October 5, 2007

Arduous Cambodian Egress
Bangkok, Thailand

What a mess…

Siem Reap to Thailand

I'd heard murmurings about the condition of the road from Bangkok to Siem Reap, but the agency I purchased bus tickets from assured me it would take only four hours to reach the border with Thailand. For the price of US$5/ticket, Tatiana and I would be picked up at our hotel around 7:30 in the morning and ushered to the daily bus bound for Poipet.

This morning saw 7:30 come and go, without sign of a minibus. Seats weren't assigned on our bus ticket, and I knew from experience that this typically meant over-sold buses with unhappy travelers who didn't make it to the terminal early enough to secure a seat.

As 7:40 rolled around, I started to react. This was the only bus of the day heading to the Thai border, and if we missed it, we'd probably be stuck in Siem Reap for another night.

I quickly asked the hotel staff how long it would take to get to the terminal, and how much it would cost. 20 Minutes and US$3, was their reply. This was not good.

I told Tatiana we couldn't afford to wait around, and would have to hire a tuk tuk taxi to take us to the terminal—we were already getting deep into the missed transport danger zone.

The group of tuk tuk drivers outside our hotel were salivating at the sight of us exit the building with backpacks in tow. I would normally never take ride from these type of guys (stationary taxi hawks are always bad), let alone talk to them, but we were in a time crunch.

"Bus station?" was called out to us as we approached. I agreed to the price and confirmed the destination as we waited and watched the men discussed who was going get the fare. I was quickly loosing patience with the shady schmuck who won us, as he didn't even have the carriage connected to his motorbike. Tick-tock—time to go!, I motioned to an invisible watch on my wrist.

Backpacks loaded on the tuk tuk, we were puttering through the city when I got the feeling something was off. Is the driver going the wrong direction?, I thought aloud.

I leaded forward and gave a clarifying shout: "POIPET BUS TERMINAL, OKAY? VERY FAST! WE HAVE A BUS IN 10 MINUTES!" I received a nod and settled back into my seat.

What I failed to realize at the time was that I really didn't know where the bus terminal was, or what it looked like. Caught up in the moment, I'd forgotten we had arrived at the outskirts of town by boat from Battambang, and was thinking of the direction of the bus terminal in relation to our hotel in Battambang.

Although my memory was a little scrambled at the time, I wasn't far off the mark with my gut feeling—confirmed when the driver pulled off the road in front of a hotel and turned around to ask us if we already had bus tickets.

I was beginning to boil over at this guy. Still confused about the direction we were headed in, I automatically assumed we were en route to a travel agency where he got a kickback for bringing in customers, instead of the bus terminal.

I shoved our tickets in his face, and not-so-nicely insisted we stop idling and get moving—seven minutes until eight.

He mumbles back that there is no bus terminal, and that every bus company picks up form different locations. He had no idea who this ticket belonged to, or where to take us.

Furious, I ordered him to drive back towards the hotel so that I could to the travel agent who sold us the bus ticket—he had made a call to the terminal the day before, maybe he could delay the departing bus. If not, Tatiana was ready to squeeze the cost of another night's accommodation out of them (for their screw up with the minibus pickup).

As the driver obeyed my obviously angered instructions—thank God I'd memorized the street layout of the city—he pointed in helpless ignorance to a corner near the main tourist drag and mumbled something about buses to Poipet picking up people over there. I didn't care, the travel agency was going to get it next.

My sandal strap snapped as I exited the tuk tuk, forcing me to run across traffic in bare feet. I found a teenaged girl sweeping inside the travel agency, who seemed to have unlocked the doors only moments before I arrived. I explained the minibus no-show, how we were loaded into a tuk tuk, and that I needed her to delay the bus departure.

With the energy level of a turtle she inspected our tickets, thumbed through a binder, and dialed a telephone. After a few "number is not in service" recordings, the call went through.

"The bus will pick you up at your hotel," she said confidently.

"The big bus is going to stop at our hotel?" I asked, surprised. "How long?"

"About five or ten minutes," she replied.

Fine, I thought. We'll find out where we stand in 15.

Taking our tuk tuk back down the street to our hotel, the friendly and courteous manager came outside to see why we'd returned.

"Because this guy is an idiot," pointing to the driver, as I unloaded our backpacks. A kind-looking tuk tuk driver came over and asked a similar question, perhaps not understand the answer he overheard. "Because our driver is stupid," I clarified.

I could hear the group laughing at the man behind me as I gathered our belongings. He wasn't going to get a penny out of Tatiana or me for his lackluster performance, and they all knew it.

What pulled up a few minutes later was certainly not the big bus, but the original minibus, over 30 minutes late. Apologies from the crew, then the interesting bit of news that the bus to the border broke down half-way to town. We were told that we'd be driving for a hour or so to meet up with the bus, which would hopefully be fixed by the time we arrived.

As we were about to depart our tuk tuk driver came to the sliding door of the minibus to try and get some money, but I was quick to deny him with a waggle of my index finger and some strongly worded statements.

What occurred to me as we sat in the minibus, full of backpacks and travelers, is that if we had gotten an intelligent tuk tuk driver instead of the fool, we'd probably have arrived at the terminal (if there is indeed one) to discover it without a bus to Poipet. We would have returned to the hotel too late, missed the minibus' tardy pickup, and been forced to stay in town until the next day's departure. A very interesting quirk of fate.

Instead of driving to the broken bus, the minibus driver informed us that he had six other passengers to pick up. I looked around at the full transport and wondered how he was going to manage it, but that became obvious when he pulled up to a gas station on the outskirts of town and ordered us to grab our bags and get out. We'd all be waiting whilst he made another round of pick-ups.

Time passed, the minibus returned, dropped off a van full of Germans, and then left to get more people. Well after 9:00 in the morning, all were wondering or speculating as to how we were going to be taken to the border. An Israeli loudly proclaimed that "if anyone could get us all in the minibus, he could." Sitting on the curb of the gas station parking lot, Tatiana muttered that she'd rather sit on the roof.

It was nearly 9:30 when a decent sized bus rolled up, and instructed nearly 20 travelers to climb aboard. Somehow Tatiana and I ended up towards the back of the line, and the only two seats left next to each other were in the back, on top of the engine.

Unlike primary school, sitting in the back of the bus is not where you want to be. Not only is it prone to heat and smells (sometimes there's a toilet aboard), but you're often riding on the rear axle—a non-stop roller coaster ride of springy misery on unimproved roads.

The countryside of western Cambodia is nothing but rice paddies for as far as the eye can see—from horizon to horizon. The topography of the country is as flat as a pancake, and is little wonder why the place turns into a giant brown puddle during the rainy season.

Tatiana and I were hot—sweating—in the back of the bus, when we suddenly pulled over to the side of the road. After driving for less than an hour we were instructed to take our bags and exit the vehicle.

Now what really gets to me is how utterly inane people get in groups around transport. Tourists, locals, it doesn't matter—people just turn their brains off and regress to a primate-like cluster of greed.

Take for example the act of exiting this bus. The bags of the people who entered the bus first are at the bottom. Those that entered the bus last have bags on the top. Naturally, those that entered first sat in the front, and those that entered last got stuck in the back. Now if the occupants of the bus would simply allow the bus to exit the vehicle in the reverse order in which they boarded, people would simply be able to take their packs off the top of the pile and leave. Instead, what you've got is the sudden "lets all stand in the aisle for no good reason" effect of an arriving airplane, while everyone waits for those in front of them dig under several hundred kilos of backpacks in search of their own. Think, people.

As for the vehicle departure, we had apparently met up with the original bus that was to take us to the border (now fixed). Why in God's name we had to transfer from one perfectly operational bus into a bus that was the same size (but crappier), I'll never know. But what I did know is that we were slowly inching over unimproved road towards the Thai border, and that's all that really counted. Plus, I happy it wasn't raining, as the road would certainly turn into brown curry, otherwise.

Even thought the air outside the bus was cooler than the poor air conditioning in the bus (while we were in motion), the driver's sidekick enforced a closed-window policy with the disposition of a Marine Corps Sargent. And when the A/C suddenly cut out, I knew we were in trouble. Moments later, the bus ground to a halt on the side of the road.

Even from the back of the bus I could see the driver try and turn the ignition key—not a sound. An equation instantly popped into my head: Unknown electrical problem + side of Cambodian road + rain on the horizon = very bad.

I was one of the first to bail out of the bus. Not only was the landscape a good photo op, but the bus was already an oven with the A/C, let alone without it. As expected, the tourists/sheep aboard exited with cameras to do the same.

As the driver tinkered with the decades-old engine, phone calls were made in Cambodian. Things weren't looking good. My best guess was that something overheated because of the A/C and fried a vital battery connection. I figured we were in this for the long haul, and considered paying a passing vehicle off to just take Tatiana and I to the border.

Just as the rain was about the engulf the bus and the passengers (most of whom were idling outside at this point), the driver got the engine to turn over and we were on our way—minus the A/C, of course.

It was nearly 4:30 in the afternoon by the time we arrived and processed through immigration. A connecting bus to Bangkok was waiting to be filled, and though overpriced at 300 baht/ticket, the organization and functional vehicles of Thailand were worth the smile and peace of mind.

Map of Thailand paths

The only annoyance that had to be endured on the travel back to Bangkok were an Israeli and a Frenchman arguing with each other over Cambodian corruption and how Europeans are sick of hearing about Israel. I told Tatiana she was listening to something special: The world's two most loud-mouthed nationalities sitting next to each other, doing what they do best.

So, what should have been an eight-hour travel day ultimately turned into a dirty, sweaty fifteen.

Word on the street is that a Thai airline (Bangkok Airways) pays Cambodian officials large amounts of money to keep the road between Poipet and Siem Reap from being paved—it's rather obvious, as the roads in the rest of the country appear to have been modernized quite well. The airline profits too much from the amount of people taking flights between the two cities, and wants to ensure that revenue source stays intact. And keeping the overland travel grueling is a perfect way to do just that.

The problem is that not only do the budget travelers suffer, but the Thai merchants and Cambodians who use the road to transport goods and provide services are caught up in the greed. I can only hope that with time the problem will become so obvious that the government will have no choice but to improve the road.

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