Sunday, November 30, 2008

SE Asia Day 10: On The Road from Phnom Penh

Today I headed out to Thailand.  I bought a ticket through my hostel to the border, with plans to head down to Pattaya, Thailand from there.  I had my stuff packed and waited in the outdoor lobby for the shuttle to come.  I was expecting, as I had happened in Vietnam and in Phnom Penh to be picked up by a smaller vehicle and shuttled to the bus station where I’d get on the larger bus.  So, when the driver came to a tuk-tuk, I started to get in.

He said, “No no, we do not take tuk-tuk to Thailand!”  Then he laughed at me.  We walked past the tuk-tuk to a small 15 person bus.  It too was a hand-me-down from Korea (as had been my bus from Phonm Phen to Siem Reap).  They had reserved a seat in the front row for baggage, so I put my pack in the pile and joined the two other people on the bus.

Oh, that reminds me of a joke.  How many Cambodians does it take to bring a bus of tourists to the border?  Give up?  Four.  One to drive, two to handle luggage, and one to supervise.

No joke, there were four workers for the bus company on the bus.  In Korea, one driver can handle a bus load of 24 passengers, I wasn’t sure why this bus with half the passengers required four workers.  I imagined them serving as muscle in case we encountered a band of bandits but it never came to that.

I soon realized that there was no way this bus had air conditioning.  It was just too old and worn-down for them to worry about maintaining the air conditioner.  I smiled a little at the guy in the seat next to me as he fiddled with his vent trying to get some cool air that would never come. 

It really wasn’t that hot—probably in the low 90s (33 Celsius)—but the heat would make for a long ride.  The passenger who made the biggest stink was a Colombian-American woman.  She was probably about my mom’s age and only had the slightest hint of an accent.  I knew her nationality because she later announced it to everyone.  But that comes later.

She was maybe the tenth person on the bus.  She grabbed the seat behind me and then asked when the air conditioner would be turned on.  One of the porters replied, “No air-con.”

There was some back and forth between the two of them, but it ended the pretty much like it started: the Cambodian bus worker apologized and smiled, and the Columbia-American woman cursed loudly in English.  I was beginning to think that this woman was going to make the ride miserable for everyone if she complained the entire trip.  However, when we were on our way, and the “supervisor” lit up, she complained and he put it out.  It would have been a VERY long trip of the guy smoked the whole time on the bus.

It was an hour after I was picked up before we had taken out last passenger.  It was a couple.

The college-aged girl and guy walked on the bus and immediately said loudly in some vague European accent, “Okay, we’re a couple and we would like to sit together.”  There were plenty of other singles, but I had decided that if she asked me to move, I would have replied, “Well, I’m a single, and I’d like to sit alone.”

It never came to that though.

The first thirty miles or so west of Siem Reap is paved.  That’s pretty much it.  From there we faced a tough choice between keeping out windows open and taking the dust that came with the breeze, or closing the windows and cooking.  We took the dust.

On a map, the border wasn’t too far away, butt the road is really bad.  The path was about 15 feet above the surrounding, flat, flooded landscape.  I read somewhere that during the rainy season, Cambodia looks like a giant mud puddle from the air.  I could see how that would be true.

Every so often, we’d come to a break in the road where a bridge will go.  There were small one-way detours the came down from the main road and went over make-shift bridges where the road just went over those big concrete pipes they use for sewers.  There didn’t seem to be a real river or stream, but I suppose that need to make a way for the giant puddle to flow to the other side of the road if it wants.

There were three main stages to the bus trip:  the first monsoon, the long dirt road, and then the second monsoon.  The first monsoon came in the first hour.  It turned the road into a muddy mess and required us to close all of our windows.  The complaining about the air conditioner hit a second wave.  The Columbian woman tried to bargain with the Cambodians, “Now that the windows are closed, can we turn the air conditioner on?”  I thought, yes lady, now that the windows are closed and the air conditioner is really needed, it will fix itself.

It was during this first monsoon that we made our first stop—maybe two hours into the trip.  There were kids waiting at the road stop with umbrellas to usher us under the tin-roofed store.  I didn’t need to buy anything so I just stood there watching the rain.

I made friends with a Cambodian kid named Keran who approached me wanting to sell me some foreign currencies for dollars.  I bought a few hundred yen from him for a few dollars since I had the long layover in Japan.  We chatted for a bit about the road and when it would be finished.  He was optimistic and said next spring.  I smiled knowing there was no way.  He asked me about where I was from.  I taught him also the capital of Missouri.  Then, he took out a bracelet he had made and put it on my wrist.  I asked if he wanted me to buy it and he said, “No, for friend.”

With that, it was time to go.  The passengers ran through the ran back into the bus (I guess departing customers don’t need to be treated as nicely as arriving customers).  The first monsoon didn’t last too long.  Not long after the stop, the rains stopped.

Then the dusty road stage began.  The dusty stage was long and hot.  The breeze from the windows offered little relief.  It was during this stage in the journey that I overheard the other American on the bus make an ass of himself.  He was talking loudly about his travels—especially to South America.  I don’t know how he prefaced it, somehow, he came to declare that Colombia was a very dangerous country.

The pushy Colombian-American spoke up, “Don’t talk about my first country that way!  You don’t know what you are talking about.  It is not dangerous anymore.”

Then this guy responded in the worst Spanish I have ever heard.  It was as if he had learned Spanish from a book, and was pronouncing all the letters like one would in English.  It hurt my ears.  Then, if he didn’t know the Spanish word, he would just say the English word.

They argued back and forth for awhile, with the Colombian woman not dignifying the guy’s broken Spanish with a reply in Spanish—she spoke and cursed in English for the entire argument.  When they both finally quieted up the trip seemed to go much quicker.  We stopped for lunch and then headed on for the last leg of the trip: the second monsoon.

I saw this storm approaching from miles away.  I tried to take in the breeze as much as I could before the rain would force us to close the windows.  It eventually came—hitting the bus like a wall of water.  This one was much stronger than the first.  The driver had to stop completely a few times so one of the other Cambodians could get out and check to see how deep a stream of water or puddle was.

Then the leaking started.  I felt a few drops and looked up to see a hole in the roof that I hadn’t noticed before.  It had been taped over with packing tape, but had obviously been wet many times: between the tape and the roof of the bus was a thick layer of mold.  I was ready to get off this bus.

We rolled into Poipet under that same monsoon.  I actually wrote about this stop in a previous post I made from the border:

I just arrived in Thailand after a long, bumpy, hot, muddy ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The people on the bus had a lot of griping to do, and the Cambodians in charge of the bus just smiled and shrugged.

I can't believe the mud everywhere!  Even the paved roads on the Thai side of the border are covered with mud.  Its been raining almost non-stop today.

Poipet, on the Cambodian side filled with scammers offering to take your money for services that are free, for things that aren't mentioned in civilized conversation, and of course just willing to take it.

There are also flocks of children with umbrellas offering to carrying your bags across the border through the no-mans land between borders.  They are soaked of course.  To get through to the other side, you must walk past rows of casinos, willing to take money from those willing to part with it.  Their glitz and modernity likes in stark contrast to the muddy kids carrying bags between the boards.

I carried my own things--just the bag on my back--but a Columbia-American woman I was traveling with paid to have a deaf-mute kid carry her things.  This kid didn't have much, was soaking wet, but he had the biggest smile.  He couldn't talk, but made a gentle chirping sound with his smile.

From there, I paid $10 for a ride in a mini-bus to Pattaya.  I thought there might be a connection involved, but the nice Thai guy said it was direct.  Then I asked, “Leak or no leak?”  (For Arrested Development fans this is an allusion to Michael’s negotiations with a company offering him a job and a home.  Michael wryly asks, “Attic or main house?”)

I rode with two grandpas and one of their twenty-something Thai girlfriends on the road to Pattaya.  I arrived late and crashed after a long day on the road.

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