I had been quite hesitant to go to Phnom Penh mostly because I wanted to avoid visiting the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) and The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I know it is imperative to visit these places to better understand the Cambodian history and appreciate how far the Khmer people had come, everyone and their mother had told me, and even I knew it.
Honestly though, I just didn’t think I could stomach it.
But lately I’ve been learning a lot about taking the bad with the good, the ugly with the hugely acceptable beautiful and the disappointing failure with the ever welcomed success. Also, funny that I had this short trip at a time when I was questioning what I really wanted and what success meant to me.
Right, moving on from the serious life musings and on to the fun and absurd driving that is Phnom Penh.
I was on a bit of a time crunch and hence chose to take a night bus to PP, arrive in the morning and take the same bus back in the evening. Guaranteed, there is lots more to do than my short escapade but I just wasn’t keen.
Firstly, I bought my bus ticket for 10USD at the closest travel agent a couple of hours before I was due to travel. This might be one of my favourite things about Cambodia, the certainty that there is always a bus available a few hours in advance. I faced the same thing when I was in Sihanoukville trying to get a bus to Siem Reap, and that was just two hours in advance!
Now there is a bus to PP just about every hour from Siem Reap, but because the bus ride is relatively short (6 hours(yes that is short)), I didn’t want to take a bus at 8PM and get to PP at 2 in the morning. So I opted for the 11PM bus that would arrive at 6 in the morning, so I would have a full day.
I always choose the sleeper bus as I hate bus rides and try and make them pass as quickly as possible, and I’ve had fairly good experiences so far, except for my first time when I was fairly certain the bus would topple over and hence didn’t get a wink of sleep. Then I later learnt that that is just how Cambodian bus drivers drive. Now, it would take a band of trumpet players to wake me up from the sleeper bus, or the driver yelling at me to get out of his bus- which has happened. More than once. I digress.
Most, if not all of the bus companies have a pick-up service that comes and whisks you away to the bus. My pick up was between 9:30PM-10:30PM, but 9:30 came and went, as did 10:00 and 10:15, and as it crept closer to 10:30PM I had the sinking feeling that the pickup was not coming. So I sprinted downstairs to the front desk to ask if a pick up bus had come, he took off his head phones, calmly walked passed me, looked outside the gate and gently told me that, “No Madam, no pick up bus is here.”
Trying not to lose my very obvious cool, I asked him if he would call the bus company and check if the pick- up was on its way. Homeboy ended up on the phone for 5 minutes as though he was catching up with his long lost brother. The only questions he needed to ask were:
1. Did you already come by? No? Cool, we’re waiting. BYE
1. Did you already come by? Yes? Cool, where is the bus’s current location. BYE
After an eternity he hung up the phone and said that the pick up service had already come by here twice but he wasn’t sure if this was the place so he left.
This made absolutely no sense to me, so I simply asked him how to get to the bus station, he assured me that I should just get a tuktuk and tell them bus station and they would know where to go.
It was 10:30PM.
I ran out onto the road and hailed down the first tuktuk.
“Hello Miss, how are you?”
“DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE BUS STATION IS?”
He just looked at me with a slightly puzzled look on his face and then began to study my braids.
“Bus. Station. Buuuuus. Staaation.”
I then handed over my ticket to him and he then went on to examine every inch of it.
“Excuse me, bus station?”
He handed me back his ticket and said, “Ok, ok” and signaled for me to get into his tuktuk.
Not really feeling his shady vibe, I walked down the street and crossed the road.
And just then, all the tuktuks in Siem Reap decided to go home. I literally stood there for 5 minutes waiting for a tuktuk.
A tuktuk came puttering along and I literally step in front of his tuktuk.
“BUS STATION!” I heaved as I shoved my ticket in front of his face.
“Which bus station Miss?”
It was in that moment that I almost openly wept. I didn’t even consider the fact that there would be multiple ones. So I asked him to call the number on the bus ticket. Naturally no one picked up. On all four different numbers.
So I told the tuktuk driver to go back to the apartment and talk to the man at the front desk as he seemed to have a lot say to the bus company. Thankfully the tuktuk driver drove quickly and rushed back.
Front desk guy was casually chilling with his earphones on. Cool.
Once the two got acquainted and there was a nod of understanding we rushed back to the tuktuk and the driver sped off and I imagined all the different scenarios of being left behind.
However we got there on time and I rushed to the office and waved my ticket to the lady at the front desk who was on the phone. She casually took my ticket, checked it off the list, and gave me a very nonchalant thumbs up and went back to her call.
My loyal tuktuk driver had stood by the door and made sure that I was on the right bus and smiled once I told him (between deep breaths) that we had made it. He smiled and told me to have a good journey. Bless him!
I then jumped in on the bus, and got settled in my sleeper bed. Now the first thing I noticed was how much bigger this bed was compared to my previous journeys. I felt that this was some kind of reward for my previous sufferings and stretched out underneath the complimentary blanket and settled in to sleep.
A few moments later, my curtain was pushed back and the conductor was ushering someone else into the bed with me.
Thinking that there was some sort of mishap I opened my mouth to say something, but then the lady next to him loaded her bag on the bed and climbed in quite comfortably.
Quite puzzled I asked her if this is a normal thing that happens.
“Oh yeah, this has happened to me before. It’s quite normal.” She said with a smile. “I was once paired up with a guy, but he was really kind and respectful.”
My jaw dropped.
The bus started to move and we easily got into a conversation and learnt that we would both be in PP for the day and decided to spend the day touring together.
I guess there are always perks to having a stranger crawl into your bed.
The bus ride was somewhat comfortable except for the A/C that was blaring down on me, that led me sometime around 3 in the morning to go to the driver and demand for an extra blanket. And of course, the baby that was right next to us that screamed all night long. Yes, all night. Except she did stop to take mini naps to regain strength to start screaming all over again.