the road to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

 › entry 39 of 66 › view all entries

Cambodia was a country I’d always wanted to see ever since seeing pictures of Angkor Wat and the film “killing fields” A wild land of ancient civilization and modern barbarity.

I started my trip bright and early getting a bus at Morchit mai bus station in North Bangkok for Poipet Cambodia. During the first two hours I had an American fellow sleeping next to me. He was a young fellow scrawny with a shaved head who looked like he’d just finished a stint in a monastery. What annoyed me was he was leaning all over me. Now I don’t mind a bit of pressure but he was really too much, he had his head on my shoulder and lap. I’ve never seen someone sleep so soundly. I shook him, kicked him, and finally had to lift him back to his seat.

I was relieved when he left and a woman sat next to me. Yet it wasn’t long before this girl started turning green and vomiting in a plastic bag, the odour wasn’t very pleasant at all. About 25km from the border the Thai army rangers came on the bus and checked the passengers, they’re real tight on the borders. The sick woman didn’t have the right papers so off she went.

The bus stopped at a border town maybe 15kms from the border. These places (border towns) are always tricky and as soon as we got off we were pounced on by swarms of tuk-tuk drivers trying to take us to the border for 30baht. “Where’s the song-teaow” I asked a Singaporean gent “I’m heading that way come along” he offered. We climbed aboard a green flatbed truck for a 5 baht ride.

The Poipet border is a strange place.

On the Thai side is a large bazaar where they sell T-shirts and pots to the Cambodians. On the Cambodian side are a couple of tacky casinos where the Thais flock for a day of gambling. I walked to the immigration post. On both sides there are separate queues for Thai and non-Thai, it seems the Thais get visa free access to the duty-free stores and casinos. I passed the Thai immigration and came to a clapboard hut that was the Cambodian visa office. A dark little man in a white shirt gave me a form and asked me for my passport. He looked like an immigration officer so I handed it to him and filled out my form. Next I gave 20$ or something and, presto, there was my 30 day visa. I later found out that they added a 5$ tea tax, that got me boiling mad!

 After I had run the gauntlet of beggars I found myself in the Village Square of Poipet. It was just a ring of mud with shacks around, soon taxi drivers surrounded me “Siem Reap, you go? 50 dollars very cheap!” I walked over to a shack and asked to use a phone they handed me a broken cell phone, which I used to call up my hosts in Phnom Penh. “I’ll arrive sometime tonight.” I said optimistically. I was charged way too much for the phone call but I had to make it. “What do you look like?” they asked me “Oh I’m an Asian guy a shade lighter than the locals”.

There wasn’t anything promising there so I caught a lift to a tourist agency where there were “taxis”. At the agency there was a guy at a rotting desk with a map and a dispatch radio I asked him if there was any buses to Phnom Penh. “We only have taxi. It 8hrs to Phnom Penh. You share with 4 people.Why don’t you go to Siem Reap? Everyone go there” this didn’t really fit my itinerary. The other western tourists were renting vans together at way too high prices for Siem Reap. Siem Reap though only half the distance on the map takes twice the time to reach than Phnom Penh, which seems to have the only paved road. “Anywhere else?” I asked not eager for a torturous ride to Siem Reap.

In the end I got a taxi to Battambang were I could hopefully catch a bus to Phnom Penh. This taxi was a well worn Toyota Camry (that good old jap workhorse) I sat squeezed (very tightly) between a young man, a woman with a baby, and a middle aged woman, another woman sat up front. For the next two hours we bounced our way through the Cambodian countryside. The road was a very muddy jeep track there were potholes everywhere and oceans of mud. I’ve never seen so much mud in my life and this was the dry season. Anytime another vehicle would appear the driver would start with his horn, Cambodian drivers love tooting their horns. When we’d pass we’d spray each other with mud it didn’t really matter, as everything in this country was brown already. I never saw a car wash in Cambodia.

I tried to talk with my fellow passengers the young guy just smiled, they always smile when they don’t understand you, the girl with the baby was shy one of the older women could speak a few words of Thai. When they finally understood I was Japanese not Thai they all started smiling broadly. When we passed hill with a little shrine on the top the young guy waied solemnly. He gave me a mooncake and I gave him a candy bar with a Thai label. He put this carefully away in his pocket and waied gratefully back. I turned to the girl who was now nursing her baby, she was dark (they were all dark) frail, and somewhat pretty. Her nipples were a very black colour and this caught my attention when she noticed my gaze she looked down shyly. We rattled across an Iron frame bridge (WW2 style) and stopped for a potty break. The driver just stood with his back to us while the women squatted with their sarongs to their knees off the side of the road.

Somehow we made it to Battambang, an ancient city with crumbling brown stone wats and French colonial buildings in the center.

The young guy was going to Phnom Penh as well. So we went to the bus station and to our good fortune a bus was just pulling out. I paid 15baht for the ride and paid for my new friend as well he gave me back some riels which is such a worthless currency locals don’t even use it. I counted out the change and showed him he shortchanged me a couple of baht. He smiled sheepishly and ran out but soon returned with a stick of gum, I nodded with a smile and took it.

The remainder of the trip was quite good. The road was actually paved and the bus though not air-conditioned was comfortable. The Koreans donated it, it still had Korean graffiti drawn with markers and correction fluid. We passed fields and plains, not the thick jungle I imagined. Along the highway were little hamlets. The houses were built on beams the upper level had walls and was accessed by a ladder. The ground level had the cooking fire and the family sow the water must reach to the upper level during the monsoon. Tall beetle nut palms towered over the thatched roofs. About two hours from Phnom Penh my Cambodian friend pointed to one hut. The bus just stopped in the middle of the road we waied and he ran off. As the bus chugged on I saw him run across the road to a dark young girl waiting on the other side, she had the most welcoming smile, they walked back to their hut holding hands. I was a bit sad to see him go. Our conversation only consisted of smiles, the thumbs up sign, and chewing but we seemed to get along great. He was dirt poor but at least he had a warm dark girl with a smile to go home to.

By the time we got to Phnom Penh it was dark and around 10:30, the road was unlit so avoiding tractors and people was challenging. I found some motorcycle taxis and asked for Tuol Sleng (my hosts’ street address) no one knew what I was talking about. One guy finally took me to the foreigners’ house near Tuol Sleng. I stood in front of a large house and rang the bell. Two children came out and tried too understand what I was saying. “The French people, here?” we were standing there all very confused when Sally called out form the upstairs verandah “Are you David?” “Yes I am and I am sure glad to see you!”   

arlene0725 says:
I loved the photos of the whole family riding one motor bike. My camera was too slow the take a photo while in Siem Reap. I wasn't a fan of the big road pot holes. merci, Arlene
Posted on: Dec 28, 2007
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk