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Published: November 7th 2006
It's October 24th and I've finally found a bus willing to take a group of us foreigners through the flooded regions of Western Cambodia to the Thai border of Poipet.
The bus is three hours late to depart from Siem Reap. We all wait patiently on the bus which grows more humid and rancid with each passing second. All our packs occupy the back seats of the bus, as none of us will risk putting them under the cabin, for fear of them being submerged in dingy river water during the trip.
At 10am, we finally leave the centre of the city, eager to make up for lost time, and dreading the most certainly long voyage ahead of us. It only takes us 30 minutes to reach the first part of the flooding. We're all surprisingly excited to see how the bus will make it through the brown water. To our chagrin, the bus easily plows its way through and we're all wondering what the big deal was? Is that it?!!? Is that why all the buses had been cancelled???
5 minutes later, those questions were answered. No, that was NOT all.
The bus came to a
and their sexy "Long Live The King" T-shirts & hats!
stop beside several large transport trucks that were stopped in the middle of the road and had obviously been deserted by their drivers. In total, there were probably 20 cars stopped around us as well. Since we were blocked-in and the engine of our bus was turned off, some of us disembarked to get a better view of what was going on. What a sight those big trucks were hiding!
As we came to the water's edge, we saw an ocean of water which was obviously at least a meter deep as the transport trucks and tour buses stuck in the middle of it were half submerged. Some of the buses were nearly flipped over and again, the stalled trucks were abandoned, and there were long boats (gohd knows how they got there!), taking passengers across with their luggage and motorbikes for a small fee.
As we took in the action, watching people prepare their cars to go through, or preparing themselves
to swim across, our bus driver told us that it would be another 3 hour wait before a tracker could arrive to pull us across. I had mentally prepared myself for this journey so I wasn't
too miffed about the delay.
I set about exploring the ever-increasing mass of traffic, people and food stalls sprouting out of nowhere. There were hundreds of people around me, no other foreigners accept those from my bus, and then the sights of what was being cooked at the food stalls stopped me in my tracks. It (realistically) took me about 15 seconds of starring at the 'food' to realize what they were. At each small plastic table were large platters of entire chicks, deep-fried. As in those cute little yellow chicken babies you see under incubators in store windows come Easter time. I wanted to cry right them and there! To add to the grisly scene were fried insects including crickets, worms, things that looked like spiders, beetles, grass, weeds, and flowers. Although I was fairly hungry by this point, I quickly lost my appetite and returned to the bus to listen to my ipod, and distract my mind from the raging sun that was infiltrating the gloomy bus.
We sporadically watched as cars and pick-up trucks went by, doing their best to traverse the lake in front of us. Several cars coming from the other direction stopped
alongside our bus to open their doors and empty the water from inside. I watched as men and women handed over large sums of money to the generator-powered towing machines that had brought them across and marveled at the grass roots economy that was taking place on this stretch of road between Siem Reap and the Thai border.
Along the way, in Siem Reap (and
on the journey), many people told me of the airline corruption which has prompted these roads to remain in their flooded state. Whether it's true or not, I can't be sure, but it makes a great deal of sense: Bangkok Airways and other airlines have reportedly paid off several government officials to keep the roads flooded and impassable so that even the thriftiest of travelers would have to fly. And I admit, I thought of sucking it up and paying for a flight myself. Two more days of cancelled buses and I would have used my trusty visa card to get myself to Bangkok. Luckily, the 27 of us foreigners aboard this courageous bus had found a cheaper way to Bangkok. $13. So far that is!
As my remarkable talent for spotting other
foreigners blossomed in Japan, the skill has stayed with me throughout this trip. While reading Pol Pot's Biography and listening to Lily Allen on my ipod (yes, two very antipodean activities, I realize) I glanced to my left and there was Rhian & Dylan, sitting on top of their bikes in the back of a pick up truck, looking quite tired and dusty. They recounted their story to me of how difficult it was for them to try to find a truck willing to take them and
their bikes, and at the same time not be conned into paying with their first-born. Having started an hour earlier then me (at 6am), they were just now catching up to the water's edge. It's now about 1pm and we are only about 30 kms from Siem Reap, and we still haven't crossed the first bit of flooding.
Finally our appointed tractor negotiates a price with our driver for pulling us across the first part of flooding. Having witnessed other buses go first and not one succeeding, all but 5 (including me) decide to stay on the boat and risk having to escape mid-flood. As we watch the other passengers pay to
board a long boat, the 5 of us ready our cameras for the exciting 'exodus'. The tractor driver and his son (who is perched on the cover of the right wheel) say its time to go and we're off! It pulls us steadily for the first few meters before the bus is tilted from side to side as we're obviously going through water-hidden potholes. We stop many times in order to realign ourselves with what the tractor driver feels is the best path forward and we continue on. When we completely emerge onto dry land, the 5 of us congratulate our driver with clapping and yelling, in the same fashion we Canadians scream after a hockey goal. After this, we have 7 more flooded area to pass until we meet back up with the remaining passengers, and at each crossing, we have to be hooked up to a different tractor. It's quite
the ordeal, and our driver must pay for each different tractor, only by some miracle were none of us asked to pitch in. Eventually we made it through the major flooding areas and picked up the remaining 22 passengers. We recounted our heroic decision to stay onboard (don't
roll your eyes!), and mocked them for being too frightened to stay with us.
It was only about an hour later that the bus pulled into a large outdoor restaurant in the middle of nowhere and stopped the bus. We all collectively chanted, "Forget stopping, lets just get to the freakin' border!" However we hadn't stopped to eat, the driver told us to get off the bus...this was as far as we were going. From here, we had to go by pick-up.
Waiting (impatiently) for the pickups was exhausting but bearable. It only became alarming when only ONE pickup arrived and we were told to get in.
The Danish girl with the broken leg piped up, "What?! Are you kidding me?! There's 27 of us!!! How are we all supposed to fit in there? Surely you're joking. Where's the other truck?"
"No other truck! This truck take you Poipet border! Good truck, you okay. No fall out. Road too bumpy for bus!"
"Too bumpy for bus but not too bumpy for all of us in the back of the pick up?!!!" (then some random Dutch words which I can only assume were curses)
pickup truck driver began roping our packs onto the tailgate of the tuck. Once they were all tied on, it created somewhat of a barrier for us inside, hoping it would prevent us from falling out. We climbed up and found space anywhere we could. With two people ontop of the compartment, three on the backpacks, 12 of us had space on the sides, 6 people sat on and between our legs, and four people climbed into the cab. PHEW! It was enough work trying to get us all in there, let alone the next 3 hours of pothole hell.
Breathing in dust, sand and truck exhaust is not my idea of a good time, allow me to stipulate that right now. I did however amuse the hours away by speaking Japanese with the couple on my right, who were crammed into my rib cage. 2 hours on, we pulled over at a small hut and the driver got out. What proceeded was the most ludicrous excuse for a stop I've ever seen. The driver approached a woman with a prehistoric
sewing machine in front of her and whipped his pants off! The old woman busily set off hemming
his pants and we starred in utter disbelief, with our mouths dropped to the floor of the truck bed, at the arrogance of our driver. We're hundreds of hours behind schedule, shoved into this truck risking our lives, COVERED from head to toe in dust...and he stops to hem his pants! Yeah, remind me to tip this guy!
**I don't have any pictures to document this pickup truck voyage as my camera was at the bottom of my knapsack (which was strapped to my dusty back) and I was a little too occupied hanging onto other people to get it out. Sorry. **
To add to the absurdity of the journey, when we see the border in sight, the truck driver veers to the right down an alley and continues for about 3km. We come to a bus station, once again we are told to get off and transfer to a minibus. We clumsily untie our packs, punching the dust off them, while also reminding our legs how to work. We transfer to a minibus that looks like a limousine compared to the pickup and we settle-in for what we believe is the rest of our voyage through
the border and to Bangkok.
Back out to the road we came from and to the border we had already laid eyes on, the minibus stops and we're again told, "get off the bus!" I laugh to myself and recount how many times since the beginning of my trip have I been told: "get off the bus!"
...I don't think I can keep track anymore.
We each 're-saddle' our packs and walk to the Cambodian immigration counter, at this point, I'm happy to be leaving the country. The rule at the Poipet Thai/Cambodian border is that you must walk across to the Thai side. It's only half a kilometer, but with children begging and trying to pick pocket you the whole way, it seems much longer.
And as a side note, Poipet is by far the ugliest town I've ever seen.
Once we pass through Thai immigration, wait 45 minutes for the missing French girl from our group and walk another kilometer to the bus station, we all sigh in great appreciation at the beautiful two-decker bus which waits for us (its last arrivals) to take us to Bangkok. We're told to buy dinner and use
the washroom before boarding because there are no stops during the next 4 hours to Bangkok. Having not eaten anything all day, I was starving and when I saw that the food stall offered nothing even remotely vegetarian...I settled for onion, cheese and ketchup in a hotdog bun. JUST LOVELY! You know, I'm laughing right now as I write this 3 weeks later, but I was not so happy while eating it!
With a comfortable seat, air conditioning, "King Kong" on the TV and a nice Indian kid beside me (who hopefully didn't notice my onion breath), we softly floated towards Bangkok on the smooth highways paid for by tourism. God bless Thai tourism.
I arrived at my guesthouse shortly after midnight and got a room next to Rhian & Dylan. They had only arrived 30 minutes before me and were still in the process of de-dusting themselves. I had barely enough energy to pull my backpack off me, and laughed hysterically to myself in my single room as I looked in the mirror: My hair was on end and I couldn't even get my fingers into
my hair, let alone run them through it. I had white
lines on my once-white top where my knapsack had been for the pick-up ride, and my face was brown. I was literally covered
from head to toe and all points in-between with dust. Lovely Cambodian dust.
Thank goodness I wasn't paying for water consumption at this hotel because I had the longest
shower of my young life! All in all, it took 17 hours for what is usually an 8-hour trip. $13 for a great story.
I put the journey and (what I knew was to come in regards to my passport in the next couple days), out of my head and slept. I had made it through the flooding. Yet another score for me, kicking this trip's ass!
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