Ever had an idea you thought was great but then quickly realised it was a huge mistake that is now jeopardising five friendships? Yeah, me too. I first visited South East Asia nine years ago and life here is becoming increasingly easy for travellers in many ways. Principally, the transport. As the tourist industry booms, more locals work within this economy, learning to speak English and offering convenient and fast modes of transport. For example, on our way to Koh Chang (read about my adventures in Thailand here), we booked a minibus for the entire through a travel agent. Simple!
Here comes my genius idea. For the way back to Phnom Penh from Thailand, why not just set off without any pre-booking? Why not wing it? Take a chance? Travel like people did in the past, using initiative, finding their own way, seeing what happens. It would certainly be much more fun than waiting at the Cambodian-Thai border for five hours until the main bus departs back to the city. I proposed this adventure to my fellow travellers – Anna, Rachel, Hallie, Jo, and Alisa. Hallie’s response was simply “Why?”. Rachel pointed out that it was Khmer New Year and therefore we were taking a gamble on there being transportation services running without any pre-booking. The others didn’t quite understand what the point of the idea was but seemed to be vaguely on board.
In fact everyone was vaguely on board when we met up at 7:00am on the main road on Koh Chang to wait for a taxi. And wait. And wait. Hmmmm. Maybe we should start walking to the busier part of the island, about one kilometre away. With all our luggage. We arrived at the taxi rank at about 7:30am where a man asked us “you want taxi?”. Yes, shockingly we do, what an astute observation. “Taxi start at 8am”. Huh. Ok, well I guess we’ll wait then. Good job the ferries to the mainland depart hourly. We were joined by two Scandinavian girls who had booked transportation which had failed to show up. Immediately I tried to justify to my already slightly pissed off travel companions that there was no advantage to booking something if the companies are unreliable. They were unconvinced. At this point, I think everyone needed a coffee … and food. The taxi arrived! The first leg of the journey was underway. We reached the ferry port! First leg complete. Ferry tickets bought. Ferry boarded. Ferry launched! Second leg underway and look how happy we all were:
Ferry landed! Second leg complete! As we disembarked, we were asked by several Thai men where we wanted to go – the Cambodian border. “OK 50 baht each”. That’s about £1/$1.60. Wow! Cheap for a 90 minute bus journey. Awesome! Taxi boarded and set off. Third leg underway. The drive was not as long as anticipated but long enough for Hallie to fall asleep …
We arrived at a bus station in the nearest town, not the Cambodian border. Ah, now the cost makes more sense. Still, third leg complete. As soon as we climbed off the back of our jeep taxi, we were approached by yet more helpful Thai transport men. “Cambodian border? 120 baht each” That’s £2.40/$4. Ideal. Actually it turned out the driver of this mini van was the same, grumpy guy who had picked us up from the border six days prior. There wasn’t a flicker of recognition. We were joined at this point by a young Khmer man, Lee Heng, and a Thai mother and daughter. About 45 minutes into this forth leg, the daughter got car sick. When the van was stationary, they clambered down and headed for the roadside. The driver drove off! Note to self, if you’re suffering from motion sickness, do not leave the vehicle unless you want to be abandoned!
We finally arrived at the Cambodian-Thai border crossing at Koh Kong. 11:30am. Fourth leg complete! Ah we were back on home soil where I could speak the language and explain what we wanted and barter and generally understand what was happening … in theory. We ate lunch and our new best friend Lee Heng went to buy some cheap clothes. Then we crossed back into Cambodia. Anna and Jo had to buy new visas but the rest of us moved through very quickly. We were home. Now for the easy bit, or so I had assumed. We were approached by various men offering us transport to Phnom Penh. 1000 baht each for a minivan. I’m sorry what? £20/$32 each, in a currency we are no longer carrying? I don’t think so. Armed with Khmer speaking Lee Heng, who happened to be an English teacher so acted as our go between when my Khmer couldn’t stretch, we headed off to barter with the inevitable endless stream of van drivers a little way away. Walking confidently off, we faltered a little as we noticed that there were far fewer vans waiting on the roadside as there had been the previous weekend. Well there were vans like this one, full of Durian – a fruit so smelly it’s banned from many public places in South East Asia.
So our ability to barter and haggle had been severely lessened by the distinct lack of available vans. The guys from the border followed us, insisting they had the only van available. Lee Heng made some calls to companies and after a while announced that he could get us back to Phnom Penh for $120 for everyone … in a Toyota Camry. Erm, sorry Lee Heng but how exactly are seven people, plus seven bags, and three water pistols going to fit in a Camry? Nope, not going to happen. Eventually we got the original van down to $150. Overpriced but we were effectively stranded so we conceeded. The van would be with us in 15 minutes. At this point it was about 1pm, six hours into our “adventure”. We waited. And waited. 2pm.
2:30pm. Our group was joined by lone British traveller, Mark. It was hot.
Ok this is getting ridiculous. Anna, Rachel and I went to find the guys from earlier. “Yes yes, the van is coming, wait a bit more, wait a bit more”.
At this point I snapped. In Khmer I told these men: “No, we have all got to work in Phnom Penh tomorrow. We need to leave now. We have already waited for one year. Shit, one hour, we have waited for one hour.” What a time to get two units of time mixed up. They laughed, which didn’t help the growing annoyance. So we walked off, unwilling to give so much money to men who were inherently unhelpful.
Then, one of the men said, gesturing at a van to his left – “This is the van, it is here”.
“So why are we waiting then” I asked, exasperated, sweaty, and thirsty (I’d stopped drinking due to the lack of toilets at the border).
“We wait for two people from Thailand”.
“No, we booked this as a private minivan, we’re not waiting for anyone else”.
“Yes, we wait a little longer”.
“OK thanks, bye. You just lost $150 worth of business there mate, well done!”
We walked away from the border crossing and towards a fantastically tacky and out of place casino up the road hoping to get a ride into the city where vans would be more numerous. At the casino some tuk tuk drivers waved us over. They could get us a van … Hmmmm, could they? At this point I’d lost all faith in the ability of Cambodians to organise everything. My companions had lost all faith in my plan for a fun adventure. There was nothing fun about being stranded, dusty, sweaty, and tired on the side of the road. The men from earlier tried to follow us and get us to wait a bit longer. We were disinterested. Then Lee Heng flagged down a battered minivan. Two thirds of the van was filled with coconuts, but the other third? Of course eight people could fit in, for $7.50 each! Honestly, I was game. As was Jo. The others did not see the appeal in being wedged into a rusted van with stacks of coconuts balanced in behind us. Fair enough. Lee Heng had had enough of travelling with white people. He departed with the year’s supply of coconuts. I still kind of regret not seeing what would have happened had I gone too …
Suddenly, another Khmer man appeared – “I can get you a van, $150”. Really? This again? Yeah ok fine, just get it here!!! Less than 5 minutes later, the van arrived. OK so it wasn’t that luxurious – no AC, the floor was missing in places, one seat had no back. But it was here, it was leaving right now, and it was going to Phnom Penh! We climbed in and settled down, too tired and exasperated to do much else. I spoke to our saviour, asking him for a lower price since the van was, well, shit. He agreed and knocked off a whole $10. I couldn’t be bothered to argue. Fifth and final leg underway. 3:15pm. The journey back was smooth enough. The open windows kept us cool and the countryside we were driving through was stunning. Tensions lessened as we sped back towards our homes, relieved not to be spending a night in Koh Kong or on the side of a road somewhere. Chatting, napping, and a record three hour stint of the name game with Rachel and Anna “Brad Pitt – Patrick Swayzee – Stana Katic – Kate Winslet …” and we were back in our beloved Phnom Penh. I have never been so happy to be back in the stifling April heat of the city.
8:30pm. Home. We made it! My idea hadn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated by any means, but at least we were alive. And we got back in time to run to Angkor Mart to stock up on food since all the restaurants were shut for Khmer New Year. Have I leant my lesson? To be honest, I’d do it again. Only I’d make sure that it was not during a major festival, and I would probably do it alone, or with one friend. It’s not worth risking annoying that many people with a frivolous adventure. Their friendships are worth more than a good blog entry. Luckily for me, I have both.