Bus travel, Cambodian style

Siem Reap Travel Blog

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For anyone who’s done the notorious trip by road from Siem Reap to Bangkok (or the other way around) you’ll know something of what to expect from this story.


To call the road from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap atrocious is probably not being entirely fair. It is one of the best examples of how a group of determined potholes can masquerade as a road. The condition of the road itself is only one of the pitfalls awaiting you though. Most travellers in that part of the world are pretty used to being ripped off, hoaxed, flimflammed and conned. In fact I think that you have to build it into your budget for SE Asia, a fraud tax. Put a little bit aside every day and you’ll have enough to pay the fraud taxman when, inevitably, he comes calling. But, there are more scams in action on that particular stretch of road than you can hit with a particularly long, and particularly bendy, stick.


So with a due sense of trepidation and unease we turned up very early one morning in Siem Reap to board the bus to Bangkok. Of course we could have flown, but the government and the airlines, don’t want to be left out of the scam action so the flights and taxes from Bangkok to Siem Reap are well on the way to ridiculous. It’s the old bankrupted if you do, buggered if you don’t scenario really.


When we turned up at the pick up spot, the modern air conditioned bus we had been promised had turned into something that would have fitted perfectly into a Mad Max film. We were expecting that though, so we boarded with a wry smile and plonked ourselves down. Then there was the traditional, driving around the city haphazardly picking people up and tooting the horn and touting for business routine. It gives you a good chance to retrieve anything from your hotel that you’ve forgotten though, as you always go past it once or twice.


We finally got going and the cool morning wind whipped over my cheeks as we sped towards Bangkok and the tarmac thrummed beneath our wheels. Unfortunately we then left the town environs and the real road showed itself. It was dirt covered with dirt, it was more pitted than a pimpled 13 year old schoolboy with gravel rash and it unfurled before us under a violent blue sky that shouted joyously of the blistering heat to come. The old bus started lurching from pothole to pothole as the suspension congratulated itself on having given up trying long ago.


After about 45 minutes we lurched to an untidy stop at the side of the road, the tired engine thankfully grinding to a halt. Luckily there was one person with a smattering of Cambodian to translate, “The bus is broken” for us. The driver and his offsider weren’t worried though, a bit of banging around and they got us back underway and we cantered merrily along for another hour until “BANG” one of the wheels burst. Another 20 minutes of us wondering whether to sit in the sauna on the bus or the oven outside and we were back in action, all of us collectively willing the bus to the border.


This time we lasted about an hour and then another hideous clanking and we were stationary again. Our interpreter leapt into action, “The bus is broken.” Ah brilliant and how long til it will be fixed? “Not today”. Ah so what are we going to do? A bit of meandering around ensued, and some desultory telephone conversations and we were still nowhere nearer the border. A newish looking twin cab ute (also known as a truck and a pick-up) pulled up ahead of us and the driver got out to sticky-beak and spit. Our driver struck up a conversation with them and from what we could see they looked like they were haggling. All of a sudden all of the Cambodian people in and on the ute got off and our driver started gesticulating to us to get on the back.


We looked bemusedly at each other, all 24 of us. How did they possibly think we were all going to fit on there? But no, they seemed determined and they started pulling all our luggage off the bus and chucking it on the back of the ute. So with collective shrugs we commenced packing ourselves into the back and front of the cabin and onto the tray at the back. If you’d have told me you could fit 24 people into a twin cab ute I wouldn’t have believed you but really it’s quite a simple matter of 15 in the back and 9 in the front. Then you get everyone’s luggage, balance it on the tailgate and strap a rope over the top of it.


At first it seemed like we might have got lucky as the fully laden ute zigzagged across the potholes with a great turn of speed and an admirable disregard for all of the westerners clinging to its back. As I poked my head up over the throng, to appreciate the wind that our new speed was gifting us I saw a small darkening of the sky in front and to the left of us. Ahhh…perfect, monsoon time. We flew ever faster along the road, dancing over and around the potholes but all the time the dark smudge was turning into an ever larger stain, a stain that stretched it’s ragged fingers towards us. Finally the inevitable could be put off no longer, we started banging on the cab window for them to stop, find shelter, do something! The ute screeched to a halt and the driver bounced out clutching a big tarpaulin quickly draped it over us all and jumped back in and flung the vehicle forward again.


My friends - if you’ve never barrelled along a pothole laden dirt road, zig-zagging madly at 80 kilometres an hour as you clutch with one hand onto the side of the ute and the other onto a tarpaulin as the Cambodian sky empties a month’s worth of rain directly onto your head • then you’ve never lived! It was one of those moments where people say you have to either laugh or cry: I managed a manic grin.


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photo by: genetravelling