To Siem Reap, Part I: A Very Long Ride

We said goodbye to Battambang at the crack of dawn. We had to catch a tuk tuk to the bus station and our reserved seats for Siem Reap. We bid adieu to our gracious host Jen and a couple of cooks that were up at this hour and hurried to make the departure time our booking company gave us.

It turns out we could have slept in. When the driver dropped us off at a station on the far side of town (a common spatial arrangement whereby the bus driver’s cousin’s tuk tuk service gets business hauling tourists downtown – which is ingenious) the sweating clerk already seemed harried. The temperature had already reached the mid-80s by 6:30 am, and the ticket station was just a metal desk outside.

He stared blankly at our printed schedule.  Then he simply shook his head. “No bus.”

We stared back. He pointed at a schedule scratched in chalk on a board above his desk. The board indicated the earliest Siem Reap bus at 10:45 – almost 4 hours.

As is sometimes the case when you book something over the phone in Cambodia without obtaining eye contact with an agent, the schedules quoted by the bus booking agency were off. So far off, they could have just as easily been created by consulting astrological charts as travel times.

The bus he’d pointed to didn’t have the same name as our company-issued ticket. Still we reckoned we’d see what happened, resolving to sit in the steadily climbing heat and dust and and hope for the best

Large families sat resigned and silent on the benches lined up across the lot, their luggage consisting of taped cardboard boxes and used rice bags, their children draped like so many garment bags over the laps of mothers and grandmothers. Stoic faces hinted that these benches had been their homes for some time.

A couple of scrawny chickens with matted feathers squawked and ran breakneck between the benches, zigzagging around skinny legs, chasing each other like schoolkids at recess.
Two masked trash collectors – tiny resilent-looking and silent women in at least their sixties – parked their pushcarts near the curb and began sweeping. Here in Battambang at least, collectors have no special equipment or trucks. They gather the trash with scraggly rake-thingies, bend down and pick it up -often bare-handed – and toss it in their pushcarts.

I watched them until everything grew bleary. I longed to lean back in the shade and get some shut-eye (like Stax was), but worry about missing whatever bus might suddenly arrive prevented sleep.

At around 9 am, a guy and a girl with faded little Canadian flags sewn to their packs arrived at the station and waited on a nearby bench. Girl: scrawny with the ubiquitous billowy elephant pants and Angkor Beer tank top. Guy: grubby polo, beer gut and full-on yak beard. These guys were Siem Reap-bound for sure. I kept a close, but carefully non-invasive, eye on their movements. If they perked up when a bus arrived, I perked up right along with them, half-reaching for my bag.

When a Siem Reap bus did eventually come at 9:30 – over an hour early- nobody even looked at our ticket. It soon became clear that things were…well, different….on this bus. For one thing, the balding and heavy-set driver was, from the moment we all sat down, engaged in an epic, totally one-sided rant that lasted for hours. As the bus banged out of the potholed lot, his sharp yelling reached everybody seated.

A  few locals glanced at each other, but no one seemed concerned.  They’d likely seen this before. They were familiar of course with traffic in Cambodia. If I had to drive a huge wide Korean-made bus everyday with motorbikes swarming and cutting me off on narrow lanes, constantly delayed by potholes and road repairs and flooding and the ubiquitous “tourist police” shaking me down for bribes, I’d be a basket case too.

The two young bus assistants, lanky and floppy haired and flip-flopped like all bus assistants, seemed deeply amused at the driver’s apoplexy. They kept covering their mouths to hide their laughter . He’d pause for a breath, and one of them would lean down and comment slyly to him, starting him off again.

I could have dismissed it all as harmless eccentricity if he didn’t also insist on using our bus to emphasize his points. He swung the steering wheel in wide turns; steel screeched against steel as he ground the clutch to the nub. The rear axle nearly bottomed out several times on potholes he hardly slowed for.

Long strings of syllables flew out. His hammy fists pounded on the dash to emphasize something or other I couldn’t hope to comprehend.

Eventually even the assistants grew bored of egging him on and sunk into their smartphones. That didn’t stop him. The ride to Siem Reap lasted over four hours, and he babbled on for a good three of those hours. If I had to guess, I’d say he was in the midst of a prolonged nervous breakdown. It was like being at a Trump rally, but the words made slightly more sense to me.

Of course, Stax slept peacefully and profoundly through all of this. Her head had hit the back of the seat and BAM! She was out. I was left awake to ponder how a person comes to the state in their lives to which this driver had come.

Notwithstanding the craziness, we eventually did arrive in Siem Reap safely. Any bus trip in Cambodia that ends with you in one piece, at your destination, and not on fire in any way, can be counted as a success (see an earlier post about the burned-out and still-smoking shell of a bus we passed on the way to Battambang).

TO BE CONTINUED…