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Cambodia: Devil at your Heels

At 8am on January 27th, Bec and I were in another wooden long-boat heading back across the Mekong river with our guesthouse owner, Mr. Noi, doing the navigating. It was a cold morning, droplets of cool water splashing up on our faces from the boat sitting so low in the water. With us in the boat were an English couple who were apparently hitching a ride with us to visit a big waterfall not far away.

Through Mr. Noi we had booked a minibus to take us south across the Cambodian border to Phnom Penh, a trip expected to take around 12 hours. On the other side of the river, we followed Mr. Noi up a dirt road lined with open-fronted wooden and tatch huts selling water and fried food, not really knowing what was going on. We had expected to simply get in a minibus once we reached the shore, as the minibus we had caught to Don Det had dropped us there. We walked for 5 minutes, getting stares from the locals as we passed. Then, after asking us to wait for a few minutes, he ushered us and the English couple into the back of a small tuk-tuk, and we headed further away from the river.

We exchanged the typical traveller chit chat with the English couple, where’ve you been, where’re you going, that sort of thing. Or, to put it more accurately, we listened as the pompous English twit rambled on about God-knows-what trying to prove his astounding intellect. “Oh yes, we’re currently living in a small village in the south of France and… yada yada yada.” All he needed was to twirl some sherry in a glass while he spoke and I reckon I would’ve punched him. Not that that would’ve done much, given my puny arms and all.

Due to their presence, we took a detour off the road to the border to drop them near the waterfall, as a bus filled with travellers passed us. Why weren’t we in the bus? I wondered.

20 minutes further down the road, we turned off the paved path and down a dirt track heading into the forest. The track, we found out, wasn’t too long, but due to it’s absolutely atrocious condition, it took a further 15 minutes of gently rolling through huge ditches, before we stopped…….in the middle of the track. Mr. Noi spun his head around and smiled, “piss stop,” before running into the bushes to relieve himself.

A few minutes later we arrived at the Laos exit point, which consisted of a boom gate and a small wooden shack in which sat three uniformed border control officers. Mr. Noi motioned for us to get out and head over to the shack, where we flashed our Cambodian visa to the guards and paid them a couple of US dollars for the priveledge of doing so. On our return back to the tuk-tuk, Mr. Noi handed us over to some other guy who had a minivan. “Ok, we take this minivan to Phnom Penh?” I aksed. He nodded, our bags were hoisted up on top, and we got in.

It was the most comfortable and spacious minivan we’d travelled in, especially given that we were the only passengers. Pretty happy with ourselves, we were quickly gripping the seats as the van started down another equally bumpy dirt track, which rolled up and down through the forest like a roller coaster. 10 minutes later, and we stopped at a collection of huts leading down to a river. I assumed this was the border town of Voen Khan, where we would get our Cambodian entry stamps.

I was wrong. The driver, who spoke no English, got out and directed us into a wooden hut where a young guy who did speak English said we had to wait for his brother to arrive. We still had little idea what was going on, but after 3 weeks in SEAsia had learnt to simply go where things take you. I asked the young guy if this bus would take us all the way to Phnom Penh. “No, this bus to Stung Treng. Then cross over Mekong, and get another bus to Phnom Penh.” Ok, at least we knew now when we had to change buses.

Soon, the brother arrived, a weedy looking little guy wearing a long sleeve collared shirt tucked into his slacks, and spectacles. In his hand was a mobile phone. It was clear he was the brains behind this shady operation. With him now on the scene, we got back into the minivan, still the only passengers, with weedy guy in the front passenger seat, and continued to drive down a ridiculously bumpy road. For 25 minutes we drove through remote forest, on a dirt track that a well equipped 4WD would’ve struggled to handle. The forest began to thin out a little, with smouldering fires burning at the side of the track. At one point a huge dead tree blocked the path, and I had pictures of us fighting for hours to drag it to the side. Instead, the driver simply veered off the track, through the scrub, and around the tree.

Was this really the path to an internationally recognised border crossing?

For the length of this 25 minute journey, weedy guy had taken our passports, showing particular interest in my UK working-holiday visa(?) and was speaking to us in a so-hard-to-understand-accent-that-I’m-simply-nodding-and-smiling. We caught about every tenth word, as tempered with the difficult accent was his classification as a ‘low-talker’, and his propensity to turn back to the front of the van whilst still continiung his one-sided conversation.

Finally, we reached a T-intersection and turned left onto a wide, flat gravel track. A few hundred metres ahead we stopped. Here, there was a tiny wooden hut serving as the border control, and a dodgy looking boom gate. On the other side of the boom gate was a minivan, facing us, and around the hut stood around 12 backpackers. As we walked up to the hut, one of the backpackers, an Israeli guy we’d spoken to the night before, approached us. “How you come form that way?” He asked. “That is the Cambodian side?!” Bec and I simply shrugged. We weren’t too fussed, as long as we got here. And after all that work for the Cambodian visa, we’d better well need it.

And that was when I wandered up to the hut, and, squinting in the early morning sun, saw stapled to the front wall an A4 sheet of white paper, with Times New Roman writing that proclaimed in large letters, “Visa On Arrival. $20”

Weedy guy, still with or passports in his hand, pushed his way past the crowd of backpackers and hadned over our passports. We waited patiently chatting before he returned, “$2 US per person, that is what they ask for,” he informed us. As Bec pulled out $4 US, a girl nearby piped up, “That’s crap. It’s only $1 each. Don’t believe him.”

“Well, we’ve got our passports here, they’ve been stamped. Why can’t we just turn around and walk away?” I asked, only half seriously.

Not wanting to risk anything, Bec walked past weedy guy and up to the counter, and handed over 2 dollars. The guard didn’t bat an eyelid, and we turned and walked away.

It was about now that our packs, previously tied to the roof of the minivan, were untied and dumped on the side of the road, before the minivan turned and drove off.

“Uh, what the hell’s going on?” Bec asked. No one had any idea.

Off to the side of the road was an old red Pajero, with a group of 5 or so young Cambodian guys milling around it. Weedy guy approached us, “Ok, you go in Pajero.”

“Really? What about the minivan.”

“No minivan, Pajero.”

“And this will take us all the way to Phnom Penh?” I asked as I got into the back seat.

“Yeah, sure,” weedy guy said dismissively.

“Man, I don’t trust a word you say.”

It was a tight squeeze with Bac and I in the back, but comfortable enough, I thought. Although, that was before the 5 young Cambodian guys, and weedy guy, all got in. 8 of us crammed into that 4WD, one driving, 2 in the front passenger seat, 4 in the back seat, and one guy cramped up with our packs in the very back.

“C’mon, I paid for a whole seat,” I protested, to wihch the driver replied, “this not a taxi.”

And off we went, with the backpackers watching, still waiting at the border with their comfortable minivan, a motley crew of 5 young Cambodians, a weedy little entrepeneur, and me and Bec.

By now, it was almost 11am.

For the next four-and-a-half hours we flew across the dirt as fast as that machine would take us. Bumps were considered obselete, simply handled with more speed. The air conditioning consisted of 4 windows wound down, letting the dust of passing cars fly in to the cabin, coating every one and every thing in orange.

Surely, this was not the main road to Phnom Penh?

I was pressed up against weedy guy on my left, and somehow despite the feeling of being on a trampoline as we went over bumps and through ditches, he began to fall asleep. I turned slightly to see his head wobbling round on his shoulders as though his nexk were a spring, before it rested briefly on my shoulder. Narcolepsy. It had to be narcolepsy. There was no way anyone could sleep through this car ride. Then I turned to my right and saw Bec’s head dipping down to her chest and back, the beginnings of travel sleep taking hold. Man, put that girl in JFK’s car in Dallas, ’63, and she would’ve slept through his assassination.

We approached a number of bridges under construction, which were typically navigated via a dipping path off to one side leading down into ditch being bridged over, then rising steeply up to rejoin the main path. Our driver would see thsese bridges at the last second, and with no time for braking, would fly down the path. I lost count of the number of times my arse left the seat, although considering how numb it was it probably didn’t matter too much. For stretches at a time, one half of the road would be paved, but covered in huge tree branches to stop people driving on it.

It was clear this was a road under construction. We passed people working on the paved areas, at one point a group of ladies in straw hats shielding them from the now baking sun, were sweeping the paved half of the road, despite the constant dust that swirled around them. It struck me as akin to trying to sweep the sand off a beach.

Every hour or so someone would yell out ‘piss stop’, and the guys would scramble out of the car, as though racing to be the first to get their bits out. Occassionally I joined them in relieving myself, while Bec stood around doing whatever it is girls do while guys piss on the side of the road.

After 3 hours of this driving, this screaming down the road like Michael Shumacher on speed, the road was coming under increasingly more construction. We had to slow down to squeeze between workers and Tonka style trucks on the roadside, dodging piles of rubble as though taking a chicane at Albert Park.

There’s absolutely no way this is the main road to Phnom Penh, I thought, getting just a little worried.

And then, we hit a dead end. The road reached a T-intersection. The bi-secting road looked to be a brilliantly smooth paved hi-way, judging by the cars zooming past. But blocking our way to reaching no-more-numb-arse heaven were 10 or so huge piles of dirt.

The driver stopped the car, and all 6 of the Cambodians got out. They walked over to the dirt piles, scaled the biggest one, and began a discussion I can only assume was related to how the hell they proposed to get over all this dirt and onto the road proper. After a few minutes, they returned to the car, and we turned around, heading back the way we’d come. Bugger.

Not far down the road though, a quick detour through some backyards led us out to the road, and we were back on our way, reaching a major town shortly after where we stopped for some lunch around 2pm. Weedy guy decided at this point that he’d had enough, and informed us he was leaving, “but they will take you to Phnom Penh. It is ok, as they speak English.” Our thoughts of some legroom were sson dashed though as 4 of us pushed into the back seat, and only 1 got into the front passenger seat.

At least from now we’ll be on paved roads, I thought.

Boy, was I wrong about that. As soon as we left town, we turned off the main road and onto another dirt path. The urgency in the driving had now disappeared, as the Cambodian guys swivelled their neck at passing huts, as though looking for somewhere in particular.

They soon found what they were looking for, as the ar pulled off the road and stopped in the driveway of a wooden hut sititng high up on stilts. Behind it was open farm land, green with crops.

“We stop to visit his Grandfather,” one of the guys informed us, motioning towards the driver. An old man dressed in only a sarong wrapped around his waist, his leathery brown skin hugging the bones of his upper body, stepped down from the house, smiling.

We stopped for around 15 minutes. A fresh watermelon was taken from the house, cut up, and shared around. Another whole watermelon was presented to Bec, “for you to eat later.” A group of kids from across the street waved and yelled out, before running and hiding the way kids do when they’re a little unsure of people.

We piled back into the car, and headed off down the dirty, bumpy track for another 3 hours. We dripped with sweat, which only served to let the dirt cake onto our skins. We all covered our noses as we passed the odd vehicle and its trail of dust going the other way. But everyone remained in a jolly mood. We chatted every so often with the guys, but for the most part they jabbered away in Khmer, telling jokes, or maybe argueing, it was hard to tell sometimes. It was like being invited along on a road trip with the lads.

“I think, when you first meet us, you a little afriad,” one of them suggested.

“Yeah, I think we were.” I replied. “But it’s ok now.”

Finally, we reached another town, with paved roads, around 5.30pm, where we stopped and the boys shouted us a beer, increasingly opening up with their talk, telling us about Cambodia.

Around 8pm, we reached the capital, Phnom Penh. We asked to be dropped at a guesthouse, The OK Guesthouse, but were instead the guys drove around for 20 minutes looking for another guesthouse. It seemed they’d promised weedy guy they would get us to his guesthouse, but they couldn’t find it. At one stage they drove past the OK Guesthouse. “Can we just be let out here,” we asked. But they drove on, as we began to get a little frazzled. It’d been a long day.

“Why can’t we just go back to the OK Guesthouse?” we pleaded, only to get no reply. “We didn’t even know who that weedy guy was, we have no arrangement to go to his guesthouse.” Silence.

Finally, they listened to our pleas, “Ok, ok, we stop at his guesthouse, but then we drop you at OK Guesthouse. Just so I can tell him we stopped there.” It seems Cambodians are men of their word.

At 8.30pm, they stopped at the OK Guesthouse. We got out, grabbed our dust-covered bags, and shook hands with all the boys.

It was no minvan, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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No Responses to “Cambodia: Devil at your Heels”

  1. Mark Hogan Says:

    Ahh, you crazy kids! Glad you survived
    It’s Oscar’s birthday today, the cheeky Baboon is turning 2. Can you believe that. Ruby started school this week, and sorry mate, no Christmas presents arrived, but I’m sure some kid in Eastern Europe has some great clothes for summer and his old man had a few extra beers at Christmas because his shopping bill was a bit lighter thanks to your generosity!

    Catch you in a few weeks

  2. Posted from Australia Australia
  3. admin Says:

    Yeah, thought the little tacker must be notchin’up another year. Can’t believe he’s 2 already, and that Ruby is going to school.

    Shame about the presents not getting there. Not only were there some cool t-shirts for you and the kids, and a great scarf for Melita, but we also packed in a little bottle of Slivovic for you, which we’d bought way back in Croatia. Actually, maybe that’s why it didn’t make it, some Czech customs got a sniff of the alcohol and pocketed it for himself.

    Oh well, we’ll see what we can get you guys in Vietnam. Maybe you can be one of those cool families that all wear the same t-shirt at the same time. You know, something cheesy like, “Goooooood morning Vietnam”

    It’s ok, you can thank us later.

  4. Posted from Cambodia Cambodia

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