping me lovingly on the knee. She has the warmest smile I have ever seen, despite possessing just one lone tooth. Half way through our journey, we stop to pick up yet more passengers, who happen to be four goats, tied in sacks and strapped to the open back door. Throughout their ordeal they remain strangely tranquil, despite hanging just inches from the moving road. I look around me at all the wonderfully interesting faces, who look back at me with equal interest as we swap snacks and photos. I even pass my I-pod to my elderly friend who screams with delight at Lady GaGa. I smile at my friend Zoe, she smiles back. “Only in Asia” I say and we both laugh.