That Time I Fell Asleep and Woke Up on The Coast of Cambodia Instead of the Mekong DeltaJanuary 16, 2014
[Note: I do not have any images from this nightmare, but this serene image represents the antithesis of this horrific journey from transit hell.]
After a wonderful day/night in Otres Beach, I hopped on a bus to Phnom Penh, where I would be meeting my mom’s good friend/my hero/role model/coolest woman I know for a few days of mothering before heading back to Long Xuyen.
The journey to Phnom Penh was unremarkable.
My mom’s friend, Kath, works for PATH and is the woman I hope to be in 30 years. Long story short, she is awesome and, after a few decades of galavanting around the world, moved to Thailand with her infant child and husband without a job. She ultimately got a job and 20 years later is the regional director of PATH’s Southeast Asian offices. I believe she is a huge factor in my parent’s acceptance of what I’m doing—my mom knew her through nearly all of Kath’s travels and mishaps and shenanigans, and knowing that she turned out incredibly well seems to be a security blanket not only for my parents, but also for the little voice in my head that sometimes gets a brutal reality check. Kath happened to be in Phnom Penh when I was in Cambodia, and so I met her for a hilariously glamorous stay in a wonderful hotel, where we felt out of place and pampered beyond reason.
This stay was fantastic, marked by Kath reminding me to eat and take my myriad of bacteria killing pills, going once again to the Russian Market, sunbathing and a pretty cool protest viewed from our balcony. In case you haven’t been keeping up on the goings on in Cambodia, you should read the news. It’s pretty awesome and could result in regime change. Hopefully.
I’d booked a bus from Phnom Penh to Can Tho, and told the ‘travel agent’ that I would need to be let of in Long Xuyen. He assured me this was no problem, and wrote my specific details on my ticket. I was pleased with how well the process had gone, and bounced out of the travel agency with confidence and a smile.
But OH HOW WRONG I WAS.
Bus travel makes me rather anxious (something about being crammed into a tiny, wildly unsafe vehicle with god knows how many people and livestock can really do something to a girl, ya know?) and, since Cambodia is generous with its prescription medicine, I decided to look into buying some Xanax at the pharmacy. Weirdly, one cannot buy just a few Xanax—I wound up with 30 pills for $9.30. What I am going to do with them is beyond me. Anyways.
I woke up bright and early, said my farewells to Kath with promises to meet for a holiday in Nepal sometime, and got into the bizarrely empty and comfortable mini-bus. Knowing we had about 3-6 hours before reaching the Chau Doc border crossing, I figured catching some shut-eye couldn’t hurt. I then, mistakenly, took a Xanax.
FIVE HOURS LATER I WOKE UP IN KEP. KEP. NOT CHAU DOC.
In case you are unfamiliar with Cambodian geography/towns, allow me to explain. Phnom Penh is virtually a straight shot from Long Xuyen, a bargain 100miles/7-ish hours with border crossing.
Kep is near Sihanoukville AKA the ocean AKA 4.5 hours SOUTH of Phnom Penh and hundreds of miles away from Long Xuyen. While Kep is a delightful seaside town, known for its slow pace and wonderful seafood, it was exactly at the opposite end of where I wanted to be. I was disoriented. In disbelief. Bewildered, even.
Because this mistake had occurred in Cambodia and not the USA, a two hundred-ish mile detour would not take 4 hours, but the majority of an entire day.
Realizing we’d be headed for the Ha Tien border crossing, I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to hold back screams and tears of frustration, knowing that I would be lucky to make it to Long Xuyen before dawn the next day.
Once through the border, which was a small nightmare not only because of my confusing number/type of visas to and from Cambodia/Vientam, but also because the visa official at the Chau Doc border had, upon my entry into the country, gotten bored midway through writing my last name, and thus written only the first five letters. I now have one Cambodian visa that correctly says Robertson Elena, and one that merely says Rober Elena. I didn’t know how to explain this lack of dedication to international security to the border guards at Ha Tien, so I merely shrugged.
(I was too furious to take pictures during this nightmare, so I just found this on the interwebs.)
I was then shuttled to a café/hostel/bus depot/travel agency. During this ride, I discovered that EVERYONE else on my bus was headed to Phu Quoc, an island for which ferries depart from Ha Tien. Once at said multi-purpose building, my frustration grew and knots formed in my chest. All I wanted to know was where I was going and how I’d be getting there. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about traveling in Southeast Asia: a generally unhurried region, it is nigh impossible to get specific details out of anyone. The woman who seemed to be in charge was engaged in a shouting match in French (from which I gathered a young woman only wanted to know here travel details and didn’t understand why they had been waiting so long), and I was near tears with exhaustion, hunger, anger and, most of all, embarrassment. How could I have been SO stupid to wind up on the coast of Vietnam instead of in the Mekong Delta? HOW had this happened? HOW?
Eventually, I discovered my next bus to god know’s where would be arriving in about an hour or two or three. Perfect! I bought a banh mi and tried not to cry.
Suddenly (well, not suddenly. But loudly, maybe) the woman in charge was shouting LONG XUYEN LONG XUYEN GO NOW!!
I leapt up with all of the agility I could muster, and sprinted out to a still moving mini-bus, trying to simultaneously remove my backpack, shove it under the bus and toss myself aboard the jam-packed death trap. After throwing myself into the bus and onto the limbs of several strangers, I asked (in Vietnamese, I might add) if I would be taken to Long Xuyen. The driver re-assuringly waved his hand in the common Vietnamese gesture of “fuck you, you’re an idiot, I don’t know and nor do I care,” muttered something about Chau Doc, and we were off.
4 hours later, the drive was shouting about people who needed to get off at Chau Doc. These people were some IDIOT French guys who didn’t have a clue and were painfully indecisive. Seemingly having the time of their lives, they laughed and flipped through their guide book while I turned around, fixed them with my most soul-shattering glare, and told them, in French, that yes, they were in fact getting off of the bus. Maintenant. They silently nodded and gathered their things, managing to wake up and bump into every occupant on the bus.
Our next stop was at a Chau Doc bus depot. I ran around like a headless chicken, begging people to make an attempt at understanding my Vietnamese (for being an extraordinarily nice people, the Vietnamese of the Mekong Delta are not much for trying to understand foreigners when then speak English. The irony is not lost upon me.)
The bus I wound up being shoved into was, undoubtedly, the most uncomfortable unit of transit I have ever endured. Imagine your classic developing-world mini-bus (they’re pretty uniform across every African and Asian country I’ve visited). Four rows, including the front. The last row had been folded down so that twice the number of people could be rammed in. I was one of these unlucky ducks. I was pushed into a cave of luggage, back-to-back with some poor soul, squashed into my space by the two men sitting to my left (also back-to-back with other poor souls), with my backpack and a large-ish German man crushing my legs and cutting off my circulation within moments. I resigned myself to the loss of my lower extremities, and attempted to quell the rising tide of fury in my heart.
We slowly meandered our way through the dark Delta, until I recognized Long Xuyen. Never before had I been so happy to see my lonely, isolating little town. I began banging on the window and yelling “STOP!! STOP!” in Vietnamese at the driver. He ignored me.
I banged louder and louder, until he finally pulled over and I unceremoniously extracted myself from my personal hell. I tumbled out of the bus, nearly crying with relief, exhaustion and fully justified rage. I strapped on my bag and walked the mile and a half to my aparment gates, which were, of course locked. I banged loudly on the gates, waking the guard and stomping up the stairs to my apartment.
Twelve and a half hours of hell and discomfort finally ended. I collapsed on my ‘couch’ and stared at the ceiling.
SarahEmily came in, staring at my limp form. “Where have you been?? I thought you’d be home HOURS ago!!”
“I woke up in fucking Kep. KEP!” I screamed as she fell into hysterics.
It was good to be home.