Guest Post by Richard: A Rooster on the Bus.
The plan was to take a deluxe bus for the six-hour trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Donna did the research. She repeatedly whetted our appetites with comments on ‘all bells and whistles,’ ‘nonstop,’ ‘air conditioning,’ ‘reclining seats,’ ‘WIFI’ and more. Unfortunately, the long-distance buses did not depart from the airport so we would need to take a twenty-minute taxi ride to a bus terminal in downtown Phnom Penh. Donna is usually very firm at sticking to a plan. When we got to the airport, a tout pulled Donna aside and recommended that we take a Tuk Tuk instead of an official airport taxi. Donna accepted on our behalf. That was mistake number one.
One-hundred meters into our Tuk Tuk ride to said bus terminal, our driver suggested that we take a VIP bus that was located near the airport. He said that in today’s traffic it would require forty minutes to get downtown. The place that he recommended was only ten minutes away and had a non-stop luxury bus to Siem Reap leaving shortly. I have never known Donna to be so gullible. Once again, she agreed. That was mistake number two.
The driver hadn’t lied about the ten-minute ride. Everything else was pure fantasy. Our replacement bus station could not be called ‘luxury’ by any standard. It was a make-shift dirt area on the side of the road near some pop-up food stalls. It was manned by a ‘smooth-talking fellow’ (related no doubt to the airport tout and the Tuk Tuk driver). He sat behind a beat up table that had neatly piled tickets that read “VIP Express” and showed a picture of a modern, shiny bus. The tickets cost $20 each. “The bus must have lots of extras,” Donna said wishfully (the deluxe bus tickets she had researched cost $12 each). My wife who usually runs away screaming when she senses that she is being ‘taken,’ calmly purchased two tickets. That was mistake number three.
With tickets firmly in hand, we took a better look at our surroundings. The ‘waiting area’ consisted of a few mismatched plastic chairs haphazardly scattered near an expanding group of locals with large (often moving) bundles. The locals stared at us with intense curiosity. Except for one weary-looking hippie, we were the only foreigners anywhere in sight.
As we waited, several newer-looking buses drove past. Once again we were hopeful. Finally, a broken down red bus, hanging together by its hinges, slowed down in front of us. The ticket seller motioned for us to board — which we (robotically) did. That was mistake number four.
Locals began to pile on behind us carrying large boxes, crates, and cages. We quickly realized that the seat numbers on our tickets meant nothing. We scrambled for the remaining two seats together. When we asked where we could put our luggage, the driver pointed under our feet. This necessitated Donna and I contorting ourselves into yoga-like poses. That may have been fine for her. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t). As I was doing my best to be ‘Yogi-Richard,’ I noticed the dashboard of the bus had half of its instruments missing, including the speedometer, engine temperature, and gas gauge. The rest of the dashboard was rusted and battered with a few large holes. Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all!
My best guess is that our bus driver was approximately twenty years old. He looked like Phnom Penh’s answer to Tom Cruise…inclusive of aviator glasses and a cell phone glued to his ear. He was accompanied by his sidekick who took up position in the front stairwell. This prompted me to wonder why he would not take a regular seat. That question would be answered ten minutes down the road. With a loud roar, and smoke belching out behind us, we headed out of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. All went well during that part of the ride. (Editor’s Note: There is a difference of opinion here). As soon as we got out of the city to a two-lane road, that all changed. ‘Tom Cruise’ began increasing the speed of the bus. “Donna is NOT going to like this,” I thought to myself. I suggested that she put her eye mask and leave it on. For once, she listened!
I swear we missed vehicles coming the opposite way by mere fractions of an inch. During all this, our driver was chatting non-stop on his phone and trading jokes with his sidekick.
Ten minutes further down the road, the first of our many pit stops began. Stops to pick up more passengers, stops to drop off packages, stops to obtain engine parts…and other items best left unknown. The most entertaining stop was in the middle of nowhere. Several male passengers lined up on the side of the road to form a ‘synchronized pee line.’ I could not make this up. Ask Donna. I am not this imaginative.
An hour later, steam began coming out of the front of the bus. Our bus stopped. Sidekick grabbed a few wrenches and a bottle of water and disappeared under the hood. After several minutes of banging and a few water refills, we are off as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It is a good thing that Donna was feigning sleep with eyes shut tight. She totally would have freaked!
As I was focused on watching what was coming toward us on the highway, I heard a sound coming from the back of the bus. It sounded like a rooster. And indeed it was. He was joined by a few chickens who rounded out the melody. The choir remained on the bus for the full trip to Siem Reap, reminding us of their presence every fifteen minutes or so. “What’s that noise?” Donna whispered without removing her eye mask. “Cambodian music,” was the best that I could come up with.
Two hours into our trip, we stopped for a break in a little town. Everyone piled out of the bus and headed for the washroom that ended up being a hole in the floor and a bucket of water. Flies were everywhere! Donna did a sharp U-turn and went in search of a cleaner venue. No success there. She crossed her legs and refused to take even a sip of water for the remainder of the trip.
When we tried to reboard, we discovered that our bus was now out of commission. A ‘replacement bus’ was to arrive shortly. ‘Shortly’ turned into a full hour. Although you wouldn’t believe it could be possible, our second bus was in even worse condition than the first. As a small redeeming feature, it did have lovely purple velour curtains!
After seven and a half long hours on two buses, we finally make it to Siem Reap. I’m not sure who was happier to get off of the bus, Donna or the rooster. Although the trip did not turn out as planned, it was a fascinating adventure. It provided opportunity to richly experience an authentic slice of local Cambodian life. Funny, Donna still refuses to see it this way!