100 Miles to Phnom PenhJanuary 10, 2014
My trip to Cambodia got off to a comically disastrous start: my favorite professor from college had come from Australia to Vietnam to visit me, and we were going to Cambodia together for a few days before I headed south for a tan and he west for the temples of Angkor. Having never traveled in SE Asia before, I was a little apprehensive as to how he would react to the reliable inefficiency and discomfort of international buses. Having never actually been in charge of travel plans for another human being before, I was apprehensive that we would wind up killed, maimed or, worst of all, bored beyond reason.
We woke up at 5:45 to meet a taxi that was to take us to the gas station in front of Long Xuyen’s ‘fanciest’ hotel (aka the one where foreigners stay). For some reason, not many people go from Long Xuyen to Phnom Penh, and so we could not meet the bus at a stop or a depot, but just had to pray it would pull to the side of the road and make some semblance of a stop as we leapt aboard.
6:15 came and went. No bus.
7:00 came and went. Still no bus.
7:05 I received a phone call from my guardian angel/director of the international relations office saying the bus would be there in 5 minutes.
7:30. Still standing on the side of the road.
7:45 THE BUS DRIVES PAST. Without so much as a honk or a nod, the enormous double-decker blue bus zoomed past us. Never one to go down without a fight, I slipped off my trusty Birkenstocks and began sprinting down the sidewalk, begging my body to remember that it once had been an NCAA athlete. The bus slowed for a light, and I naively hoped this plan would work. Just as I was gaining upon the blue behemoth, the light changed and it trundled off across the bridge. I frantically called aforementioned guardian angel, explained the situation and she called the bus driver. I imagine the conversation went something along the lines of: “Why didn’t you stop?” “There was noone at the gas station.” “You didn’t see the only white people in a 50 mile radius? You expect me to believe that? Go back and get them!” “I cannot turn the bus around.” “Pull over. They will come," because next thing I knew, we were being hustled into a taxi that followed the bus’ route over the bridge, into the busiest and narrowest sections of Long Xuyen. We finally spotted our faithless chariot, and after handing our luggage to the attendants and exchanging irritated glares with the driver, we climbed up to our seats.
I have become expert at long bus journeys. It takes me 5 hours to go the 90 miles from Long Xuyen to Saigon, and I expect nothing better from any other bus service. Driving in Vietnam is a nightmare, not just because of the traffic and incessant honking, but because the vast majority of people drive scooters, whose engines cannot go above 45mph for longer than a few adrenaline-filled moments. Things move slowly. It’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s smelly and it’s dusty, and things move slowly. I am used to this. My professor is not. Within 30 minutes of boarding the bus, he was ready to explode. Matters were not helped by the chattiest New Zealander to ever live, who was eagerly telling us all about his family’s journey from Cambodia to NZ. Normally, this is the sort of thing I would find fascinating. However, this guy was incomprehensible. I understood maybe 10% of the words coming out of his mouth, and was so confused by the fact that we were speaking the same language that it was hard to focus on anything he was saying. I think I’m pretty good at understanding people with heavy accents—give me your drunk Irish and your wasted Scotsmen, your bogans and your bloke from Birmingham, and I’ll get the jist. My downfall, apparently, is Khmer-New Zealanders. I just couldn’t.
Ninety minutes later, we were somewhere near the Chau Doc border crossing. The unrelenting flatness of the Delta’s rice patties gave way into the beautiful mountainous border area of Cambodia, sending a wave of relief into my heart. Having grown up in the PNW, surrounded by hills and mountains and lakes and oceans, I sometimes feel slightly agoraphobic when confronting the endless green of the Delta. The bus pulled over, and men leapt off left and right for a smoke, banh mi and pee. My professor and I got off the bus, only to be confronted by the Khmer-NZer, and quickly scurried back on, unable to suffer through anymore of his ramblings. None of the bus personnel spoke English, and nobody on the bus spoke English and Vietnamese. I did my best to ask where we were, but I might as well have been speaking Urdu for all the help it got me.
Suddenly, a man came over and corralled us into a line, handing us our passports and pointing towards soviet-style buildings, delightfully sponsored by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and Trafficking, but that doesn’t warrant its own letter). What ensued was dreadfully confusing, frustrating, and typical of Southeast Asian border crossings.
My professor, Kory, had gotten a single entry paper visa issued by the Australian government in Sydney. His visa was not a typical sticker visa (the kind that takes up an entire page and renders everything around it useless), but a loose-leaf one. The border guards confiscated said visa, because it was good for a single entry and, by entering Cambodia, he was exiting Vietnam. Sadly, there was no one to explain this to us. He was understandably confused and aggravated. After 20 minutes of wild gesticulation and angry faces, we were lead to a different office to fill out our entry forms. Because my passport is extra thick (thanks, US consulate in HCMC for your delightful and hilariously slow work!) and I already had a Cambodian visa from 2011, border agents often become confused. As of now, I have two Vietnamese, two Cambodian and two Ghanaian visas, all of which are sticker visas. Border guards constantly flip through my passport multiple times, examining the dates on each visa (why they are curious about my comings and goings in west Africa is beyond me) while looking at me, then my passport, then giving up.
This border guard apparently couldn’t be fussed to even properly fill out my visa, as he got mid-way through my last name (Robertson, not exactly some un-spellable Russian monster or anything) and gave up. So I now have a Cambodian visa with half of my last name on it, which I’m sure will, at some point in the future, cause me great grief. But I digress.
We remained in no-man’s land between the Vietnamese and Cambodian borders for a while, milling about as tourists are wont to do, before boarding our bus once again and setting off for Phnom Penh. A whopping 50 miles away, I was set for the long haul. Kory was, predictably, not. 50 miles should take 50 minutes. Americans go fast. We do not dilly dally when driving, taking the shortest and least-policed route from point A to point B. Unfortunately for us all, 50 miles does not take 50 minutes in Cambodia, but 4-5 hours.
Let me remind you that I live 90 miles from Phnom Penh. Our total distance covered was maybe 100 miles, at best.
When we finally arrived in Phnom Penh, we were hungry, sticky, and ready to fight our way off of the bus. Besides an adventure with a classically directionless tuk-tuk driver, we made it to our hotel unscathed. We dramatically flopped down upon our respective beds, groaning as our cramped muscles released from their upright and locked positions.
And thus I returned to the chaos of Phnom Penh.