(See also previous entry, Phnom Penh) From Phnom Penh, we de-camped to the countryside, a small town called Dar near the Vietnamese border, to visit John's pepper farm smallholding and to meet his extended family. We hired a car from the ghastly Europcar, whose representative failed to turn up and then kept us hanging around for over an hour while she tried to figure out how to find our reservation and complete the booking. In the end we got a Toyota cruiser type thing, Quashi (sunroof not working). We had to negotiate finding our way back into PP to pick up John and his family and then endure a four hour drive from PP along roads dominated by vast trucks, sometimes two aside, rumbling through the country overloaded, as usual with people and goods bound for the border with Vietnam. Alan has since succumbed to a nasty bout of stomach trouble and spent a day recovering in bed. John's mother-in-law turned up most kindly (with extended family) bringing "porridge", heaps of bananas and some unidentifiable meat. Alan wasn't quite yet up to sampling these delights.
We declined the kind offer to stay in John's house on stilts as he hasn't yet built a loo and I have to confess to being a whoosie when it comes to night-time excursions into the unknown down rather steep wooden steps in the dark. In any case, my fear of snakes precludes any such exciting possibilities.
We have been treated like celebrities wherever we have been, I suspect mainly because this dusty little border town hasn't seen any tourists, let alone older ones with frizzy blonde/white hair which always causes much fascination. It's one of the rare times I can see what it feels like to be stared at, open-mouthed by strangers! But they are always smiling and not at all hostile, really just bemused.
Border towns are a law unto themselves. The lorry traffic is unbelievable yet still roadside shops spend inordinate amounts of time pointlessly sweeping the waves of red dust and falling detritus from their properties. Relief in the form of a little coffee shop selling proper coffee and with aircon - a popular novelty for the few locals who can afford to buy ice frappacinos and smoothies (although each one takes a painstaking 15 minutes to assemble.)
Once off the beaten track, "roads" become more deep-rutted tracks requiring considerable skill in negotiating but there are many delightful fruits growing (pineapples, passion fruit, mangosteens, strange apples etc and the ubiquitious coconut.
Sadly, many of the local villagers live in fear of their homes being repossessed by the banks and, as in the UK, household debt is at often unmanageable levels, especially since the price of pepper has plummeted.
Farmers work daily, picking any crop/fruits and taking it to the small village market every morning. At present, with the cost of pumping water to the pepper growing areas,the crop produces no profit..so no forward investment at all. This was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, so mines and skeletons are not far from the surface in all farms here..both physically and also in the social dialogue. We are reliably informed that families avoid any such political discussion.
Having spent three nights here..2km away from the farm in the only local hotel, we left early for the long trip back to Phnom Phnh. Alan was very relieved to hand back the car unscathed..