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Journey to Cambodia

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Whoever said “Tis better to travel than to arrive” must have taken the Thai first class bus to the Cambodian border at Poipet. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the sleek efficiency and comfort of Thai public transport and the squalor, chaos and sheer nastiness of Poipet. From the border guards who accept only 1000 Baht as payment for the $20 visa, pocketing a tidy 25% profit on the exchange rate, to the mounds of rotting garbage, and the gangs of touts attempting to part disoriented new arrivals from as much of their cash as possible, the town is the worst possible introduction to Cambodia. After ten minutes in the place, we wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk back into Thailand

Before we had even disembarked from our tuk-tuk from the bus station, we were surrounded by a swarm of people. Hands grabbed for our bags and for our arms, importuning palms poked their way through the crowd, small children carrying umbrellas attempted to shield us from the sun and a dozen voices shouted at once. “You go Siem Reap today?” “You need visa?” “You look my guesthouse “ “I have bus to Siem Reap”. As we passed through the various stages of border formalities, we shook off most of our original entourage, but we could not shake the touts.

We knew before we set out that this was going to be a gruelling journey. We could have avoided some of the worst parts by booking a package direct from Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker centre, all the way to Siem Reap. These tickets are sold at rock bottom prices, and we knew why. The operators make their profits by ripping the passengers off at every turn along the way, and by using a variety of delaying tactics to ensure the bus doesn’t reach Siem Reap until late at night, when passengers are deposited at a particular guesthouse well outside the town. We figured we’d take our chances doing it ourselves. As we struggled through the confusion of Poipet, we began to wish we’d done it the easy way.

We’d armed ourselves with information on what to do, what to say and how much to pay. Don’t tell them you’re going to Siem Reap, we were warned. The trucks don’t go there directly, but the touts will tell you they do, extract your money and sell you on to some driver who’s not leaving for hours. Don’t negotiate with anyone except the driver. In fact, don’t negotiate at all – just get in and pay the right fare at the end. Or you might be able to get a share taxi all the way, but it’ll take longer to fill.

As we passed through the final official area, we emerged into the street and the touts closed in around us. We tried to ignore them and follow our detailed “how to get the hell out of Poipet” instructions, but we were outmanoeuvred at every turn.

There was no sign of other customers to fill a share taxi, so we decided on the truck. Getting the truck had sounded easy – just get on the fullest one, and pay the appropriate fare at the destination.

It turned out a little differently. The traffic circle was full of trucks with varying amounts of people on board. Some looked as though they were full and didn’t have room for us. We would realise our naiveté later, as we adjusted to the Cambodian concept of full. We picked one we thought looked right and made our way purposefully towards it. The touts surrounding us were having none of it. They got between us and the driver, preventing us from talking to him. The passengers on board rearranged themselves to make room for us, but stopped after some sharp words from the touts. This was repeated at each truck we tried. Probably we should have just got on the truck, but at the time we were far too intimidated by the crowd of racketeers that blocked our path.

We knew there was another place to get trucks, at the market a couple of kilometres away. There was even a system there, with the trucks queuing and leaving in order, rather than the chaos of 40 or 50 trucks all trying to fill up at the same time. We approached a moto driver to get a lift there. Again, the touts barred our way, and the moto driver shook his head with a slightly embarrassed smile. Desperate to get away, we strode off in the only possible direction. There had to be somewhere better than this.

The crowd around us began to dwindle after we’d walked 500 metres or so. The price had dropped from outrageously exorbitant to only about double the “real” tourist fare, but by this stage we didn’t care what price they gave us, we weren’t going to put any business their way. We walked on, and realised that we had no idea where the market was. We could see no sign of it ahead of us, and were starting to fear would have to turn back to the traffic circle we had just left. As we debated our options, feeling miserable, a truck pulled up alongside. He was going to Sisiphon and his price was only marginally more than it should have been, but the truck was practically empty. Making the best of a bad lot, we clambered aboard.

Two hours later, we actually left Poipet. We had debated jumping ship several times in the intervening period, but didn’t relish repeating the painful process we’d just gone through. Besides, the system was so chaotic we had no guarantee of leaving any quicker if we did.

During this time, we were distracted by numerous false starts as our driver drove around the town showing us off in a bid to find more takers. “Look at me, I’m a great truck. I’ve got loads of passengers. I’ll be leaving really soon” he seemed to be saying. One of our companions was delicately supporting a plastic bag. We soon realised why. The bag had probably contained eggs when she filled it, but now it mostly held chicks. As we waited, several more emerged from their shells, feathers sodden at first but fluffing up as they found their feet and wings and opened their eyes. The cramped quarters of the pickup truck’s bed were re-arranged for the chicks’ comfort. A woman’s basin became their berth, giving them more space than any of the human passengers. It began to rain, and before Caelen & I had a chance to don our ponchos, they were re-appropriated as a chick-shelter.

In Laos we had ridden plenty of pickup trucks, converted into passenger vehicles by the addition of two benches and a roof. In Cambodia, no conversion was deemed necessary. If there was cargo aboard, the passengers sat on the cargo, otherwise on the sides of the truck. If the sides were all taken, passengers crouched on the bed of the truck, or stood, or sat on someone’s knee. Some chose to pay double and ride inside – two in the front passenger seat, four in the back. We’d have had to buy extra seats to ride inside, and we’d considered doing just that, but just getting a truck had been so much hassle we’d decided to keep it simple. We were perched outside with 15 others when we finally got underway.

Although one of Cambodia’s main roads, the Poipet-Siem Reap road is mainly dirt track. Dust rose in the air, choking us and hurting our eyes. My bag was out of reach, wedged behind too many people and boxes, so there was no hope of grabbing sunglasses, sarong, or anything else that might provide some protection. We learned to anticipate the worst of it, ducking, twisting and clenching our eyes shut.

Sooner than we had expected, we reached Sisiphon and it was time to change trucks. Our helpful companions on board called out our destination as we entered the square, and the swarm headed our way. This was not like Poipet, though. There was a desperation about these men as they grabbed for our bags, not the sly cunning of the Poipet touts. We kept hold of our belongings with some difficulty, but this time we need not have feared. A virtually full truck was pulling out onto the road, going our way. As we approached the driver called out the fare – exactly what we had expected to pay.

This truck was almost full, but not of people. The entire bed of the truck was filled with boxes and the few passengers sat on top. Just as we were about to leave, it began to rain. Real rain, of the tropical monsoon variety. Our ponchos were about as useful as an elastoplast on the Titanic.

There was one seat inside, but neither of us would leave the other outside. Not out of a sense of chivalric self-sacrifice, though, so much as a reluctance to have to listen to the whinging of the one who’d had to get wet. Our driver appeared with a big plastic sheet and we arranged ourselves on the truck, each holding a corner. It billowed sail-like as drove out of town, deafening us as it flapped and cracked about us.

The sun came out and with relief we put down our shelter. “That’ll keep the dust down anyway,” Caelen remarked, as we splashed through the puddles. The dust was not so much kept down, though, as transformed. Big mud splatters hit us from all angles, and we were soon covered from head to toe like some sort of Jackson Pollack tribute.

When we arrived at our guesthouse an hour or two later, our landlady didn’t turn a hair. The public transport being what it was in Cambodia, I suppose there was nothing unusual about her guests arriving caked with mud.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Barbara covered in mud after the journey through Poipet Cambodia Travelgoues
photograph of Caelen covered in mud after the journey through Poipet Cambodia Travelgoues
Looking lovely on arrival in Siem Reap

Even muckier, if that's possible

A floating shop Cambodia Travelogues
Picture of a crowded tourist boat Cambodia Travelogues
Floating shop on the Tonle Sap lake
Luxury transport - speedboat to Phnom Penh