Apologies for the long hiatus. Among the many contrasts between India/Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia is the lack of internet. Slowly, but assuredly, the posts will catchup with my deviations…
The bus ride from Southern Laos into Phnom Penh, Cambodia may have been the shadiest and longest eight-hour ride I took. As we walked from the dock to the bus station, we sat down amongst other travelers in the shade. A straight-faced man wearing shades and carrying a briefcase approached us as we sat.
“Do you have your tickets?”
“Yes,” as Ankur and I took out the small stubs of paper and handed them over.
He looked at me and said. “You owe 60,000. Kip.” I had the cash in hand. While on the island of Dhon Khon, where there were no ATMS, I had practically run out of money and gave the agency a deposit for the bus ticket. After withdrawing from an ATM near the dock, I was ready to pay the balance, but not entirely ready for what followed.
The man with the briefcase counted the cash I handed him, walked to his motorcycle and rode away in seconds. Another man wearing a crisp white shirt, grey suit pants, and a wide smile on his face approached us and said, “Are you getting your Cambodian Visa on arrival?”
“Yes, we need to get that.”
“Okay, fill out this paperwork. It will be 30 US dollars.” Ankur and I slowly looked at each other. We both knew it was supposed to be only $20. He quickly followed up, “I’m the only agent for the whole bus, so this is your only option.”
We had heard strange stories of Cambodian border officers not allowing travelers to enter and for no conclusive reasons. The two of us acquiesced and said “Okay,” while knowing it was a guaranteed entry with him.
We handed over the money, paperwork, and our passports. Our leashes were now attached very closely to the ever-smiling agent.
Moments later, a dilapidated bus entered the station. I thought to myself, I hope that’s not for us. As everybody at the station got up, I realized it unfortunately was. The interior wasn’t much better. The A/C was leaking on a few seats, half of which had garbage on them, and the seat cushions were barely attached to their frames.
Ankur and I sat in a drier pair of seats. I stayed hopeful thinking we may switch to a better bus once we cross the border into Cambodia, which was only 20km away. As we sat down, some more passengers joined the bus. And our infamously smiling friend approached them as well.
“Thirty US dollars! I thought it was $20?” A pair of English girls were even more shocked. “What if I just the do the visa paperwork myself at the border?” One of them was also more daring.
After a pause, the man replied coldly, “You can try. But if I finish before you, the bus will go without you.”
An hour passed and we had successfully crossed the border into Cambodia, but continued south in the same bus. The roads proceeded to get worse and I started to understand why they didn’t use newer transportation. I was bouncing around attempting to finish the book, The Killing Fields, before arriving to our destination. But, my eyes could hardly stay on the lines of the page as the old suspension barely withstood the potholes and endless swerving. Learning of the recent devastation in Cambodia, I began to foresee a crumbling city, one being rebuilt from ruins.
Seven long hours later, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh and I was proved wrong. The roads were surprisingly smoother, and the lights were gleaming in all directions. The city seemed alive, thriving, and a close sister to the nearby Vietnamese city, Saigon.
The next day, Ankur & I ventured out to the beautiful Royal Palace of Cambodia, which serves as the residence of the Khmer king. The grounds of the palace were well maintained and seemed recently renovated. The country was certainly making a strong comeback from the recent revolution of de-industrialization under Pol Pot. Stay tuned…