Every seasoned Southeast Asia shoestring-traveler has a horrible transportation story. They’re often told over beer, after having finally checked into a hostel. They’re explained with irritation and also hysterical laughter over the messiness of it all. Here’s the very worst of my stories.
I had just spent 12 days in Siem Reap soaking in the rough and tough, urban Cambodian culture. After being bed-ridden for three days with some tropical flu, I was mentally drained and in dire need of the beach. I stopped at the bustling night market to purchase some last mementos, said goodbye to travel partners and hobbled with my backpack to the bus station. Except it wasn’t a station. It was a road off the main street with travelers squished onto the dirty sidewalk and double-decker busses lining the dark street.
These busses claim names like “VIP” and “Hotel”. They cost roughly $25 to go across the country but cost much more in agony. You’re often times promised Wifi, a meal, water, and a comfortable bed. For the most part, none of this holds true. The reality is this: you sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with a complete stranger, sometimes having to spoon or overlap legs to find some form of comfort. The seats resemble outstretched Lazy Boy’s where your feet end up tucked underneath the headrest of the person in front of you (that is, if you’re short enough). Tall westerners end up with their knees bent, awkwardly folding themselves up like origami to fit into the space. It’s a trip that’s usually prepared for by a heavy meal, a few beers and a Valium to knock you out.
As I approached the chaos, my heart instantly sunk. I realized I didn’t have my travel journal! My journal with notes from friends, pictures of family, Thai recipes and months of memories. I showed my ticket to the Cambodian worker and asked if I had time to run back and find it. Problem one: it wasn’t a real ticket. The eager man at my hostel had accidentally given me the wrong boarding ticket. My heart sunk further. I quickly weighed my options and considering that we were on Cambodian time (where everything runs about an hour late) I decided it was worth a shot to dash off and find it.
I threw off my backpack and took off sprinting through the streets, dodging motorbikes and weaving in and out of the crowded market. After a few minutes of frantic searching and nothing to show for it, I accepted my loss and ran back to catch the bus. I was absolutely devastated standing in front of the bus door, watching the last travelers board and the workers who could care less about my ordeal. Do I stay or do I go? I began to cry – the first time in my travels. I was alone and had lost the most important thing to me. I looked pathetic, standing their covered in sweat and hot tears, exhaust covering me both mentally, physically and literally from all the motorbike pollution. I glanced at the monk who sat behind me and was probably waiting for a later bus, and also probably pitying my meek problems. I prayed to him that I find it and everything be okay.
I chose to stay, and started to walk hopelessly away from the crowd with my shoulders slouched, head down to hide my tear-streaked face from passerby’s. All I wanted was to get out of this city and get to the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches. It was then that I ran into a friend on the street who saw my despair and immediately made it his mission to find my journal and disappeared into the night market. A few minuts later he emerged with the green book in his hand. I took off running again, flying through the busy streets with my heavy backpack flopping from side to side. As I approached the bus area I saw my bus, pulling right around the corner. It would be a few more hours until I could catch the next one.
When I drifted to sleep around midnight, lying next to a quiet old Cambodian man, I truly thought I had enough drama for one day. I thought. I was very wrong.
I woke up to hot, humid air. The bus felt like a sauna, and we weren’t moving. It was hard to breathe but everyone around me still slept quietly. I rolled out of my cubby and stumbled to the front of the bus. The driver was gone. What the hell is going on? A small group of men were smoking cigarettes in the dark parking lot outside. It was the middle of the night, and the only light came from a few spotlights of the outdoor restaurant we were parked at. I grabbed my sandals from the rack and hopped out to figure out what the hold up was.
“The bus broke down, and they’re doing nothing to fix it. Were going to be here awhile,” said one of the few travelers that had also woken up. It was 2 a.m., we were only a few hours away from where we started. I asked the group of Cambodians and they told me, with very little concern, that everyone’s asleep; nobody could help us until the morning. You have to go with the flow in Asia – showing temper only makes you look like a fool. So I chuckled, looked up at the stars and rural fields around, and thought “how convenient! At least there’s beer!”
Huge rats ran around the dirty restaurant floor, flies buzzed around the food still left on the burners, and most shopkeepers were still asleep in their hammocks. I grabbed some beers and for five hours chatted with travelers, watched similar busses stop to use the restroom, and joke about how lucky they were that they weren’t stranded like us. The sun began to rise and the shopkeepers started their day. Restless, I began helping the young women in any way I could without needing explanation – they didn’t speak English. They were more than happy for my assistance of cleaning the ice chests and transferring drinks. “I’m trying to boost our travel karma!” I yelled to the travelers who watched me from their plastic chairs.
It was early morning when another bus arrived – most travelers were just now realizing the problem. I didn’t explain, but instead grabbed my backpack and squeezed in – I was determined to get to the Sihanoukville, even if it was via a public bus with upright chairs. I had only slept for an hour, so I easily fell asleep amongst the new strangers. I woke a few hours later, excited to finally be at my destination. Except it wasn’t my destination. It was Phnom Penh! The busiest city and capital of the country – the last place I wanted to be. They had stuck me on the wrong bus. Instead of a sandy beach there was cement covered in garbage. Some travelers grew angry and demanded their money back. Yeah, right. I laughed to myself, “you’ve gotta be kidding me,” and resumed my waiting-for-something-to-happen seat.
A tuk-tuk ride later and we were on the other side of the noisy city. Now about 15 hours into my travel that should’ve taken nine, all I could do was laugh. After an hour waiting at this bus station, we were ordered into a crammed mini bus. For the next six hours we stopped at a few markets and places on the side of the road for the driver to go pee. I couldn’t bother with any of it – I had fallen into a trance that could only be broken once I made it to my destination. Once I did, I allowed myself to sink in to paradise for three relaxing weeks. In this case, it was the destination, not the journey that mattered.