There is no road-sign noting this innocuous little turn-off as being the main road to Cambodia's northeast capital. Locals know where it is and wary those who are travelling with a guide who doesn't know their way. Miss this turn-off, continue on the main big road (that any sane person would assume to be the correct road) and there is no way you'll do the trip in a day.
The road deteriorated rapidly. You know when you're being dragged up to the top of the highest point in a roller-coaster -- the upward climb is slow and smooth, with just the "click clack click clack" of the mechanic dragging you up -- then you pass the apex and you blast downhill, vibrating to pieces, being thrown to the left and right and screaming like a banshee... Well, aside from the banshee bit the deterioration in the road took place at a similar speed.
The track alternated between mud, rock channels carved by erstwhile fast flowing waters, sand, dust, trees fallen in places necessitated forays off into the surrounding forest to find new ways through. Around us the forest towered. Not the old growth tropical hardwood jungle I had hoped for -- all that was transformed into deck furniture for European and North American clients -- via Laos and Thailand or direct to Vietnam, but pleasant and thankfully cool regrowth forest nevertheless.
The road was worse than I expected.
We reach some good stands of forest and Mab mentions how he'd like to run two day one night overnight trips along this route with camping one night here. A good idea -- I asked why he wasn't already doing it. As always money is the issue. With a small influx of money, he could buy a few tents, a letter bike and start offering something like this -- he obviously knows the road well and is a smart guy, yet, as with so many situations in Cambodia, the lack of just a few hundred dollars stops so many ideas before they even get off the ground.
Three hours, four hours pass, we're still not at Koh Nhek, the roughly half-way point we we're looking forward to some food and perhaps a cold drink. The road continues to get worse. Thrown around and bouncing on the back of the bike almost continually has my back in a near continual state of intense pain. Already I've lost much of the feeling in my left hand -- weeks later, in Bangkok I'll have to undergo treatment to address the damage I'm doing to my body.
We reached an even smaller, crappier track running off to the left.
"To Kratie" mumbles Mab as we rock and roll our way past.
I laughed out loud and asked after the road condition on this track I never even knew existed.
"It is bad, very bad" he says, "I ride it once, never again".
We reached another river crossing -- we hadn't seen a bridge in ages by this stage. Andrew's bike crosses the river then his driver, Neung, yelled out and leapt off the bike. Thinking the vibrations had finally given the man the breakdown he must have coming, I watched as he jumped off his bike ripped a flip flop off his foot and threw it into the river -- then raced after it down the riverbank. Mab stops his bike and likewise bolts down the riverbank.
It was a lost flip flop -- the water had washed it off his foot and Neung had thrown his other one in to see if it would float to the same place the first one did -- a tactic I'd never have thought of in a week of Sundays. Unfortunately the flip flop went awol and Andrew ended up lending Neung a pair of Tevas, which while oversized, were better than nothing.
By early afternoon we still had not reached Koh Nhek, the heat and the bright red dust were oppressive. We eventually reached the village via the long, dusty, appallingly rutted (thanks to buffaloes) road that winds its way through to the eventual crossroads that mark downtown Koh Nhek. We threw up our feet at the local karaoke bar/restaurant place and had lunch. The dust is everywhere -- all through the camera gear, on every surface of our bodies -- touch anything and a miniature cloud of super fine red dust puffs up. For hours now I had been riding behind Andrew, breathing in the dust that his motorbike churned up. Now sitting in the restaurant looking at the chickens and pigs wandering around at the crossroads, in the same dust and dirt the children are playing in, I found myself thinking of bird flu.
Transmitted by bird secretions -- primarily droppings and saliva -- the sickness is often transmitted by these secretions being ground up into the dust and grime then breathed in. Surely riding in a stream of dust for ten hours isn't a good idea. I mention it to Andrew and he rolled his eyes, seeing it as just my latest bout of hypochondria... I go back to my noodles.
Towards the back of the restaurant, Andrew called me over to check out a local taste sensation. Kept in a large glass jar with its lid tightly sealed, was about three inches of some type of meat. At a glance it looked like tongue, though it could have been absolutely anything. More interesting was the fact it was seething in maggots -- absolutely seething. We called over Mab to ask after it and after a long pause he confided it was "Beef with special sauce" Special sauce alright. Later, in Ban Lung we were told it was a minority specialty -- not one many westerners go after apparently.