(Cambodia) Most days I wake up I have little idea where the day will take me. The following story is a good example; it begins with my traveling mates (Weijie from Singapore and Janny from Hong Kong) and I boarding a bus in Siem Reap headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and it ends with us literally running for the Vietnam border. What happens in between exemplifies that you often never know what’ll happen on the open road.
A taxi picked us up at our guest house in Siem Reap at 6am and dropped us at the crowded city bus station, overrun with hawkers selling everything from bananas to hair picks—all swimming in a muddy, trash strewn parking lot of honking buses and taxis haphazardly laid out in no recognizable fashion. We insisted on trying to get the $8 tickets on a “local” bus, avoiding the pricier (but cleaner) $12 “tourist bus” to make the journey to the Cambodian capital city. Clutching our bags tightly we pressed ourselves through the bus yard crowd and in semi-English/Cambodian were directed to a dust-covered jalopy of a bus with a cracked windshield. We stashed our bags in the cargo hold underneath, before climbing aboard.
Once on the bus, as our eyes adjusted to the dim musty interior, we were met by a wall of curious eyes, as we were, at this point, the only three non-Cambodians on the bus. A group of about 8 men, gathered in back, quickly shuffled seats in what seemed like an obvious move to avoid having to sit next to one of the foreigner. We checked our seat numbers, and Weijie made a move for his seat, as a larger man shifted over towards him, filling two chairs—including the one Weijie was clearly headed for—this elicited a hardy laugh out of the rest of the men. We awkwardly shifted around in a game of musical-bus-seats and when the music stopped Weijie and Janny were sharing two seats in back and I was sitting by myself a few rows up, next to a skinny young man with a gaunt face and tussled black hair. As I sat, his eyed darted out the window and I shoved my daypack under my chair. The ride was to take 6 hours.
Eventually the bus filled, and with the exception of a German couple in the first row, we were out numbered by Cambodians 55 to 3. I leafed through a few pages in my book, before I was interrupted by the skinny young man, who turned to me and in nervous English said, “Hello, I am Sophea.”
“Hello,” I said, “My name is Andy.”
“I try to sit next to foreigners on the bus,” he continued, “Most of my friends don’t like to, but I want to practice my English.”
Over the next few hours, Sophea and I chatted for much of the time and I learned that he was 23, had a degree from a Cambodian university in computers and had spent the last year working at an IT company in Phom Phen. Recently though, he had to quit his job because the salary (about $150/month) was not enough to live on his own–his family lived in a village far away in the northeast part of the country. He had spent a number of months applying for better paying IT jobs, but having found none, he took a job as a sales man for a US-based company that sold multi-vitamins and nutrition related drugs in Cambodia–in this job he said, he could make 3 to 4 times what he was making in an IT job.
He was returning from a meeting with the company’s founder, who flew in from the US a few days earlier, the other guys on the bus—the group we had played musical chair with earlier—were his co-workers.
On the bus ride that afternoon, Sophea gave me his sales pitch, flipping through pages of a plastic binder and saying he didn’t need me to buy anything but wanted only to practice his English. The company, it seemed, sold nutritional supplements intended to fix health aliments that don’t really exist where I come from in American, yet are prevalent in an under-developed and often malnourished country like Cambodia (i.e. leprosy, gout, etc). So for anywhere between $5 and $50 I could buy bottles of Vitamin C, supplements and special nutritional drugs. The company, Sportron, it appears to me, operates in a sort of Amway/pyramid scheme style, but my lack of internet hasn’t allowed me much time to look into it since (feel free to let me know what you think, www.sportron.com). It is run from its corporate offices in Texas by its American founders. I was a bit skeptical of the company, but Sophea seemed excited about the money he could make; he said, if he were able to recruit other sales people to the company a percentage of their sales would be his. He had, at the time of this story, been with the company for 1 month.
Four hours into the bus ride, we came to a stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch, and we exited the bus in search of bathrooms. Weijie, Janny and I walked by steaming pans of food and what appeared to be a cafeteria, but our inability to speak Cambodian and our unfamiliarity with the food led us to consider waiting to eat until later. As I headed back to the bus, I heard someone call my name and looked up to see Sophea and his eight coworkers waving me over to join them. They pulled up a chair for me, and two for my friends, and as I sat, plates of food were set before us. In typical American style, I declined immediately, but soon was enticed to eat. Janny and Weijie eventually joined, and we dined on the Cambodian equivalent of a burger and fries (it was rice and fish among other things). The group of men introduced themselves in broken English and we introduced ourselves back in the same broken English. Soon, the bus honked its horn to signal its imminent departure and we headed back to our seats. As we settled in, I attempted to pass a few dollars to one of the men, a man we came to know as “Tiger, who without hesitation, refused to accept it. Even after I insisted he take it, he waved me off. (At this point, its important to remember that its very possible that I make more in one day at work in America, then he makes in an entire month in Cambodia).
Family transportation, Cambodian style.
Sophea and I continued to chat as the bus started off again, I asked him about life in Cambodia and he asked me about America. A few hours later, as the bus arrived at the station in Phnom Penh, Sophea said, “I will go get my bike.” Unsure exactly what he meant, and still a little hesitant of strangers (it was early on in my trip), I wasn’t sure of what to make of it, but we agreed to meet in an hour at our guest house.
Almost exactly an hour later, Sophea showed up at our door with a motorcycle helmet in hand and a friend with another bike in tow. For the next three hours, Sophea and his friend drove us around town on the back of their motorbikes, taking us to see the tallest building in town (a shopping mall), a temple, and a few other sights.
As rain descended on the city, we retreated to a restaurant for a fried squid snack and I suggested we buy a small gift for the Sportron guys (the ones who had bought us lunch) and stop by their office to drop it off (despite being it a Sunday, most of them were at work). We arrived at the offices and after an hour or so of hanging out, we decided it might be best to just take them out to dinner, since they had been so kind as to treat us for lunch.
An hour later, we three travelers and eight Sportron drug and supplement salesman (plus a few friends and one wife), gathered for what could only be described as an absolutely fantastic Cambodian hot pot dinner at a restaurant I recommend highly (Dararaksmey Restaurant, #51 St. 63 Corner St. 208, Sangkat Boeng Raing, Khan Daun Penh in Phnom Penh; 012 877 087).
Despite the fact that not everyone spoke English, and we clearly spoke no Cambodian, we had a fantastic night dining with our friends from the bus. As the beers continued to be opened and the food kept coming, I quietly grew concerned that this dinner might cost us more than we bargained for—we were, after all, budget travelers despite our inherent affluence. At the end of the night the bills was totaled and for fourteen people to have essentially all-we-could eat and drink at what I bet is one of Phnom Penh’s finest hot pot restaurants, the entire night set us back $43 USD.
Happy and full, we thanks are new friends who gave us a ride back to our guesthouse.Early the next morning we boarded another bus bound for Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam ($3). On this second bus ride we didn’t find any new friends, but we did almost lose the bus.
At a ferry crossing the bus stopped for what we thought was a bathroom break, but before we returned, the bus pulled forward getting lost in a jumble of probably twenty identical buses that was slowing moving forward onto the ferry deck (mental note: next time you are in a line of buses, pay closer attention to what your bus looks like!).
As the traffic lurched forward, a crowd of people on foot were allowed to overtake the dock and the ferry horn blew which signaling the ferry’s immediate departure. Amongst the crowd of dozens and dozens of Cambodian women with baskets on their heads, livestock, and hawkers selling fruit, candy and sunglasses, we frantically chased what we hoped was our bus (with our bags in its cargo compartment). We pounded on the bus’s aluminum siding as it rolled forward, hoping the door would open as the gang plank of the ferry was pulled up nearly right underneath our feet and the ferry set off across the Mekong River towards Vietnam.
We were one of the last few people let onto the ferry. Fortunately in our mad dash for the boat, we managed to single out the right bus, but unfortunately in the rush, we didn’t get any great pictures of the chase.
We crashed into our bus seats with our nerves shot and sweat pouring down our brows from the tropical heat, and an hour later as the sun hit its apex overhead we made it to the border crossing, putting a close to our Cambodian adventures and opening the door for this American tourist to literally walk into Vietnam—one of the last Communist countries on the planet.
Vietnam Border Post
[You can view more photos from our trip across Cambodia in the photo gallery that will be highlighted tomorrow---Don't have a clue where to find that? Then click here.]
What you can do now:
- Leave a comment in the box below
- Read another story of a random friend I made in Window Shopping in Cambodia
- Read a random story from China and how I Bought A Camera From a Guy Named Fish