When traveling in SouthEast Asia over an extended period of time, a strange thing happens where you begin to feel comfortable in chaos. You catch yourself being “okay” with things and circumstances that, in America, would completely faze you. You find yourself unflinching at hassles, catastrophes, and less than modern inconveniences. You’re a traveler. And in being so, you must learn to go with the flow and find humor in the bumps along the road.
Metaphorically and literally, speaking.
My friend, Warner and I have booked cheap tickets on a luxury bus liner from Bangkok to Siam Reap Cambodia. We are told that it will be a four-hour ride. They show us pictures of the bus we will be taking, which is always a good thing to see in developing countries, to ensure the quality of the ride we are purchasing. It is a beautiful and shiny new bus with a brand new interior.
“Looks good to me,” I say to Warner.
He nods his agreement and we buy the tickets. The tickets we purchase are dated four days from now. That should give us enough time to procure our visas for Cambodia. It will be the first country we are visiting on this trip in which we are required to get our visas in advance rather than at the border. The lady who sells us our tickets tells us that they will pick us up at our guesthouse at 7:00 am on the listed date. This seems like an awfully accommodating service. I rather expected to have to leave my guesthouse at 6:00 am and struggle to find the correct bus station.
With our tickets in tow, we head back out onto Khao San Road and start looking for a place to purchase visas. Khao San Road is located in Bangkok and one of the major epicenters for backpackers in SouthEast Asia, if not THE epicenter. Probably because you can find any item you might possibly want being sold here — legal and illegal — as well as quite a few things you can’t ever imagine possibly needing, and still others you hope to never ever have to need. You can also find connections to pretty much anywhere in the world from here.
I won’t say that it is a good place to rest up for a planned journey because very little relaxing takes place here in Bangkok. Your days are usually filled with arranging travel documents, buying supplies, and hunting for souvenirs. While the nights are filled with abrasive drunken revelry, loud neon-lit clubs, and the infamous Patpong ping pong show. I find Koh San road to be worth experiencing once and worth whatever difficulty is incurred in the pursuit of avoiding it every other time. Unfortunately, it is, more often than not, a required stop in order to arrange the proper travel documents for further exploration. One can purchase visas for just about any other country in S.E. Asia on Koh San Road along with the necessary travel tickets to get there.
The designated travel day for our trip to Siam Reap comes along. Warner and I find ourselves lounging sleepily in chairs outside our guesthouse at 6:45 am waiting for our pick up. At about 7:15 am we being to wonder if they have the correct guesthouse listed. We just chalk it up to standard S.E.A. time and continue to wait. At around 7:30 we are really beginning to get antsy. Another 5 minutes pass and Warner looks at me.
“Do you think we should just try and find the bus station ourselves?” He asks.
“I don’t know, man” I reply. “We don’t even know which station the bus leaves from,” I continue.
As we ponder these thoughts for a few moments and continue the conversation. A Thai man comes rushing up followed by a group of hurried and tired looking backpackers.
“For Siam Reap?” He pants.
“Yes,” Warner replies.
“They told us to wait here for a pickup,” I say.
“I here. Pick you up,” he says. I look around for a vehicle of some sort but see no such thing.
“We hurry. Late.” He continues as we grab our packs and follow along. It appears getting picked up is a loosely translated term here.
We follow along with about 8 other backpackers as he leads us all the way to the other end of Koh San Road. It is here that the bus is waiting for us and as soon as we arrive we are hurried onto a full bus and it is moving before we are even in our seats. It seems that we really were late. We spend the better part of three hours traveling on the nicely paved highways of Thailand. As the three-hour mark nears and we are nearing the Cambodian border we begin to wonder about the truth of a four-hour trip. As I check the map it still seems vaguely possible mileage wise. There is only about half the distance we just traveled to cover on the Cambodian side. So I continue to keep the faith.
Our bus stops about 200 yards from the Cambodian border of Poipet. It is here that we are told to disembark, take our packs and walk across the border. We are then told that Thai buses cannot operate in Cambodia and we will be picked up by a Cambodian bus. This is one of those moments when you just know something is not right, but there is really nothing to do about it, so you just continue on to see where everything leads.
As Warner, myself, and about 20 other backpackers start heading towards the border the sun is quickly blocked by ominous looking clouds. One of the drawbacks of coming to S.E.A. during the rainy season is the quickness in which a sunny day becomes a tropical storm. We find ourselves about 50 feet away from the bus when the sky opens up and starts pouring.
The whole group of us start jogging towards the border. I imagine we look like a herd of tired and wet cows being driven in the desired direction. While I think most of us have resigned to becoming soaked ourselves, we are still trying to keep the stuff in our packs as dry as possible. When we are about two hundred feet from the border, an army of dirty, half-dressed, and barefoot children come streaming out at us. I pause, at first unsure as to what is happening, until I see the kids opening umbrellas as they draw near. Each child picks a person, runs up, and holds an umbrella over their heads. Some of us find ourselves with two or three kids all vying to have their umbrella in the position over our heads. I am always amazed at the ingenuity of the people here. They will take any need and turn it into a source of income.
Walking across the border into Cambodia is an amazing and shocking experience all at once. Above the road is an intricately carved archway that reads “Kingdom of Cambodia” in Khmer and English. It is right here, directly underneath the archway, that the paved road ends and a dirt road continues.
As Warner and I walk up to the Thai Border station to have our passports stamped with an exit date from Thailand we are surrounded by beggars. These are not the usual beggars asking only for money, they will take anything; empty soda cans, water bottles, any food you have even if it is half eaten. It is a hard experience to bear as the kids grab at your shirt or pack and beg for anything you have. You can only give so much, but once the kids see you give something to one, you are immediately surrounded by more all hoping for some small pittance.
Once we are on the Cambodian side of the border, we slosh across the muddy road in our sandals and into the Cambodian border station. Imagine a cramped rectangular building that should probably only hold 20 people, but is stuffed with 50; all soaking wet, most with large packs on their backs. Of course, as we’ve come to expect, there is no air-conditioning in the building and as the clouds part and the sun rises again the building basically turns into a steam room. After waiting in the room for about 30 minutes we notice three official looking people walk out together. We wait for about 10 more minutes before we realize that the line has not moved in a while. It turns out they have all decided to take a break.
Here we are, 50 of us, with more waiting outside, packed into a tiny little steam box and the border guards all decide to take a break. The only thing to do in a situation like this are laugh and shake your head.
After another 20 minutes or so has passed the line finally starts moving again. We get our passports stamped with no hassles and head to the place we have been told to meet our pick up bus. When the rest of our bus finishes getting their passports stamped and there is a group of about 20 of us waiting at the bus stop, a tiny van pulls up. It is one of the squarish and thin European style vans.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Warner says as I start to laugh.
Being good sports about things we get stuffed onto the bus along with everybody else. The driver promptly turns around and remarks that there is no air conditioning. Okay, we’ll just open the windows, we figure. As people all around the van start to struggle with the windows, the driver turns around again.
“Windows no good,” he says. “No problem, no problem, this window good,” he continues as he demonstrates by pulling his up and down.
“That’s it. I’m out of here.” Warner says suddenly as he starts struggling for the exit. I am quick to follow and start struggling for the exit, as well. About four or five other passengers have to get out of the van for us to safely exit. As we climb out of the van some of the other passengers start to shove themselves back in, three of them don’t get back in at all. One of them, a scared looking Englishman named Tom looks at me and says, “No way am I getting back inside that thing. I’m taking a f**king taxi with you guys.”
The other two are Israelis, Orre and Etan. Like us, they are about five hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour trip and we are still only just at the border.
The five of us spend very little time looking for a taxi as we are quickly approached by several people offering rides. The prices vary from $30 a person to as low as $10. Being budget travelers, we naturally take the $10 rides. There seems to be no such thing as real taxis in Cambodia. It appears that if you have a car, preferably a Toyota Camry, you can be a taxi driver.
We take two separate cars; the two Israelis in one and Warner, Tom, and myself in the other. We hop into our new driver’s dark blue Camry and throw our bags in the back. He quickly pulls out of the lot as the other car follows behind us. The road is terrible and there are constant potholes. As we are driving along I notice that neither driver stays on any specific side of the road. Rather, each driver takes whichever path he feels will best get him down the road with the least chance of getting stuck. Our driver begins out going a decent speed, not too slow but certainly not by any means fast. The three of us spend the first 40 minutes having a conversation.
Tom tells us that he is traveling around S.E.A. for two months. He has spent the first three weeks in Thailand and he is planning on spending the next two weeks in Cambodia. He mentions that he would like to finish his trip in Indonesia, but because of budget issues, he might just continue on into Laos.
After a while the conversation begins to die down and we ask the driver if he has any music. He smiles.
“Yes. Yes. I have good music,” he says.
He puts a tape into the tape deck and the theme to the classic 80’s movie Beverly Hills Cop, set to a cheesy techno beat starts blaring over the speakers. As the music plays it seems to energize our driver and he starts driving faster. As he drives faster the potholes begin to get more and more jarring. We look out the window and see that our driver’s faster pace has brought out competitive feelings in Orre and Etan’s driver. They began to race. It is not long before our driver is bobbing up and down in his seat to the music and vying full out for the title of fastest Cambodian taxi driver.
Just as we are overtaken by the Israeli’s taxi the song ends. Our driver seems visibly fazed at the loss of his motivation. Not to worry though. This pause only lasts three-seconds before the tape flips to side B and the same song starts all over again.
At some point along the way, we hit an exceptionally large pothole and Tom whacks his head on the ceiling. Not long after that, we are caught in the middle of a herd of cows and lose our hard won first place position. As I begin to get used to the crazy monotony of 80’s themed techno, large jarring potholes, and periodic swerving to miss cows or people we hit a dog accompanied by an extremely large yelping sound. I cringe, thinking of my dogs back home as the driver just speeds on.
“Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” mutters Warren under his breath.
*This story was based on the Author’s experience during his first trip to Cambodia in 2006. The author, who now lives in Cambodia part-time, writes that “Much of what I have described in this article has changed since then. I believe the road is paved all the way now and the trip is much different than it used to be.”
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Lightweight Easy-Carry Rain Poncho: While a jacket isn’t totally necessary when traveling in S.E.A., this lightweight rain poncho comes in handy — especially in the rainy season. It fits in a tiny little pouch, making it easy to pack. And probably the best part about it is that it fits over top of your backpack, so all your gear stays dry.
Passport Holder Neck Wallet: I know these things can be dorky, but have you ever lost your passport in a foreign country? I’d rather wear the neck wallet than experience that inconvenience. This passport holder neck wallet is great for those chaotic travel days when you need to keep the most important stuff close.
Moleskine Voyageur Traveller’s Notebook: You think you’re going to remember absolutely everything that’s going to happen during your travels, but often you don’t. I love my travel Moleskine, because not only does it provide me a place to recount all my stories, but it also includes detachable lists, and a back-pocket perfect for storing itineraries, tickets, and printouts.