You can see a lot from a bus. Having traversed Asia by plane, train and automobile (and tuk-tuk, camel, bike and foot), I have come to realize that buses are perhaps my favorite mode of transportation. Yes, they are cramped and full of an odd-ball mix of people. Yes, in Asia they are often far too chilly (AC setting: freeze) and, in Southeast Asia, play endless music videos of the latest generic love-ballad (cue the reflective, post-break-up love-montage). You have no idea when, or if, there is a pee stop, and even so, paranoia prompts you to either carry everything with you off the bus, or just convince yourself you can hold your bladder until you get there (you can’t). But they are cheap, they are consistent (as in – there will be a bus, eventually. And you will get there, eventually), the passengers are colorful, kind, generally mind their business, and occasionally offer you some of their own snacks. What I really love, though, is that for some stretch of time – could be 5 hours, could be 10, you never really know – you can stare out the window and watch the world pass by, knowing that every single thing you see is something you’ve never seen before. And yet, at the same time, you’re familiar with all of it: people going to and from work, families, children, fruit and meat vendors, storefronts upon storefronts, fields upon fields; a beach, a river, the largest tree you’ve ever seen, a half-naked toddler, a funeral procession. I’ve been able to glimpse in to the lives of a million people, just for a brief moment. I like to think that those small bonds developed between some passing stranger and I, in a simple flash of a smile or nod of a head, somehow transcend any cultural barriers, socio-economic disparity, race differences, or underlying prejudices. Probably not. But they still leave me smiling for several lingering moments.
My trip to Cambodia with fellow PacRimmers Megan Baunsgard and Joanna Kaufman can be woven together by a thread of bus travel. Sans one taxi ride and a trip to and from Koh Rong island by boat (we can call that a water-bus, right?), our primary mode of transportation were the local buses, which conveniently weave through all of Cambodia, making travel affordable and easy, albeit time-consuming.
We entered Cambodia through a 7-hour bus ride via Ho Chi Minh City, smooth sailing except for a brief stop at the border wherein the driver collected our passports. The handful of foreigners on the bus stood by nervously, hoping our beloved passports would make a swift and safe return. After some awkward I-don’t-speak-Khmer gestures and shuffling and a mumbled thank you, we made it through immigration with a glossy new visa sporting a gorgeous Angkor Wat. We spent just a brief night in Phnom Penh, making a quick venture to the nearby waterfront, ogling over the vendors of various bugs, beetles, birds, and eggs. I convinced myself I’d try them on our return to Phnom Penh, but alas, I missed my opportunity for some truly adventurous eating that were a common snack among the locals sitting nearby, munching away.
Next morning was a hectic jostle via tuk-tuk, whereby our driver “Phillip” took us to his good friend, the Taxi Driver, who would take us to Sihanoukville to our awaiting boat ride to the island of Koh Rong. Taxi Driver spoke absolutely no English and waited for a good fifteen minutes at some corner in Phnom Penh waiting for his “friend” (“my friend, my friend” was the limit of his English vocabulary), who turned out to be his girlfriend, a woman who, again, spoke no English but snacked on jackfruit for the next 3 hours. The drive was full of several awkward exchanges in which Taxi Driver’s second cellphone would ring, he’d pass it back to us, and some anonymous Cambodian would ask if we needed a boat ride over to Koh Rong, or a hostel, or some other accommodation that we perhaps neglected to plan in advance. I now have two assumptions based off this experience: 1) Most backpackers do not, in fact, plan in advance while traveling through Cambodia, and 2) everyone in Cambodia has connections with everyone else.
We managed to squeeze on to a last-minute boat leaving from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong bringing a variety of supplies to the island (some furniture and dry goods, but mostly massive coolers of who-knows-what and several giant blocks of ice). We lounged on the top deck with other travelers and locals, watching everyone puff away on cigarette after cigarette – a common theme I’ve experienced throughout Asia. Finally, we arrived to our destination: the little island of Koh Rong.
Let me tell you about Koh Rong. It is simultaneously the greatest and worst place you will ever visit. The beaches, the beaches, the most beautiful white-sand beaches and clearest turquoise water; a sun that is just the right level of unbearable; a cozy three-person bungalow half hidden by cleverly planted shrubbery, but nevertheless a lovely view of the ocean from our private porch; restaurants that offer cheeseburgers and shakes and cheap alcohol; massage parlors to smooth away your fresh sunburns with generous globs of aloe. But your first encounter of Koh Rong is walking through a cacophonous amalgamation of bars, hostels, hostel-keepers demanding to know if you need a room, shops, scantily clad tourists (quite a shock to our PacRim-must-wear-conservative-clothes brainwashed selves), drunk tourists, stoned tourists, cross-faded tourists, off-the-grid wanderers who up and left wherever to come live and work on a beach for 6 months out of the year, Khmer children, fat and spoiled puppies, fire-dancers, hula-hoopers, surfers, divers, fishermen, boats, coconuts, bendy straws, and every kind of music you can think of blaring out of every available speaker. Koh Rong is for people who want an escape, in whatever fashion that may be. The island is both inviting and repulsive. I found myself tempted to stay longer, enjoy the beach and the timelessness of it all, until finally reaching the dock to leave, having to wait two extra hours for our boat and realizing I couldn’t wait to get off this damned island. But, admittedly, we had a wonderful time, lounging and splashing around in warm, crystal-clear water and gorging ourselves on bacon. We took a small boat out to snorkel and fish, watched the sun set over the ocean from Long Beach, and swam with bioluminescent plankton, one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. Later we dined on the spoils of our hard work and massaged away our burns.
Returning from Sihanoukville, we snagged a local bus back to Phnom Penh and I spent the next day recovering from my very first hangover (tequila, vodka and redbull. Never again). We made our last trip by bus that evening, a 7-hour ride with an approximate arrival time of 11:30pm. Our seats were a last-minute snag, literally the last three left on the bus, squeezed tightly in the back row with some fellow Cambodians. Our previous experience with bus rides in Cambodia included relatively smooth roads and two stops: one for the toilet (WC) and one for food. The ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap took us over half-completed roads, often veering off the pavement to avoid the abandoned road-construction, and quickly escalated from a 7-hour ride to an 8-hour, 9-hour, and finally 10-hour journey. And only a single stop. Here’s a brief breakdown of the drive: at the start, all is well. We commend ourselves on our last-minute find for transportation. People on the bus are friendly. It makes frequent stops to drop-off and pick-up passengers. Oh well. About three hours in, Joanna is in a desperate need to pee. Our fellow back-row companion tells us about 30 minutes. Okay, says Joanna. She can do that. An hour passes. And then another. Joanna is literally in a hunched, meditative position, hand on her forehead, every muscle clenched. Megan and I laugh silently at her discomfort, but secretly are in awe at her discipline. The bumpy, incomplete roads do not help. To her infinite relief, we finally make a stop. Joanna treats herself to a post-piss cigarette, mildly offended that the driver wouldn’t consider stopping two hours earlier.
We made it to Siem Reap at approximately 2 in the morning, hoping that our hostel has a 24-hour reception. Thankfully it did, and we passed out immediately, spending the next day relaxing while finishing some end-of-the-semester papers and watching America’s Next Top Model on the hostel’s speedy Wi-Fi (this is PacRim). Our day of relaxation also happened to be New Year’s Eve. The three of us fine ladies dressed up for a night on the town, treating ourselves to a 5-course dinner and champagne, and ventured over to the infamous Pub Street for what we heard were legendary New Year’s shenanigans. I experienced claustrophobia on PacRim just two times: once, through the underground double-security checks to enter Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, and secondly, walking through Pub Street on New Year’s Eve. Smushed between sweating, drunken bodies, both foreign and local, we managed to slink into one of the many bars that open out in to the street, recovering with some of our fellow crowd-escapees. After befriending a random Nebraskan, one of the few Americans I’ve encountered while on our travels through Cambodia, we squeezed our way in to the center of the bustling crowd for the final countdown, swaying in a sea of bodies, surging in excitement for the impending start of 2015. A kiss and screams and music and the sky full of beer and water raining down from the second stories of the street’s establishments, soaking the trapped bodies below. We entered the New Year dripping head-to-toe, chanting our PacRim call of parle-G with fervor.
After only 10 days in this amazing country, we had to finally say goodbye. I wish I could say that we took one last bus to get to the airport. However, as it was only about 10 minutes away, we took a simple tuk-tuk over. A quick jaunt to Bangkok, transfer to Chiang Mai, and we were on to the next country, for the next adventure.