BootsnAll Travel Network

The Holy Shit Factor

(Congratulations to my sister and her husband on the birth of their son, born July 7th. I love you guys!)

The small town of Trat in southern Thailand is the last stopover before crossing over the border into Cambodia, about an hour away by bus. Paul and I bought bus and ferry tickets in Thailand, that would eventually bring us to the beach town of Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia. At least this was the theory anyway, as heavy rains and crazy transport options had us, on more than one occasion, ready to head back to Thailand. Luckily we didn’t, for what was in store for us in the following 48 hours is something you can’t plan for, can’t arrange, and certainly can’t properly explain to people who weren’t there. But I’m going to try anyway.

We left Trat early, 6am, and heading for the Cambodian border crossing at Hat Lek, which would open at 7am. The plan was to cross over and catch the 8am ferry to Sihanoukville from a small town called Koh Kong in Cambodia. There was only one ferry a day, and since we had already purchased our tickets, we needed to catch it. Our tickets also would give us transport from the border to the ferry, but in hindsight, we should have wondered how that could be arranged from Thailand, but no matter. We reached the Thai border, and within seconds of departing our minibus, our backpacks were thrown into a wheelbarrow and we had about three “helpers” with us, walking us through the border, asking us if we were taking the ferry and so forth. A little bewildered, and probably too nice, we let them walk with us, and let the one man carry our bags for us. Problems arose at the Thai border because my traveling buddy Paul had not only lost his Thai visa and departure card, but also overstayed in Thailand an extra day. This was surely to cause problems, but we were assured by numerous people in Bangkok that it would be a small fine and that was it. In the end, he had to pay an extra 500Baht fine for the overstay, and just fill out a new departure card, but that resulted in a delay of about 15 minutes. We crossed over into Cambodia, and suddenly there were about 4 or 5 other men around us, asking us if we had our visas yet, did we have taxi, did we have boat tickets, etc. We replied we needed to get our visas, and were hussled into a small concrete office, where a young Cambodian man and a stern older woman were working. We handed over our passports and photos, and filled in the application for a Cambodian visa, and then we waited. And waited, and waited some more. There was an older American couple in there with us, the woman I think was Thai or Vietnamese, and they were having problems with their visas as well. And we waited and waited, for no apparent reason. Our helper guys outside were growing impatient, and asking us what was taking so long. We could only reply that they should ask the border officials, we had no idea. And the clock ticked by, passing 8am and the ferry departure. We could only hope that it didn’t leave on time.

Finally, after what was an inexplanable delay, we were given our Cambodian visas and about 11 ink stamps in our passports, and let us cross over, at about 9am. While we went to the taxi with our helpers, suddenly everyone wanted money. Money to the bag carrier, at 50Baht each we thought was a bit steep, but since we hadn’t even remotely thought about asking the price ahead of time, we were out of luck. Two guys who apparently helped us fill out our visa cards, which not only did I not remember what he looked like, but I certainly didn’t need his help or ask for it. Suddenly frustrated and tired, I just got into the taxi, and left Paul to deal with handing people money. Once in the taxi, our driver informed us that we had missed the ferry, and now we needed to stay in Koh Kong one night, so he would take us to a hotel. He took us to one place, and without looking at our guidebook, it looked nice enough, so we paid for a room and checked in. The second guy in the taxi then asked us for a tip, and Paul kind of looked at me and I shrugged, “Tip for what exactly?” I thought to myself, for we still can’t figure out what he did for us. But we handed him two dollars, since we had no Cambodian money, and they use American dollars interchangeably in Cambodia. Our taxi driver asked us what we wanted to do about the ferry, and since we didn’t think we had a choice, since the road to Sihanoukville was shut, we bought tickets for the following day on the ferry at half price, since we weren’t able to use ours for that day. I had some misgivings about buying yet another ticket, but in the light of morning and being slightly overwhelmed, we agreed and bought the tickets. Back at our room, mental fatigue kicked in, and we crashed for a few hours, waking up to a lull in the rain, which would be the only respite we would have from the rains for two days.

Wandering around Koh Kong, we headed to a restaurant that our guidebook said was popular with travelers looking for travel information, so we headed there for lunch. There were two other backpackers there, who turned out to be two Belgian girls Louis and Leen. We ate some lunch and watched the rain come down in sheets, and chatted with them and the owner about the ferry. Apparently, the ferry hadn’t even run that day because of the weather, so Paul and I felt completely ripped off that they told us we had missed it. The ferry was expected back from Sihanoukville at 4pm, and we sat at the restaurant and guesthouse until then and waited. And drank a few beers and waited some more. Another two guests arrived at the guesthouse, a German guy and a very loud Cambodian-American woman who flew into the house like a whirlwind, ordering food and talking to the workers in Khmer about the ferry and the weather. Suddenly, we looked towards the sea, and there it was, the ferry. We all clapped, literally, happy that we would be able to get out of Koh Kong the next day. The rest of the evening passed, and Paul and I checked out of our hotel and into this guesthouse, since that is where all the other travelers were staying and we felt more comfortable there.

Early in the morning, we headed towards the ferry after a quick breakfast and a few minutes behind the Belgian girls and Chanta, the American. It was pouring rain, again, and without backpack covers or rain gear, Paul and I were quickly soaked. We arrived at the ferry, and it was pure chaos. The Belgians and Chanta were nowhere to be seen, and we assumed correctly that they were inside the boat already. There were piles of fruit and vegetables on top of the ferry, and while the boat was clearly full, about 50 more people were milling around, trying to board the boat. A young man approached us, and asked us if we were going on the ferry. I said “Yes, we have tickets.” Obviously the wrong thing to say, because he just laughed and laughed, “Yes, you have tickets, hahahaha.” And pointed around, everyone else had tickets too. We were nothing special. After some maneuvering, we managed to get on the ferry, and sat on the front outside, surrounded by pineapples and about 6 other people braving the rain. I was just thinking pure safety, that if this ferry sank, I wanted to be outside, as there was no escape if caught below deck. And that how the next few minutes went, as Paul and I discussed, with no irony, what to do when the ferry went down, to swim away from it and towards land, etc. And the rain poured down.

Through the throng of people waiting on land, I spotted one of the Belgian girls getting off the ferry, and then the other one, and finally Chanta as well, now on the sidewalk talking to a local Cambodian man. I pointed out to Paul that they had gotten off, and with a quick, “should we get off too?” and a nod, he sprung off the boat, I handed him our sopping wet bags, and I climbed off as well. The locals looked at us like we were nuts, we had a seat on the boat, spots that would surely be taken up by other people, what were we doing? But it was too crazy, both of us imagining the news at home. Paul’s would have been the headliner, “Chesire Man Drowns After Tragic Ferry Disaster, Boat Overloaded by 300 People.” Mine would be a small blurb in the international section of the Tribune, ” Ferry Capsizes off the coast of Cambodia. 400 Cambodians, and a few foreign tourists killed including one American, Local from Chicago.” So we were safe, but now back to where we started. How to get out of Koh Kong and into Cambodia, anywhere really. The road to Sihanoukville was impassable, but rumors abounded that the road to Pnomh Penh was open. Since there was no public transport available, we grouped together with the Belgians and Chanta, who fired off in Khmer and made bargains and deals to whomever would listen. She was getting to Pnomh Penh, come hell or highwater. Not realizing, it would come mighty close.

After discussing with one driver, we agreed on a rate that would take us to the river crossing, where we would then get another car to take us to Pnomh Penh, finally giving up on going to Sihanoukville, no point anyway since it was a beach town and the rain continued to come down. The 6 of us including the driver climbed into a Toyota Camry, and off we went, down wet roads. The first half hour went smoothly, and we were happy and relaxed that we had found a way around getting on the death ferry. Then we reached the first of many river crossings. The Cambodian government was in the process of building a bridge across the river but it wasn’t complete yet, and motivated locals had their own car ferry, or solange, to shuttle people and vehicles back and forth. It was muddy and wet, and our little Camry was no match for the mud and the rain. Finally it was our turn and our car got onto the solange and we crossed a tributary of the Mekong River with no hassles. However, once on the other side, our luck began to change, and we reached the first of what would be many uphill battles, literally and figuratively.

People say that the roads in Cambodia are some of the worst in the world, but that is just not true. The fact is that they aren’t really roads at all, but vast swaths of dirt, or mud in the rainy season, paths that have been cleared through the jungle but then left to their own devices. After 15 days of nonstop rain, the road to Pnomh Penh was 273 kilometers of muck. Even the smallest hill and incline was a problem, as no normal car had enough traction to make it up in the mud and pouring rain. We were stuck. We stopped at the first hill, and got out to use the bathroom (bushes) and take a leg stretch. Our driver disappeared for a bit, so we sat in the car or stood out under an umbrella, watching numerous other cars attempt to make it up this hill. After each car made it, the road got worse and worse, with deep grooves and even slicker mud for the next car to contend with. A minivan packed full of monks got stuck, and if I hadn’t seen these monks in bright orange robes get out and push their minivan up that incline, I wouldn’t have believed it. Our driver finally returned, and after much negotiating, we bargained with the driver of an empty minivan shuttle to take us the rest of the way, so our driver could return to Koh Kong instead of all the way to Pnomh Penh. With more room to spread out, our minivan was a bit of luxury. But we weren’t as confident with our new driver, and after many attempts to get up the hill, we had our first realization that we might not make it after all. We contributed to the deforestation of Cambodia and pulled leave and sticks and branches off nearby trees to offer some traction, and helped push the van, to no avail. After about two hours, a tractor loader came to our rescue and literally towed us up over the incline to flatter land. We cheered, but it was short lived. Just another kilometer, and we were lined up again behind cars at another hill, waiting now to be towed up by another tractor. And we waited and waited and waited. It was finally our turn, and we reached the top of the hill. It was now about 2pm, and we had left Koh Kong at 9am. We had traveled 36 kilometers.

The next few hours involved more of the same, muddy roads, slow moving, another river crossing. We reached one river crossing, and the local workers said they weren’t taking anyone else across because the water was too high on the other side. After bargaining and basically throwing money at them, they opened up the solange to us and the two other vehicles that were traveling with our driver. While waiting, a small boat brough us rice and pork from the other side for US$1 a serving, and we scarfed it down, having not eaten since 7am. Finally, the solange arrived, and after a hair-raising attempt at getting on the slippery ramp in our minivan sliding around in the mud and swerving back and forth, the three vehicles got across the river. But on the other side, it was a different story. The water had risen up over the small road to the ramp, and there was about 3-4 feet of water from the solange dock to the road, over dirt and sandy silt from the river. Our driver gunned it, and in an instant, I thought we would make it across. But then we got stuck, and the water started seeping into the front by my feet, as I was in the front passenger seat. We were leaning heavily to the right, and our tires were sunk in the water and muck. About 10 guys from shore came out and tried to push us out, but it was fairly hopeless. The water continued to come in, and we were finally told to get out, and shoes in hand, we waded across the water and onto shore. The 4WD that was traveling with us crossed over easily, and then with a very long rope, pulled our minivan out of the water and onto the paved road on the other side. And we cheered, and the locals looked at us like we were crazy.

Soon after that, it started to get dark. The roads were still unpaved, and while our driver seemed to handle the ruts and trenches and potholes well enough, it was just a matter of time before we’d hit a bad patch and go flying off the mountaintop, or slide down a ravine or spin around and hit a tree. All these thoughts raced around my head, and since I was in the front seat, I saw every hole, every trench, every large rock hidden by mud. As we lumbered down another hill, we hit a large hole, and the inevitable happened. We were stuck. But this time, there were no locals to help us. In fact, we were in the middle of nowhere, and the two other vehicles with us had long passed us by. It was pitch dark, and pouring rain. We got out of the van, and Paul lit a cigarette. And the five of us, including Paul in his flipflops, smoking a cigarette in the pouring rain, pushed our van out of the rut and a few feet down the mountain. We applauded ourselves and got back in the van, and hilarity ensued, and we all got slap happy and laughed ourselves silly. The exhaustion was sinking in quickly. Though it was only about 7pm, it was pitch dark outside, and there were no villages around, no people. We also realized we had two more river crossings, and that is when I started to get scared.

We reached the next river crossing, and it was also closed for the night. Our driver made some phone calls, and the workers came out to take us across. But across to where? We couldn’t see across to the other side, it was so dark. Paul and I held hands, and discussed if it was better to be in the van or out if the solange should sink, do you stay with the vehicle, or swim away from it in a river? These were our conversations as the solange chugged its’ way across the small but fast moving river. And then we reached the other side. We continued on, the road still bad but now we were used to it, and various people in the van drifted in and out of sleep. But in front, my eyes were peeled on the road, waiting expectantly for a huge hole or large boulder to put us out of commission, for our driver to misjudge an edge by a cliff and us go tumbling off. We reached our 4th and last river crossing, and again, a few phone calls were made and crossed the small river. It was about 10:30pm. Another hour or so, and with what I can only describe as quiet elation, we reached the paved highway that would take us the rest of the way to Pnomh Penh. And I finally allowed my eyes to close, and I drifted off to a restless sleep, only to awake about 45 minutes later, to our driver hurredly passing other trucks and cars and people on bicycles, trying to get home.

We passed the Pnomh Penh airport, and Chanta assured us we were close, and at 3 minutes past 1am, 15 hours and 273 km after leaving Koh Kong, we arrived at our guesthouse, covered in red mud, stinky, hot, sweaty and grimey, completey exhausted but totally wired. Chanta came in with us, and after a quick discussion in Khmer, the guesthouse brought us to our rooms without making us check in or pay. Chanta told them we had had a rough day.

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One response to “The Holy Shit Factor”

  1. Jeff says:

    Great writing and a great read. Your blog is interesting and very entertaining and I am enjoying reading about your adventours. Last year I traveled solo in many of the areas you are going through and I am loving the memories you’ve brought back to me. Adventure on and have fun. Girl – you have guts!

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