Mondulkiri, Cambodia – “How did I get here,” was the thought that kept going through my head as I looked at my surroundings. When at Dental school, I did not imagine that I would be on a dirt bike on a road so riddled with potholes that it resembled a minefield. It was the rainy season, and the air was hot and dense in a way that made an Alabama summer seem like fall. I was parched, completely unprepared for the many hours we would spend on a road that seemed so simple on the map. My traveling companion and I decided to separate from the rest of the crew to take a more scenic route, which we planned over a bowl of noodles. Slowly we picked our way through the ruts, sinkholes that often sank our wheels, forcing us to dig them out, only to repeat the exercise over and over again. It was exhausting. We planned a 3 hour ride, but now we were 5 hours from the mobile clinic we left earlier, and only halfway home with no water to quench our thirst.

It rained again. This made the roads nearly impassable so we stopped our bikes to study the map, and to watch the sun move closer to the horizon, warning us of impending nightfall. Exhaustion and worry crept in telling us there was no choice but to keep going. Hour after hour we continued, not knowing how close we were to home.

We came upon a welcome site; a village so small it was unworthy of a dot on the map. They were able to give us precious water and informed us that we were only a few miles from another village that could provide shelter. A young boy had just arrived and told us he had found an alternate route and could lead us there on his motorcycle. Together, we picked our way through the jarring trail until almost dark when we arrived at the bank of the river to climb on the ferry, which was nothing but simple planks resting on two canoes. We had just loaded up the bikes when the boy opened the cooler on the back his bike and pulled out a delicious surprise; two ice cream sandwiches he had not yet sold. We devoured them as we crossed the river.

dentist abroad

Our elation on arrival was soon dashed when we heard those fateful words in the Cambodian language, “no room at the inn.” This started our next quest until three guest houses later when we found a woman who could build a pallet on the porch for $1. We parked our bikes, gave her $2, washed up, and began the search for food. We eventually found a man holding a beer who could serve us some leftover rice, a couple duck eggs, and cold beer of our own. It was a meal meant for a queen. After dinner, we went back to the porch to find our beds. We crawled under the mosquito nets, laid down and fell into darkness.

We woke at morning light and began our trek home. Upon our arrival, we talked about our journey, surprising one local who could not believe we made it on such an impassable route. He just looked at us and laughed, leaving us with the indelible lesson; always talk to the locals before taking a Cambodian map at its word. Good advice in all walks of life.

Experts in many fields, and in my case dentistry, are a great first step in making an informed decision. There are many do-it-yourself services arriving on the market with great potential to do more harm than good. If you feel like traveling down that road, there is a dentist out there who can show you where to find the potholes.

Dr. Frese grew up and now resides in Birmingham. She still takes the occasional dental mission trip to remote regions of the world, and is taking new patients at Iron City Dentistry in Forestdale.